Georges Méliès

It is impossible for us today to see Georges Méliès in the way that he must have appeared to his contemporaries. The motion picture had just been born. In France, [Louis] Lumière was using it to record the details of daily life and occupations. In Germany, the camera was being used in a remarkably imaginative way to record an outing on bicycles. A cameraman of Lumière's was shooting scenes in China and Tibet. In the U.S.A., a producer was attempting an on-the-spot record of the American military invasion of Cuba.

Almost everywhere, the new medium was being used with documentary intention: its easy eye was probing a wide range of actuality subjects, from the intimacies of the family circle to the destructions wrought by power politics. It was against this documentary background that Méliès appeared as a real innovator in the field of subject matter. He was the first to conceive of the film as a vehicle for fairy tale and phantasy. Where others were content with recording straight actuality, Méliès set out to record the marvels of a new kind of "actuality," built from paint, canvas and the conventions of the theatre, but simultaneously released from (what must have seemed to Méliès) the physical infirmities of the theatre. Like all magicians, Méliès had gloried in his apparent powers over the physical limitations of the natural world; he was quick to sense in the new medium the possibility of greatly adding to these powers. The particular kind of phantasy Méliès turned to was charming, good-natured, suffused with a genial humour. He created a world of wonders, which hops with a jaunty poetry and a busy phantasy.

It is difficult to say whether his significance as the first poet and phantasist of the screen is more important than his role as one of the first creative technicians of the cinema. He discovered and used imaginatively most of the basic cinematic devices. Despite the fact that I have see far from all of the existing Méliès films, I think I am right in saying these include: double and multiple exposure, masking, fade-outs and fade-ins, stop motion, slow motion and fast motion. Like the discovery of the wheel, such devices seem so obvious and simple only after they have been invented, but in fact they are really momentous, for, like the wheel, they are capable of an infinite number of applications.

We know how he made at least two of these discoveries. To prevent the film being fogged at the end of shots, the custom was to slowly close the diaphragm of the camera. When the film was developed, this technically necessary fade into blackness was normally discarded as being useless artistically for the audience. Méliès saw it as an essential part of the film. Again, when photographing a street scene, his camera jammed for a moment, and when he screened the results, he found that an omnibus had turned into a hearse. We can imagine his excitement at that moment. Into his mind much have leapt the creative use of intentionally stopping the camera while in the middle of shooting a scene, and perhaps the whole principle of stop motion. These two examples of how he arrives at a new device clearly mark him as a creative technician, for it is the hallmark of the creative technician to make a positive artistic virtue out of technical necessities and to find a real source of creative possibilities in the technical accidents and disasters that happen in the course of daily work.

Méliès conceived of the film as a form of personal expression (and perhaps he was the first). He felt he had to be responsible for every aspect of the film; he must have been almost as uncomfortable about deputizing other people to carry out production details as the average western easel painter of today would be about having someone else carrying out the details of the painting on his canvas.

Méliès' interest in film went beyond his own productions. He was concerned also about the film as an international medium. In 1908, at the International Congress of Film Producers (of which he was president), he managed, in the face of stiff oppositions, to get a standard perforation for film stock accepted and adopted. I like to think of him as the man who was as passionate about standardizing a sprocket hole as about going to the moon.

Finally, is there anything that we, as individual filmmakers, can learn from Méliès? Personally I think there is. Despite the fact that today films, film production and film distribution are very different from those of Méliès day, I think Méliès can set us an example in the combination of an attitude to his medium and an attitude to his audience. He was the bold thematic and technical innovator (one could well call him an avant-gardist, an experimentalist or individual filmmaker) who made his films not for a narrow specialized audience but for the general cinema-going public.

To make bold experiments with films that are of interest only to a narrow circle or a special elite is a relatively easy task; to make equally bold experiments in film that are of interest and of value to the general public as well as to specialized groups is a worthwhile goal and, in fact, I think an exciting obligation. In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, I would say that for me, the most heart-warming thing about Méliès is that he was both an experimental filmmaker and a people's filmmaker.
- Norman McLaren


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