Today I saw a beautiful fall wedding. It felt really incredible outside, and it was sweet to watch two people earnestly profess their love for one another. Seriously, it felt quite genuine and I don’t think it was just because of the autumn bouquets and the cool weather. It’s not common to run across that sort of sincerity on an ordinary day, and it made me think about Georges Melies, and how a true love for filmcraft is evident in his work. (Seriously, I’m not lying when I say I thought of these films mid wedding. Granted, the horror challenge is on the brain. I’m sure that helped).
Let me show you what I mean.
You may not think you know Georges Melies, but you do. He’s the French illusionist and filmmaker who’s responsible for A Trip to the Moon. Melies was captivated by film, and cleverly saw how he could use the medium to create worlds never before seen. He’s one of the earliest directors that we see using camera tricks and editing to leave audiences guessing “how did he do that?” Most of his films are fantasy and science fiction based. I could go on, but I can’t really say anything that hasn’t already been said by Martin Scorsese in his 2011 film, Hugo. (A film which, despite its award nominations and critical acclaim, seems to have been overlooked by general audiences. Go watch it.)
ANYWAY, my point is that Melies is special because his films have a sense of curiosity and wonder that can only come from a heartfelt love for the craft itself. It gives me the warm fuzzies just to think about it. It’s also a little sad because as spectacular as modern effects are, sometimes I truly doubt that today’s films are able to elicit the same reactions that Melies were at the time he was making them. Try and picture a word where common people don’t know a great deal about film and how to manipulate it. These films probably seemed impossible to some, and incredibly magical to even those who had a keen eye to spot the edits. Here are a few examples, and they are each less that three minutes long, so you can spare the time…
Le Monstre (1903)
In this film, a pharaoh’s lover is restored to him by a magician, who then returns the girl back to the land of the dead. Watching this little short, I can’t help but think about how much fun it probably was to make. The set designers painted a really fantastic backdrop, and the costuming is really neat too. On stage, the actor that played the ghost of the lover gets to dance and perform a series of silly “spooky ghost” bits. It just looks like a good time. Most of the effects here are practical ones involving creative costumes, but Melies also makes several figures appear and disappear using simple film cuts.
The Devil and the Statue (1901)
This short film utilizes a nifty little trick using double exposures, to make it look like a figure is growing and shrinking. In this case, it’s a cartoonish devil who appears, and is sent away again by a guardian angel/saint figure. Supposedly, Melies figured out this method whenever his hand-crank camera jammed and the accident resulted in images in which several people appeared on top of each other on the developed film.
Four Troublesome Heads (1898)
This one stars Melies himself, singing with three copies of his own head. You can see pretty easily how he pulled this one off. It’s an early attempt at the trick and we can see the black boxes around the heads of Melies and his decapitated clones. Perhaps a bit troubling is the fact that Melies throws out his own original head, ending the film wearing the third copy as he exits the frame. If Michael Keaton taught us anything in Multiplicity, we know that the now permanent head of Melies is an incredibly stupid one.
If you like these, there are loads of them on youtube. I also recommend the short films of the Lumiere brothers, who are responsible for the first motion picture camera and projector; and Alice Guy Blanche, who is often credited as the first female director.
Challenge fulfilled: A film prior to 1900