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The tiny theatre here did not bring Scorsese’s Hugo here this week, a film I’ve been rather excited to see so instead I’ve decided to visit the films of Geroges Melies, the very early filmmaker whose work is central in Scorsese’s family film. Meiles was among the very earliest filmmakers, a contemporary of the Lumiere brothers. Melies’ films are full of fantasy and exploration, and he is credited with discovering numerous special effects techniques.

Melies was, at different times, a stage magician, a shoemaker, a toy salesman and, I believe, a watchmaker. He was a contemporary of the Lumiere brothers and after seeing their cameras in action he became fascinated with filmmaking. Melies made hundreds of films in his short career, between 1896 and 1914 and his images remain some of the most magical and passionate ever put to film. It is obvious almost from the first second of a Melies film that he was obsessed with this new medium and its ability make the impossible a reality. Many films, especially shorter ones such as L’homme à la tête de caoutchouc (1901) or Le Melomane (1903) simply star Melies himself as a magician doing impossible tricks, often involving him removing his own head or appearing on screen as several different individuals at once. Other films include fantastic journeys, monsters, fairies, devils, ghosts and exotic or impossible locations. Melies used the deception of film to establish all sorts of fantasy worlds and impossible scenarios.

In an effort to find new ways to create the impossible, Melies stumbled across many techniques that are still used by many special effects artists, including multiple exposures and the “stop trick.” There is an incredible joy implicit in Melies’ films, as though with every camera trick you can feel the man basking in the wonder of the audience. When I watch such early films, I often find myself trying to imagine seeing them when they were new, when nothing like them had ever existed. I have heard that audiences, upon seeing the Lumiere brothers’ L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895) screamed in fear when they though a train was coming at them, and the same when seeing the final shot of an outlaw firing a pistol directly towards the audience at the end of Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903). I feel that watching one of Melies’ films at that time must have produced similar excitement, though instead of fear it must have been a thrill of astonishment to see such wonders being enacted with never-before-dreamed-of realism. Melies’ most famous work Le Voyage dans la lune (1902), inspired by Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon” must have been amazing to behold, to watch a spacecraft loaded with people rocket into the sky, pitch onto the moon and even run across aliens. The deftness with which Melies created these fantastic films is remarkable, even by today’s standard, as it is so important to remember that none of the techniques he used even existed until he invented them.

Melies’ visual composition is as striking as his innovative special effects. His sets were constructed mostly of handpainted backdrops, with larger setpieces consisting mostly of cardboard cutouts. Everything is dramatically painted to create depth and perspective, and even some physical, 3 dimensional props (and in some cases, costumes) are painted in the same way, as to appear almost cartoonish.This results in, not only a surprisingly immersive world, but also a very distinct aesthetic that seems only to enhance to experience of Melies’ films. Another visual trademark of many of Melies’ films is colour. He was known to meticulously hand-colour many of his films which results in a rather eerie and often magical sensation when watching these films.

Melies’ films are a treat to watch, and they shatter the unfortunate and all-too-common belief that old, silent films are boring and unentertaining. Watching these films provides the special kind of experience that is only available through truly special cinema, as they burst with a palpable artistic joy. Watching a film by Melies feels the same as watching the films of many of the great auteurs, and perhaps Melies himself could be labelled as cinema’s first auteur; he wrote, directed, and frequently starred in his own films, as well as went through the many pains of inventing movie magic that simply did not exist. It would also seem that Melies suffered for his work, dying a destitute toy maker despite the growing success of his films in America (thanks to Thomas Edison, no surprise), which lends an even stronger sense of drive to his work, knowing that he endured so much in an effort to create such joyful fantasies.

Melies’ films are mostly available on YouTube as they, obviously, exist in the public domain. They are amazing and, despite their minuscule running time, are far from slight. I encourage everyone to visit with these films, and experience the sort of magic that is possible through such early cinema. Melies features as a character in Martin Scorsese’s new film Hugo and is played by the great Ben Kingsley.

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