As you sit at your computer, images being thrown into your open eyes, everything you see there is made up of tiny little dots. You probably know this. Millions of them dance around with all the control of a Busby Berkley musical number, with the one goal: to fool your mind.
TV screens fill with computer-generated monsters. Spaceships risk life and limb, non-existently blasting each other miles above our heads. We know it’s not real but we enter into an agreement with the filmmakers to be fooled for a couple of hours. Escapism at it’s best.
But what if I told you that all of this; the monsters, the alien planets, the flying cars; was the result of a mechanical failure on a Parisian street in the Autumn of 1896.
One day, a small man called Georges was testing out a camera he had built. Yes, he built a camera. Georges Méliès had been spellbound after seeing the early experiments with film.
The Lumiere brothers had been exhibiting their films; astounding and terrifying crowds in equal measure. For people who had never seen anything like a movie before to suddenly watch a projection of a steam train hurtling towards them, this was terrifying. Was it real? Were they in mortal peril? Tricking the brain was too much for some. People ran out of these screenings in terror, but Georges was entranced.
Georges Méliès was a theatrical showman, with a love of magic and illusion and now he wanted to buy a camera for himself. He approached the Lumiere brothers, but they would not help him. So, he travelled to London to meet a man called Robert Paul and view the camera Paul had made. Shortly after, Georges had returned to Paris and constructed his own.
A few months after the Lumiere brothers’ screening, Georges Méliès was on the streets of Paris filming a scene. It was an Autumn day that would have a huge impact on his life and on the future of filmmaking.
Filming a simple street scene, he was filming people passing by, horse and carts, an everyday Parisian scene.
As he turned the crank which fed the film past the lens, the camera jammed.
He tinkered around with it for a little while and freed up movement. Taking a wide-legged stance, presumably, he continued to film. Turning the crank handle he finished the shot.
But when he developed the film and projected it, he saw something very strange that he did not expect. A horse and cart moving down the street suddenly turned into a hearse. A woman standing on the street corner turned into a man in a flash.
Stopping the camera half way through a shot and replacing an item would magically transform it, what if you add a puff of smoke? What other miraculous illusions could you fool a viewer with?
Over the next sixteen years, Georges Méliès wrote, directed, financed and starred in over 500 of his unique masterpieces of film illusion.
Technically complex and stunningly creative, the majority of the films have been lost or destroyed. Many of which burned by Méliès himself. Occasionally, the odd ‘lost’ film resurfaces in film archives, but the few which remain continue to inspire filmmakers and storytellers today.
Watch ‘The Georges Méliès Collection’ for free online at archive.org/details/georgesmelies.
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About the author
Nic Durber is our in-house visual effects, animator and editor in the post-production department. His skills are a force to be reckoned with, he has worked with clients such as Qatar Airlines, Beano and United Airlines.