Francis Ford Coppola once said, “I think cinema, movies, and magic have always been closely associated. The very earliest people who made film were magicians.” By magic, Coppola is referring to the symbiosis of cinematography and editing, or as he puts it more laically, “…take this, and this, and put it together, and have something come out that was neither of those two things.”
Early cinema was filled with great illusionists—Sergei Eisenstein, F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith, just to name a few. However, as Griffith once said of director Georges Méliès, “I owe him everything.”
Widely referred to as the First “Cinemagician,” Méliès was the first filmmaker to use the stop trick, production sketches, and storyboards. He created the first multiple exposure on screen, the split screen and the dissolve. He was also one of the first to hand-paint color on his films. He made up and invented the film medium as he directed.
Simply put, there was film before Méliès, and then there was cinema after Méliès.
While best known for A Trip to the Moon, which includes the iconic shot of a spaceship landing on the moon’s eyes, Méliès produced, directed, and starred in 531 films between 1896 and 1914. Unfortunately for us, most of these films are now lost, the cellulose sold to the French Army to be melted down into boot heels during World War I.
However, some of his films—presumed lost—have been found over the years. And thanks to Brian Selznick’s illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Martin Scorsese’s 3-D film adaptation released this month, audiences have now discovered the silent film pioneer and one of the first cinematic auteurs.
Below are the five best films by Georges Méliès.
A Trip to the Moon (1902)
The first science fiction film, full of innovative uses of animation and special effects, including the already mentioned shot of a spaceship landing on the moon’s eye. The film was one of the most expensive and longest films at the time—at 15 minutes—and is one of the milestones of cinematic history. The long-lost color version of the film was discovered in Barcelona in 1993, and after seventeen years of restoration the version was screened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
The Vanishing Lady (1896)
The oldest special effects film that survives, the first Méliès utilizes the jump-cut. Legend goes, Méliès discovered the jump-cut after his camera jammed while filming a street scene, and when he played back the film a cab was transformed into a hearse. The film also explicitly references his career as a stage magician at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin.
The Four Troublesome Heads (1898)
One of the greatest black art pictures. Still mind-blowing and thrilling as Méliès removes his head and throws it in the air, so I can only imagine how audiences reacted back in 1898.
Joan of Arc (1900)
The first to tell the entire saga of Joan of Arc, the film was a giant step for Méliès in terms of narrative storytelling as he was more known at the time as a trick-film specialist. The film also features more advanced special effects, combining dissolves and superimpositions when the angels appear in the opening scene.
The Merry Frolics of Satan (1906)
While not one of Méliès’s best known films, the religious context of the film was a major departure for the filmmaker. The carriage ride through the skies drawn by a skeletal horse is amazing.
Image from the 1902 film A Trip to the Moon.