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Creator / Georges Méliès

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Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès (8 December 1861 – 21 January 1938), better known as Georges Méliès, was a French magician-turned-filmmaker who pioneered the concept of telling stories on screen.

In doing so, he either invented or codified almost all of the Special Effects used in film until the dawn of CGI—and even modern digital effects are essentially more advanced versions of the stop motion, multiple exposure, and matte painting techniques he pioneered. For instance, modern green-screen techniques are modeled after his technique of filming actors or objects in front of a black background, then using a second exposure to record the background. In one film, he played all seven members of a band using this method!

His most famous work is A Trip to the Moon, but he made about 500 other short films in his 1896–1913 career, including the early biopic Joan of Arc. More than 200 of them are known to survive, and every now and then a new rediscovery is made.

The Martin Scorsese film Hugo is a Sidelong Glance Biopic of Méliès, starring Ben Kingsley as the filmmaker himself.

Georges Méliès' works display examples of:

  • Artistic License: Gobs and gobs of examples, all suggesting that Méliès' universe consistently runs on Rule of Cool rather than on any known scientific laws:
    • Artistic License – Space: The Interplanetary Voyages in The Merry Frolics of Satan, The Impossible Voyage, The Conquest of the Pole, and A Trip to the Moon (not to mention the Dream Ballets The Astronomer's Dream and The Eclipse) reveal that planets and stars usually have faces, that Greco-Roman gods and goddesses hang around or live in the constellations and planets named for them, that the Sun and Moon have romantic flings during eclipses, and so on.
    • Artistic License – Geography: The Oracle of Delphi, about the famous oracle from ancient Greece, is set in ancient... Egypt. Also, see the "Everything's Better with Penguins" entry below.
    • Artistic License – Physics: According to The Impossible Voyage, you can drive a train up a mountain in the Alps so fast that the train will shoot into space and end up on the surface of the sun... and it just gets more improbable from there. Lampshaded in that the movie is called The Impossible Voyage.
  • Acting for Two: Méliès himself in one of his adaptations of Faust. Who else can say they appeared as Jesus and Satan in the same film?note 
  • Bio Pic: He may have invented this genre with his 1900 film Joan of Arc.
  • Bold Explorer: Teams of them are featured in The Impossible Voyage, The Conquest of the Pole, and of course A Trip to the Moon.
  • Cool Airship, Cool Car, Cool Train: See The Inventor Crazybrains and his Wonderful Airship, The Adventurous Automobile Trip, and The Impossible Voyage, respectively.
  • Creator Cameo: Played straight in many films. In many others, Méliès plays the main (or even the only) character. Hey, there's a lot to be said for directing yourself.
  • Creator Killer: In 1908, prices for films got standardised by length—meaning that if Méliès wanted to keep his business afloat, he had to suddenly start turning out a lot more film, a lot faster, than ever before. The result was a manic year or so of filming any old fluff, no matter how hastily thrown together, just to reach the quota and fund the stuff Méliès actually wanted to make. By 1909 Méliès and his crew were exhausted, and in 1910 he took the whole year off to go back to his roots and concentrate on stage magic. He only made a few more films after that.
  • The Dead Can Dance: Dancing often features in Melies' Hell; see also the Fire and Brimstone Hell and A Hell of a Time entries. Heck (no pun intended)—the short film The Infernal Cake Walk (1903), with assorted demons cheerfully tripping the light satanic with the titular dance, is completely devoted to this trope.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: Méliès' first few films had none of his pioneering special effects or camerawork. Playing Cards and Post No Bills, his two earliest surviving works, are a simple slice-of-life scene and a straightforward comedy skit, respectively. A Terrible Night has a giant bug prop, but that's it. The Vanishing Lady and The Haunted Castle are his first works (or at least, his first surviving works) to tinker with his revolutionary camera effects.
    • In general, Méliès' films are this to the whole medium of film and special effects. His movies were staged and shot like live theatre, since the ideas of film language had yet to come about. And his camera special effects, which are now considered ubiquitous filmmaking tools, were considered revolutionary for their time.
  • Early Films: Given his importance in the field and the memorable nature of his films, Méliès may well be this trope's Patron Saint.
  • Excuse Plot: Méliès' films were always built on simplistic plots and setups to accommodate the films, which used imagination and the groundbreaking special effects as their centerpieces. The Astronomer's Dream is one such example, and the entire plot is summed up in the title.
  • Executive Meddling: Mercifully averted for most of Méliès' career, since he was his own producer. Played sadly straight at the end of his career, when he entered into a deal with the Pathé Frères studios and had to watch his last six films get messily re-edited by another director.
  • Follow the Leader: Before Méliès, most films didn’t really have a plot and were just recordings of everyday life. After Méliès changed film making with his films having a flowing narrative and groundbreaking special effects, several studios and directors tried to copy his style of film making. Ones of note are the Film Company Pathé Frères, Segundo de Chomon, Ferdinand Zecca, Gaston Velle, and several others, with varying degrees of success.
    • Averted with directors like Robert W. Paul and Emil Cohl, whose style reflects Méliès’ but both take it and make it all their own.
  • Fanservice: Méliès' films often used the dancers from the Folies Bergère in his films for decorative effect.
  • Fire and Brimstone Hell: Méliès clearly loved playing Satan, and a fiery grotto with gleeful (often dancing) demons occurs time and again in his works. See The Merry Frolics of Satan, or any of his several adaptations of Faust, or pretty much any Méliès film with the word "Infernal" in the title.
  • Half-Remembered Homage: See "In Name Only" below for The Impossible Voyage. Méliès may well have seen the Jules Verne play when it ran in Paris—but that had happened a solid twenty years before, so while the film is full of the Verne spirit, it's very much an original work.
    • Downplayed with his film The Merry Frolics of Satan, as while he did take some elements from the play Les Pilules Du Diable, and also may have seen its original run as a kid, he took most of his inspiration from his collaboration on a 1905 stage play remake The 400 Tricks of The Devil. The scene with the horse and carriage flying through space was lifted from the play as in that context, the portion of the film was shown as a scene transition while a an elaborate scene change was happening behind the curtains. Another scene called The Cyclone was also made, but was included in a separate film. His film of the play also adapted some effects and subsequent scenes in the stage play as well.
  • A Hell of a Time: In general, life is good if you're a demon in a Méliès film.
  • Humans Are Bastards: Despite its name, the lost film Humanity Through the Ages presents a negative view of human history, with such scenes of brutality as the original Cain and Abel, Nero's persecution of Christians, medieval torture procedures, and the apaches, Parisian bandits of the time. Even the Hague Convention of 1907, which in real life was intended to limit the powers of armies, is depicted as ending in chaos, with the delegates directly attacking each other. The Méliès scholars Paul Hammond and John Frazer have suggested that the pessimism derives from the intense commercial pressure Méliès felt from competitors during the making of the film.
  • In Name Only: Méliès did this kind of adaptation every now and then:
    • Baron Munchausen's Dream features a baron, but he has no obvious similarities to the one The Münchausen is named after.
    • The Impossible Voyage, in French, has the same title as a play by Jules Verne (Voyage à travers l'Impossible, literally Journey Through the Impossible). And both works are about traveling crazy places, including into space and underwater, in ways that are highly reminiscent of Verne's books. That's where the similarities end, though.
    • The Mysterious Island has nothing to do with the book of that name; it's actually based loosely on The Odyssey.
    • Under the Seas is sometimes called 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but it takes only two things from the book: the submarine and the fish. (No, seriously. The cutout fish Méliès made for the movie were closely based on the original book illustrations; The Other Wiki says so.)
  • Kaiju: The Snow Giant in The Conquest of the Pole is the first known film example.
  • Keep Circulating the Tapes: After Thomas Edison stole a print of A Trip to the Moon and cut Melies completely out of the giant profits, he went broke after a few years and most of his films were lost. The ones that remain today are the result of scrounging around in private collections and storerooms, and many still remain apparently lost.
  • Lady of Adventure: There are quite a few at the Institute of Incoherent Geography in The Impossible Voyage.
  • Losing Your Head: Méliès takes off his head a surprising number of times. An identical one almost always reappears on his shoulders immediately, however, allowing him to pull off all sorts of multi-head stunts: just take a look at The Four Troublesome Heads and The Melomaniac.
  • Magnum Opus Dissonance: Méliès thought his most important film was the angsty historical drama Humanity Through the Ages, but acknowledged that pretty much everyone else awarded that distinction to A Trip to the Moon.
  • Mechanical Horse: Bizarrely cool mechanical horses pull carriages in The Merry Frolics of Satan and Off to Bloomingdale Asylum.
  • Missing Episode: More than half of Méliès' films are still presumed lost, including the one where he plays Hamlet, the one that's an extravagant parody of the 1908 New York-Paris race, the ones that capture legendary singer Paulus and legendary magician David Devant at work, and the one that Méliès himself thought was his best.
  • The Mockbuster: possibly one of the earliest examples is with Pathé Frères and Segundo de Chomon. Pathé had hired Chomon as a director for several of their films, and even commissioned him to create rip-offs of several of Méliès films such as an Excursion to The Moon.
    • Subverted with Ferdinand Zecca, another director hired by Pathé, Who’s films mimicked the style and tone of Méliès films, but didn’t rip off any films in particular.
  • Polar Bears and Penguins: A rejoicing crowd of cutout penguins wave to our heroes in The Conquest of the Pole. What these penguins are doing at the North Pole is less than clear...
  • Production Posse: Méliès' artisans, mechanics, and cameramen (and, briefly, camerawoman: his daughter Georgette) had regular salaries at his studio, thus becoming very probably the first Production Posse in the history of film. Actors and other participants were hired on a film-by-film basis, but some definitely qualify for membership in the posse, notably:
    • The actresses Bleuette Bernon and Jeanne d'Alcy.
    • The actors André Deed and Manuel.
    • The acrobats of the Folies Bergère, for the many times when pandemonium and other hijinks break loose.
    • The ballet girls of the Théâtre du Châtelet, for dance breaks and Fanservice.
    • The artists Elisabeth and Berthe Thuillier, who designed color schemes for some of the films and supervised the process of painting them onto the positive prints frame-by-frame.
  • The Professor: The Engineer Crazyloff in The Impossible Voyage and The Conquest of the Pole. (Also Professor Barbenfouillis in A Trip to the Moon, but that has its own page of tropes.)
  • Rule of Cool: See Artistic License above.
  • Scenery Porn: Méliès' films are often remembered for having stylized, layered backgrounds, which often utilized forced perspective, as part of his sets, all of which were lavishly illustrative.
  • Slice of Life: Early in his career, Méliès experimented with the "actuality" genre codified by his compatriots, the Lumière brothers. These actuality films are just moments of real life (or staged real life) presented for the camera, and as such are dramatically different from the fantasies that made Méliès famous.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: His films often featured of a sense of magic, wonder, and optimism. Despite this, the film he was most proud of, Humanity Through the Ages, has a distinctly pessimistic tone.
  • Spiritual Successor:
    • Multiple academic articles have been written about how Méliès' films are the spiritual successors of the féerie, a spectacular theatrical genre popular in 19th-century Paris.
    • And hardly any film theorist has been able to talk about the mid-20th-century filmmaker Karel Zeman without either implying, or flat-out stating, that Zeman's films are spiritual successors of Méliès'.
    • Within Méliès' own canon, The Impossible Voyage is a spiritual successor to A Trip to the Moon, offering an even more elaborate international/interplanetary trip.
    • Not just that but as mentioned in Scenery Porn above, his backgrounds are well remembered for being stylized and highly creative.
    • His designs for various creatures and costumes are amazing to look at as well. Partially because Méliès was the first director to use storyboards for his films, and took those drawings and brought them to life.
  • Stop Trick: The first unique-to-the-camera special effect Méliès discovered, and almost certainly the one he called into play the most.
  • Steampunk: several of his films have elements of this, such as A Trip to The Moon, The Impossible Voyage, and The Conquest of The Pole. Even The Merry Frolics of Satan has hints of this with its various modes of transportation, see “Mechanical Horse” above.
  • Time Lapse: Melies is believed to have invented this effect for his 1897 film Carrefour de l'opera.
  • Vanity Plate: In 1897 Méliès registered a trademark for his film studio, featuring a simple star logo and the words "Star Film" (yes, in English). In an attempt to protect his films from being illegally copied, he often put the trademark somewhere on the film set in an important scene in the film, so that it would be considerably harder for film pirates to hide where they had stolen it from.
  • Weird Moon: Several of his films feature this. Sometimes it's outwardly aggressive.
  • What Could Have Been: Shortly before his death, Méliès was planning to collaborate with the preeminent French poet and filmmaker Jacques Prévert on a fantasy film, and with the Dada artist Hans Richter on a film about Baron Munchausen.
  • Your Head A-Splode: The Man with the Rubber Head provides a classically oddball example—Méliès makes a living clone of his own head by means that remain unexplained and blows it up to ginormous dimensions, only to see it literally blow up. And this was made in 1901!