By Subir Ghosh
In the beginning, of course, there was no cinema as we understand it today. It took 20 years for the novelty of 1895 to transform into an industry. The earliest films were inane snapshots, roughly a minute in length, and often made up of a single shot. Not many dared to experiment initially. But slowly, by 1905, the average duration increased to roughly 5-10 minutes, and even employed changes of scene and camera position to illustrate a story or a theme.
The cinema of the period between the mid-1890s and the mid-1910s is often referred to as ‘pre-Hollywood’ or even ‘pre-classical’. Film historian Roberta Pearson cautions, “These terms need to be used with caution, as they can imply that the cinema of the early years was only there as a precursor to Hollywood and the classical style which was followed. In fact, the styles of filmmaking prevalent in the early years were never entirely displaced by Hollywood or classical modes, even in America, and many cinemas went on to being pre- or at any rate non-Hollywood in their practices for many years to come.”
The early years of films were dominated by the United States and a few European countries, who slowly built up hegemony over film production, distribution and exhibition. In terms of market domination – both at home and abroad – the French were the most important. But the thrust did not come from the Lumière brothers who continued making their documentaries, but from compatriot Georges Méliès. It was Méliès who went on to become the world’s leading producer of fiction films in the early years of cinema. The reason – was his vision.
Méliès came from the show business – he was a conjurer at the Theatre Robert-Houdin in Paris. He knew the potential of cinema, and had the foresight to understand it well. On December 28, 1895 itself, he had been in the audience for the show of the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis. He saw a future in that contraption that evening, and offered to buy the Cinematographe equipment from the Lumières. The latter refused. Méliès did not want to give up – he bought a projector from British inventor RW Paul, and also a Bioscope camera.
In less than two years, he went on to establish Europe’s first film studio on a rooftop property in Montreuil. His first films, like those of the Lumière brothers, were simple life scenes which he added to the programme at Theatre Robert-Houdin. Whereas his scientifically-inclined contemporaries continued making films that did not go beyond visual documentation, Méliès took cinema into a new direction. Actors performed in front of a painted set as inspired by the conventions of magic and traditional musical theatre. The films – he made 531 till 1914 – were not too different from what he used to do earlier on stage. These mostly showed various tricks, and regaled audiences by making objects disappear or change size. It was, therefore, Méliès who was the father of special effects. Yet, Méliès too could not think beyond merely documenting special effects. His films never had plots though played-out events, and the special effects did not enhance the overall film. The longest of these ran into 40 minutes.
It was by accident that Méliès discovered he could use stop-motion photography to render visual effects. While shooting in the Place de l’Opera once, his camera jammed. It took a minute to sort out the problem and resume shooting. When the film was processed and screened, Méliès saw a bus suddenly turn into a hearse, and people in the scene suddenly appeared or disappeared. This led to his discovery of stop motion trickery which became a filmic special effects technique. The stop motion technique had previously been discovered by Thomas Alva Edison, but it was Méliès who made use of it. He was also the first to use techniques such as the fade-in, the fade-out, and the dissolve to create the first real narrative films.
While Méliès did understand a number of things about cinema, he did not push the frontier. Méliès himself practically drove the Lumière brothers out of business, but was in turn rendered irrelevant by the transitional cinema that came in the early 1910s, especially the big studios in the United States which had also served as a major market for him. Sadly, Méliès could not move with the times. In 1913, he became bankrupt and he was pushed out of filmmaking.
And neither did he understand the value of his own films. The French army seized most of his films (that had been recorded on cellulose) to be melted down into boot heels during World War I. Many others were recycled into new film. As a result many of his films do not exist today, except for a fantastic discovery of the 1899 film ‘Cleopatra’ in Paris in 2005.
Méliès gave up films and became a toy salesman at a railway station. He died at the age of 77 in 1938, shattered and in abject poverty. Friends had helped, but could not sustain him.
But the contribution of Méliès to cinema cannot be disputed – he manipulated and transformed reality through cinematography. He was the father of the fantasy.