Georges Melies: Why Google honours him today

On May 3, 1912, the French illusionist and film director released what is considered as his greatest masterpiece.

    French magician, actor, filmmaker, designer and theatre manager Georges Melies [Corbis via Getty Images]
    French magician, actor, filmmaker, designer and theatre manager Georges Melies [Corbis via Getty Images]

    Described as "the father of special effects" and hailed for his pioneering visual techniques, Georges Melies, the French illusionist and film director, released on this day more than a hundred years ago what is considered his greatest masterpiece: The Conquest of the Pole.

    In its honour, Google changed its logo to its first VR and 360-degree interactive Doodle to commemorate the anniversary of his silent film which was released on May 3, 1912. 

    This is his story:

    Passion for sketching  

    • Melies was born at 29 Boulevard Saint-Martin, Paris on December 8, 1861. He was the youngest of three children.
    • He was the son of Jean-Louis-Stanislas Melies and his Dutch wife, Johannah-Catherine Melies, who were owners of three shoemaking factories in the city. 

    • Melies attended the Lycee Imperial at Vanves near Paris, but his education was interrupted when his school was bombed during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. He continued at the Lycee Louis-le-Grand. 
    • He was described as an average pupil, who was passionate about sketching. His teachers found his exercise books with portraits and caricatures of his teachers and classmates.

    • By the time he was 10 years old, Melies was busily constructing cardboard sets for his marionette shows that he would enthusiastically perform before an audience. 

    • He was 11 when his passion for the stage was fuelled by his first visit to the theatre; it was the first time he saw the famous magician Robert-Houdin perform.

    London 

    • Melies was enrolled into military service, and upon leaving the army in 1884, he was sent to London to learn English. 

    • Initially, he worked at a shoe shop after making use of his father's connections, and later at a Regents Street clothing outfitters. 
    • During the evenings, he would visit the many theatrical venues in London, particularly the visual-fantasy productions that included Maskelyne and Cooke, billed as "Royal Illusionists" at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. 

    • Despite wishes to pursue his dreams on his return to France, Melies was forced to join his family's shoe business. Melies continued his pursuits by attending lessons given by Emile Voisin, who owned a magician's shop in the Rue Vielle-du-Temple.

    • Melies showcased his skills in front of family and later in a small theatre that presented puppet shows and comic operas.

    Robert-Houdin 

    • At the age of 24, Melies married Eugenie Genin, a young Dutch woman whose father was a rich industrialist and a close friend of his uncle. 
    • In 1888, Louis Melies retired and handed the business down to his sons. Melies sold his share in the company to his brothers.

    • With the money he received, he bought the Theatre Robert-Houdin at 8 Boulevard des Italiens from Robert-Houdin's widow for 40,000 francs. 
    • Melies moved his family, including his daughter who was born in February 1888, to an apartment close to the theatre.

    • He refurbished the theatre and opened its doors to the public in the autumn of 1888 with a production called La Stroubaika Persane. He was 27 at that time. 
    • In 1896, Melies founded the Star Film Company. Many of his earliest films were copies and remakes of the Lumiere Brothers' films. 

    Illusion and reality  

    • Melies devoted himself to making films. He directed over 400 films ranging in length from one to 40 minutes.

    • His first film is a one-minute production titled Une Partie de Cartes showing Melies, his brother Gaston and two friends playing cards in a garden.
    • Other films included: Cleopatra's Tomb, Christ Walking on Water, The Voyage Across the Impossible and Hamlet. 

    • He discovered camera tricks like stop motion, slow motion, dissolves, fade-outs, superimposition, and double exposure. 

    • "One trick leads to another. In the face of the success of this new style, I set myself to discover new processes, and in succession, I conceived dissolves from scene to scene effected by a special arrangement in the camera; apparitions, disappearances, metamorphoses...," Melies said. 

    • "With all these processes mixed one with another and used with competence, I do not hesitate to say that in cinematography, it is today possible to realise the most impossible and the most improbable things," he added. 

    • During his career, he managed his theatre, produced and directed his films, adapted plays and literature for the screen, and designed sets and costumes.
    • In 1897, the devil appeared in his films on two occasions; it is believed that Melies was the first to realise the potential of film to shock.

    With all these processes ... I do not hesitate to say that in cinematography it is ... possible to realise the most impossible ... things

    Melies

    Trip to the Moon 

    • In May 1902, he produced A Trip to the Moon, and it remains one of his most famous works. It was based on Jules Verne's novel, From the Earth to the Moon.
    • "The film cost around 10,000 francs, a relatively large sum for the time, due principally to the machinery involved and the costumes of cardboard and cloth used for the Selenites, the inhabitants of the moon," Melies said. 

    • "When I made Le Voyage dans la Lune, there were still no 'stars' among the artists, their names were never known or printed on the posters or announcements," he added.

    • The film was an enormous success in France and around the world. In 1907, he continued and created three new illusions for the stage and performed them at the Theatre Robert-Houdin. 

    • The next year, Melies made one of his most ambitious films, Humanity Through the Ages. 

    • The film tells the history of humans from Cain and Abel to The Hague Peace Conference of 1907. The film was unsuccessful, but the producer was proud of it throughout his life. 
    • In 1910, Melies temporarily stopped making films, one of his last productions was Cinderella or the Glass Slipper.

    • In 1912, he produced his most notable film, The Conquest of the Pole, inspired by Robert Peary's expedition to the North Pole. 

    • However, in 1917 his luck changed, and the French army turned the main studio at his Montreuil property into a hospital for wounded soldiers. During the war, the army confiscated over 400 of Star Films' original prints.

    'I dream your dreams' 

    • In 1923, the Theatre Robert-Houdin was torn down to rebuild Boulevard Haussmann. That same year, Pathe, the world's largest film production company back then, took over Star Films and the Montreuil studio. 

    • In a rage, Melies burned all the negatives of his films that he had stored at the Montreuil studio.

    • As a result, many of his films do not exist today. Nonetheless, over 200 Melies films have been preserved, and have been available on DVD since December 2011. 
    • Melies disappeared from public life. By late 1937, he had become very ill and was admitted to the Leopold Bellan Hospital in Paris. 

    • His last known words were: "Laugh, my friends. Laugh with me, laugh for me, because I dream your dreams." 
    • He died on January 21, 1938, at the age of 76. 

     Laugh with me, laugh for me, because I dream your dreams.

    Melies

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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