Georges Melies (1961-1938) was a French magician who owned his own theater, designed his own stage magic, and jumped at the first chance to incorporate the new medium of film into his shows. He witnessed a Lumiere Brothers projected film display in 1895 and was inspired to try to buy one of their camera/projection machines (which they refused to sell.) But Melies was soon making movies anyway, flying by the seat of his pants to create the techniques and tricks he needed to work his particular brand of magic on the screen. Melies was at his creative peak by 1902, and he created his best-remembered masterpiece that year A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune.) Inspired by Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and his own comic vision, the rocket ship landing in the eye of the Man in the Moon is one of early cinema’s most iconic images.
While A Trip to the Moon is on everyone’s list of historical science fiction films, it is more of a comic fantasy than science fiction. Not specifically intended as a parody of Verne and Wells, Melies’s film is nonetheless a tongue in cheek fantasia on themes presented in the leading moon exploration novels of its day. Melies is more about visual trickery than scientific explanations. His moon inhabitants (Selenites) explode in a puff of smoke at a mere touch. His rocket ship pulled by a rope to a precipice on the edge of the Moon falls back to Earth and lands in the ocean. All the whimsy makes the film something apart from hard science fiction, but it is a 1902 version of a revolutionary special effects epic, and as such was a kind of Star Wars for its day.
Aside from being a special effects wizard, Melies is often regarded as the first storyteller of cinema. After he got underway with his experimentations, he started stringing scenes together into narratives, whereas the Lumieres and Edison’s film-makers were still shooting 50-second actuality films. Innovations came fast and furious in the first 10 years of film, and there was much copying and cross-pollination of ideas between film-makers, so by 1902 there was already a plethora of films with narratives from a variety of sources–but Melies had been there first. A Trip to the Moon was his most complex film yet, with scenes on Earth, followed by scenes above ground on the Moon, followed by scenes below ground on the Moon, the back to Earth again, first in the ocean, then on land. This was a silent film, but Melies wrote a text for a narrator to read to the audience, commenting upon the action on screen. He also took a tremendous interest in music scores, although he did not mandate an exhibitor to use a particular score.
About 200 of Melies’s 520 films survive. He made a wide variety of films, from historical dramas to documentaries to comedies, even “stag” films. But his best remembered are the fantasies like A Trip to the Moon and its sequel The Impossible Voyage (1904.) Despite his vital importance at the dawn of film history, Melies became bankrupt and was forced out of the film industry by 1913. His most successful early films were victims of rampant piracy, and he realized only a fraction of the profits that were coming to him from exhibition of these movies. He was forced into contracts with Edison and Pathe that required more productivity than he could ever possibly meet. There were bad financial decisions, and also the run-up to World War I had a negative impact.
Melies is chiefly remembered today as an innovator in special effects. But that view underestimates his importance to the early cinema, which lay more in the fact that he was an early innovator in screen storytelling. Thus, for Melies, with reference to his best films, the special effects were often in the service of the story. He knew something that later film-makers often forgot. After Star Wars, there were again way too many films that devolved into mere special effects extravaganzas and are therefore forgotten. The films that are remembered are the ones where the special effects exist in the service of the story.