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Georges Melies – Master of Illusion: Crash Course Film History #4

Georges Melies – Master of Illusion: Crash Course Film History #4


When’s the last time you heard a really
good story? Maybe it was was a TV show that made you dream
of discovering aliens as a kid, or a book that completely changed how you think about
yourself. We’re all hardwired to make sense of the
world by telling and being told stories, and at the turn of the 20th century, motion pictures
were starting to do just that. At first, seeing any film was thrilling
in and of itself, whether it was a Vaudeville performer flexing or a train pulling up to
a station. But just five or six years into the history
of film, audiences were looking for something more than just a technological marvel. So, filmmakers had to “try”. Ugh… The world was primed for artists to prove
this medium was more than just a passing fad. And along came a storyteller who would make
his own magic, take us to the moon, and jumpstart the first special effects revolution. He changed what filmmakers and audiences believed
was possible, both onscreen and off. It was time for Georges Méliès. [Intro Music Plays] As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, artists, engineers, and self-taught tinkerers
were all pushing the boundaries of film. “Self-Taught-Tinkerer?” My nickname in high school. Technical innovations like the Latham Loop
allowed filmmakers to use longer film strips in cameras, without them tearing and breaking. Now they could create longer, more complex
films, which facilitated the very first experiments with editing. Editing, also known as cutting, is the assembling
of shots to achieve coherence: whether that’s in the narrative, in space, in time, symbolically,
or thematically. There are all kinds of ways to join shots
together. You can use transitions like fades, wipes,
or dissolves, or you can just cut straight from one shot
to another. Like this… Ya… see that? We’ll explore editing techniques in more
detail later in Crash Course Film, and dive deep into their psychological, emotional,
and even political implications. For now, all you need to know is that filmmakers
were starting to join shots together, inching their way toward narrative-based films that
explicitly told stories. One of these soon-to-be filmmakers was Georges
Méliès. He was born in Paris in 1861, and first achieved
fame as a stage magician. If you’re familiar with Christopher Nolan’s
The Prestige – his other movie with Christian Bale – it’ll come as no surprise that
stage magicians were huge celebrities at the turn of the century. Also, David Bowie played Tesla in that movie. And that was awesome. Stage magicians entertained large crowds with illusions and magic tricks, and decked out their acts
with elaborate sets, costumes, and characters. And most importantly for us, wove their larger
acts around stories. By all accounts, Georges Méliès was skilled
and successful. He owned and operated his own theater, the
Théâtre Robert-Houdin, where he acted as writer, producer, and director, and designed
the sets and costumes himself. While Muybridge, Edison, and the Lumière
Brothers were tinkering with motion picture devices, Méliès was developing magic tricks,
from sophisticated sight gags to theatrical special effects. One of his specialties involved using a lantern
projection device to project light effects onto the audience, making it seem to rain
or snow inside the theater… whoa… Méliès was invited to one of the Lumière
Brothers’ private cinématographe screenings before they officially revealed their device
to the world, and he was awestruck. He tried to buy one of their inventions on
the spot, but the Lumières weren’t ready to sell. Méliès didn’t give up, though. He could already see all the possibilities
a motion picture camera and projector held for stage magic, and vice versa. After an intense, transcontinental search,
Méliès ended up buying an Animatograph, Then, get this, he reverse-engineered the Animatograph
so it worked as its own camera, too. And by April, 1896, he was making and screening
his own films in his theater. At first, his films looked like Edison’s
or the Lumière Brothers’ – continuous shots of short skits, quick magic tricks,
or scenes from everyday life. But then along came one of those happy accidents
that moved cinema forward. In his autobiography, Méliès describes a
day he was capturing footage on a Paris street when his camera jammed. Frustrated, he fiddled with the hand crank,
fixed the problem, and started shooting again after a couple seconds had passed. When he developed the film later and played
it back, the most amazing thing had happened. The shot started with people walking, children
skipping, and a horse-drawn omnibus full of workers trundling up the street. Then, in the blink of an eye, everything changed. Men turned into women, children were replaced
by horses, and – spookiest of all – the omnibus full of workers changed into a hearse. In an instant, Méliès realized what had
happened. When his camera jammed, it stopped shooting
for a moment, and then started capturing images again after he fixed it. When the whole sequence was projected, those
two “shots” were joined in an instant and – poof! – magic happened before his
eyes. Méliès had found a way to perform actual
magic with editing, to fool an audience and pull off illusions he’d never been able
to on stage. He began making “trick films” with a vengeance,
using the power of editing and special effects to do the impossible on screen: like levitating
heads, making people disappear, or changing an object’s size or shape. Let’s go to the Thought Bubble to reveal
a few of this magician’s secrets! Méliès pioneered the first double exposure
in 1898, by running the film negative through the camera twice before developing it. When you do this correctly, both images appear
on screen simultaneously, though the second image usually appears faded or ghostly. This technique led him to invent the split
screen, in which he covered half the frame, shot his footage, rewound the film, covered
the other half of the frame, and shot new footage. When the film was developed, the two images
appeared side-by-side in real time. This was a trick he used over and over again,
often to allow actors to perform opposite themselves. It’s a great technique that many youtubers use. He further refined this trick with a process called matting, where he’d paint black shapes
on a glass plate attached to the lens of the camera. Those black shapes kept light from exposing
those portions of the film as he shot a scene. Then, Méliès could paint the other portions
of the glass plate, while leaving the original shapes clear, re-shoot the scene, and both
exposures would combine. We call these techniques in-camera effects
because they’re produced inside the camera, rather than after the film has been shot. And Melies used them and many others to masterful
effect. Thanks Thought Bubble! The laws of physics were no match for Méliès
and his camera and editing tricks. No match for me either. Can you make me float up? Nick (off camera): We can’t do that. …or something. He could manipulate time. He could manipulate space. And he could harness the fact that all film
presents an illusion, to push his own illusions even further. Before long, Méliès began incorporating
elements of his theatrical shows into his films – the elaborate costumes, the lavish
sets, the exaggerated props, /and/ the stories. To our eyes today, his films have a distinct
“stagey” quality. By that I mean, the camera is almost always
set back from the action, capturing an entire scene in one shot, roughly from the perspective
of an audience member in a theater. We call this style of framing Proscenium Arch,
named for the arch over the front of the stage in a theater. It’s not used as much today, but you might
recognize the style from Wes Anderson movies. To us, the scenes in Méliès’ films might
feel static and too long, because, outside of all his special effects editing, he only
cuts between scenes. Not to mention, his characters might seem
one-dimensional, and their gestures can feel over-the-top. But put yourself in the shoes of a filmgoer
in 1901 Paris, having seen nothing but slice-of-life actualitiés and Vaudeville performers on
screen. The relative sophistication, ambitious vision,
and powerful special effects of Méliès films would be downright thrilling. But Méliès wasn’t the only filmmaker at work during the very first years of cinema. Alice Guy-Blaché was a secretary for the major French film company Gaumont, who went on to become their head of production. The first known female filmmaker, Guy-Blaché directed more than 1,000 films, was a pioneer in color tinting, rudimentary sound and picture sync, and ultimately opened her own film studio. Blanche also worked on the cutting edge of narrative fiction, like with her film The Cabbage Fairy, before she eventually lost her company and stopped making films altogether in 1920. In 1902, Méliès released his masterpiece,
A Trip to the Moon, loosely based on the Jules Verne novel. This 14-minute film follows a group of scientists
who travel to the moon, sleep under the stars, battle some aliens, and escape back to Earth
triumphant. Even if you haven’t seen the whole thing,
you probably know the iconic image of the “man in the moon” with the space capsule
stuck in his eye. A Trip to the Moon was made up of 825 feet
of film – three times the average length of Edison or Lumière films of the time. This film incorporates many of Méliès’
innovations – his trick photography, his fantastical settings, and his ambitious storytelling
– all in service of a large scale, relatively complex, narrative fiction film. It was a massive international success. In fact, it made so much money that Thomas
Edison – among others – made illegal copies of it and lined his pockets screening the
film as his own… what a guy! But it wasn’t just a financial hit. It also had a profound effect on other filmmakers
of the time, and expanded what people thought was possible, narratively and aesthetically. Not only could films take us into space and
let us battle with aliens, but they could also sustain our attention for almost 15 minutes
and tell stories that unfolded over multiple scenes. A Trip to the Moon gets referenced
everywhere from Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, which features a loving portrait of Georges
Méliès, to the Smashing Pumpkins’ 1996 music video for Tonight, Tonight. And perhaps, most importantly Matthew Gaydos’ arm. Okay you can leave now, Matt. A Trip to the Moon was by no means the only
film Méliès made. In his prime, he made between 25 and 75 films
per year, a huge number by any standard. He founded a production company called Star
Film and built a large studio in Montreuil, France, just outside Paris. The studio was constructed like a giant greenhouse,
to let in as much natural light as possible. And it was big enough to house Méliès’
massive painted sets and backdrops. And though we’re decades away from color
film stock, audiences were already seeing films with color in them. To achieve this effect, individual frames
of film were hand-tinted or painted – to color an explosion orange or a dress red or
the sun yellow. It was a costly, time-consuming process, and
had to be repeated with every copy of the film. And I’m glad I didn’t have to do it. For a showman like Méliès, however, no bit
of magic was too elaborate. It’s even said he employed twenty-one women to hand-tint his films at what must have cost a pretty penny. I’m glad I didn’t have to pay for it. Sadly, the high cost of his productions, legal
challenges from rivals, and the devastation of Europe during World War I forced Méliès
out of the film business by 1917. In the 1920s, he was living in obscurity,
selling sweets at the Montparnasse station in Paris, as anyone who’s seen Hugo knows. Had his story ended there, it would’ve been
a tragedy.But this is the movie business. And there’s nothing we like better than
a comeback story. In the late 1920s, journalists and filmmakers
who’d been influenced by Méliès’ films tracked him down to celebrate his contributions
to the art of cinema. Someday I hope people track me down and do that… for me. And in October, 1931, Méliès was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor, the highest
achievement in French military or civil affairs. The medal was presented to him by Louis Lumière
himself. So Georges Méliès, the Parisian stage magician
who brought science fiction, special effects, and more sophisticated narrative storytelling
to film, was ultimately honored by those who knew his work the best. Both his peers and his rivals agreed that
his illusions changed history and took audiences to new and thrilling places. Places like the moon… and Matthew Gaydos’ arm. Today we introduced Georges Méliès, the
magician-turned-filmmaker whose mistakes, experiments, and ambitious storytelling led
to some huge advancements in early film production. We discussed how editing and special effects
can enhance the very nature of film as an illusion, and how audiences were hungry for
longer, more complex narratives. And next time, we’ll learn about some more
experimentation with editing techniques, and a filmmaker who started to define the visual
language of film as we know it today. Wheezy Waiter, not Wheezy Waiter. Crash Course Film History is produced in association
with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel to check
out a playlist of their latest amazing shows, like Coma Niddy, Gross Science, and Physics
Girl. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in
the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of these nice people and our
amazing graphics team, is Thought Cafe.

99 thoughts on “Georges Melies – Master of Illusion: Crash Course Film History #4

  1. I wonder how much cutting felt natural to people who first saw it or if it was jarring at first. Like, if you took a person from the 19th century and showed them a modern non-genre movie, would they be able to follow it or would they be like "What is this madness! Why is everything jumping around!"

  2. 6:57 "metric maniacs", do you mean normal people? Everyone outside the US, so, most people?
    You imperial imbeciles…

  3. Please do film analysis on movies like Schindlers list, the shawshank redemption, v for vendetta, etc. Like if you agree!

  4. Love this CC series! But holy s***, Alice Guy-Blaché is fascinating. Thanks for including her, even after your first editing was done. I wouldn't have known about her otherwise. Now I wonder how fast a biographical film of her will be made, because there is a lot of good narrative to be mined.

  5. Great series. I'd love you to do a series on comic books. Scott McCould's Understanding Comics would be a good blueprint for the series.

  6. Alice Guy-Blaché!!! Omg I saw her stuff in class once a literal decade ago && have been trying to find her work since ( by the time I could appreciate what I had seen I had forgotten her name && lost contact w/the professor ) so xcited to rewatch everything I can find of hers again!!! Thank u crash course!!!

  7. I have one little nitpick– the city in France you referenced at 7:57 is not pronounced Mon-trell but more like a cross between Mon-troy and Mon-trey, with a rolled r.

  8. Never heard the story behind that shot of the moon and the guy that imagine it. Merci Melies.

  9. So sad he did not took care of his films… Most of them are lost because they were kept in unproper conditions. But how could he know he had such a big treasure? : this was for him a reminder of his business failure…

  10. I really like this series but could as well do without all the ego jokes which started to get old in Episode #2..

  11. I watched Hugo a few years ago, without ever having heard of Méliès before. For most of this video I had this thought buzzing in my head, I know I've already heard a similar story before, but where?

  12. Just today I watched Hugo and came into this playlist by coincidence, now I'm completely in love with Méliès' work

  13. Thank you for continuing to reveal how much of a scum bucket was Edison! We should be singing the praises of Tesla!

  14. why the hell is this guy comparing Georges Melies, a cinematic icon and a genius to a bunch of stupid and lazy youtubers.

  15. I recommend people who like and want to know some fictional story about Georges Melies, then read the Book Hugo Cabret, by an author actually was raised in my town. Amazing huh!!!!

    The author is actually called Brain Selznick.

  16. If you want to see more I suggest you a funny short by Alice Guy, "The consequences of feminism". So funny, here: https://youtu.be/dQ-oB6HHttU

  17. You talked about Melies autobiography, I would really like to read it. What's it Called? And anyone know were it is accesible?

  18. Thank you for mentioning Alice Guy-Blache! She's so important to the history of cinema yet I don't see people talking about her at all! I feel like she's been quite erased of history.

  19. There is a movie called jack and the cookoo clock heart where they used this George guy who helps fix jack's heart and he starts to film he also has a picture of the moon with the thing in his eye on the curtain

  20. I haven't laughed out of pure joy in a long time. Thanks you! Beautiful editing and scripting. Thank you for that honest, full felt laugh.

  21. Needs more Alice Guy-Blaché. (Okay okay I'm glad she at least got a token mention. I was worried you might just skip her)

  22. Georges was my great great grandfather, and I have to say your video is awesome, the best in this format I have seen for a long time. Thanks a lot.

  23. Just to add to the Edison Bashing, he didn't even invent the light bulb. He took the invention, and he did improve on it, but his real genius was the business end & marketing. (The light bulb was invented by Henry Woodward in 1874 in Toronto, Canada. Woodward then sold the patent to Edison.)

  24. Google group green light to watch the game is at least one person who is not the intended for use on your site law school and

  25. you know the movie Hugo, there is a mention of Georges Melies; Fly me to the Moon… its a pretty good movie

  26. It was 67 years after “Dans La Lune” (A Trip To The Moon) that the world actually see a real life trip to the moon on July 20, 1969. So, I believe George Melies was getting man to think about that possibility of space travel in that way.

  27. Really amazing video series, thanks so much for making it. Like the Lumiere's were not the first to hold a public screening George was not the first to use the stop the camera, and make a substitution, and start the camera back up trick. The first film I think to use it was called The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots from 1895. Still, George probably discovered on his own, like he described. While he did use the double exposure trick ( a lot) along with the substitution trick, and a quick edit to match them up, I do not believe he used the split screen effect, or the Matte effect you mentioned in the video. If you want to show me proof, I will look at it, but all the films I have seen from him are just Double Exposures, beautifully executed, but still not Splits or Mattes. That is why there is so much black on his stage, so that he can just run the unexposed film through the camera again, and place another image in the black area of the stage, no need for Mattes or Splits. Many claim that Four Troublesome Heads used these Mattes, but they would never work in the real world scenario of that film, as George himself is moving around too much for his head to be cut off by a Matte. Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery certainly used Mattes, but they did not use glass either, as that would cut off portions of the frame that are simply still there, no digital roto-scoping to help them out. Other than than great video, and great series.

  28. Dude did all this over 100 years ago. What a legend. Without any prior knowledge or technology. Just makes you respect early 20th centrury and prior inventors even more.

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