Magic as a Means for Motion

The idea that magic could be an underlying driving force in artistic creation, especially in the domain of the moving image, may seem at first sight a far fetched thought and one that has little foundation. It is, however, a serious bundle of thoughts that have remained in a minute pocket of cellular space, ever since I came across the work of Michel Gondry back in 2006. It was during an editing session of an interview with Gondry that the name Méliès popped up regarding narrative in film. The forerunner of film narrative, Georges Méliès (1861 – 1938), had gained many a title in the history of cinema. It is perhaps his lesser talked about mastery of illusion however that leads us to a fascinating facet of the French innovator and one that links itself both to Gondry and a whole generation of film makers.

Creation of the moving image relies heavily on the capacity to manipulate images with editing, compositing and the use of special effects. Filming techniques that all have their origin in the work of Georges Méliès. Aside the technical implementation of such effects I wonder on the deeper level of creation and ask, is there a little magician in all of us then ? One who drives our desire to make images appear, disappear, animate or transform, helping us transcend reality and evoke the more magical realms of our imaginations ?

In the opening chapter of Elizabeth’s Ezra’ study on George Méliès, she describes the first (paying) public demonstration of the Lumière brothers cinématographe in Paris 23 December 1895. She particularly expresses the sheer awe, amazement and even fear amongst the public as they watched an ordinary Parisian street scene ‘come to life’ before their very eyes. The effect was magical, an illusion of the highest form, due in part to its ‘realism’ and in part to the public’s ignorance of the technology. It was however that very magical side that inspired the beginnings of a certain young man to take Lumière’s invention beyond simple scientific demonstration; one that gave us some of the first examples of the moving image as a means to tell stories based on our wildest imaginations. That particular event marked the beginning of Meliès’ career in cinematic storytelling. It was however not the beginning of his career as such.

Magic was a fundamental link to Méliès’ life and a strong link with how he would develop a narrative use of the Lumière’s cinematographe throughout his film making career. He had been drawn to the theatre at an early age, and more specifically to the art of conjuring. He had had the opportunity to attend shows by the great English illusionist John Nevil Maskelyne during a sojourn in London in 1884 and on his return to Paris later acquired the famous French illusionist Robert Houdin’s theatre which became his place of work as director and performing magician. After acquiring his first camera in 1896, he began filming his illusions and projecting his first films at the theatre. It was however a sudden turn of fate that would turn his little box of film into an immense box of tricks. A turn that would help him take illusion a step further.

There is a wonderful anecdote about Méliès and his ‘stumbling’ upon his first camera effect. Outside the majestic Opéra in Paris, Méliès was one day carefully filming a typical street scene when suddenly his camera jammed for several minutes. He managed to get the film to work again and resumed filming. On viewing later, he realised that other subjects turned up suddenly on the screen at the time the film had jammed. This of course was due to the time lapse between the end and restarting of filming and which visually created a stunning effect of disappearance and sudden appearance of horse carriages and people. This little accident became known as ‘substitution splicing’ and was the start in a number of visual effects that Méliès was to develop: Superposition, matte, transparency and indeed editing. These techniques can be seen in a large number of his films: Un Homme de Têtes (1898), Affiches en Goguettes (1905) and Voyage dans la Lune (1902). Some of which had also taken direct inspiration from stage magic classics: Les Cartes Vivantes (1904).

These are today common video and image compositing techniques, the complexity of which, compared to Méliès’ time, have lost their sense in today’s push button society yet I believe have not lost their importance as a means for image manipulation, movement and ultimately storytelling. We are perhaps no longer dupe to illusion yet strangely this does not take anything away from our emotional involvement and indeed illusion often solicits our intellect to question the more bedazzling of effects in todays ‘eye candy culture.’ And that underlines the fact that the spectacle of illusion still does have power amid the spectator as it does essentially amid the creator. The technology of film is in fair share an extension of this desire, a desire to perform tricks and tricks that become part of the bigger story.

To return to the work of Michel Gondry, it can be noted that he uses a number of ‘artisan,’ home made techniques in his film. Everything from stop motion animation to make shift stage sets and mechanical contraptions, that strive not for realism but rather have more to do with the sense of the stage illusionist who wants to awaken the freer side of our imaginations, beyond the shackles of our practical realities. His mention of Méliès was perhaps more than just a historical wink at cinematic narration, it was also an acknowledgment of his own desire to perform magic on screen. And who has never wanted to perform a magic trick, whether it be to entertain or to understand the workings of the art of illusion.

There is currently a major exhibition on Georges Méliès at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, along with the publication of two special edition box set dvds and a 350 page illustrated book. With an important presentation of newly acquired artifacts, this is the best exhibit there has been on an undeniably crucial figure of not only cinematic history but of creation of the moving image at large.

>>> Méliès at La Cinémathèque française

>>> Georges Méliès. The Birth of the Auteur. Manchester University Press 2000. Ezra, Elisabeth