Motion-Picture Pioneer. The cinema's first great artist, he invented the fantasy film and was the father of motion-picture special effects. His most famous film, "A Trip to the Moon" (1902), still delights viewers with its quaint charm and humor, more than a century after it was first shown. Melies' influence on moviemaking around the world has been considerable. Born in Paris, the son of a wealthy footwear manufacturer, he was a professional magician who in the late 1880's won fame for his inventive stagecraft and flamboyant showmanship. Fascinated with all forms of illusion, Melies attended, in December 1895, the premiere exhibition of the Lumiere brothers' cinematographe at the Grand Cafe in Paris. This occasion marked the first time motion-pictures were projected onto a screen for an audience, rather than viewed individually through a peepshow device. Melies begged the Lumieres to sell him a camera, but they refused. Undaunted, he went to England, where he purchased a Bioscope projector from another pioneer, Robert W. Paul, and proceeded to build his own camera based on the Bioscope's design. At first he filmed street scenes to incorporate into his magic shows, but was soon devoting himself to films full-time. He launched a production company, Star Films, and in 1897 constructed Europe's first movie studio, in Montreuil. Unlike Thomas Edison and the Lumieres, Melies, with his theatrical background, quickly grasped that the cinema could be used as a storytelling medium. Within a year he went from brief documentary shots and faked newsreel footage to producing fairy tales and fables ("The Grasshopper and the Ant" in 1897, "Cinderella" in 1899) and literary adaptations ("Pygmalion" and "The Damnation of Faust", both 1898). And with his magician's imagination and technical ingenuity he was able to expand the movies' visual vocabulary. Melies is credited with introducing stop-motion photography, time-lapse photography, double and multiple exposures, and miniature work; these innovations remained some of the basic tools of special effects (not to mention animation) until very recently, when they were supplanted by computer-generated imagery. He was also the first filmaker to utilize indoor lighting, indoor camera movement, production sketches and storyboards. In "The One-Man Band" (1900), Melies appeared as seven different people in the same frame, a feat of movie magic that wasn't topped until Buster Keaton's "The Playhouse" (1921). "A Trip to the Moon" was the culmination of all Melies' discoveries. The rest of his (sadly short) career was spent refining his techniques. His later films, almost all under 15 minutes in length, include "Gulliver's Travels" (1902), "The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe" (1902), "Faust in Hell" (1903), "Impossible Voyage" (1904), "A Thousand and One Nights" (1905), "The Legend of Rip Van Winkle" (1905), "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" (1907), and "The Conquest of the Pole" (1912). Melies wrote, produced, directed, designed, sometimes photographed and often acted in these one-reelers. For a decade his product enjoyed enormous popularity abroad, especially in the United States, where prints were widely pirated and illegally shown. To protect his interests Melies formed an American branch of Star Films in 1903 and in 1909 he joined the Motion Picture Patents Company, a trust formed by Edison to monopolize American Cinema. Inevitably, though, the novelty of his little trick films wore off. While his competitors were using the world for their stage, Melies refused to leave the artificial confines of his studio and his work began to appear claustrophobic and dated. In 1911 he had to borrow heavily from the Pathe company, now his distributors, to continue production; two years later Pathe foreclosed on Star Films, putting Melies out of business. He never made another film. Melies converted his studio into a variety theatre where he performed his old magic tricks, but in 1923 he went bankrupt and had to liquidate his remaining assets. Tragically, his film negatives were sold for their silver content, which is why out of the estimated 560 movies he produced only a fraction survive. By the late 1920's, when the French Surrealists rediscovered his genius, Melies was running a little toy and candy kiosk at the Montparnasse railway station. In 1931 the French government awarded him the Legion of Honor and the following year he was given a rent-free apartment, where he lived out his days in a semblance of comfort. D. W. Griffith said of Melies, "I owe him everything," and Charlie Chaplin called him "the alchemist of light."
Bio by: Bobb Edwards