It will come as no surprise to you that, as a writer in the occasional orbit of the BFI, I really like books about film. The sad truth is that all I ever read are books about film and, to be specific, those books are autobiographies. Over the years, I’ve realised that rather than read one author’s précis of the entirety of film history, it’s far more interesting to amass my own through the testimonials of those who were there. This has not only given me a sprawling portrait of the industry, but also one of rich, varied and contrasting voices and opinions.
The day I realised that I had never read an autobiography of Georges Méliès was the day which unwittingly set me off on what ultimately became a 3-year mission that I could never have predicted.
Get the latest from the BFI
Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.
Who was George Méliès? Well, he’s most famous as the man who put the rocket in the eye of the moon – that first truly iconic image of cinema, which is known and recognised globally even by those who don’t know the film it came from, A Trip to the Moon (1902).
Méliès was the great early pioneer of cinema. Although he didn’t invent the technology of capturing the moving image himself, he turned it into something wonderful. He invented almost every special effect you’d care to name – from split screen to forced perspective, to matte painting, to jump-cuts. Having been a magician, an actor, a theatre director and a master of the magic lantern art known as phantasmagoria, Méliès brought fantasy and storytelling to the screen while others were still just showing documents of real life. As Guillermo Del Toro put it: “At the time that the Lumière brothers were recording a train coming into the station, the workers exiting the factory, there was a man called George Méliès recording what was not there, what wasn’t possible. At the time of chronicle, fable was born.” The films of Méliès were filled with angels, demons, aliens, monsters, shooting stars and wondrous machines. He was the first to make films in both the sci-fi and horror genres.
I knew, or assumed, that his autobiography existed as I had seen a photo of Charlie Chaplin reading and enjoying it on the set of Monsieur Verdoux (1947). After a pretty hefty session on Google, I discovered that this book was not exactly an autobiography. Méliès had died in 1938 and this book – entitled Georges Méliès mage et mes mémoires par Méliès – had been released posthumously. The book was written by Maurice Bessy – a prominent French film historian – and Joseph Lo Duca, one of the co-founders of Cahiers du Cinéma. It was a straightforward biography, but, at the back of the book, was a section which appeared to be an actual autobiography written by Méliès himself.
It took a while to track a copy down. The book had been a limited edition release of just 3,000 copies, which had gone out of print in 1945. It had never been released in anything but the French language edition. I hired a translator. The Méliès autobiography section was a bizarre and wonderful read. It was self-congratulatory and braggadocious – 2 traits that are entirely justified when dealing with the man who essentially put the magic into cinema, but it was also written in the third person. This made me slightly question its authenticity.
A conversation with Méliès’s great-granddaughter Anne-Marie revealed the document’s strange journey – Méliès had indeed written it, as per the request of a French journalist. It had gone unpublished, but was then sent to Italy because The League of Nations had instructed Italy to publish a ‘dictionary of illustrious men’. This dictionary never surfaced as Italy was excluded from The League of Nations for having invaded Ethiopia. The manuscript ended up in the hands of an Italian magazine called Cinema and was then sold on to Mr Lo Duca.
Its authenticity was confirmed – even more so when I came into ownership of a facsimile of the original hand-written manuscript in Méliès’s unmistakable scrawl. It would seem that, always the control freak, Méliès had written the journalist’s piece for him. This explained the third person tense. It also opened a window on to Méliès’s eccentricity and insecurities. Given the cover of anonymity to write one’s own biography, who wouldn’t see fit to jettison modesty first?
The Méliès autobiography, once fully translated, turned out to be one of the most illuminating and important pieces of writing that I had ever read – a genuine first-hand (if third-person) testimonial as to the birth of cinema from someone who had not only been there, but had been a central component of it.
I made it my mission to rescue this document from obscurity and this year have published the autobiography in a deluxe book, which features full annotation along with accompanying essays that contextualise and expand Méliès’s writing, and a translation of an article Méliès wrote in 1907.
In the following extract from his autobiography, Méliès discusses the technical limitations he had to deal with to become a filmmaker – the lack of an actual camera to use (the Lumière brothers had refused to sell him one of theirs), the huge expense of film and the unexpected obstacle of discovering that the film had no perforations to guide it through a camera or projector. You might also notice that he mentions, in an almost throwaway fashion, that he was literally the first person in the world to set up a cinema – screenings having previously been temporary exhibitions in hired rooms and fairground tents.
The Cinematographer and his early struggles by Georges Méliès
In the details which follow we attempt to illustrate the great ordeals which the first pioneers of cinema had to overcome. Those who today seek to make motion pictures will find all the required equipment available, complete and perfected: all they need is the necessary funds. They cannot begin to imagine the difficulties against which the creators of this industry had to struggle, at a time when no such material yet existed and when each innovator kept their work and research a closely guarded secret. Therefore Méliès, just like Pathé, Gaumont and others, was only able to progress by making numerous machines, subsequently abandoned and replaced by others which were themselves in due course replaced. As one might imagine, this involved a great waste of time and money, which is why, during the first nine months of 1896, Méliès and others filmed only open air scenes or inconsequential short comic sequences. His time was taken up with the creation and refinement of equipment and methodology (photography, development, print and projection). When he finally had a well organized laboratory he was able to give free rein to his vivid imagination, and to begin the long series of extraordinary films which commenced in 1896 with L’Escamotage d’Une Dame at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin and which continued to astonish audiences until 1914. There followed works of increasing significance which would within a short period of time make their creator known throughout the world. There can be no doubt that in cinematic circles the GEO-MÉLIÈS-STAR-FILM brand which he created was held in great esteem for the virtuosity of its productions and for their international character.
Directly following his first public screening in Paris, Louis Lumière was sending his first operators to show films in various countries. Méliès, having been unable to acquire similar equipment, considered the situation and decided to build his own. Clement Maurice, Mesguich, Promio and Trewey were beginning to make cinematography, in the form of documentaries, internationally recognised, for example in England, Russia, USA and Germany. It was at this time that a stroke of luck came to Méliès’ aid: he learned that the English optician W. Paul had just made available a projector which allowed the projection of films shot against a black background, on the Edison Kinétoscope. Under pressure to screen his work at any cost, he bought one of these machines and procured some Edison film reels, the only ones that he could find and in very limited number. It was with this rudimentary equipment that the Théâtre Robert-Houdin opened the first indoor cinema, in contrast to the makeshift fairground screenings of the new invention’s first practitioners.
Studying the mechanical operation of this machine made Méliès realize that shooting could only be achieved through the use of a similar device; [the film was] enclosed in a lightproof box(a camera), equipped with a special lens for photography and different projection lenses. It was therefore based on the construction of W. Paul’s apparatus that Méliès built his own.
An engineer of great precision, experienced in the manufacture of mechanical and automated devices that were displayed in his theatre, Méliès nonetheless experienced great difficulty in its construction. No replacement components, no turning cogs, no special lenses were commercially available. It was therefore necessary to build this camera from scratch, on slender means, in the little workshop of the Théâtre Robert-Houdin which was used for the construction and repair of automatons and magic devices. In February 1896, once the camera was finally ready, he found that by chance he had created, at the first attempt, a device quite different from the Lumière system, but completely satisfactory. It now only remained to make a number of trial shoots. Now the hard work really began. In Paris it was impossible to find the necessary virgin film. Learning that W. Paul had some in London, Méliès wasted no time in leaving for England, but faced with the optician’s refusal to give him some 20 trial reels he found himself forced to acquire — for the at this time enormous sum of 45,000 francs — a whole box of virgin film from Eastman, without knowing if he would ever recover this investment. Who could have foreseen the success that cinema would go on to achieve? No one, without doubt, yet Méliès had faith in his instincts.
On his return to Paris a new challenge awaited him. The film brought from London was unperforated! Since all the cases were hermetically sealed this detail had gone unnoticed, but what a detail! There was no perforator, where and how could one be found? Only Edison had one. A certain Mr Lapipe, resident at 141 Rue Oberkampf, took up the challenge to construct an instrument for perforating film. Its rhythm was similar to that of military parade-ground drums, but what an instrument! In reality a hand-operated hammer, it was extremely difficult to manipulate and to make matters worse only made two holes at a time. It is not hard to appreciate the long hours required and the extreme fatigue which resulted. Using each hand alternately left the arms and shoulders demolished after 15 minutes.
It was however with this unlikely tool that Méliès perforated his first films and was able to make his first shoot. But he immediately came up against another problem. How to develop these long reels which were totally unlike the 13x18 or the 18x24 prints which, as an amateur photographer, he was used to developing in trays?
Who would have believed that in the early days Méliès, like his contemporaries, was reduced to cutting his films into sections in a bucketful of developer; then, still in the developer, joining them together; then joining together the longer sections after drying! What a time-consuming and delicate task to avoid scratching the gelatin or leaving fingerprints. Yet it is known that Méliès was ingenious by nature. He thus immediately undertook a test, wrapping one of his films around a large glass jar, each end glued with wax, and by soaking the jar in his bucket he had the satisfaction of seeing the development take place without endangering the images, calmly monitoring their emergence. Following this successful experiment, the next day he assembled semicircular shallow vats and wooden drums with hand-cranks that could turn inside them, similar to a cylinder for grinding coffee. This system worked wonders, and although most commercial developers later used industry standard frameworks, Méliès throughout his career remained loyal to his preferred original system. There were, in fact, several interesting advantages:
- A small amount of developer in the bottom of the vat was enough to cover the entire film as it rotated.
- As the liquid was constantly stirred by the rotation, no air bubbles or dust could stick to the film and damage the image.
- The same roller moved the film into a vat of running water, the various stages passed quickly and the final wash was the most vigorous.
So the films passed across 1.5m drums which, electrically driven, produced a rapid turnover without staining, drops of water being driven out by centrifugal force. Subsequently the vats for development, fixing and washing would be powered entirely by electricity, and the drying rollers were fitted with an interior heating element, necessary particularly in winter. But in the beginning all was done by hand and, naturally enough, output was lower and fatigue infinitely greater.
The development of his negatives completed, Méliès’ troubles were far from over. He faced a long struggle to achieve the construction of machines for making prints which would produce satisfactory results. His early, flawed devices caused him endless troubles, and as is so often the case with inventors, it was the simplest idea that proved to be the best, coming to him after he had become bogged down in pointless and unsolvable complications. One can laugh about it now, but despite his natural ingenuity, he had to admit that he had not realized that the print-making machine was nothing more than a copy of the shooting mechanism, feeding through two films – the negative and the virgin positive – at the same time. Once he finally understood he managed to make a perfect printer, but this process of trial and error had cost him precious time and great expense for little return. (The inventor’s life is not all sweetness and light!) Shortly afterwards Joseph Debrie perfected excellent printing machines, and from that moment on Méliès no longer took the trouble to build his own; he became, rather, a loyal client of this conscientious artisan who subsequently also provided him with a whole series of perforating machines, each one an improvement on the last. Joseph’s son André Debrie continued to build all forms of cinematographic equipment, applying the same assiduousness and adding contemporary technical refinements.
The Long-Lost Autobiography of Georges Méliès is available now in linen-bound hardback and Deluxe Wooden Box Set (including a full unbound replica of Méliès’s handwritten manuscript) at www.georgesmelies.co.uk
It is also available in Arrow Video’s A Trip to the Moon Blu-ray box set.
The above extract from The Long-Lost Autobiography of Georges Méliès:
Translation by Ian Nixon
© Jon Spira 2020