A Kind of Magic
Last night I watched the film Hugo, based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick and very good it was, too. Being someone who loves silent films I thought it was very good indeed. I first came across Georges Melies (how do you do accents on this thing?) when I saw the Queen video for ‘Heaven for Everyone’ which uses scenes from La Voyage dans la Lune and La Voyage a Travers L’Impossible. I remember being fascinated by the well-known shot of the rocket landing in the eye of the Man in the Moon, cars driving around Saturn’s rings and trains launching into space with the explorers cheering the Earthrise while faces peek out from stars to watch in curiosity. All in all the film, Hugo, and the book it’s based on, are a fitting tribute to Georges Melies and the other founding fathers of film including the Lumiere Brothers, Thomas Edison, R. W. Paul, amongst others.
Some people mock early films claiming they are ‘dated’ but, considering the technical constraints of this new technology, Melies’ skills as a magician came to the fore. He was a pioneer of stop-motion, simply by stopping the camera and changing the set and rolling again. For lighting effects, various pyrotechnics were used. Underwater scenes were filmed with a large fish tank in front of the set with the performers behind to give an illusion of large sea monsters. Colour was achieved by painstakingly tinting each individual frame.
A few years ago Channel 4 showed The 100 Greatest Scary Moments and number 100 was the Lumiere Brothers’ film L’Arrivee d’un Train en Gare de la Ciotat, a fifty-second film of a train arriving at a station. Legend has it that when it was first shown, the audience cried out in horror as they thought a real train was coming towards them. This has made people laugh in disbelief in later years. How could a simple film of a train pulling in scare people? It is worth remembering that this was the first time that film as we know it was shown. At the time it was evolving from a circus magic trick to the medium we know today. Remember the first time you saw a 3D film? How did you react when something seemed to fly out from the screen straight at you?
Anyway, I hope that’s whetted your appetite for early films. To see more there are lots of collections on DVD from the BFI, amongst others. Or you could get a taster by watching Hugo. I’ve just gone onto Google and found out it’s Eadward Muybridge’s 182nd birthday. If you click the picture you will see his early animation of horses galloping. Or you could just watch it on YouTube.