Silent movie director, inventor and magician Georges Méliès is easily the grandfather of science fiction film. We even included his adaptation of Jules Verne's 1866 novel The Adventures of Captain Hatteras "The Conquest of the Pole" in our Top 50 Scariest Films of all Time. But you probably know him best as the man who launched a rocket into the eye of the moon.
This turn-of-the-century film maker is a very important part of Martin Scorsese's new movie Hugo, you could even argue that this entire movie is Scorsese's love letter to Méliès. Hidden inside Hugo are loads of real-life facts about the grandfather of science fiction. Here is everything we learned about Georges Méliès, tucked away inside a movie about a train station orphan.
Beware: there are some spoilers for Hugo below.
In Hugo, a little boy makes friends with a grumpy old toy salesman, played by Sir Ben Kingsley. With the help of a gorgeous automaton, Hugo discovers that the poor old toy peddler is actually the famed director Georges Méliès. And along the way, we learn a lot of stuff about the real-life innovator of silent film:
Méliès Made Over 500 Films
Méliès was a silent movie-making machine. He directed over 500 films (most of which he starred in, or at least made a cameo in). Sadly, many of these films were lost to time and misfortune.
His Studio Was Made Entirely Out Of Glass
In order to catch all the light necessary to make his films, Méliès build a glass-enclosed stage outside Paris in 1897. He also constructed almost all of his props, sets, and costumes, equipping them with tricks he learned as a magician. At one point, Méliès was rumored to have housed over 20,000 costumes.
Méliès' Color Films Were Hand Painted
In order to add color to his movies, Méliès and his crew hand painted every single frame.
Méliès Was The Original FX Guy
Painting his film was just one of the many experiments Méliès conducted with film. In fact he came across the "stop trick" cut — where he stopped filming and removed someone from the scene, so they seemed to disappear when filming started up — accidentally! Using his inventor know-how and magician skills, he also helped pioneer such film trickery as the dissolve and the double exposure. Learn how he did it here.
Méliès Built Many Automatons
The main automaton seen in Hugo is not the only wind-up creature Méliès made, but sadly very few of them survived. Here is an image of what an actual automaton would have looked like from Méliès' time.
He Did All His Own Stunts
Sir Ben Kingsley shared this gem about Méliès with us at the Hugo press conference:
"I had the opportunity to as I said earlier watch so many of George's films and watch him star in the films, co-starring with his lively wife. And I saw how acrobatic and agile and fit he was when he was making his films. And in a sense I worked in reverse. What I focused on was how glorious his life was, and then I had an appreciation of the loss of that glory. So my preparation was in his body, how his body had to let go of being basically an athlete and a dancer. And I also mentioned to Marty the possibility of him because he did his own stunts, how many tiny injuries he sustained during his work as a star. And once you stop performing all the tiny injuries kick in. You don't notice them when you're performing but afterwards you do. So it was a bit of a wounded body as well."
He Is Responsible for the First Science Fiction Film
Released in 1902, Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) is the first ever science fiction film.
The French Army Melted Down Most Of Méliès' Films
As time wore on, tastes started to change and the wildly theatrical Méliès-style films were no longer a hot commodity (sadly, Méliès never really mastered the art of the narrative). Instead of adapting with the times Méliès lost a bundle and was forced into bankruptcy. The French government began to melt down films for silver for the war effort. Méliès sold off his films to be burned and used as boot heels for soldiers. Other bits were recycled into new film.
Méliès Did Wind Up In A Toy Shop
Broke and almost completely forgotten in 1925 Méliès sold toys at the Gare Montparnasse. This Méliès dedication site perfectly sums up exactly how bizarre that is: "This is roughly equivalent to finding Henry Ford working the Autopia at Disneyland." He was there for about seven years, until (much like in the film) he is discovered by the film editor of the Ciné-Journal who helped him revive his career with press, galas, and re-screenings of his work. They even managed to find many (but nowhere near all) of the films that had been destroyed.