By Tim Gebhart 3:59 pm PST
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Movies and film conjure, create, and bring our subdued minds, suspended in disbelief to wherever they may take us. For this magic trick to work, the scenes on the screen have to be believed. The stories have to sufficiently capture our attention and not let go, lest the magician’s trick fail and bring the audience back into reality.

A ninety minute modern block-buster movie we sit through may take several years to complete. Behind the scenes, frantic stand-ins, directors, technicians, writers, editors, and effects artists work their trade. We never see that part of the film, we only see the end result. Rarely, if ever do we stop ourselves to analyze what we are seeing. Films often ask us to sit back while they entertain us for a period of time. The Latin origin of the word “entertain” is tenere, which is “to hold or maintain.” Film requires rapt attention. The audience surrenders all of their perceptive and conscious faculties subtly and willfully to be entranced. In this way we enter into another’s imagination for a time. 

The power and allure of film lies in us entering into other worlds or lives, stepping out of our own reality and challenges in we face in life for a brief moment. Believable special effects or a gripping story that ties us in emotionally will have us soaring in the skies with a caped hero, or out onboard a ship at sea in a terrifying storm. The imagination is the limit.  Film, in its humble beginnings however, started out as a circus act, and later, a magician’s trick, a slight-of-hand, to move pictures and create scenes to bring dreams and stories to life. 

 

A Circus Act

It all started out as a novelty in 1895 with Auguste and Louis Lumière capturing street scenes and daily life with their invention, the cinematograph motion picture film camera. Auguste and Louis Lumière toured France showcasing their new invention that took pictures in rapid succession. The film was played back in a projector at high speed which made the images look as if they came to life. Touring with circus troupes, the Lumière brothers pitched the cinematograph as a mechanical marvel, a machine that wowed audiences with moving pictures, a sight never seen before. 

Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (The Lumière Brothers, 1896)

Auguste & Louis Lumière: Snowball Fight (1897)

 

A Trip To the Moon

Georges Méliès, a magician, saw the Lumière brothers and their invention at a travelling circus and fell in love with it. He saw in the cinematograph, the ability to not just capture moving scenes of daily life, like moving photographs, but to tell a story. He bought a similar invention, an animatograph, in London and began his grand venture. He produced over 500 films with many of the early ones being experimental and shot like a magic show to see how far he could push special effects. 

George Melies: L´homme orchestre

 

While the Lumière brothers were pushing for the film camera to be viewed and respected for its documenting and archiving qualities, Méliès drew out storyboards with fantastical scenes inspired by the works of Jules Verne, intent on filming epic and absurd adventures. On the outskirts of Paris, he started the Star Film Company and began creating otherworldly sets, crafting mystical creatures, and sewing elaborate costumes to bring his visions to life. Some of his most famous films include The Astronomer’s Dream, Cinderella,The Kingdom of the Fairies, and A Trip to the Moon.

 


“If you’ve ever wondered where your dreams come from, look around, this is where they’re made.”  
~ Georges Milies from “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”

 

The Kingdom of the Fairies (1903). 17 minutes. Directed by Georges Méliès. Starring Georges Méliès and Bleuette Bernon.

Georges Méliès and his toy shop in the Montparnasse train station in Paris.

At the start of World War I, Western Europe had become shell-shocked, impoverished, and disinterested in Méliès’ whimsical stories. The French army confiscated many of Méliès’ film reels and melted them down to extract the silver and celluloid within them. Georges Méliès was forced to shutter his film company. He sold everything he could and burned the rest. With what little money he had left, he opened a toy shop in the Montparnasse train station in Paris. 

In 1924, journalist Georges-Michel Coissac tracked down Méliès for an article about the early days of cinema in the magazine Ciné-Journal. The article sparked renewed Interest in Georges Méliès’ films. He is now regarded as the father of cinema. His life had recently been adapted into a book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, written by Brian Selznick in 2007. The book had been picked up by Martin Scorsese, the Academy Award–winning filmmaker who filmed Hugo in 2011, based off of the book. 

Since Georges Méliès’ time, film, movies, and television programs have shaped our culture and consciousnesses in dramatic ways, shaping our views of the world and our values. Many of the stories, messages, or news we hear though, have many people behind the scenes producing this miracle for the mind. These people we do not see are creating ever more elaborate special effects that can further bend and hold the attention of our minds. When we know the secrets to the magician’s tricks, we can choose to observe and willfully engage in what we are seeing, not be entranced unwittingly by the magician’s slight-of-hand.