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Finding The Real Melies
"I had a DVD set, of course, of Méliès films, and there's an image of Méliès on the cover,” Scorsese says. "One day on the set, two of the kids in the movie went by, both about 12-years-old. One saw the DVD box and said, ‘Oh, there's Ben (Kingsley),' I responded, ‘No, that's really Méliès.' ‘You mean he existed, he's real?' I said, ‘Oh, yes.'"

Georges Méliès was not the first to make films—that honor belongs to two brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumière, who invented ‘moving pictures' in 1895 and went on to make hundreds of films, mostly documenting ‘real-life' events (e.g., one of their first, "L'Arrivée d'un train á La Ciotat,” had early cinemagoers literally jumping out of their seats as a huge steam engine raced through the frame). The story goes that the brothers, however, believed this new pastime to be literally a passing fancy.

Georges Méliès thought otherwise. Eschewing the family business of shoemaking, Méliès sold the factory and took the proceeds to fund the beginning of his chosen profession—magic. He purchased a theater (formerly owned by his mentor, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, the magician who inspired the young Ehrich Weiss to change his name to Harry Houdini) and began performing.

He saw his first moving picture when he was 34 and to him, this new art form held great promise…for magic. He constructed his own cameras and projectors, with the help of R.W. Paul, oftentimes repurposing parts from a collection of automatons Robert-Houdin had left behind. His earliest films re-created his stage performances. However, he soon began to experiment with storytelling and editing techniques, giving rise to some of the earliest cinematic ‘special effects,' including stop motion, time-lapse photography, multiple exposures and dissolves and hand-painted colors. He later sold his theater and built his studio, with a stage entirely of glass (to best utilize all available light) at its heart.

"What's amazing about Méliès,” offers Scorsese, "is that he explored and invented pretty much everything that we're doing now. It is in a direct line, all the way, from the sci-fi and fantasy films of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, up to the work of Harryhausen, Spielberg, Lucas, James Cameron. It's all there. Méliès did what we do now with computer, green screen and digital, only he did it in his camera at his studio.”

His ‘masterpiece,' the 14-minute "Le voyage dans la lune” ("A Trip to the Moon”), was filmed in 1902. He went on to write, direct, act in, produce and design more than 500 films by 1914, with subjects ranging from ‘reality' (re-creations of current events) to fantasy/sci-fi (from "Kingdom of the Fairies” to "The Impossible Voyage”), with playing times from one to 40 minutes in length. Méliès is often referred to as the ‘Father of Narrative Filmmaking,' with many crediting him with the birth of the fantasy, science fiction and horror genres.

Because of an unfortunate incident with Thomas Alva Edison (who acquired a print of Méliès' 1896 "The House of Devil,” duplicated and exhibited it in the U.S. with great success…without giving any profits to Méliès), the filmmaker began to film two prints simultaneously, one for European and one for American exhibition. Recently, a film historian combined both prints of "The Infernal Cake Walk” and found the resulting image to be a crude precursor to 3D cinema.

Advances in the art of cinema later left Méliès behind, and with the outbreak of World War I, he saw his appeal waning. He eventually abandoned his studio, burned his costumes and sets, and sold the copies of his films to be melted down for chemical use.

To support himself, his second wife and his granddaughter, Méliès worked in a confectionary and toy booth seven days a week at one of Paris' central train stations, Gare Montparnasse, in the 1920s. He remained largely forgotten until the artistic community of French Surrealists ‘discovered' his work, connecting with his dreamlike vision. Renewed interest led to a gala in Paris, with Méliès front and center, screening many of his works. He was even working on a new film, "The Ghosts of the Metro,” when he died in 1938.

Scorsese remarks, "When I first read the book, I didn't realize that the older gentleman in the toy store was going to turn out to be Georges Méliès. It's a true story. He was broke, and did wind up in a toy store at the Gare Montparnasse for 16 years.”

Ben Kingsley explains, "The fictionalizing is discreet in our film. It was believed by many that Georges died around about the time of the First World War, but he actually isolated himself in his shop. It's been re-created, wonderfully, from photographs and from people who were close to him. The nudge of history is delicate and charming.”

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