Georges Méliès, born Marie-George-Jean Méliès (hey—he was French—what do you expect???) contributed more to film-making as an art than anyone who came after him. It was he who introduced using film as a catapult for the imagination, not just a drawing board to mimic reality. Sadly, not many people today recognize this and like many great minds of the past, he is forgotten. In an attempt to help more understand his true genius, one must understand who he was and where he came from.
Born in Paris on December 8, 1861, Georges Méliès did not grow up with a yearning to work in the cinema. In fact, the cinema wasn't even invented yet. He did, however, show an interest in the arts, especially magic, puppetry and stage design. But his parents wanted to him to hold an understanding of the English language before taking over his father's shoe business, so he continued his schooling in London. After his father's retirement, Méliès returned to Paris to run the family business. This came at a opportune time because he was then able to raise enough money to buy the famous Théâtre Robert-Houdin which was put up for sale in 1888.
In the Robert-Houdin, Méliès would put on shows featuring magic tricks and illusions, some he had learned while in London, some coming from his own imagination. By this time, cinema had become a reality. In 1895, he uses others' designs (particularly the Lumière brothers') to build his own projector called the "Kinetograph." Consequently, in 1896, he made his first film, which he shows to an appreciative audience at the Robert-Houdin. Méliès' early films consist mostly of the main movie-making objective of that time—scenery.
The event that turned Méliès' career around, and perhaps movie-making as a whole occurred later that year. As he was shooting a street scene for one of his movies, his camera jammed. He took a few seconds to fix it and was amazed to find out, upon development, the delay had
caused men to turn into to women, and most intriguing to Méliès, a carriage to turn into a hearse. Thus the trick stop was created. This technique abuses the time-space reality of a film so that what you see and what is really true are two completely different things. Had it not been for this chance occurrence, special effects may have never been created. This would obviously prove tragic for such films as Godzilla and The Lost World because without special effects, there would be no reason to see them. Méliès used the aforementioned trick stop effect to evolve into many other complex cinematic tricks. These included double-exposure, split screen, and scene dissolving. Other than being a pioneer in special effects, he also helped to introduce new aspects to the theatre such as drama, advertising and screen nudity (a very controversial subject at that time).
Although extensively talented and creative, things did not go too well for Méliès. People begin to think of Méliès' films as nothing more than novelty and his competitors began to rip him off. These and other outside factors forced him to quit the movie industry in 1913. His wife died the same year. Shortly after, in 1915, he reduced his studio back into a variety theatre. Eventually, even the theatre was destroyed and Méliès become bankrupt.
Méliès' life did have a happy ending, though. In 1926, Georges ran into one of his early screen stars, Jeanne d'Alcy. They soon fell in love in got married. Also, in the late twenties, the French people came to respect his work and he was awarded the Légion d'honneur by his greatest contemporary peer, Louis Lumière. As a plus he was also given a rent-free apartment in Paris for the rest of his life. He died at age 77 on January 21, 1938.