Visual Culture and Early Films

A Trip to the Moon, 1902, dir. Georges Méliès

The history of films has gone a long way. Long before they were invented, the tools and technology underwent many experiments. There were some visual experiences that ancient people discovered while playing with light. When they waved a burning charcoal, they saw the fire turn to a fire belt. This was the earliest phenomenon that people found in the persistence of vision. However, it was not until recent times that this visual experience was found to be related to the invention of films.

One of the origins of movies inherits from screen practice in the late 18th century when the general public already had the knowledge of mechanics. Some of the illusion tricks, also known as dissolving views, had a surge of popularity during later times. Two of the most well-known tricks are thaumatrope (1824) and phenakistoscope (1833). Thaumatrope is when a string-attached card consists of images on both sides. The images are blended when the strings are twirled quickly. In Sleepy Hollow (1999), a horror film based on a story in New York City in 1799, a bird and cage thaumatrope is demonstrated by the characters. In this story, it also implied that freedom and captivity are separate. On the other hand, phenakistoscope is a round board with continuous human figures painted on it. Every figure has a slight difference in its posture which creates a fluent illusion of motion while being rolled.

Dissolving from winter to spring, day to night were typical examples. <British photographic hand tinted magic lantern slides, 19th century, Photoshop edited>

These dissolving views became more natural and popular later. With the invention of the Zoetrope and magic lantern, people shared more dynamic visual experiences. In terms of the magic lantern, phantasmagoria is a form of using it, projecting frightening fantasies such as skeletons and ghosts by using mirrors and stage properties. The scene and topic were well connected and became extremely effective among religious and educational uses as the ghosts are just like intangible smoke with a transparent figure. These dissolving images replaced the static images and created a whole new narrative story. The static images look alive as if it is a liberation of time and space.

If it were not for the camera, there would not be films and other creations. A camera provides a reference to real life. The earliest image theory can be traced back to the Renaissance when prominent artist Leonardo da Vinci tried to use pinhole theory to capture the real scenery to make his painting look more vivid. Until the 1830s, time of exposure still required more than 30 minutes. Because of this, it was hard to capture any moving objects like a running man or hopping rabbits. This was not surprising to the public as people still thought of photography as a new way of painting or a chemical way to fix the image in a dark room. As films mean “quick imaging”, the formation of films required improving techniques rather than just projection. The solution was reached in the 1840s when the equipment and photosensitive material were improved, and soon the exposure time was reduced to a few seconds. The methods of continuous shooting finally became possible for film directors and researchers and turned into stop-motion animation. Though it was not the most proficient way of filming, it somehow foretold the form of future films and related techniques.

In the early 20th century, the film industry was still in its stage of infancy. A movie means non-stop filming. If you were a film director in 1895 and you had to film an approaching train, it means you had to film everything from the beginning to the end, without any cuts or editing. Not until the success of montage by Thomas Happer Ince (1880–1924) and David Wark Griffth (1875–1948) did films become totally different. They created the editing skills and camera language, which made the spectacle production of visual experiential practice a transition of forms and techniques. The film history was changed, from transforming scenes with different shots and cuts, all the way to the cinema of narrative integration. Under the thread, French filmmaker Georges Méliès(1861–1938), who created treacherous fantasy by using special effects of cameras, became undoubtedly one of the most important leaders of visual art in the pre-cinema era.

Although the special effects were limited during the time, Georges Méliès inspired and contributed to the entire film industry with his invention. He integrated his passion for magic with his life as a director, turning the theatrical performance into something different. As a former magician, Méliès knew how important the stage setting was, as well as the symbols it represented. While the theater requires precise calculations, blocking, which is the precise staging of actors, and mechanical operation, the tricks used in a film were much less. They are merely a superimposed display with a black cloth to create the illusion. However, a great mise-en-scene relies on skilled manipulation.

The uses of illusion were assembled in the film A Trip to the Moon (1902), which tells a story where scientists invented a rocket to travel to the moon and come back safely. The method that Méliès used is called tableaux, which later became the norm for French cinema. By changing the scene and actors on a frame which combined static backgrounds and mobile characters and with careful frame matching, Méliès used substitution splice in order to create a narrative with two separately staged shots. Examined from this viewpoint, stop motion became a form of editing in Méliès’s practice. He was expert in the scheduling of actors and objects on scene exceedingly by incorporating simple transition in the sequence. He also created fade-in and fade-out effects by covering the lens for one shot, then uncovering slowly for the rewound subsequent exposure of the film of another shot in the film. After the scientists launched the rocket to the painted moon, a man’s face appeared gradually and turned fierce and distorted while it was being hit by the rocket. This dissolving method was made by multiple exposures so that the audience will feel they are the moon itself. Furthermore, this method represents the shift in perspective as the adventures pass from Earth to space, creating an illusion of transporting and heading toward the moon. Within the mature control of different tricks, Méliès well combined the visual effects and specific narratives.

The film Méliès created was abnormal. By using fantastic dreams, magic explosion, bizarre and eccentric trips with characters bouncing around, Méliès shared his fancy and gimmicky dreams with the audience. Unlike other film directors, he didn’t just record everyday events and then add personal meaning to it, neither was he just producing a way of telling stories. Rather, he set up the scene with intuitional symbols, handmade devices, and props. His creativity was more like demonstrating a series of the landscape to the audience and the unique methods he used founded the new form of cinema, which later became the norm of it. In Méliès’s creation, new illusions are more than just an eye-catching moment. Films became a much more dazzling new magic because, in the manipulation of multiple exposures of objects, time-lapse and stop-motion, all kinds of stage magic transformed into superposed possibility. The visual effects he created transcend culture and language barriers, making performance into something that most people can resonance and appreciation.

Movie clip related to A Trip to the Moon. <The Magic of Hugo, 2012>

Till this day, the vision that Méliès created still persists in the audience’s mind. People often recall several illustrated scenes of his films even till recent years, as well as getting inspired by its humorous form. The form also stimulates many producers and movies, like The Magic of Hugo in 2012. The new technology was used to reproduce the illusion of Méliès, bringing the viewers back to the end-of-the-century illusion.

The transition between theater and films experienced changes technically and visually. As a mixed visual practice, Méliès’s creation reflects the time when technique, photography, and films integrate. Viewers’ reactions inevitably decide the path of the films. Hence, the commercial reality, aesthetic principles and technical innovation are the main factors in the film industry. Every generation should consider how vital the pioneers are for they are the ones who pushed the form into new, unprecedented realms.