A Trip to the Moon / Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902)

[First Published 8 October 2008; Updated 12 February 2009; 10 June 2010; 24 February 2012; 27 March 2012]

a_trip_to_the_moon_poster[I’ve been adding to this post occasionally since I first published it on 8th October 2008. I tagged it as a work in progress, but now that I’ve commented a little on every shot, I thought I’d publish the updates (it has more than doubled in length since it first appeared) and declare it (almost) finished. I will continue to update it every once in a while, but I hope you find it interesting and informative in its present form. I still invite comments or further information from anyone who’d like to add to the essay, or who has links or bibliographic references to recommend.]

For the benefit of anyone who is studying this film or just fascinated by it, I’m going to attempt a shot-by-shot commentary on Georges MélièsA Trip to the Moon, released in France on 1st September 1902. It might start out rudimentary and descriptive, but as I add to and re-edit it from time to time it will be embellished with notes garnered from further reading and visitors’ commentaries (feel free to add your observations at the bottom of this post), to see if we can gather together some useful critical annotations for each shot of the film. I’ve included lots of links, some of which expand upon a key point, while others offer a surprising but interesting digression, I hope.

Click here to read my analysis of the film…

The Films of Georges Méliès

[This is a guest post by one of my undergraduate students, Joe Hickinbottom. The assignment was to produce a set of notes for an imaginary programme of short films, connecting them by theme, artist or aesthetic. To be provided as a handout which is to be read prior to the viewing of the selected films. See more student work here.]

  • Une Partie de Cartes / Playing Cards (1896)
  • L’Auberge Ensorcelée / The Bewitched Inn (1897)
  • La Lune à un Mètre / The Astronomer’s Dream (1898)
  • L’Affaire Dreyfus / The Dreyfus Affair (1899) – selected sequences
  • Le Voyage dans la Lune / A Trip to the Moon (1902)

Fig. 1

Born in 1861, French film-maker Georges Méliès displayed an active curiosity in the arts from an early age, so much so that his particular interest in puppetry and stage design gained him a place at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His parents’ desire for him to learn English led him to London where, after attending the shows of John Nevil Maskelyne and George Alfred Cooke in the famous Egyptian Hall (Figure 1), he became fascinated by stage conjury. Returning to Paris, Méliès purchased the Théâtre Robert-Houdin. Here, he worked as a theatrical entertainer, integrating the magic and illusionist skills he studied in England into his performances, alongside the development of his own tricks. When Méliès witnessed the first demonstration of the Lumière brothers’ Cinématographe – a camera, printer and projector in one – he immediately proposed that he buy the machine, but the brothers refused. Nevertheless, his drive to explore moving pictures guided him towards electrical engineer Robert W. Paul who sold Méliès one of his projectors. Méliès subsequently started to construct his own camera and, on completion, he held his first film screening in April 1896.


Fig. 2

Initially Méliès exhibited the films of other artists, most of which were produced for the Kinetoscope, patented by American inventor Thomas Edison. Yet, months later, Méliès shot his first ever movie, Une partie de cartes / Playing Cards (1896), using a single reel of film lasting approximately 1 minute. In the film we see a group of men, outside, casually playing cards and enjoying each other’s amusing company whilst drinks are brought to them by a waitress (Figure 2). A direct duplication of the 1895 Lumière film of the same name, Une partie de cartes is somewhat different to much of Méliès’ ensuing work in that it is an actualité (or ‘actuality’) piece, apparently recording factual everyday events as they occur. Méliès’ competent sense for camera positioning and shot composition, however, are clearly evident here, making full use of the frame in the array of actions carried out within it. His central role as an actor would be the first of many dramatic performances in his own films, maintaining the status as a showman which he very much enjoyed in the theatre.



Fig. 3

During the shooting of another actuality in 1896, Méliès made a discovery that would strongly inform his films from thereon. When his camera momentarily jammed, the processed film showed the effect of objects suddenly appearing, disappearing and transforming. Realising that the camera possessed this ability to manipulate time and space, Méliès proceeded to build his own studio where he could create his ambitiously spectacular and magical moving images. In 1897’s L’auberge ensorcelée / The Bewitched Inn, we can observe Méliès’ complexly arranged combination of camera trickery, pre-prepared props and staged illusions. He brings to life the inn guest’s hat and clothes through the use of wires; makes various items of furniture vanish and materialise elsewhere by means of jump-cuts; and causes a candle to sporadically explode when the wick is lit by the guest, again played by Méliès (Figure 3). L’Auberge ensorcelée illustrates a distinct progression in Méliès’ work towards a more intricate and multifaceted approach to film-making, incorporating conjury and camera effects in a manner that transcended the marvels available to see on the stage.



Fig. 4

As technical and mechanical advances were being made Méliès took advantage of the opportunities offered by the new equipment, introducing more sophisticated visual and narrative elements into his films. Longer reels allowed the assembling of a number of shots, or ‘scenes’, to construct a continuous story to act as a vehicle for his spectacles. Predating Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 movie The Great Train Robbery (often hailed as the first complete film narrative) by some years, La lune à un mètre / The Astronomer’s Dream (1898) saw Méliès produce a film three times longer than most of his earlier shorts. Here, Méliès’ recurring theme of dreams proves fertile ground for his deep-seated interest in the phantasmagorical, playing host to a devil, a celestial fairy and a gorging moon, amongst others (Figure 4). The hand-painted backdrops and décors provide distorted perspectives and depth-of-field, establishing an aesthetic of fantasy within which the astronomer’s ordeal unfolds. In this sense, and considering the advanced use of props, La lune à un mètre could be regarded as an elaboration on the earlier Le cauchemar / A Nightmare (1896), yet also as a precursor to the longer and more complicated tales Méliès would later deliver.



Fig. 5

A common misconception is that Méliès dealt mostly with fantasies and fairytales. Throughout his career he made films of a diverse variety including topical satires, historical re-tellings, science fictions, literary adaptations and dramatised actualities. His 1899 mini-epic L’affaire Dreyfus / The Dreyfus Affair attempted to accurately re-enact (albeit dramatically), the political event of the seemingly false imprisonment of French Army captain Alfred Dreyfus. Running at 13 minutes, L’affaire Dreyfus tells its story across eleven individual films designed to be shown in sequence. Whilst we notice Méliès’ typical use of painted backdrops, the more realistic and faithfully representative perspectives offer here an authentic aesthetic (Figure 5). This, augmented by the more naturalistic performances of his actors, aided Méliès in conveying his own views, portraying the captain as a tragic character. The film caused so much controversy that it was banned by the French government and is thus acknowledged as one of the first instances of political censorship, debunking the notion that Méliès was simply a director of much-loved child-like fantasy films.



Fig. 6

Notwithstanding this, Méliès is most remembered by audiences for his spectacular science fiction pieces. Le voyage dans la lune / A Trip to the Moon (1902), displays the culmination of years of developing magic tricks, set design, mechanical props, and stop-motion, multiple exposure and dissolve techniques. The fragmented yet generally coherent narrative is acted out on an immense scale; the fantastical voyage making full use of Méliès’ skills. We watch as a rocket is propelled into the moon’s eye, as strange monsters dance playfully, and as vast landscapes appear to engulf the travelers (Figure 6). Up until his retirement in 1913, Méliès continued to produce such fantasies in addition to various trick films, dramas and even a Western. Although many of Méliès’ 500 or so films have been lost, his innovations as a magician, photographer, performer and film-maker can still be deeply recognised in those that survive. Working during a time when the camera was thought of predominantly as a device for capturing real life and projecting it back to the audience, Georges Méliès pioneered an entirely new realm of cinema, exploring the hidden capacities of the camera and the opportunities of spectacle held therein.


© Joe Hickinbottom 2009

Works cited:

  • Brooke, M., [n.d.], ‘George Méliès: An In-depth Look at the Cinema’s First Creative Genius’, FilmJournal.net [16 October 2009]
  • Early Cinema, [n.d.], ‘Pioneers: Georges Méliès’ [16 October 2009]
  • Ezra, E., 2000, Georges Méliès: The Birth of the Auteur, Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 1-49
  • Herbert, S. & McKernan, L. (eds.), Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema: A Worldwide Survey, London: British Film Institute Publishing
  • Joyce, S., [n.d.], ‘A Trip to the Moon: Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Other Influences’ [18 November 2009]
  • The Missing Link, [n.d.], ‘Méliès: Inspirations & Illusions’ [16 October 2009]
  • Richard, S., 1991, ‘A Beginner’s Guide to the Art of Georges Méliès’, in Usai, P. (ed.), Lo Schermo Incantato: Georges Méliès (1861-1938), Gemona: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto / International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House / Edizioni Biblioteca dell’Immagine, pp. 39-55
  • Roland, C., 1991, ‘Georges Méliès as L’Inescamotable Escamoteur: A Study in Recognition’, in Usai, P. (ed.), Lo Schermo Incantato: Georges Méliès (1861-1938), Gemona: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto / International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House / Edizioni Biblioteca dell’Immagine, pp. 57-111

Georges Méliès: A Magician at Work

[This is a guest post by one of my undergraduate students, Izabella Curry. The assignment was to produce a set of notes for an imaginary programme of short films, connecting them by theme, artist or aesthetic. See more student work here.]

Georges Méliès, performer turned filmmaker, is renowned for his love of magic and the development of many innovative special effects. Although many of his films reflect this passion for theatre magic, Méliès himself is quoted as saying that filmmaking and theater “…are totally different processes”. One of his most noted discoveries was substitution splicing, which he famously discovered whilst shooting a street scene when his camera jammed causing one object to transform to another. He used this technique to create films depicting magic shows, generating ‘tricks’ not through the magician’s slight of hand or specially designed apparatus but through the editing. The Vanishing Lady (1896) is the first evidence of Méliès’s use of this effect, which quickly became a common trait of his films.

The Vanishing Lady depicts a magic show shot from a single camera position from the perspective of an audience member. As with many of Méliès’s films, in contrast to modern day films, gestures are made towards the audiences. The pair bow, both at the beginning and the end of the film, and the magician makes gestures to the ‘magic’ as if presenting it to the imaginary audience. This acknowledgement of an audience paired with the film’s French title that references the Theatre Robert-Houdin indicates Méliès previous profession on the stage. The overt awareness of the audience works with the theme of the film as a show, therefore the presumption that it is performed to somebody. However, the use of gestures and addressing of the camera’s presence is common in most of Méliès work, including the more narrative-centered texts, which to a modern audience is surprising. This film is also a precursor to Méliès’s seeming fascination with the female gender. The presence of women in his films can be read in two ways: firstly to exhibit his power over women via the use of them as the subject of the magic; secondly, it could be read as a sexual frustration, such as in A Nightmare when a woman appears on the end of his bed. He tries to grab her and she is transformed into a man. This is also present in The Astronomer’s Dream, in which a lady lies provocatively on the crescent of the moon as the astronomer tries to reach her. Still, as seems to be the case with most of Méliès’s films, it is the special effects that are the main attraction. Although the film seems to be captured in one take there are in fact four breaks where the shots have been spliced together to create the disappearance and appearance of both the lady and the skeleton.

This said, although in the context of the period this technique is exceptional, the film itself is in fact one of many magic displays he made using film during his career. More original perhaps is what is believed to be the first film adaptation of the classic fairytale Cinderella (1899). Once again Méliès has been credited with another film technique milestone, the dissolve. Cinderella seems more narrative-based and its three dissolves allow a smooth scene transition signaling the next part of the story. However, although the film clearly tells a story, it is often asked if Méliès valued the narrative or if the plot was just a vehicle for the special effects. Ezra talks about the non-diegetic inserts as features of the ‘cinema of attractions’. She states that there are three in Méliès’s films: the character bow, as seen in The Vanishing Lady, the dance sequence and the spectacular tableau, both of which feature heavily in Cinderella. They are moments not necessary for the narrative, but rather guilty pleasures for the eye.

For example, in Cinderella there is a dance number by Old Father Time and a chorus of girls who transform back and forth between human and clock [see video above]. I guess it could be argued that this enhances the fantastical theme of the film; nonetheless, it is clear that these prolonged dance sequences are an opportunity for the demonstration of Méliès’s film techniques.


Cinderella, however, is not the only one of Méliès’s films whose plot is centered on fantasy. His films have recurrent themes of dreams, mystical characters and, predictably, magic. His film A Nightmare (1896) and his later, longer and more elaborate version The Astronomer’s Dream (1898) both depict a dream. Similar techniques are used to those in The Vanishing Lady (what looks like the same painted backdrop is used). However, in A Nightmare Méliès also uses substitution splicing for the backdrop as well as the characters, depicting the main character being carried by his dream into another world entirely.  A Nightmare is the oldest example of “Méliès’s Lunar Fantasies” which are a recurring theme in his later films such as A Trip to the Moon (1902). Cinema has since continued to be obsessed with the ‘moon movie’ both in the science fiction and fantasy genre, and it seems like once again we owe this to George Méliès’s humorous depiction of the man in the moon. However, in both The Nightmare and The Astronomer’s Dream the moon is depicted as a more menacing character than in A Trip to the Moon. It begins as part of the background, and through splicing Méliès creates the effect of it growing as it comes closer resulting in the moon consuming most of the shot. Although he seems to attempt to portray the moon as an ominous figure with a large mouth and what seem like an appetite for humans, the oversized mechanical props used in both films give it a comical edge.  The Astronomer’s Dream also uses enlarged props to aid the narrative, to ensure the audience notice everything within the mise-en- scene.

Méliès used complex mise-en-scene to create these imaginary worlds, all within the restricted area possible to capture the shot. This is also evident in Cinderella when the ball scene is almost amusing, as the party guests struggle to take baby-steps during the dance to remain within the frame. So it seems that Méliès not only pioneered many essential techniques in film but he did this all within the restriction of the basic technology present at the time. He was a playful yet innovative filmmaker who used his knowledge of theatre magic to create real magic on screen.

© Izabella Curry, 2009.


Works Cited

  • Bordwell, David, 1997. ‘The power of Mise-en-scene’ in Film Art, an Introduction. [e.d.] Thompson, Kristin. International Edition, McGraw Hill, pp. 171, 172
  • Cosandey , Roland,1992. ‘George Méliès as L’Inescamotable Escamoteur’ in Positif, Issues 317-377. Nouvelles editions Opta.
  • Ezra, Elizabeth, 2000. George Méliès: The Birth of the Auteur. Manchester: Manchester University Press
  • Fischer, Lucy, 1979. ‘The Lady Vanishes: Women, Magic and the Movies’ in Film Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 1. University of California Press pp. 30-40.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Hugo Cabret

The story I am about to share with you takes place in 1931, under the roofs of Paris. Here you will meet a boy named Hugo Cabret, who once, long ago, discovered a mysterious drawing that changed his life forever. But before you turn the page, I want you to picture yourself sitting in the darkness, like the beginning of a film. On screen, the sun will soon rise, and you will find yourself zooming toward a train station in the middle of the city. You will rush through the doors into a crowded lobby. You will eventually spot a boy amid the crowd, and he will start to move through the train station. Follow him, because this is Hugo Cabret. His head is full of secrets, and he’s waiting for his story to begin.

Brian Selznick (yes, he’s related to David O., who was his grandfather’s first cousin) has written and drawn a very beautiful book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. There are words, too, but it is most effective in sequences that move through space and time in a series of quasi-cinematic “shots”, all precisely etched in crumbly pencil. You almost want to try and blow the lead dust off its pages. I’d like to show you some pictures from it, but I can’t get it into my scanner without cracking the spine, and I’m rather prissy when it comes to my books (is it just me? Don’t you just hate it when you lend someone a book and it comes back creased, dog-eared and decorated with coffee circles?). So, I’ve borrowed some images from elsewhere, and you can watch a slideshow of the book’s opening section here. Hugo Cabret lives in Montparnasse railway station, hiding out from the sinister station master. His father, a clockmaker, has died in a fire, and Hugo is obsessed with fixing the writing automaton his father left behind, convinced that when its mechanism is complete, it will write him a message that his been hidden for years. He has a run-in with the old man who runs a toy stall at the station, and the connections between them all are slowly revealed.

Various pages from The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Various pages from The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Georges Melies selling toysI don’t know if this counts as a spoiler, because it’s the key selling point of the book for me, and it’s the reason I’m posting about it in this blog (but please skip the rest of this post if you don’t want to know any of the book’s secrets), but it turns out that the old man is French early film pioneer and magician Georges Méliès, whose films have received a fair amount of attention on this blog. As a result, the film makes glancing connections with actual history, and treats Méliès’ films as glorious lost objects, precisely as they must seem to children today.  The brilliant director really did end up selling toys in a kiosk at a Paris train station. There are stories that the magician had built an automaton that could write, but no proof of this survives today, and there is no photographic evidence (as ever, I would be very happy to be corrected at any time on this).


Variety announced last year that Chris Wedge (Ice Age, Robots) was going to direct a film adaptation of Hugo Cabret written by John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator), though things seem to have gone a bit quiet. If it does get off the ground, does anyone have casting suggestions for a Méliès? Personally, I think there’s one very obvious choice so perhaps I should ask if anyone has a better idea than Jean Rochefort? Actually, Rochefort has already played  Méliès on the concept album La Mécanique du Coeur, by French band Dionysus, based on the book by lead singer Mathias Malzieu. Luc Besson has optioned it, so we might be looking at two Méliès movies in a short space of time.

Plenty of magicians, including John Nevil Maskelyne, whose whist-playing android “Psycho” is still on display at the Museum of London (though the galleries will be shut until next year, sadly) and Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, displayed trick automata in their acts. That is, the machines couldn’t really perform the feats of which they were reputed to be capable – they were moved by hidden operators or wires.


Selznick has said that he was inspired by Gaby Wood’s book on automata, Edison’s Eve, published in the UK under the title Living Dolls. That’s another interest we share in common. I’ve been a fan of moving mechanical figures for a long time, and I’ve sometimes speculated that automata might be one of the missing pieces of the historical puzzle of proto-cinematic media. I wouldn’t want to force the comparison, but automata share the same facet for recorded movements, the capturing of performance and the uncanny endowment of inanimate objects with signs of life. A couple of years ago I was travelling in Europe, and one of my most memorable stops was at the museum of art and history in Neuchatel, Switzerland. On the first Sunday of every month, you can watch a demonstration of the Jacquet-Droz androids. Here are some pictures I took:


Sorry about the focus. It was very low light (the dolls, I was told, were very shy and didn’t like flash – i.e. they’re almost two and a half centuries old and a bit fragile). The doll on the right in the background is a writer. He dips his quill in a pot of ink and writes in a beautiful script on the card in front of him. The draughtsman in the foreground can draw a small repertoire of pictures in pencil. On that day, he was drawing a portrait of Louis XV. I managed to get my hands on their handiwork. I still have the cards on my desk. Here are some more pics. Click on them to see the remarkable detail:

jacquet-droz-writing louis-xv

You can see the full set of pictures at my Flickr page, or watch the slideshow below (I’m testing out Vodpod for the first time, so let me know if it doesn’t work properly):

Vodpod videos no longer available.

But for something extra special, here’s a video I made (sorry, just on my little camera, no professional equipment) of Marianne, the Jacquet-Droz harmonium player.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Notice that after she’s played her tune, she takes a bow, and if you look very closely, you can see her breathing. I can’t be the only one who suspects that she must have been the inspiration for Hoffman’s living doll Olympia in The Sandman.

The story of Hugo Cabret hinges, like so many stories, particularly those aimed at children, on a secret object with magical powers (the automaton’s drawing abilities are beyond anything that has ever been built) passed on from father to son, and as such creates a compelling subtext about the way we remember things over long stretches of time, and the machines we use to help us do it. Melies’ films memorialise a certain period in time, but they also transform it, like dreamy misremembrances of how things might have been. If this book can introduce young people to the actual wonders of Melies’ films, it will have done a valuable service already, but it can also remind adults of the beauty of filmic bodies, with their ability to disappear, rocket to the moon and fall back again, or multiply indefinitely. The automaton might be a previsualisation of the malleable cinematic body, one which can carry messages through the decades across several lifetimes, replaying the same performances for audiences separated by centuries. A living doll like Marianne exudes an eerie presence, a feeling that she has been a imperious and imperishable witness to history.


Review at NPR, with Selznick reading an extract.

The Last Trick (Jan Švankmajer, 1964)

Jan Svankmajer's The Last Trick

Two magicians take the stage, seated side by side against an all-black backdrop. Each insists with a raised hat and a hand gesture that the other should perform first. Each wags a finger in refusal. The exchange has all the signs and mimes of polite cordiality, but the stiff movements suggest that these are insincere formalities. Finally, one of them, Mr Edgar, agrees to perform his first trick. Removing his hat, he reaches into it and pulls out a large fish.

vlcsnap-15927 Jan Svankmajer's The Last Trick

Raising a lid on his own skull, Mr Edgar tosses the fish inside and turns a crank in his ear, until the bare skeleton of the fish can be plucked out again, having been digested by the gears and cogs inside the magician’s cranium. He rubs his tummy to indicate a good meal has been had, though his face betrays no signals of enjoyment. In Svankmajer’s films, eating is a symbolic ritual whereby bodies process other symbols and exhaust them. Mr Edgar’s rival, Mr Schwarzwald, applauds the trick and steps up to perform his own. He strings up a tightrope between two chairs and takes a violin from out of his hollow head. Mr Edgar fills his ears with cotton wool to guard against the music. To the violin’s tune, an assemblage of objects leaps from Mr Schwarzwald’s hat and forms into a dancing horse.

Jan Svankmajer's The Last Trick

For his next trick, Mr Edgar pulls two violins out of his head and, sprouting extra arms, transforms himself into a one-man-band of drums, brass and woodwind.

Jan Svankmajer's The Last Trick

Mr Schwarzwald is keen to congratulate his fellow performer, but the handshake he delivers is ferocious in its finger-crushing force. He continues the theme of self-replication by juggling with multiples of his own head, and then it is Mr Edgar’s turn to administer an exhausting handshake to show his admiration for this magical feat.

Jan Svankmajer's The Last Trick

His third trick sees him training the chairs to dance, tumble and jump through a hoop. Once this is concluded, Mr Edgar evades Mr Schwarzwald’s handshake for as long as possible, but finally he is caught, and the gesture of congratulation is powerful enough to tear his arm from its torso. Mr Edgar responds by punching his rival’s head off. The fight continues with a flurry of dismembering violence until only the two arms remain, locked together in a grim handshake. Communication has broken down until the hands are revealed as the drivers of this interplay – the heads have been shown to be empty of brains and agency – they are mere recepticles for the apparatus of spectacle, while the hands are the indexes of meaning and attitude with their gestural language.

Jan Svankmajer's The Last Trick

As I embark upon a period of research into the work of Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer (as part of a larger project on puppetry and cinema), this short film is my starting point, and it reveals to me the challenges that lie ahead. Often we have to look carefully at films to come to terms with their idiosyncrasies, but Švankmajer’s work is particularly daunting in its concentration of allegory and allusion. I’m hoping that my research will be able to supplement my initial response to the film with a broader frame of critical, historical and political reference, but these are my first thoughts on The Last Trick, his first film as director. For eleven minutes, two magicians do battle, and their tricks require a montage of colliding images and a range of animation techniques: the two actors wear giant masks on their heads, probably papier-mâché, making them look like living, stringless marionettes, and Švankmajer manipulates them accordingly. He persistently blurs states of being by using these half-puppets that unsettle us by refusing to act as either one thing or another. The black backdrop allows a bunraku performance of sorts, with objects appearing to fly and float unaided through space; frame-by-frame animation moves the eyes of the masks; a shot of pixilation makes their bodies flit around the stage in a lightning fast chase. These are endlessly mutable bodies, but there is none of the joyous spectacle of Melies’ filmed tricks here – the artifice is always signposted, never seamlessly suggestive, and the stolid expressions on the masked faces convey no fun, only procedure and routine.

Jan Svankmajer's The Last Trick

Combative communication and variegated violence will recur in Dimensions of Dialogue and Virile Games amongst others (I’ll blog about these at a later date, I hope), piling up a snowballing rush of physical destruction. A number of the short films construct these repetitive, mechanical situations that continue until the mechanism breaks down, as if the film itself is wearing out its own structural circuit. While the puppethood of the characters in The Last Trick blocks the verisimilitude of the violence, it urges allegorical readings: puppets are what we use to stand in for or embody a particular theme, ideology or emotion when a human performer might pollute it with specifity and invidiuality. The “story” element of duelling magicians jealously escalating their competitive spectacles might be a premonitory tale of art spoiled by human partiality or commercial pressures (the winner will be he who compromises himself the most, sacrificing his body and soul for the audience’s delectation), or it might be a snapshot of how the most ferociously fought battles are internecine struggles rather than those between competing ideologies, a drama about the impossibility of compromise, of selfless dialogue. In any case, Švankmajer invests his objects with a powerful thingness: extreme close-ups serve not to reveal emotion or intent, as they might do with human actors, but the physical textures of the objects on display. I want to know why this is the case. What are the specific ways in which objects and specificially puppets, which are both performers and objects, function in Švankmajer’s films? I have a feeling that a detailed answer to this question might help me to model an analytical framework for puppetry more generally across many and varied film texts. Hopefully, I’ll be able to pool some of my notes and findings here as I go along.

Additional Observations:

  • svankmajerI should note that, for all my Švankmajeric needs, I’m working from the British Film Institute‘s fabulous DVD collection, Jan Švankmajer: The Complete Short Films. Hats off to the BFI: they’ve really raised their game in the past few years and fully embraced the potential of DVD. This 3-disc set compiles all of the director’s short films (the clue is in the title) and wraps them up with three hours of extra stuff, including “a bonus short, Johanes Doktor Faust (1958); the original 54-minute version of The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984) with a brand new introduction by the Quay Brothers; the French documentary Les Chimres des Svankmajer (2001); interviews with Jan and Eva Svankmajer and examples of their work in other media. There’s also a chance to see some Svankmajer special effects, created for commercial Czech features when he was banned from making his own films. The 54-page booklet includes an introduction to Svankmajer by Michael O’Pray; detailed film notes by Michael Brooke, Simon Field, Michael O’Pray, Julian Petley, A.L. Rees and Philip Strick; notes on the extras and much more.”
  • Although he’s not primarily concerned with a continuity style in this or most of his other films, note that Švankmajer uses the chandelier to lodge the film in a coherent space. It is there in many shots,  and although its exact position changes, it is either in the left or the right of the frame to indicate which magician is performing, formalising the adversarial divide between them, and finally in the middle in that shot of the final handshake: at this point it stresses the symmetrical detente of the reluctant, stalemated truce.
  • What are we to make of the beetle that crawls through the film, oblivious to the increasingly pugilistic contest until it is shown dead in the final shot? It can be seen on the magicians’ faces and inside their skulls like a nagging idea, but is apparently a casualty of the limb-tearing showdown. Insects are nature’s automata, machinic little things with rigid bodies and seemingly clockwork gait. But next to the hard-headed puppet conjurors on show in this film, the beetle is the most vivid, enlivened thing on display. Paul Wells calls it “the catalyst by which the interface between man and machine fails”, adding that it serves as “a narrational provocateur by which Svankmajer could reveal the rebellion in the construction of the contemporary body”. I don’t think I can say it any better than that.
  • More from Paul Wells, whose article “Body Consciousness in the Films of Jan Svankmajer” (which you can find in Jayne Pilling’s A Reader in Animation Studies) is a typically lucid summary of how the director uses animation to articulate his sociopolitical theses about the place of the body in constituting the human subject in society: “Svankmajer uses the ritual of performance to suggest a model of difference only to imply that humankind will always fall prey to its own inability to properly reconcile the repeated failings and flaws of its evolutionary sensibility. The two magicians in The Last Trick are metaphors for Svankmajer’s social vision as it is played out through the contradiction inherent in the body as it is simultaneously liberated though art but mechanised by socio-cultural practice. Svankmajer’s quasi-surrealist approach represents the magician as a mechanism which possesses the inherent possibility of failing.”

How Special Effects Work #3: Now that’s magic…

Georges Melies ~ Vanishing Lady

Since I started researching the topic of special effects for my PhD thesis, I’ve been interested in the interactions between stage magic and early cinema. The development of film as a mass cultural medium coincides strikingly with the decline of magic as a popular theatrical form, but magicians were amongst the first to fully exploit the cinematic apparatus as a tool for creating fantastic entertainment. Early film-makers often made records of music hall, vaudeville and carnival performers, perhaps because it made sense to turn the camera on people who were well-versed in the mechanics of addressing an audience and completing an action in an allotted time and on cue (so as not to waste precious film stock!). But it might also be that recordings of stage acts, often with direct gesticulation to the spectator, allowed the viewer to contemplate the distinctions between the recorded performance and the live original. Films such as the Lumière BrothersL’Arrivée d’un Train a la Ciotat (1895), shot outdoors on a railway platform, with a train approaching from the background to the foreground, displayed the camera’s ability to embalm a fraction of time and drag it, pale and quiet into the theatre, providing the marvel of incongruity between the dark enclosure of the theatre and the bright spacious air of these distant locations. The aim was to reconstruct a sense of physical space extending beyond the borders of its two-dimensional canvas. When a magician takes to the stage, there is a promise that integrities of space will be disrupted, either by making something disappear, reappear or transform (whether it be an elephant, a coin, or “your card“). The thrill of seeing a magic trick performed live is reliant devants-egg-trickupon the physical presence of the magician in a solid space, and the sense that, if we try hard enough, we can locate discrepancies in the performance that will reveal how it’s done; even though we know that it’s not really happening,  it is riveting to watch space being twisted: “Where did the card go? It was right there, and now I can’t see it – does it still exist? Did it ever? What kind of world is this where such a … oh, there it is; it was in his other hand all along. Cute.” This dynamic interaction between performer and observer, with the former attempting to divert the latter’s attention from the secret, would seem to be dependent on liveness and presence.

So, what is lost and gained when a magic trick is filmed? How do magic films compensate for the loss of liveness? First of all, there are two types of magic film – the first is when a trick is recorded “whole”, with a fixed camera and no camera tricks. See, for example, David Devant in The Egg-Laying Man, a brief record of one of the Egyptian Hall stalwart’s oldest tricks, plucking a succession of eggs from his own mouth. It’s a bit of sleight of hand, and while it’s clear that Devant is skilfully performing the illusion in real-time, he could easily have re-recorded it if something had gone wrong or if an ill-chosen camera angle had given away the secret at the first take.

buatierdekoltaThe other kind of magic film is that which requires a filmic manipulation in order to effect the illusion. You can see these kinds of effects on profuse display in the films of Georges Méliès (see also my ever-expanding blog post about A Trip to the Moon). One film in particular, L‘Éscamotage d’une Dame chez Robert-Houdin (1896) illustrates so many of Méliès’ trick principles in such a succinct format that I can’t help returning to it again and again, and I like to use to illustrate . In this film, Méliès recreates for the camera one of the staples of his stage show at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin in Paris – the Vanishing Lady, a trick which, in this form, is usually attributed to French illusionist Buatier de Kolta. If you don’t want to know how this trick was done, look away now:

de-kolta-vanishing-lady1. The magician places a newspaper on the floor of the stage.
2. On top of the paper, he puts a chair, and invites his female assistant to sit.
3. He drapes a sheet over the woman, hiding her completely from view.
4. He pulls away the sheet and … she’s gone!
5. He removes the chair and shows off the newspaper, still whole, to prove that nothing has passed through it.

Under the sheet is a wire frame that holds the woman’s shape while she disappears through a trapdoor in the stage – the newspaper is made of rubber, with a slit cut in the middle to allow the woman to pass through without tearing any paper. It’s easy when you know how.


For the film version, Méliès stages the trick in almost exactly the same way – he keeps the newspaper as “proof” that the stage is not gimmicked, but instead of disappearing his assistant through a trap-door, he effects the vanishing through a stop-action substitution. This trick is the cornerstone of Méliès’ special effects work, and I’m sure you’re familiar with how it works: by stopping the camera and re-arranging the scene before recommencing the shooting, the magician could give the impression of a continuous space in which instantaneous transformations occurred.


Actually, these effects were not necessarily done “in-camera” – splice marks on the film tell us that the transitions were finessed with some careful editing to ensure the greatest continuity between the separate actions. These may be amongst the earliest match-cuts, though they are matched not to draw comparisons between two separate spaces, but in order to preserve the integrity of the framespace. Even if spectators don’t notice the substitution that removes the assistant (Jeanne d’Alcy, whom Melies would eventually marry in 1926) from underneath the sheet, the next trick is far more obvious. Striking a pose with arms outstretched above the empty chair (the graphic matches of stop-motion substitutions are easier to effect if figures in the frame hold a posture across the change, but in later films he has refined this to an astonishing level of fluidity, and they are played so fast that they are often difficult to detect), the magician conjures instantaneously a grey skeleton. This is a game with death, life and the absolute control of the representational field offered by the cinematic apparatus, but what is striking here is how Melies has toyed with expectation. He has begun a trick in conventional style, suggesting that this is a simple record of a well-known trick, and then diverged to deliver a bit of conjuration that could only be achieved cinematically.


The aim seems to have been to preserve a sense of continuous space and time – the film is, after all, imitating the conventions of a stage performance (the newspaper, the bows to the audience etc.) – but this act of preservation is, I suggest, primarily so that Méliès can subvert expectations of how that space will act. The rest of Méliès’ trick films will take this principle to extremes, using frenzied repetition to create a markedly unstable filmic space in which any object can transmogrify, disappear or spring into life at any moment. Whatever the Lumière Brothers had done to show how their Cinématographe film camera (you can see one here) could extract fragments of time for the world and grant them a powerful sense of actuality, the use of stop-motion substitutions provided a powerful lesson in how malleable the filmed image really was, which should have been heeded as a sign of its limited status as ineffably objective proof of presence and actuality. This, I believe, is not just an exploratory theme of “primitive” cinema fidgeting with its new powers, but a fundamental facet of special effects, wherein a film-maker will take what you know about cinema and twist it, not so much that it will be incomprehensible, but just enough to play upon your expectations.

See also: How Special Effects Work 1: The Sandman & How Special Effects Work 2: Virtual Actors are on the Way.