Introduces Special Effects Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Distributed nearly worldwide, Georges Méliès’s film A Trip to the Moon introduced audiences to special effects and championed the use of film for entertainment.

Summary of Event

When Georges Méliès showed his latest film, the extravagant science-fiction spectacle Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) to a Parisian audience in August, 1902, cinema was young and in search of an artistic identity. Science fiction;motion pictures The international success of Méliès’s well-designed, entertaining fantasy fare, of which A Trip to the Moon was the best, quickly established audience demand for narrative films. It also made Méliès, the film’s producer, director, actor, and set designer, one of the founding fathers and creative shapers of cinema. Trip to the Moon, A (film) Motion pictures;A Trip to the Moon[Trip to the Moon] Special effects, motion pictures Filmmaking techniques [kw]Trip to the Moon Introduces Special Effects A (Aug., 1902) [kw]Special Effects A, Trip to the Moon Introduces (Aug., 1902) Trip to the Moon, A (film) Motion pictures;A Trip to the Moon[Trip to the Moon] Special effects, motion pictures Filmmaking techniques [g]France;Aug., 1902: A Trip to the Moon Introduces Special Effects[00540] [c]Motion pictures;Aug., 1902: A Trip to the Moon Introduces Special Effects[00540] Méliès, Georges Méliès, Gaston Lumière, Auguste Lumière, Louis Pathé, Charles Griffith, D. W. Porter, Edwin S.

Méliès had attended the now-famous first film presentation to a paying audience by the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière in Paris on December 28, 1895. Immediately, the magician and theater owner was fascinated by the new art. When the Lumières refused to sell him one of their own projector/cameras, Méliès acquired the necessary equipment from British and French inventors and started to show films in his Théâtre Robert-Houdin in April, 1896.

Unhappy with the films he had to buy, and too much a creative genius to content himself with their storyless, unadorned recordings of reality, Méliès started to make films of his own. Between September, 1896, and March, 1897, he built the world’s second film studio (after Thomas Alva Edison’s Black Maria Studio in New Jersey) in Montreuil, near Paris. There, until 1914, his Star Film Company Star Film Company would produce about five hundred films—an output that made Méliès one of the biggest producers and directors of early motion pictures.

A famous comic shot from A Trip to the Moon.

In 1902, A Trip to the Moon splendidly showcased Méliès’s successful transformation from stage magician to filmmaker. With its painted backdrops, different-scale models, trapdoors, wings, and wires, the film’s studio effects complemented its creator’s editing skills and mastery of photographic effects. All the special effects used in the film were unified by a dramatic story about a flight to the Moon.

The fourteen-minute film opens with a view of the Astronomic Club, where President Barbenfouillis (played by Méliès) proposes a trip to the Moon. The technology utilized—a projectile fired by a big gun—had been imagined by novelist Jules Verne in 1865 and required little explanation. The tableau of the Astronomic Club dissolves to reveal the manufacture of capsule and cannon. This filmic dissolve, like the fade-out, was first created by Méliès, who superimposed with increasing luminosity the frames of the next scene over those of the first (or else slowly closed the lens for a fade).

The technique of the painted backdrop employed in the film’s total of thirty tableaux was one Méliès borrowed from theater and fine-tuned to his new medium. He adapted such relatively conventional trompe l’oeil effects (that is, effects designed to deceive the eye) as the surface of the Moon to the specific optical qualities of his film stock. Because he painted backdrops and props in shades of gray instead of in true colors, the scenery had a plastic look on film.

For the voyage itself, Méliès used both a model and a simulated tracking shot. Rather than moving his camera, which would later become common practice with mobile modern equipment, Méliès instead moved his set to show the projectile landing, in a well-executed matte shot, directly in the eye of the “Man in the Moon”—an actor peeping through a painted Moon. From this visual joke, Méliès dissolved to a second, “realistic” landing on the Moon’s surface.

To show the scientists encountering the bellicose Selenites, or Moonfolk, Méliès relied heavily on the stop-camera technique, which, according to his memoirs, he discovered quite by accident. Before Méliès, no one had realized that it was possible to stop a camera while filming a scene and then later restart it. Characteristically, Méliès used this idea to give to the old magician’s trick of substituting one object for another a new aura of fantastic realism: The scientists’ umbrellas turn into mushrooms on Méliès’ Moon; when struck by Barbenfouillis’s umbrella, the hostile Selenites disappear in a puff of smoke.

For the spaceship’s return to Earth, Méliès employed the rudiments of continuity editing. Motion pictures;editing Every time the spaceship disappears at the bottom of a scene, it reappears at top in the next scene, simulating a long fall viewed from different camera positions. Upon their rescue from the sea, Méliès’s astronauts receive a triumphant welcome and bow to the film’s audience—a gesture carried over from the stage.

Ironically, the very success of Méliès’s films, including A Trip to the Moon, contributed to his demise as a filmmaker. Cinema’s undisputed leader from 1896 to 1905—even, after 1903, the owner of an American branch led by his brother Gaston—Méliès found himself unable to adapt. The industrialization of film production, led by Charles Pathé in France, spelled doom for the quality-conscious artisan. In 1911, Méliès agreed to have his films distributed by Pathé; his granddaughter later charged that Ferdinand Zecca, the man in charge of Pathé’s studios, deliberately mutilated Méliès’s films to eliminate a rival.

Méliès was aesthetically unwilling to evolve from a position of perfection, and his films remained, up to the close of his career in 1912, filmed theater. He thus missed a crucial shift in audience demand: His static camera never changed its position, which was head-on to the stage. By 1909, American audiences—three-fourths of the French film industry’s market—had turned away from fantasy fare and were demanding naturalistic drama.

After a bitter forced sale of his studio and the demolition of his theater in 1923, Méliès found himself reduced to selling novelties in a tiny kiosk in Paris. He was rediscovered by film historians, however, and his work was treated to a gala retrospective in 1929; he was awarded the Cross of the French Legion of Honor by Louis Lumière in 1931. With honor also came financial rescue. By the time Méliès died in 1938, his early contribution to the development of narrative cinema and his technical inventions had become widely recognized.


The international success of A Trip to the Moon not only shaped audience expectations worldwide but also brought home Méliès’s problems with the piracy of his films, especially in the lucrative American market. To combat this abuse, his Star Film Company established an office under Gaston Méliès in New York City in 1903. Méliès also began to submit paper contact prints to the Library of Congress to protect his copyrights in the United States. Ironically, it was there, and in a private American collection, that most of Méliès’s films survived, rather than in Europe.

In addition to distributing his brother’s films, Gaston Méliès began producing his own films for the family company in New Jersey in 1909. His outfit, which was relocated to San Antonio, Texas, in 1910 and to Santa Paula, California, in 1911, produced typical “American” fare, however—mostly Westerns shot out of doors. Gaston’s enterprise ceased operations in 1912; Gaston’s presence in the United States, however, ensured that Georges Méliès’s films were widely available there and were noticed by American filmmakers. Among these, pioneer Edwin S. Porter was impressed by Méliès’s emphasis on narrative and his use of special effects to propel the plot. The opening of Porter’s masterpiece, The Great Train Robbery (1903), Great Train Robbery, The (film) for example, establishes its plot with a successful matte shot. Through the window of a railroad telegraph office that is taken over by two bandits, the target of the robbers, a train, is seen coming to a stop. Taking a lesson from Méliès, Porter created this scene by blacking out a part of the live studio action (the window) and superimposing on this “free” part of the frame a second film showing stock footage of a train.

Once Porter’s star was eclipsed for a lack of continuous filmic innovation, the most gifted American director of the early days of filmmaking, D. W. Griffith, rose to prominence. Griffith’s work, too, shows an indebtedness to Méliès; without the success of narrative films such as A Trip to the Moon, it is hard to imagine demand for Griffith’s highly complex dramatic films. Griffith developed a far more dynamic style of editing and camera work than those who preceded him, but his special effects were still firmly based on Méliès’s pioneering examples, on which Griffith built improvements. To demonstrate spatial movement, Méliès moved his set; Griffith instead changed his camera position and developed the true tracking shot. To track the riders of the Ku Klux Klan in The Birth of a Nation (1915), Birth of a Nation, The (film) he even put his camera aboard a car. Griffith exuberantly acknowledged Méliès’s influence, to the point of stating that he owed everything to his French colleague.

In Europe, the success of A Trip to the Moon led to two startlingly different developments at the level of national cinema. In France, the freshly founded Société Film d’Art took Méliès’s idea of filming action on a stage to its logical extreme and sought to appeal to intellectual taste by filming theater. Charles Le Bargy’s Le Bargy, Charles L’Assassinat du duc de Guise (1908; The Assassination of the Duke de Guise) Assassination of the Duke de Guise, The (film) was the first in a series of influential hits. Yet because the Société Film d’Art’s productions were so inherently stagey—and, indeed, sought to derive artistic legitimacy from their rather regressive form—French cinema lost its position as international leader by the early 1910’s.

Whereas the selective adaptation of Méliès’s ideas by the French cinema lacked the artistic freshness necessary to recapture the world market from Hollywood after World War I, German filmmakers rose to international status by looking at Méliès’s work with different eyes. After a brief flirtation with Film d’Art, directors in Germany looked to Méliès’s film, from which they derived an emphasis on the fantastic. The closed world of Méliès’s studio was seen as resembling the human soul—this was incidentally also the reason for Méliès’s appeal to Surrealist filmmakers such as Luis Buñuel. For his popular fare, Danish filmmaker Stellan Rye used Méliès’s technique of superimposition in his haunting tale of a double, Der Student von Prag (1913; The Student of Prague); Student of Prague, The (film) a huge success, the film was twice remade in Germany.

German cinematic expressionism, including Robert Wiene’s Wiene, Robert masterpiece Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (1920; The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The (film) is unthinkable without Méliès. Unlike its inspiration, German cinema of the 1920’s proved very adaptive. With German audiences developing an appetite for more naturalistic-looking fantasy tales, films such as Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s Murnau, Friedrich Wilhelm vampire tale Nosferatu (1922) Nosferatu (film) followed another of Méliès’s many leads: Special effects were used for the “realism” they gave to illusion. Fritz Lang’s Lang, Fritz Metropolis (1927) Metropolis (film) mastered the form.

It was this “realist” approach to special effects that brought American naturalistic film back into studios once the development of sound necessitated a tightly controlled production environment. Throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s, Hollywood became synonymous with studio films. Special effects, however, were more commonly used to simulate car rides than to animate fantastic monsters such as the star of the 1933 King Kong, King Kong (film) a true successor of Méliès’s fantasy creatures.

By the late 1950’s, with a final twist of irony, French (and some American) directors and critics had turned against the studio film. Instead, they championed cinema verité, a very strict form featuring pure, unstaged reality. Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronique d’un été (1961; Chronicle of a Summer) popularized the movement, which appeared to take film back to the Lumière brothers’ original recording of reality.

The movement toward realism, of which cinema verité represented the avant-garde, turned back once more with the rise of the science-fiction film. From Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to George Lucas’s six Star Wars films (1977-2005), increasingly sophisticated special effects became the backbone of films with audience appeal as global as that of Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon, the first film to take humanity on a fantastic trip through space and time. Trip to the Moon, A (film) Motion pictures;A Trip to the Moon[Trip to the Moon] Special effects, motion pictures Filmmaking techniques

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barnouw, Erik. “The Magician and the Movies.” American Film 3 (April/May, 1978): 8-63. Places Méliès in the context of primarily French and British magicians. Argues that the stage illusionist’s traditional skills were outmoded by film’s special effects and that magic did not translate successfully onto the screen. Includes illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cook, David A. “The Evolution of Narrative: Georges Méliès.” In A History of Narrative Film. 4th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004. Useful, readable overview. Argues that Méliès helped introduce the narrative, as opposed to documentary, use of film. Lists all thirty tableaux of A Trip to the Moon and reproduces twenty in illustrations. Emphasizes Méliès’s contributions to film.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frazer, John. Artificially Arranged Scenes: The Films of Georges Méliès. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979. One of the best books on Méliès in English for students of film. Presents every known surviving film through synopsis, notes on special effects, and critical analysis. Also features a biography and description of Méliès’s cultural environment. Richly illustrated. Includes an excellent filmography, bibliography, notes, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kovacs, Katherine Singer. “Georges Méliès and the Feerie.” Cinema Journal 14 (Fall, 1976): 1-13. Persuasively places Méliès in the tradition of a nineteenth century French spectacle show, the feerie. Part 1 discusses this tradition, and part 2 shows how Méliès’s films use it for their techniques, plots, and themes. Analyzes Méliès’s special effects clearly and emphasizes their popular appeal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pierson, Michele. Special Effects: Still in Search of Wonder. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. Explores the history and cultural reception of special effects in film. Includes discussion of the work of Méliès and his contemporaries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rickitt, Richard. Special Effects: The History and Technique. New York: Watson-Guptill, 2000. Highly illustrated guide to film special effects of all kinds. Chapter 1 provides an overview of the history of special effects and includes information about Méliès’s work. Features glossary, bibliography, and index.

The Great Train Robbery Introduces New Editing Techniques

Lumières Develop Color Photography

The Ten Commandments Advances American Film Spectacle

Lang Expands the Limits of Filmmaking with Metropolis

Hallelujah Is the First Important Black Musical Film

Hollywood Enters Its Golden Age

The Wizard of Oz Premieres

Categories: History