Georges Melies was one of the first special-effects wizards in the history of Cinema. He was so early on the scene that, in fact, he initially built his own camera, projector, and learned to develop his own film because the facilities for all of these did not exist and the Lumiere brothers wouldn't sell him theirs. While the Lumiere's believe cinema would have mostly academic or educational applications, Melies focused on creating spectacles - commercial films before there was really any commerce in film. He pioneered techniques using dissolves, multiple exposures, hand-tinting films, and more in the service of creating uniquely cinematic theatrical effects.
Melies: Fairy Tales In Color, a new collection of 13 of Melies short films, demonstrates the director's boundless inventiveness in the service of fantastical stories. Melies' most famous film, "A Trip to the Moon" (memorably pilfered for the Smashing Pumpkins video, "Tonight Tonight") is here, as are a number of other fantasy tales of adventure, diabolism, and strange goings on. All of the shorts are filled, scene by scene, with the kind of trick photography that Melies made his calling card.
If Melies' genius were only technical, his films would be curiosities; the history of cinema is littered with these. The Jazz Singer was not the first film to have synced sound and there was full color cinema before Technicolor, but these early experiments were just that: technical demonstrations without much art to keep an interested viewer engaged. What makes Melies' experiments different is, to my mind, two-fold. First, they were mostly wedded to narratives. While there are surviving Melies shorts which just demonstrate some camera trick, the best of them are telling some kind of story, even if the story is a flimsy excuse for the tricks, like the impossible stage magic act in "Whimsical Illusions" or the never-ending trunk that fills the room of "The Diabolical Tenant". The second factor is that
Melies' films have an appealing aesthetic sense. They look like crazy theatrical projects, and not tech demos. That's important for a modern audience, because the technical wizardry which used to be rare and difficult in Melies' time is absolutely taken for granted in today's cinema. Even a non-technical watcher will be able to tell how certain effects were achieved: that's a double exposure, that's a matte painting. Several of the effects are simply done by stopping the camera and pulling somebody out of or putting them in to frame, and starting the camera again. It's nothing compared to what the simplest non-linear editing suite could accomplish on the phone sitting in your pocket.
What can't be easily replicated is the set decoration, the costume design, the aesthetic sense and the simple beauty of the films in this collection. Melies: Fairy Tales in Color contains his most famous short film,”A Trip to the Moon", which is 16 minutes long, and about half of the other films are of similar length and scope. I wasn't familiar with most of the films on this collection, and particularly enjoyed "The Witch", "Robinson Crusoe", and "The Kingdom of Fairies". While the collection boasts it is "In Color", this is not some sort of modern computer coloration like some distribution companies inflict on old films. The color available in these films is of the vintage, hand-colored variety. Also vintage is the image quality - these are very old films well-predating modern archiving and preservation, so there are several moments of distortion, lack of focus, and tons of noise and scratches. It would hardly seem an authentic silent film presentation without these defects, after all.
Melies: Fairy Tales in Color is a lovely presentation of a small portion of the cinematic pioneer's work. These are silent films, but film was never silent. Even when it was first projected, these films would have musical accompaniment, and in some cases, narrators who would explain the on-screen business. This Flicker Alley release embodies that spirit fully - every film has an instrumental accompaniment, and several of the longer films also include a narrator, describing aspects of the on-screen action that aren't immediately obvious. The narrator is Serge Bromberg, one of the producers of this Blu-ray/DVD release, who, charmingly, explains in the accompanying booklet that he is not affecting a French accent, but is in fact French, so his narration is even more authentic.
Melies: Fairy Tales in Color is more than a historical curio for the cineaste. The films included are charming and beautiful. They have a texture and quirkiness that places them above the technically interesting, and make them real visual art.