“I think cinema, movies, and magic have always been closely associated. Because the very earliest people who made film were magicians. One of the aspects of it was the idea of an illusion, a magical illusion, in the early days of movies.”
—Francis Ford Coppola (from an interview you can watch here)
Admittedly, not all of these films are pure trick films, that is, they don’t exist purely to show off visual pyrotechnics. But enjoy watching the evolution of early special effects in the selections below.
Démolition d’un mur (1896) — the Lumière brothers
A wall being knocked down by a bunch of laborers doesn’t sound like much of a premise for special effects. Like many of the Lumières’ films, the strong documentary quotient of what we’re seeing (real workers, a real neighborhood) would suggest that we’re just supposed to kick back and appreciate what life, once removed, looks like.
And yet, only after the film was printed, magic happened. During exhibitions, the quaint actualité was played once through, then shown backwards, with the strip fed in reverse through the projector. Miraculously, the wall jolted back to its original position as particles of dirt and dust were sucked back into place. This groundbreaking idea turned an everyday sight into a spectacle of the fantastic. Although there’s technically no camera or editing trick, the cinema itself becomes a trick for its ability to manipulate time and weave fragments of truth into an impossible fake reality. Indeed, the surrealists would later tap the power of reversed footage (most spectacularly in Cocteau’s Orphée). But the trick was never more startling than it is here.
The X-Rays (1897) — George Alfred Smith
Call me morbid, but trick films often seem to focus on death. Cinema, of course, is a close cousin of death. In her spooky realm, the long departed can still amuse and delight us. The X-Rays, a whimsical entry in the trick film canon, displays a sardonic, typically British gallows humor. After all, it was Webster who, according to T.S. Eliot always saw “the skull beneath the skill.” Well, this short follows in the same vein. When shot through with “X-rays,” a wooing couple suddenly appear as two skeletons. Really, it’s just a well-timed cut, a change of lighting, and black body suits decorated with white bones that provide the illusion.
Once reduced to posturing wraiths, the cute couple acquire a new level of comic irony. It’s hard to believe in love and romance when you can see that, under it all, we’re nothing more than bags of bones. Under the surface of this charming trick film, you’ll find a genuinely chilling memento mori.
Un Homme de têtes (1898) and L’homme à la tête au caoutchouc (1901) — Georges Méliès
In this pair of similar shorts, Georges Méliès gets a head. Several, in fact. Because he was the master of the trick film, I have to include two shorts from this infectiously enthusiastic trailblazer.
Not only was Méliès a true visionary who understood the importance of shaping cinema into entertainment medium, but he was also one hell of an energetic guy! I find that watching him star in his own short films provides a fool-proof pick-me-up. He’s like Prozac with a Belle Époque beard. Unlike some early cinema performances, which show that the actors did not yet grasp that you need to move in the movies, Méliès’s appearances remain as exuberant and joyful as they were a century ago. Rather than “acting” all of the time, Méliès miraculously manages to cultivate a similar presentational relationship to what you get between a magician and his audience. In one of my favorite Méliès films, we can savor the spectacle of not one Méliès… but up to five of him at any given time. Bask in his energy.
The Big Swallow (1901) — James Williamson
This daft little film shows a distinctly ticked-off camera subject proceed to eat the cameraman! Clearly, this doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, but it sure is unexpected. Moral of the story? Ask permission before you start turning, or you’ll end up in some stranger’s stomach. This entry also contains the first extreme close-up in cinema history.
The Haunted Curiosity Shop (1901) — W. R. Booth
Well, here’s some good, ol’ fashioned nightmare fuel for you! Because who hasn’t seen at least one horror movie about an antique shop where the objects come to life? From hidden cuts to superimposition, this atmospheric film uses practically the whole bag of then-available tricks to portray a possessed store. The proprietor of the curiosity shop even seems to cultivate these playful, if creepy gnomes, ghosts, and apparitions to pop up and vanish at will.
Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902) — Edwin S. Porter
Hapless, roly-poly Uncle Josh holds the distinction of being the first recurring character in film history, providing fodder for a series of three surviving kooky adventures. In the most innovative Uncle Josh film, the hammy fellow goes to a program of movies (and, surprise, surprise, Edison movies!). Attempting to join an alluring Parisian dancer, Josh lurches onto the stage in front of the movie screen and starts to jig. The film soon changes to The Black Diamond Express.
When Uncle Josh tries to get a closer look at the oncoming train, he leans into the movie frame, entering the world of the film—or so he assumes. In a clever spoof of the hysterical reactions of early cinema audiences (who supposedly expected onscreen trains to come off the screen and hit them), Uncle Josh genuinely thinks he’s about to be run over by the locomotive as it appears to hurtle towards him! Again trying to interfere in onscreen events, Uncle Josh finally tears down the screen and starts a brawl with the projectionist.
This silly film is not actually a trick film. Sorry. (The first installment of the series, Uncle Josh’s Nightmare, is though.) It’s more about how cinema can trick us. But it foreshadows Sherlock Jr.—not to mention the many, many other movies to follow that featured people sliding into a filmic parallel universe. The “meta” elements of this film—especially the references to other Edison actualities—make this film one of the most modern and complex of the trick films I’m presenting, even if the double-exposure techniques don’t stun us as much as they perhaps could. The true paradox of this film lies in the fact that Uncle Josh both psychologically “enters” the diegesis of the films he’s watching and reveals the illusion inherent in cinema when he tears down the screen. His reactions parallel those of the audience—who, while somewhat absorbed in the movie tricks they were watching, still wanted to know how the filmmaker did it.
La charité du prestidigitateur (1905) — Alice Guy
Trick films may enchant and astound you, but when it comes to plot, they haven’t earned much of a reputation for warmth and well-developed characters. I mean, Méliès even observed, “As for the scenario, the ‘fable’ or ‘tale,’ I only consider it at the end. I can state that the scenario constructed in this manner has no importance, since I use it merely as a pretext for the ‘stage effects,’ the ‘tricks’ or for a nicely arranged tableau.”
While this emphasis on exhibition and flamboyance over story shouldn’t be held against the subset of early cinema (which wasn’t yet conceived of in terms of narrative cinema), I rejoice to find a trick film with a heart, directed by the sublime Alice Guy.
In this cozy, if cautionary fable, a magician encounters a beggar and, moved to compassion, he conjures a luxurious feast and a swank set of clothes for the vagrant. When the homeless man walks away feeling cocky and refuses to help another beggar, the unfeeling lout transforms back into his old self. The second beggar was just the magician in disguise—oh, snap! The message about sparing kindness for people in situations that you once suffered through elevates this convivial film among the rest. Alice Guy integrated the syntax of the trick film into a more narrative format with breathtaking ease and glorious humanity.
Plongeur Fantastique (1905) — Segundo de Chomón
Admittedly, this film strikes me as a major one-trick horse. A man dives into a pond. Suddenly, the waters part and he flies backwards to the place where he had been standing a moment ago. He dives in again. And so it goes for almost two minutes. Yawn. I would like to point out, though, how similar this repetitive film is to the modern phenomenon of the GIF, which fulfills our human desire to play certain interesting moments on an endless loop. When I watch early films, I often find them quite gif-able, because of their “money shots” or moments of total “LOOK AT THIS” spectacle. The silly reversibility of the short film also reminds me of what I call GIF mentality. (And if you don’t believe me, try Googling “reverse running gifs.” You’re welcome. Or maybe you want to hunt me down with a pitchfork. Which is why I blog anonymously, by the way.)
However, I choose to feature this film primarily because it brings us full circle back to the first film, Démolition d’un mur. The trick, accomplished through reverse projection, goes nuts with a technique not even a decade old at the time. And it’s boring! Because it’s all special effects and no plot… like a lot of movies made nowadays.
La Grenouille (1908) — Segundo de Chomón
Okay, I feel really bad about what I just wrote. I don’t mean to slight Segundo de Chomón, an exquisitely talented maker of elaborate, cuckoo-bananas trick films, which you totally need to watch. So, I’m including this late trick film fantasy, about a psychedelic frog. If you consider Méliès pretty wild, watching de Chomón is like watching Méliès while trippin’. Not that I’d know, of course…
Thanks to all the marvelous people who upload these films on YouTube. I also gratefully acknowledge Tom Gunning’s “The Cinema of Attraction”, which, in part, inspired this post.