The following document is an abstract of a paper accepted for presentation at the Visual Delights III — Magic and Illusion conference at the University of Sheffield, July 15-17th 2005.

Histories of cinematic special effects often begin with cursory mentions of stage magicians, most notably Georges Méliès, and their practical efforts to adapt to the potentially upstaging introduction of the cinematic apparatus at the end of the nineteenthth century. This paper investigates some of the ways in which stage magicians were prepared for, rather than usurped by, the translation of their illusions to a two-dimensional medium. The compositional elements of stage magic, whereby space is organised in order to conceal aspects of the apparatus and to regulate the perspective of the audience, can be shown to be not simply analogous with the film-maker's control of the frame-space, but also constitutive of a practical knowledge base from which film-makers could draw when creating cinematic versions of the same illusions. The films of Georges Méliès often work within a clearly defined frame that is modelled precisely on the tightly defined stage spaces of The Egyptian Hall or the Théâtre Robert-Houdin. His cinematic visual effects can be read as attempts to simulate the unstable, malleable spaces available on the magic stage (thanks to the installation of a panoply of gadgets, screens, trap-doors, wires and pulleys), rather than as entirely novel subversions of spatio-temporally continuous environments. The use of black velvet backdrops to create illusions of dismemberment in illusions by Maskelyne and Cooke provide prototypical renditions of matte compositions achieved by double exposures in trick films of subsequent decades. The violations of the body enacted in such tricks, often de-realised to render them fantastic rather than grotesque, offer a pre-vision of the cinematic body mdash; replicable, transmutable and ultimately indestructible.


3 May 2005