Georges Melies’s Fantastical Legacy in Augmented Reality

One year ago today I wrote a guest post for The Creators Project naming Georges Melies (1861-1938) the patron saint of Augmented Reality (AR) in an article celebrating what would have been the magician and filmmaker’s 150th birthday. Today, I tip my hat to Melies again, honouring his creative genius and incredible technical contribution to film and special effects.


Melies was a master of production maintaining a sophisticated understanding of the medium of cinema and a fervour to innovate within this novel domain. He wrote in detail about the complexity and special care of composing and preparing scenes and sets, highly aware of how his work was analogous to theater and photography, yet all the while completely attune to the particular sensitivities and opportunities presented in this whole new medium. And this is one of the things that made Melies’s work incredible: with great skill, knowledge, and understanding of the medium, he playfully pushed beyond existing conventions to invent completely new techniques specific to cinema such as the substitution shot (also referred to as stop-trick).

Melies was able to evolve his stage tricks as a magician to multiple exposures and superimposition in cinema, radically different from the ‘actuality films’ of the time (including the Lumiere brother films such as “Exiting the Factory”, and “Arrival of a Train”, which are exactly as they sound); Melies introduced a fantastical and transformational aesthetic of visibility/invisibility to the moving image, which, in Melies’s words, allowed “the impossible to be rendered visually” [1].

And so with AR we also see this dialectic of appearance and disappearance, of making the invisible visible. AR, a superimposition of virtual content atop the physical world in real-time, is part of Melies’ legacy of special effects and also urgently demands creative and technical specialists of the medium for AR to move beyond mimicking other media and to truly come into its own. AR needs excellent experience designers, writers, directors, and so on, who, like Melies, can also maintain the wonderment of the medium to create magical and compelling experiences unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

How do we do this? Some nudges here in a creative manifesto entitled, “An Explorer’s Guide to Augmented Reality’s Creative Future” and more on the “4 Ideas That Will Change AR” here.


Photo: KinEtre, Microsoft Research Cambridge

This year for Melies’s birthday I would like to gift him this playful 3D animated dancing chair from Sharam Izadi’s team at Microsoft Research Cambridge  (I think Melies would have quite liked the horse too, be sure to watch the video). “KinEtre” allows users to scan physical objects with the Kinect and bring them to life by mapping their body movements to the newly created 3D object. As Melies did in cinema, KinEtre can make inanimate objects (fantastically) animate. And why would you want to make a chair ‘walk’ in a human way you ask? (Aside from making Borat’s joke into a reality?) Well, let’s think about the storytelling possibilities here. Anthropomorphism can play a strong role in future AR experiences to create magical and enchanted realities. Maybe KinEtre has legs (bad pun), maybe it doesn’t. The point is to constantly push ideas out there, to experiment, to prototype and to iterate, iterate, iterate (a process which is central to my personal creative practice in AR, and one where I learned the critical importance of while working at Bruce Mau Design in my pre-augmented life).

The Kinect has been a wonderfully magical device for AR. One of the strengths of the Kinect is in the NUI (Natural User Interface) and making the technology invisible, to ‘disappear’ — continuing on a Melies theme here — to make for an engaging experience rooted in the physical environment, yet transporting the viewer into wondrous other worlds. Georges, tonight I look up at the moon and smile at your genius; I can’t wait to see how your legacy will continue to impact the marvellous medium of AR as we continue on this fantastical journey. Happiest Birthday.

[1] “Cinematographic Views.” Georges Melies translated by Stuart Liebman. October, Vol. 29 (Summer 1984), p31.

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