Magic, Devils, Moons and Madness: Trick Films and the Multi-Image

You never know where you’re going, til you know where you’ve been.

In order to understand the multi-image techniques when they have deep thematic meaning, first we have to boil them down to their most simple level. This also involves a trip back in time to their origins in cinema (Note I say in cinema here, there’s a story for another day about magic lanterns and trick photography). In the early days of cinema most films were simple documentaries showing a daily event. The most obvious example to cite here is what’s generally considered to be the first film ever, Workers Leaving the Factory.

Soon after short “fake” actions began to take place, films showing pranks or re-enacted historical events. This fiction route takes us on to what is known as the “trick film”. Trick films are exactly what they sound like: filmed magic tricks. There might simply be a magician standing doing tricks made possible through filmic techniques, for instance making a women disappear by cutting from a shot where she’s present to one where’s she’s not. Sometimes it would involve a short story, such as a superimposed ghost appearing to frightened diners. This sounds very simple to us now, but these techniques are the basis of modern special effects, and of the multi-image.

After a critical viewing of the works of many trick films pioneers (Méliès, R.W. Paul, Edwin Porter, Segundo De Chomon, etc.) I’ve decided there are four main types of these films in terms of what they use the multi-image for.

1. The Magic Trick
So far the earliest example (in film again) of a composite image I can find is from Georges Méliès’ 1898 film The Four Troublesome Heads.

In this we see the image split into various parts. I saw “we see”, I’m not sure if we’re meant to. There are other Méliès films where the form is clearly meant to be obvious and part of the overall experience, but here I’m unsure if the audience is meant to be fooled and astounded. There are a number of these Magic Trick Films which have little to no plot and are simply visual fun, or part of the “cinema of attraction”.

2. The Supernatural
There are so many ghost films. Spectral figures appear superimposed over the more opaque ordinary people. More interestingly there are longer films showing the Devil or imps playing tricks on humans, such as De Chomen’s The Red Spectre.

What is interesting here is that we know that we are watching manipulated images. Supernatural abilities and image manipulation become one and the same, with the filmmaker becoming the medium of the ghostly.

3. Science Fantasy
Personally I’d count this as a separate category from the one above in the same way that we now separate Fantasy and Science Fiction. It does have to be Fantasy of some sort as I wouldn’t say that something like A Trip to the Moon is Science Fiction yet.

It contains many unrealistic concepts and a general aesthetic of magic (look at the old man at the beginning, clearly a take-off of Merlin). I would however claim this as the beginning of the genre. Personally here also appears to be the strongest contender for the origins of special effects. While I would say that many of the filmmakers flaunt their technique here rather than hiding it, the multi-image becomes a story-telling tool that is generally separate from the story. In The Red Spectre playing tricks is the whole tale. In A Trip to the Moon and its ilk there is a brief glimpse that the story is more important than the effects, the effects exist only to tell it. I’ll come back to this at some point, but I see a very clear line of descent from these Science Fantasy films to something like King Kong where the effects are very similar, but are meant to fool the audience into believing what they see.

4. Memories and Thoughts
This is to me the most interesting of all. The other three categories suffer in the creation of the multi-image as I see it, due to their diegetic nature. The magic tricks, supernatural creatures and scientific fantasies all exist in the world of their films. When looking at The Mysterious Portrait as much as it is a duel layered image and is reminiscent of something like Peter Greenaway, it still can be seen by all the characters in the film.


To me that makes it less of a formal experiment in style and more of a visual effect. In the films that project memories however the thoughts of the characters can be seen alongside them.

In a standard modern film we would simply cut to the flashback to keep up the illusion of realism. In The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend however we literally see their thoughts while simultaneously seeing them. No-one within the film can see both, it’s not something that’s “really” happening in the diegetic universe. This to me is the first dip of the toe into using the multi-image for thematic ends. A lot of what I plan to explore later is the connection of multiple layers in a frame with the way the human mind works and in films like these that link is beginning to form.

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