Melies was among those who attended the first public showing of the Cinematographe in December 1895. He was then the owner, manager and star attraction of the Theatre Robert-Houdin. The core of his theatrical show was illusion. The very name of that predecessor to the cinema, the “magic lantern”, suggests how the path from magic show to cinema was a natural, spontaneous one for Melies to take. Indeed, long before he had heard of the Cinematographe, the custom was for Melies to end a conjuring show with coloured magic-lantern views.
Melies’ first encounter with the moving image had occurred many years previously at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1878. The young Melies, still a teenager, used to attend the exhibition regularly, where his father’s shoemakers’ firm possessed a stall. Wandering through the displays one day, he came upon Emile Reynauds’ Praxinoscope. A band of coloured images (une bande dessinee) was attached to the inner rim of a broad cylinder. At the cylinder’s centre was a mirror drum. When the cylinder was revolved, the images reflected in the drum merged to create a moving image.
The first Melies film, which was shot in the garden of his family home at Montreuil in June 1896, showed Melies and his friends playing a game of cards. It was a repeat of a subject that the Lumieres themselves had already filmed, the kind of snapshot of daily life that the Lumieres were now sending around the world.