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Georges Méliès' 1902 film Le Voyage dans la Lune, also known as A Trip to the Moon was both the world's first science-fiction film and the world's first blockbuster. Its image of a rocket landing in the eye of the Moon is one of the most famous in all of film history. Today, over 100 years after it was made, it still enchants audiences.
Professor Barbenfouillis and five of his fellow members of the Astronomers' Club, who enjoy dressing rather like wizards, decide to travel to the Moon. After changing their pointy hats for more normal headwear, they oversee the construction of a giant gun which will fire their space capsule at the moon. After some pomp and circumstance, they are fired at the moon, landing in the moon's eye.
From the moon they admire an Earthrise before settling down for a good night's sleep, while the stars and planets look on. Suddenly it starts to snow, and so they decide to go inside the Moon via one of its craters. Once inside, they find themselves in a cavern in which giant mushrooms are growing. Indeed, one astronomer's umbrella turns into a giant mushroom!
Also in the cavern they spy a Selenite, one of the Moon's inhabitants. The astronomers decide that the best way to approach this first contact situation is to hit it, and the Selenite promptly explodes. After inexplicably killing a few more Selenites, they are captured and taken before the Selenite ruler, the Grand Lunar, to explain their crimes. Instead they kill him too and run off, with the Selenite army in pursuit.
They flee to the capsule, which has landed next to a cliff edge. The astronomers get inside the capsule, which falls off the cliff back down to Earth while a Selenite holds onto the outside for dear life. It plunges into the sea and is rescued by a ship. The astronomers return home as heroes to a victory parade, where they are given moon-shaped badges and new hats, while the Selenite is captured. A statue of the professor is also unveiled in commemoration of the occasion.
|Professor Barbenfouillis||Georges Méliès|
|Lady in the Moon||Bleuette Bernon|
|Captain of the Rocket||Henri Delannoy|
|Also starring||Jeanne d'Alcy|
Jeanne1 d'Alcy was France's first film actress. She was the first woman to play Joan of Arc, the first woman to be Cinderella's Fairy Godmother and the first woman to play Cleopatra2 on film. She was even the first woman to appear nude on film in cinema's first ever naked scene, 1897's Après le bal, also known as After the Ball, the Bath3. She made the costumes for Le Voyage dans la Lune and later married Georges Méliès in 1926.
The stars and girls were played by ballet girls from the Théâtre du Châtelet and acrobats from the Folies Bergère played the Selenites.
Georges Méliès was the son of a wealthy shoemaker. He was never interested in the family business, and was fascinated by magic and the theatre rather than the business world of shoes. In 1888 he sold off his father's business, buying the Robert-Houdin Théâtre for Magic in Paris.
The story of his greatest achievement, Le Voyage dans la Lune, begins on the day that the cinema was born. On 22 March, 1895 the Lumière brothers projected a 1-minute 800-frame film entitled Sortie des usines Lumière, translated as Leaving the Lumière Factory, at the Société d'Encouragment pour L'Industrie Nationale. In the audience was Georges Méliès, the owner of the théâtre Robert-Houdin in Paris. When he asked Antoine Lumière, the father of the Lumière brothers, about purchasing a film camera and projector that night, he was told:
The invention is not for sale, it would be the ruin of you. It can be exhibited for a while due to its scientific interest, but apart from that the machine has no future.
Despite this, he was one of the first to convert to the new medium, displaying the Lumières' films in his own theatre in 1896. Shortly after he bought a camera, it jammed for a moment when he was filming a busy street scene. When he watched the film back, it appeared that a bus had turned into a hearse. In that moment, special effects were born.
He soon started his own film company, Star Films, and within a year made his first effects film Escamotage d'une dame au théâtre Robert Houdin, also known as The Conjuring of a Woman at the House of Robert-Houdin, in which actress Jeanne d'Alcy's head appears to be removed from her body and lifted over candles. He had realised that the medium of film had many possibilities no-one had previously explored. In 1897 he designed and built Europe's first film studios at a cost of 90,000 Francs in the grounds of his Montreuil home. This was a 55×20 foot (16.75×6.1m) frosted glass house. It was made of glass to allow natural light inside, as there were no electric lights. A full theatrical stage equipped with trapdoors, pulleys and other theatrical devices was constructed inside.
Méliès began to experiment to see what illusions he could create with trick photography, and combined film techniques he pioneered and invented, such as double exposures4, split screen, stop-motion, superimposition, dissolves and cuts, with his theatrical background to make his films do things that no other filmmaker showed. Not only was he a pioneer of special effects, he also was a storyteller. His films were not just of people leaving a factory or a train travelling along. Instead he showed the fantastic and unbelievable.
However, just one year after his greatest success, a new style of story-making developed. Director Edwin S Porter made The Great Train Robbery for the Edison Manufacturing Company. This film had outdoor scenes filmed in Lackawanna Woods, with a real train, bandits on horseback as well as a posse who hunt and confront, fighting and shooting the baddies. Cinema was becoming a serious art form, while he retained fantasy. With advances like these, Méliès' studio-set films, despite their inventiveness, were beginning to feel old-fashioned. Méliès was also determined to compete with Pathé, the largest film company in the world which, at the time of Le Voyage dans la Lune, was making a film a day. Méliès dramatically increased the rate of film production, even constructing a second studio, yet increasing the quantity of films he was making meant that the quality of his work suffered, speeding up the rate at which he was falling from the public's grace.
His last film Conquête du Pôle or Journey to the North Pole was made in 1912. This was released at the same time Roald Amundsen's genuine South Pole footage hit cinemas, and in comparison to a real arctic trek, Méliès' studio-made papier-mâché version seemed fake, dated and old-fashioned. Méliès was forced into bankruptcy in 1913. He closed his studio, never to film again after 16 years as a pioneering filmmaker. In 1923 his theatre was demolished to make way for a bypass. Méliès, debt ridden, sold off his home and, in protest, burnt his private collection of his films, destroying over 500 of them. Silent films were beginning to be considered obsolete, and on the introduction of talking pictures, over 75% of silent films were destroyed, lost forever. He ended up working in a kiosk at Montparnasse train station in Paris, selling toys and drawing pictures of his films in his spare time.
In 1929 cinema proprietor Jean-Paul Mauclair re-discovered eight surviving Méliès films, including Le Voyage dans la Lune, although in poor condition and only in black-and-white. He restored and presented the films as best he could, tinting5 them in an attempt to cover up the poor picture quality. Audiences were delighted to rediscover the magic of Méliès. It was the last time he saw his most famous film. On 21 January, 1938, Méliès died and was buried in the Pere-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
Since 1929 other copies of his films have been discovered, but only 200 of his films have been recovered. The survivors confirm that Georges Méliès was the first auteur. Méliès took films and transformed them from being documentaries and made them adventures, turned displays into theatrical shows.
The Making of Le Voyage dans la Lune
At the time of release, most films were still only a minute in length and showed either real life, especially pomp and circumstance, or short comic sketches.
Méliès worked as producer, director, designer, editor, painter, and actor on the film, which was made in the film studio he himself had designed. In the mornings the sets were constructed and the scenery painted, so that filming could take place promptly between 11am-3pm, which was the time when the sun lit the stage. Filming began in May 1902 and it took 3 months to make, finishing in July. The film length was 260 metres6, featured 30 tableaux, and cost 10,000 Francs to make its 13,795 frames of film. At a rate of 16 frames per second, viewing would normally take 14 minutes.
Filming completed, Méliès had 60 prints of the film coloured. Although most prints were made in black-and-white, a few were coloured by hand. This was done on a frame-by-frame basis by Mme Elisabeth Thuillier. Having began as a glass and magic lantern colourist, Thuillier employed 300 women in her studio located at 87 Rue de Bac in Paris, paying each girl 1 Franc a day to colour in black-and-white films frame-by-frame. Each girl would paint one colour, and there were up to ten colours in each scene. For these services the standard charge was 1,000 Francs for films up to 300 metres in length. This process gave Méliès' films an unreal quality which perfectly accentuated the fantastic themes.The scene of the capsule landing in the sea was made by filming an aquarium, a technique he had used previously in his film Quais de La Havane et Explosion du cuirassé Le Maine, (The Explosion of the Battleship Maine in Havana Harbour).
Sadly, Thomas Edison took advantage of the genius by stealing his most famous film, Le Voyage dans la Lune. Edison's London representative Al Abadie secretly copied the film, sending the copy to America to be counterfeited and have Méliès' Star Film trademark removed. This film piracy meant that Méliès never saw a cent of the profit his film had made in America. As a result Georges Méliès' brother and nephew, Gaston and Paul Méliès, were sent to America to open a Star Films Production office in New York in January 1903 to prevent such piracy ever reoccurring.
The main inspiration behind the film came from three books and an opera. In 1865, Jules Verne published De la Terre à la Lune, known in English as From the Earth to the Moon, with the sequel Autour de la Lune, also known as Around the Moon, published five years later in 1870. These works had inspired an opera by Jacques Offenbach in 1875, entitled Le voyage dans la Lune, the same title as Méliès' later film. In 1901 HG Wells published First Men in the Moon, about two men who actually land on the moon. It is an oversimplification, but Jules Verne inspired the journey to and from the moon, while Wells inspired what actually happened on the Moon, with Méliès' magic transforming what might have been adaptations into something uniquely his own.
However it was not the first Moon-themed film that Méliès made. In 1898 he made La lune à un mètre, also known as Le Reve D'un Astronome or Astronomer's Dream. This featured a mediæval astronomer, dressed identically to how the astronomers at the beginning of Le Voyage dans la Lune are dressed.
For a film over a hundred years old, it retains its charm. The iconic scene of the rocket landing in the Moon's eye still impresses, especially in the hand-coloured restored version where the blood from the impact is clearly visible. Unlike later silent films, Le Voyage dans la Lune does not have intertitles to explain the action. This does not impact on the film, which was filmed as a visual experience rather than a plot-heavy drama.
The opening scene, in which the members of the Astronomers' Club are dressed rather like magicians, perfectly informs the viewer that the following film is about the magic of cinema, not the science of space. Yet many of the film's scenes predict the events of Apollo 11's own voyage from the Moon. Just like Méliès showed, the real capsule parachuted down to Earth, landed in the sea and was recovered by the navy.
The scenes on the Moon are both naïve and violent. The Moon itself is rather Earth-like. The astronomers can walk around on the Moon without spacesuits and without encountering noticeably lower gravity, experience weather and see mushrooms. The Moon's natives, the Selenites, are bipedal and human-shaped. The astronomers' treatment of them sadly shows how widespread colonialist thinking was in France at the start of the 19th Century. The European white male astronomers believe they have the right to kill any natives they encounter where they have landed. One Selenite is brought back to Earth, chained up and presented at the parade like an animal advertising a circus. The Selenites, whose black-and-white costumes are predominantly black, can easily be seen as symbolising slavery, while the astronomers are rewarded for their violent behaviour with a Triumph parade, medals and a statue, like a Roman Emperor returning from his conquest of Britain. That said, the coloured explosions when the Selenites are hit are very effectively done.
The giant gun manufactured to send the men to the moon also, in hindsight, predicts giant guns like Big Bertha that would soon cross France after the outbreak of the Great War.
The film remains a ground-breaking, entertaining and visionary creation.
The film was re-released in 2013 in a restored colour version. This badly decomposed colour copy of the film was discovered in 1993 in the archives of Filmoteca de Catalunya. The film was originally printed onto celluloid, an extremely unstable and flammable substance that over time irreversibly decomposes into acidic crystals which destroy the surrounding film. Only 200 of over 500 Méliès films have survived.
Anton Gimenez owned a hand-coloured but fragile and badly decomposed copy, unaware that it was unique. Many of the world's film experts were consulted and the consensus was that restoration was impossible. Eric Lange refused to accept this, and between 1999 and 2002 undertook painstaking highly delicate work to digitise the badly decomposed elements. This took the form of photographing each surviving colour frame and saving them as digital files.
In April 2010 the Centre National de la Cinématographie et de l'image Animée realised that technology had developed sufficiently for a restoration to be possible. With the aid of Tom Burton at the Technicolor Creative Services in Hollywood, work on creating a colour restoration began. Not only was the newly-discovered print used, it also combined the best surviving elements from other copies, principally the Mauclaire-tinted print dating from 1929 and a black-and-white print owned by Madeleine Malthête-Méliès, Georges Méliès' granddaughter. These two formed the best-possible image, including the victory parade and statue scenes at the end which were long considered lost and did not exist in the colour copy. The black-and-white frames were coloured using a colour programme on the computer to match the surviving colour picture elements.
The restoration's release was timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Méliès' birth.
In 1904, Méliès made Voyage à travers l'impossible, Voyage Beyond the Possible or The Impossible Voyage. This film, which is almost a sequel, featured 43 tableaux and is 20 minutes long. Méliès plays Professor Mabouloff of the Institute of Incoherent Geography – a very similar character to Le Voyage's Professor Barbenfouillis of the Astronomers' Club – who travels to the sun. He would return to filming the moon in the 1907 film L'Éclipse du Soleil en pleine Lune, also known as The Eclipse: Courtship of the Sun and Moon.
In 1908 it was remade by Pathé as Excursion dans la lune or Excursion to the Moon by Catalan filmmaker Segundo de Chomón. This was a blatant scene-by-scene remake, with the only differences being extra dancing on the Moon, and the capsule, instead of hitting the Moon in the eye, is swallowed by the Moon's mouth.
In 1952, clips from the film featured in Le grand Méliès, a docu-drama in which Georges Méliès is played by his son, André Méliès.
In 1996 the film inspired the Smashing Pumpkins music video for 'Tonight Tonight', which won MTV's Video of the Year award.
In 1998 HBO made a mini-series From the Earth to the Moon, a title based on a Jules Verne title. This documentary series about the Apollo space programme starred Tom Hanks but also featured in the last episode the story of how Le Voyage dans la Lune was told, featuring the parallels with the Apollo programme.
References feature in many other television shows, including Futurama and The Mighty Boosh.
In 2011 Hugo was made by Martin Scorsese. This was a fantastic and fictional account of Méliès' later life, however Le Voyage dans la Lune is also key to the plot. Méliès is played by Ben Kingsley and actress Helen McCrory portrays Jeanne d'Alcy.
Other silent science-fiction films include:
Other films featuring the Moon include:
- Ray Harryhausen's adaptation of First Men in the Moon
- 2001: A Space Odyssey
- Superman II
- Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
- A Grand Day Out, the first Wallace and Gromit adventure