Film Reviews,

The Establishing Shot: UK Premiere Georges Méliès restored A Trip to the Moon with AIR in attendance

Thursday, December 15, 2011 Craig Grobler 0 Comments

109 years ago in 1902, Scott, Shackleton and Wilson reached the most southern point of the Antarctic, the 26th President of American - Theodore Roosevelt becomes the first American President to ride in an car and over in France at 41, Georges Méliès completed Le Voyage dans la Lune - A Trip to the Moon roughly his 100th film. Seven years after the Auguste and Louis Lumière (the Lumière Brothers) had invented and patented the first film projector.

Mentioned in almost every film book I have ever picked up, as the father of modern cinema - Georges Méliès was a theatre owner, illusionist and showman before changing the way films were made. Over his 18 year film career Méliès made approximately 555 films. Using his Theatre illusionist background to create optical tricks, fantastical worlds and adventures. But his most famous was Le Voyage dans la Lune - A Trip to the Moon, heralded as the most significant Science Fiction work of the day. I guess it must have equaled the scale of spectacle of James Cameron’s Avatar at the time and its success means that on release it was more revered than say, Sir Ridley Scott's Blade Runner which was only appreciated by a niche audience on release before blossoming to on home release.

A Trip to the Moon not only has one of the most iconic and memorable scenes in film history as a rocket ship crashes into the moons eye but Méliès’ narrative format (previously most of films had been of a news type) and effects were the inspiration for many filmmakers that followed, he invented stop-substitution, dissolves, double exposure and pioneered many of the techniques still used in some form today. The way we see film may have been vastly different without Georges Méliès’ vision and output.

A Trip to the Moon cost Georges Méliès a small fortune to produce including the colour conversion by hand painting over each of the 13 375 frames. With declining interest in fantasy films mainly due to the World War One, Méliès’ finances were dwindling and after A Trip to the Moon was pirated and played with great success to the important American market – with Georges Méliès receiving neither credit nor profit. The great Georges Méliès was eventually so disheartened he destroyed some of his films and the bulk was recycled and turned into boots for the French army.

Only a black & white copy of A Trip to the Moon survived but 80 years later in 1993 an original colour copy was discovered in Barcelona albeit that the nitrate film was in such a state of degradation that restoration seemed impossible. Lobster Films acquired the film and undertook a two year project to carefully digitize the damaged film. The project was then stored and went dormant.

Eight years later in 2010 the technology had became available to allow the print to be properly restored - using both a black and white copy and the colour print Lobster Films, Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema and the Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage launched a project on the same scale as a full feature film restoration to bring A Trip to the Moon back to life. This truly was a labour of love as the majority of the restoration funds were donated and are unlikely to ever be recouped.

The team behind the restoration wanted to bring the film to as wide audience as possible and decided that the silent film should be accompanied by a modern popular soundtrack as would have been done, live during its own time. To this end they approached AIR the revered electronica duo made up of Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel. Need I mention I am a huge fan? The film was debuted with AIR playing the soundtrack live at the Cannes Festival, 2011 opening night - commemorating Georges Méliès 150th birthday.

Last night, over a century after its release I was fortunate enough to see the first UK screening of Georges Méliès’ restored masterpiece Le Voyage dans la lune and hear Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel of AIR chat about their involvement.

The film was introduced by Gilles Duval of Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema and Séverine Wemaere of Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage. Who went into a bit of the detail of the restoration of Le Voyage dans la lune, which I have outlined in this post as well as how AIR was approached and asked to be involved;

Séverine Wemaere: When thinking about a soundtrack we thought we couldn't use a live orchestra or live piano at every screening as it might be the time might be very cumbersome especially with festivals coming up. So an original soundtrack might work better. So we went to see two gentlemen we knocked on their door, well gate crashed their door and asked if they knew Georges Méliès?

AIR: Yes

Séverine Wemaere: We asked them if they would do an original soundtrack for the restored Le Voyage dans la Lune to accompany it worldwide and give Méliès a new life bringing him to a new audience.

AIR: Yes

Séverine Wemaere: I have to mention that this is on a voluntary non paid basis and you have a month to complete the soundtrack as we have just found out that Le Voyage dans la Lune will be opening the Cannes Festival. Can you do it?

AIR: Yes, OK! (what Legends!)

We were quite surprised and impressed. So they locked themselves away for 4 weeks and created this marvelous music that I think is in the spirit of Georges Méliès films. As he would create films and then give them to the audience with the freedom to choose the music. So they would play “air–a-la-mode” the music that was the fashion of the time. I think they did a marvelous job and we are pleased to present Le Voyage dans la Lune at Institut Français in colour with an original soundtrack by AIR. Thank you very much.

Video: Public domain silent version of A Trip to the moon in Black and White

A Trip to the Moon Review
Not really a review (one does not review Mr. Georges Méliès' work but watches in amazement at the ingenuity and if they lucky learns something) but more of a summary of A Trip to the Moon for those that that need a companion to the on screen action as well as explanation of the 2 final scenes which have been missing until been found in a barn in 2002.

The 16 minute colourised film is in essence a series of 18 scenes that tell the story of Professor Barbenfouillis (Messy Beard), played by Georges Méliès and his proposal of A Trip to the Moon.

A Trip to the Moon: Scene 1
In the first scene we open on the grand hall of the Institute of incoherent Astrology. Where scholars have come from all over the world to the Astronauts Club to hear an important announcement from the club’s President, Professor Barbenfouillis.

Professor Barbenfouillis enters, takes the stage and presents the society with his grand plan and next step in the society’s evolution - A Trip to the Moon! In a rocket ship no less.

His plan is greeted with skepticism and outrage but he eventually manages to persuade five of the learned men to join him on his mission; Nostradamus, Alcofribas, Omega, Micromégas and Parafaragaramus

The crew change their clothes. I have seen some theories on line regarding this but I believe that the significance of this is that the crew are leaving the Astronauts Club to form their own independent team.

A Trip to the Moon: Scene 2
Next we are taken to a large work shop which looks strangely like the interior of Georges Méliès’ own glass encased Star Films studio. Here various workmen are constructing a space ship which now resembles a large bullet shell.

The astronauts arrive and inspect the ship, testing it for comfort and size before one of the astronomers falls into a bucket. After being helped out one of the work men calls the crew up to the roof. Which they ascend to with a ladder.

A Trip to the Moon: Scene 3
On the roof, the crew are able to see the Paris cityscape as well as many chimneys belching smoke, at the centre of the chimneys is a circle, the casing for the large cannon to be used to shoot the rocket ship into the heavens.

The crew watch with jubilation as molten metals are poured into the casing marked by a huge cloud of steam.

A Trip to the Moon: Scene 5
We are now on the roof tops above the city, a crowd of military personal has gathered on a platform with officials. On the right the cannon to be used to launch the rocket.

The rocket ship is pulled into view and unseen crowds below are cheering for our brave space travelers. The crew take their place in the ship. The hatch is sealed and the ship is pushed into the cannon to the cheers of the unseen crowds.

A Trip to the Moon: Scene 6
We are on the same roof top but a different point of view as we now see the cannon stretched out over an empty landscape. A single soldier is joined by a commander and the rest of the platoon. With a swipe of his sword the commander signals the launch pad to ready up. The soldier takes his position behind the cannon with a flame. A second sword swipe from the commander signals that the ship is ready for launch. The fuse is lit and the rocket shoots out of the cannon into space. A crowd swamps the platform cheering.

A Trip to the Moon: Scene 7
We see the moon and can make out it’s eyes and mouth and space clouds on the edge of the frame. Possibly one of the most iconic and memorable scenes from early cinema, often referenced in culture. As the space ship gets closer the moon grows in size and we can make out its features more clearly. Before the rocket ship crash lands into its left eye with a splat.

A Trip to the Moon: Scene 8
Now are on the moon surrounded by its vast moonscape and towering formations we see the space ship crash into its surface. The crew emerges from the ship and marvel jubilantly at the Moons landscape and formations. One of the highlights of the film is the way the sets change to accommodate the best view of the earth as it is seen rising in the sky illuminating the lunar scape much too the crew’s amazement.

They start exploring the craters but a small explosion throws them to the ground. Deciding they should gather their strength after their long journey before attempting to explore the hazardous terrain - the crew make makeshift sleeping arrangements on the lunar surface.

During the night celestial bodies become active. A large comet flies overhead (in Martin Scorsese's Hugo the comet was portrayed by Mama Jean (Jeanne d'Alcy) Georges' wife (Helen McCrory) and although Jeanne starred in A Trip to the Moon, as well as designed costumes -  the comet was made from board. If anyone knows what role Jeanne d'Alcy played in the film, please drop a comment below or get in touch. Thanks

The 7 stars of the big dipper, part of the Ursa Major constellation appear and the faces of the ladies in the stars show look perturbed at the arrival of the earthlings invasion.

The crew are having a restless sleep when Mars, Saturn and Phoebe resting on the crescent moon appear. Phoebe sends down a snow storm to the intruders.

The freezing crew decides to take shelter in a crevice below.

A Trip to the Moon: Scene 9
Now in an underground cavern the crew marvel at the strange formations and mushroom like plant life as they make their way further into the cave system. One of the crew crosses a tree like bridge and heads to one of the mushrooms, opens his umbrella to make a size comparison and his umbrella sprouts a root and transforms itself into a mushroom which grows taller and taller – much to the bewilderment of the crew.

Then our first glimpse of intelligent life on the moon when a Selenite appears. A strange clawed creature that seems to be part insect, part toad and part chameleon. It rushes towards the crew, Professor Barbenfouillis steps forward and hits it with his umbrella – it bursts into smoke. A second Selenite appears and rushes the crew, again bursting into smoke when hit.

An army of Selenites armed with spears arrive outnumbering the crew of an off camera chase the crew are captured.

A Trip to the Moon: Scene 10
Bound, the crew are marched to the grand court of the Selenite King. The Selenite King stands up from his throne and makes threatening gestures. The Selenite King may be ruler of the Moon and have living stars in his court but he is no match for Professor Barbenfouillis who sees his chance and lunges for the King, throwing him to the ground – again clouds ensue.

In the confusion the crew make a dash for it chased by the Selenite army.

A Trip to the Moon: Scene 11
The Selenite’s are chasing our crew across the lunar landscape. Professor Barbenfouillis turns and fights the fastest Selenites allowing the crew to escape. But soon the bulk of the Selenite army is on the scene.

A Trip to the Moon: Scene 12
The crew find their ship precariously perched on the edge of the Moon. They get on board, but Professor Barbenfouillis has to close the hatch from the outside. Fighting off another Selenite he pulls the ship over the side of the cliff, but not before a Selenite jumps onto the ship. They narrowly escape as the Selenite army arrives.

A Trip to the Moon: Scene 13
The ship, Professor Barbenfouillis and the Selenite fall through the skies earthward.

A Trip to the Moon: Scene 14
Into the sea they tumble. This scene is notable as this was the first use of animation in film and some great super imposing or compositing as this technique is now known and widely used albeit in a digital format.

A Trip to the Moon: Scene 15
The ship sinks into the ocean scaring the sea life. Employing another favourite Méliès technique of filming through an aquarium with an intricately designed canvas in the background. The ship rises to the surface.

A Trip to the Moon: Scene 16
We see a large steamer tow the space ship into a moon lit port.

A Trip to the Moon: Scene 17
We see a huge street parade where a procession are passing, first a band then the space ship is pulled along emblazoned with a Star Film Paris graphic (film makers of the period often personalized their films to combat piracy) as the gathered crowds are cheering our returned heroes. The crews are presented to the president and each receives a large Order of the Moon medal while the gathered crowds cheer them. Finally the bound feral Selenite is brought out.

A Trip to the Moon: Scene 18
The final scene takes place in what seems to be the town square as the cast gathers in formation around a large monument of Professor Barbenfouillis and his closed umbrella with the defeated Moon underfoot. This image seems to have inspired Walt Disney’s look for Mickey Mouse as The Sorcerer's Apprentice in the 1940 film Fantasia. In the closing bit of A Trip to the Moon the cast are seen dancing around the monument.

A Trip to the Moon - Le voyage dans la lune (1902)
A group of astronomers go on an expedition to the moon.

Director: Georges Méliès
Writers- Georges Méliès, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells
Georges Melies: Professor Barbenfouillis
Victor André: Luna (face)
Bleuette Bernon: Girl on the Moon
Brunnet: Astronomer
Depierre: Astronomer
Farjaux: Astronomer
Kelm: Astronomer
Georges Melies: Professor Barbenfouillis
Jeanne d'Alcy
Henri Delannoy: Captain
Dancers of the Ballet of the Châtelet
Acrobats at the Folies-Bergere: Selenites

Thoughts on the restored Georges Méliès A Trip to the Moon
I was mesmerized by Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon. It is hard to believe that he could create such magic over a century ago and it is very clear that many of the techniques he used are still working today albe they transposed to computers.

Thankfully the restored version does not look like a polished modern day production some damage to the film is occasionally noticeable, which I saw as a medal of heritage.

In terms of story - again not much has changed; men go on a journey encounter obstacles and strange life and try get back home. The story was not original in Méliès’ day – he borrowed heavily from H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and still serves as the foundation for much of today’s Science Fiction.

AIR’s original soundtrack was a bit of a surprise. I felt it to be overpowering at times. I guess my expectations were running to AIR creating an easy listening ambient background sound, something they excel at.

In the discussion afterwards it became apparent that AIR’s choice was controversial - but once I understood their rational it made a lot of sense and I couldn’t wait to see it again.

AIR explained that after much thought they decided that there original soundtrack would be more in line with the spirit of Georges Méliès and wanted to give the soundtrack a hand made feel, like something Georges Méliès would have created in his workshop rather than a modern polished production - in fact, a mixer smoothed out the soundtrack in post production but AIR decided against using the finished version and went back to their handmade version.

Hopefully the restored version will be released in high definition with lots of background extras on Georges Méliès and his Star Films productions. I will hopefully have a full transcript of AIR’s post screening QA up soon.

For more info:

Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage:
Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema :
Ciné Lumière:

The Establishing Shot: UK Premiere Georges Méliès restored A Trip to the Moon with AIR in attendance