By C.J. Bunce
One hundred and thirteen years ago this month, film audiences saw a bright future for the very first time.
The science fiction film was the French classic Le Voyage dans la lune, or A Trip the the Moon, created by science fiction special effects and animation pioneer George Méliès, who modern film audiences may know as one of the heroes of Martin Scorcese’s Academy Award-nominated film Hugo. The famous scene in A Trip to the Moon where the rocketship blasts into the Man in the Moon’s eye is a classic bit of film nostalgia, the full 14-minute film based on two classic works: Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, and H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon. You can’t have a better science fiction pedigree than A Trip to the Moon. But the first science fiction film available in color?
Film enthusiasts for literally a century were aware that A Trip to the Moon was originally released in theaters not in the typical black and white that monopolized film into the 1960s, but in color. But how could that be? The story was a secret treasure of sorts, that stayed hidden until 1993, when a film collector revealed the sole remaining color copy of the 1902 film in Barcelona. The 13,375 frames of decomposed material was practically worthless until film preservationist Serge Bromberg found a way to catch the photographed images when the material was deposited with a special chemical vapor. Every day for two years his staff worked through each frame, and in 2010 digital technology had come so far as to allow the preservationists to re-build the film at Technicolor’s laboratories in Los Angeles, using a $500,000 grant from French film foundations. The result was revealed to audiences at the Cannes Film Festival three years ago.
But before the film was revealed, a matter of sound arose. The original film was created before the concept of the talkie, or even the playing of music to accompany the film. No score had ever been created for A Trip to the Moon. The same foundations that had financed the restoration selected the French band Air to compose a 16-minute soundtrack for the film. Because the homegrown film was considered by the French to be so revered as a national treasure, musicians Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel were themselves elevated to celebrity status. After completion of the soundtrack, Air began composing a full musical score expanding on the themes they created for the film. Their sound is both futuristic and modern, and has been compared to their influences: Pink Floyd, spaghetti Western composer Ennio Morricone, and the bands Vangelis and Tangerine Dream.
But where does the 3D fit in?
The film premiered in France on September 1, 1902, and was released in the U.S. on October 4. But even years before that–in 1875–a science fiction operetta by Jacques Offenbach also called A Trip to the Moon and also inspired by Jules Verne’s novel piqued the interests of audiences across Europe. Soon after its premiere stereoscope images were sold, those classic side-by-side photographs–predecessors to the Viewmaster–that could be viewed with a simple hand-held viewer (available at any antique store today) revealing a 3D view of key scenes from the operetta, including many similar to scenes in Méliès’ later, more popular work. Long in the public domain, these cards can be easily reproduced today and viewed in 3D as they were nearly 140 years ago.
We featured the film A Trip to the Moon here at borg.com four years ago as one of our most iconic images of the history of sci-fi in film. If you missed it, check it out now and vote for your favorite here.
See the full color restoration of George Méliès’ icon of film history and its new soundtrack and witness this melding of the past and future for yourself. A limited edition CD/DVD set is available at Amazon.com, including the re-mastered original color version of the film, and a rare vinyl edition. And you can pick up Andre Previn’s version of Offenbach’s A Trip to the Moon operetta featured on the stereoscope cards above here.
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