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Tag Archive: George Melies


Review by C.J. Bunce

Any list of 10 or more items these days quickly becomes the stuff of argument.  But in the right context it can become the stuff of discussion and curiosity.  A list of 50 items takes some work to prepare and if that list accompanies a genre that has spanned more than a century, then it really invites discussion. Which brings us to Turner Classic Movies and Running Press’s new look at the science fiction genre in Sloan De Forest’s Must See Sci-Fi: 50 Movies That Are Out of This World This latest pop culture book to engage science fiction fans may show that, after all these years, the best and most important works of science fiction are not really all that controversial.  Yet it wouldn’t really be worth picking up if it only confirmed readers’ love for epic films.  Must-See Sci-Fi takes that next step and also serves that need of all fans of film to take another look at the classics and be open to those films we may have overlooked.

Consisting of 50 approximately 1,000 word essays on each film across 114 years, from 1902 to 2016, Must-See Sci-Fi covers the significance of each film selected in its 280 pages, including a plot overview, key memorable scenes, plus some good behind-the-scenes trivia, as well as plenty of color and black and white photographs.  From A Trip to the Moon in 1902 to Arrival in 2016, the book has a fairly consistent coverage (but weighted with more selections from the 1970s and 1980s, and the 1940s have no entries).  Most will agree with the films included from George Méliès’s groundbreaking beginning through the 1960 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. But controversial for one person may not be controversial for another.  De Forest presents her case for those films you might not find on other lists–many firsts of sci-fi emphasized instead of the definite look at a sub-genre, like Alphaville, Solaris, Sleeper, The Man Who Fell to Earth, THX 1138, The Brother From Another Planet, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. One great feature is a recommendation of two “watch-alike” films after each section–If you loved a film, you have two more films to track down and compare, and if you missed a film but don’t like the two suggested films, the book may telegraph your level of enjoyment once you screen the entry.  Readers will also see the impact across a century of filmmaking from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the works of both H.G. Wells and Jules Verne on these selections.

Key to the fun of delving into science fiction film history is understanding the roots of science fiction–how modern science fiction 99% of the time derives (or combines) its story elements from key benchmarks from stories or films of the past.  As the book progresses readers can see author De Forest frequently referring back to those sources, and after 1977’s Star Wars the remaining 16 entries all seem to rely significantly on films of the past–sometimes they even appear to be merely another twist on one of the films in the first half of the book.  And yes, readers will find new discussion topics.  La Jetée may be an incredibly fascinating short film, but is it more of a “must-see” than Terry Gilliam’s update 12 Monkeys?  And how did a Woody Allen movie ever make the cut?

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With all the modern blockbusters celebrating anniversaries, we often forget about the classic genre films.  Modern science fiction owes the most to a handful of early 20th century films, namely, the early adaptations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, George Méliès’s 1902 film A Trip to the Moon, and Fritz Lang’s 1927 dystopian vision, Metropolis, which turned 90 this year.  To celebrate its 90th anniversary, this weekend Eureka Entertainment is releasing its definitive version of Metropolis for audiences in the UK and Ireland in a Special Edition Boxed Set, containing the 150-minute reconstructed and restored version of the film.  Drawing on–and defining–dystopian sci-fi themes, Metropolis depicts a dark future where society is divided between an underground, browbeaten working class, and the ruling class, which enjoys a decadent life of luxury and leisure.

When Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) ventures into the depths in search of a woman named Maria (Brigitte Helm), plans of rebellion are revealed and a Maria-replica robot is programmed by mad scientist named Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) and the Master of Metropolis Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) to incite the workers into a self-destructive riot.  With its futuristic cityscape (that cinema would one day translate into the world of Blade Runner and other films) and an attractive female robot (that would inspire the entire lineage of cinema’s robots, borgs, androids, and more), Metropolis is considered among the most famous of all German films.

In addition to the Special Edition Boxed Set, Eureka, which owns the UK and Ireland rights to the film (it’s in the public domain in the U.S.)., is also bringing the 2010 reconstructed and restored Metropolis to the big screen later this year.  Don’t miss the excellent trailer they made for the film below.

Metropolis will be screening at the following venues throughout the remainder of 2017, with more expected to be announced:

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back-to-the-future-ii-world-series-cubs-win

As predicted by Bob Gale in his script for Back to the Future II, it was the destiny of the Chicago Cubs to be playing–in fact sweeping–last year’s World Series.  As we sat in Kauffman Stadium last year and watched the Kansas City Royals beat the New York Mets we were disappointed the Cubs weren’t there.  Science fiction never seems to get it right, but Gale–and the Cubs–were so close last year, much like the Royals were the prior year.  Science fiction rarely even comes close, as you’ll discover especially if you read many classic sci-fi novels from the early and mid-twentieth century.  Just look how far off course in date predictions forward thinkers were, like Arthur C. Clarke (we’re still waiting for much of his 2001), Philip K. Dick (the novel inspiring Blade Runner takes place in 1992), and Gene Roddenberry (Khan controlled much of Earth during the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s).

But history was made last night when the Cubs broke their 108 year gap between Series wins.  Would 1908 Cubs stars Mordecai Brown, Frank Chance, Johnny Evers, or Joe Tinker have believed it if you told them their team would be on the outs so long?  How about contemporary science fiction visionaries George Melies, Thomas Edison, Charles Urban, H.G. Wells, or Mark Twain?

1908-champion-cubs-baseball-cards

1908 baseball cards were tiny, weren’t they?

Just how long ago is 108 years anyway?  In 1908 Shackleton was heading to New Zealand, and explorers finally made it to the North Pole, Wilbur Wright was demonstrating this new flying vehicle called the airplane in Europe, and Henry Ford created his first Model T, Teddy Roosevelt declined to run for a third presidential term paving the way for the election of William Howard Taft (who would go on to become Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were killed in Bolivia, and Albert Einstein had just introduced his special theory of relativity.  1908 was a very different world and plenty of history has filled the gap, with countless millions of fans–an entire generation born, living and dying–watching the Cubs games without the big win, many from 1914 onward at the site of the baseball field that would carry chewing gum’s William Wrigley’s famous name.  It is “just a game,” yet the game itself survived plenty just as its fans survived plenty.

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Georges MŽlis

Prestidigitation–quick magic tricks or “sleight of hand” was the subject of one of more than 500 films of cinema pioneer George Méliès that was thought to be lost forever.  Match de Prestidigitation, or The Conjuring Contest, like many of his works from the first days of the 20th century, was thought to be lost through the simple act of film deterioration and the failure to preserve early works soon enough.  That is, it was presumed lost until this week.

The Czech Republic National Film Archive located the two-minute silent film from 1904 on a reel given to the archives by an anonymous donor.  A researcher analyzing the film labeled Les Transmutations Imperceptibles, another work by Méliès, realized it was actually the missing Match de Prestidigitation.  This is an incredible, historic find for historians of film and the man known as the father of cinema.  In the film, a magician divides himself into two selves, performs some magic tricks as the duo and then merges back into one.  Méliès was famous for his early special effects.

melies

Méliès’s best known film is, of course, the 114 year old film Le Voyage dans la Lune, previously discussed here at borg.com.  Back in 1993 the sole remaining color copy of A Trip to the Moon was discovered in Barcelona.  As of last year it had been restored to its original glory–believed to be the first science fiction film.  The next film he released was his Les Aventures de Robinson Crusoe–The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe–similarly discovered and revealed at a cinema festival in Northern Italy in 2012.  What other Méliès films could be out there?

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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?

The Victorian era meets the future in this scene from the 1902 color film A Trip to the Moon

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.

Film pioneer Georges Méliès mixed stunning color animation and special effects in this view of the future of travel in A Trip to the Moon

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?

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Wind Whales of Ishmael cover

Written in 1971 by notable sci-fi author Philip José Farmer, The Wind Whales of Ishmael is intended as a sequel to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.  As to genre, it fits into modern steampunk, with its exploration of Earth’s future without reference to the scientific realities of the latter 20th century, and its sailing ships in the sky.  Wind Whales continues the story of Ishmael, the only survivor of Ahab’s failed whale hunt in Moby Dick, a story many literature students have struggled to get through because of its dauntingly long passages of a solitary life at sea.  Ishmael is rescued but by clinging to Quequeg’s canoe coffin he is plunged through some type of vortex, much like the Bermuda Triangle, into Earth’s distant future.  This future world is unrecognizable, and has a few similarities to the distant planet from Avatar.  Along with other of Farmer’s works, Wind Whales is being re-issued by Titan Books in a new library aimed at steampunk readers.  The new printing of The Wind Whales of Ishmael hits bookstores tomorrow, March 12, 2013, with a foreward by editor Michael Croteau and an afterward by Farmer’s nephew, author Danny Adams.

The oddity in Wind Whales is that it has very little in relation to theme, writing style, and characterization to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.  So it could have been a standalone story, or a sequel to any number of classic works.  There is of course a future world of whaling and fighting “air sharks” which ties Ishmael to his past life where he threw away all else to enter a life at sea.  Yet the future world of far distant Earth is so different that Wind Whales may have more in relation to Frank Herbert’s Dune series with its giant worms.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

If you ever had an inkling to go to film school, if you are going to film school or if you teach film courses, Richard Rickitt’s Special Effects: The History and Technique should be required reading.  Not only is it a comprehensive work about the history and craft of special effects, it is a detailed account of the history and progress of film, and could serve as a college textbook to a master class in film technique.  And it is also a history of science and technology in its own right.

Rickitt’s Special Effects is a well-reviewed work, which is why it was purchased for me as a gift.  It is used as a college text in film schools and for good reason.  It has seen several printings since its first printing in Great Britain in 2006, including a reprint as recently as 2011, and it is as current as a nearly 400-page volume can be, including new effects technologies employed as recently as the Lord of the Rings films and X-Men 3.

Because of its price, Special Effects may not be for the casual movie enthusiast–but only because of price–as it can cost $40 for older editions and up to $230 for the most current edition.  Yet if you are really interested in behind-the-scenes cinema, it is probably worth saving for, and if you’re a college student, just slip it into your current semester’s $800 book purchase (at least that’s what I spent on each of my last few semesters for books and I can’t imagine prices have dropped–plus this book is actually a fun read you’ll hold on to).  It’s breadth is enormous, with both general and detailed coverage of landmark people and technologies from George Melies to Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen to Industrial Light & Magic to Pixar and Weta.  Although it purports to cover merely Special Effects, in truth it covers the beginning of film and every technology that was created since, building upon each discovery and new invention to bring us to the complex CGI technologies of today.

This is far from a quick read, and will likely serve as a reference work or one you pull off the shelf from time to time when you need something exciting to read of the non-fiction variety.  I mentioned college text–Rickitt is a good teacher, clearly explaining in terms anyone can understand not just the “what” but the “why” and “how” of benchmarks in film with visuals and diagrams, including explanations of the role and use of technologies like the zoetrope, the parts and functions of the modern movie camera, the history and types of film recording materials, matte film, blue-screens, film printing, optical and digital compositing, the A to Z of film projection, post-production techniques like image interpolation, the use of mirrors, forced perspective and miniaturization, pyrotechnics, cloud tanks, models, motion-control photography, digital and procedural modelling, texture mapping, special effects animation, rotoscoping, 3D technologies, motion blur, digital skin, performance capture, particle systems, high dynamic range images, match moving, rendering, the A to Z of matte painting, props, make-up, prosthetics, animatronics, sculpting, inner mechanisms, performance systems, digital make-up, atmospheric effects, breakaway effects, sound recording, sound effects mixing, foleying, dialogue replacement, and the future of film technologies.

A diagram from Rickitt’s Special Effects: The History and Technique

The author uses hundreds of photographs and provides real-use examples from movies to explain techniques.  Detailed analysis is used for movie benchmarks Rickitt has identified, including The Abyss (1989), The Birds (1963), Aliens (1986), An American Werewolf in London (1981), Blade Runner (1982), Citizen Kane (1941), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), Destination Moon (1950), Earthquake (1974), The Exorcist (1973), Fantastic Voyage (1966), Forbidden Planet (1956), Forrest Gump (1994), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Jurassic Park (1993), King Kong (1933), King Kong (2005), The Last Starfighter (1984), The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), The Lost World (1925), The Matrix trilogy (1999-2003), Metropolis (1926), Mighty Joe Young (1949), 1941 (1979), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), all six Star Wars films (1977-2005), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), The Thief of Baghdad (1940), Things to Come (1936), Titanic (1997), Toy Story (1995), Tron (1982), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), The War of the Worlds (1953), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Willow (1988), and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985).

You’ll learn about ambient occlusion, beam splitters, cannon cars, color separation, depth of field, diffuse reflection, dissolves, dubbing, edge detection, emulsion, extrusion, fluid dynamics, go-motion, introvision, the Lydecker technique, morphing, NURBs, plates, ray tracing, squibs, time-lapse and time slice photography, wipes, zooms and zoptics.

An early edition of Rickitt’s book–note that earlier versions will not have the most up-to-date coverage of current technologies. The version shown at the top of this review is the most recent edition.

And along with the “what”  and “why” Rickitt profiles a “who’s who” of landmark film creators, including Georges Melies, Mack Sennett, D.W. Griffith, James Whale, Alfred Hitchcock, George Pal, Roger Corman, Irwin Allen, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis, Peter Jackson, Dennis Muren, John P. Fulton, Linwood Dunn, Richard Edlund, Dennis and Robert Skotak, Arnold Gillespie, Theodore and Howard Lydecker, Gordon Jennings, John Dykstra, Steve Gawley, Lorne Peterson, Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen, Phil Tippett, John Lasseter, Norman O. Dawn, Albert Whitlock, Peter Ellenshaw, Lon Chaney, Jack Pierce, Stan Winston, Rick Baker, Ken Ralston, Cliff Richardson, Michael Lantieri, Jack Foley, Ben Burtt, Gary Rydstrom, and the Carboulds.

But you don’t need to look at Special Effects: The History and Technique as a dense book of facts.  Pick it up now and then and enjoy reading the book in 4-5 page stints and you’ll become an expert in film in no time, or just be amazed at how the magic of film works.

Special Effects: The History and Technique has a forward by Ray Harryhausen and an appendix, including a glossary of film terms and awards.

By C.J. Bunce

It’s not every day, or even any year, that you get to witness the video premiere of a film from 1902 in its original color version.   Or that you get to listen to the world premiere sound recording of a complete score to that film.  Especially if that movie never had a musical score and the musical score is actually composed and released 110 years after the film’s premiere.  And if that film is considered to be the first science fiction film of all time, then you’re really in for something unique.  Confused?  Read on.

The classic science fiction film is, of course, 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 current 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 14-minute film was 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.

The Victorian era meets the future in this seen from the 1902 color film A Trip to the Moon

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.  But the 13,375 frames of decomposed material was practically worthless, until film preservationist Serge Bromberg found a way to catch the very few minutes when the film was able to be photographed when deposited with a special chemical vapor.  Every day for two years his staff worked bit by bit 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, following a $500,000 grant from French film foundations.  The result was revealed to dazzled audiences at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Film pioneer Georges Méliès mixed stunning color animation and special effects in this view of the future of travel in A Trip to the Moon

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 home-grown film was considered by the French to be revered even more than the rest of the world, musicians Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel were themselves elevated to a celebrity status like never before.  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.

A sea of tranquility featured in the 1902 film

National Public Radio will be revealing the full album stream this coming Friday, February 3, 2012, at www.npr.org/music .  A limited edition CD/DVD set will be released at Amazon.com on February 7, 2011, including the re-mastered original color version of the film.

Film distributor Flicker Alley will be releasing the premiere Blu-Ray release of the color version of A Trip to the Moon on March 27, 2012 in a deluxe edition, including the 78-minute documentary, The Extraordinary Voyage by Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange of Lobster Films in Paris, about the life of Georges Méliès and his film A Trip to the Moon.

We featured A Trip to the Moon here at borg.com a few weeks ago as one of our most iconic images of the history of sci-fi in film.  If you haven’t voted for your favorite sci-fi image yet, check it out and vote for your favorite here.

On a final note, George Méliès was another creative master in the realm of masters like Wolfgang Mozart who suffered financially.  Students of copyright law and theory should check out his story, as he may be the first victim of film piracy, as his film was secretly duplicated by film technicians and sold without any profits given to Méliès, eventually resulting in his own bankruptcy.  Long in the public domain, the new color transfer with soundtrack by Air will give modern preservationists of film history and the modern composers some profits that the creator himself never saw.  This is well deserved, as in doing so, modern audiences get a new, immediate film experience and a look at something not seen since the original moviegoers watched the film for the first time.

You can pre-order the Air CD release, including the color version of the DVD via Amazon.com today here.