‘Chromatic Frankenstein’s Monsters?’: Restoration, Colour and Variants of Georges Méliès’s Voyage dans la Lune | Wendy Haslem | Senses of Cinema

By Wendy Haslem

Wendy Haslem lectures in Cinema and Cultural Studies, University of Melbourne.

The restored edition of ‘the original colour version’ of Voyage dans la Lune (Trip to the Moon, Georges Méliès, 1902/Lobster Films, 2011) opened the Cannes Film Festival to great wonder and acclaim in 2011. The one hundred and nine years separating the first screening of this famous science fiction film image001and its recent revision bridge the beginning and, for some film historians, the end of celluloid film culture. (1) In 1917 Méliès was forced to destroy much of his collection as 400 of his films were melted down to form heels for the boots of soldiers during WWI. (2) The coloured version of Trip to the Moon was discovered in 1993 amongst a collection of 200 silent films donated by an anonymous collector to the Filmoteca de Catalunya in Barcelona. (3) The reconstruction of the coloured version of Trip to the Moon poses questions about the status and evolution of cinema at these pivotal moments. How do newer technologies, particularly those used in digital restoration, impact on the original print? Is colour restored or revived by digital techniques? Is the digital restoration of Trip to the Moon a conservation project, or does it result in the creation of yet another new version of the film? An investigation of the 2011 restoration blurs traditional notions of originality and complicates the relationship between reproduction and conservation. The restoration highlights the evolving complexities inherent in connections between film history and digital cinema, with the 2011 incarnation of Trip to the Moon existing at the intersection of celluloid and digital cultures.

The pioneering films by Méliès have been described by Tom Gunning as creating an aesthetic of astonishment, emblematic of the ‘cinema of attractions’. (4) This classification emphasises the ‘thrill of display’ at the spectacle of early cinema, aspects that are crucial to the presentation of illusion in the trick films developed by the magician Méliès. (5) André Gaudreault notes the degree of self reflexivity in Méliès’s early cinema, suggesting that the aim was to encourage spectators to ‘appreciate the illusion’ by recognising the camera’s presence and the potential audience. (6) Gaudreault writes that “he interpellates both the camera and the spectator into the text as he acknowledges their existence through direct address”. (7) This is a cinema of active display. In the performance of the ‘trick’ effect, Méliès both shows, performs the illusion and conceals the filmic devices that create the illusion. However, whilst the perception of Méliès’ cinema as part of the attractions tradition is clear, it is also important to acknowledge the depth, range and intermediality of his oeuvre.

Matthew Solomon describes Trip to the Moon as an intermedial film, a film created from a matrix of influences, one that continues to inspire new forms of the moving image. (8) The original version was inspired by the 1865 Jules Verne novel De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon). Méliès reveals that:

“The idea of A Trip to the Moon came to me when I was reading a book by Jules Verne called From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon. In the book, the humans could not land on the moon … so I imagined, in such a way that I could put together some arresting and amusing fairytale images, show the outside and inside of the moon, and some monsters who might live on the moon, add one or two artistic effects (women representing the stars, the comets, … snow effects, the bottom of the sea). (9)

Other influences include the HG Welles novel The First Men in the Moon which was published in France in the same year as Trip to the Moon was filmed. And, according to Laurent Mannioni, it is quite possible that news of the exhibit at the Pan American Exhibition in Buffalo, called Trip to the Moon (1901) would have influenced Méliès. (10) The turn of the century inspired visions and imaginings of voyages to distant places. Trip to the Moon is a film that imagines a voyage to the moon 67 years prior to the first landing. This was the first film to imagine the earth from the moon and to offer the reverse perspective of the moon from the earth. It is also the first example of science fiction on film. However, the mythology that surrounds Méliès suggests that he is central to a range of ‘firsts’. According to the catalogue that was produced to accompany the release of the 2011 version of Trip to the Moon, Méliès was the first director to design and equip a film studio (his ‘image capture theatre’), to create storyboards for his film productions and to develop editing techniques (particularly appearance/disappearance, substituting, multiplying effects) to facilitate special effects and trick photography with moving images. (11) Whilst Trip to the Moon became the most recognised of all of Méliès’s films, Elizabeth Ezra reveals that “At first, however, he had difficulty persuading fairground exhibitors to buy it because of the high price resulting from the film’s lavish production costs; so he lent the film to exhibitors free of charge for a single showing, confident that its popularity with audiences would convince exhibitors that they would recoup his asking price”. (12) At this stage in the emerging film industry, individual films were sold to exhibitors directly. Ultimately, Méliès is credited as inventing the cinema of ‘show and entertainment’, but the impact of his influence extends across the production, distribution and exhibition sequence. The display of Méliès’s innovation becomes a key consideration in the process and affect of restoration.

The restored version of Trip to the Moon was screened on a hot night in the Piazza Maggiore, officially opening the 2011 ‘Il Cinema Ritrovato’ film festival in Bologna, Italy. (13) The audience recognised the significance of this second public screening of the restoration. With all seats filled and very little standing room left in the Piazza, I stood at the back of the square, watching a film that I had seen in black and white many times, but this time it hit the screen in the beautiful watery, translucent colours characteristic of the effects of hand painting in early film and photography. There was such a thrill in the crowd that although I was standing, I felt like I was jumping. I certainly wasn’t standing still. This resonance was in response to the colours of Trip to the Moon. As early as 1929 Kodak identified the potential for colour to affect the emotions. Whilst Kodak developed Sonochrome tints like Rose Doree to ‘quicken the respiration’ and Peachblow for ‘brief, joyous moments’, (14) twenty years before, Méliès applied translucent aniline dyes to create spectacle and to provoke sensation in nascent cinema. Writing on early cinema, Tom Gunning notes that “colour helped fashion a culture of sensationalism, based in sensual and emotional intensity and dedicated to inciting desire rather than orderly behaviour”. (15) This impression of colour represents the convergence of two pivotal cinematic moments. Evidence of the old and new can be detected across the surface and secreted in the details of the projected image. By maintaining traces of the old within the new medium, the 2011 colour restoration reveals the duality of innovations in celluloid and digital technologies, an acknowledgment of their respective historical moments, but as I will argue, ultimately indicating their inextricable connection.

Full Article: ‘Chromatic Frankenstein’s Monsters?’: Restoration, Colour and Variants of Georges Méliès’s Voyage dans la Lune | Senses of Cinema.