Any filmmaker worth anything surely appreciates this monumental film by George Melies, not just for its innovation at the time, but how it catalyzed a what was considered novelty back then, to a medium that not only created the 7th art, but an entire industry.
Perhaps his first great achievement in the history of Motion Pictures is length! But let's start from the beginning!
The Lumiere Brothers, the well-known pioneers of cinema, made a few movies in the late 19th century revolving around everyday life events, most famous of which you've probably seen the arrival of a train to a station by placing the camera near the train at an angle to make the train seemed larger than Life. As simple as we may look at it today back then it caused an uproar.
Τhe films of The Lumiere brothers were short films, lasting anywhere from a few seconds to a couple of minutes. These first few early examples of the capabilities of film we're devoted exclusively to documenting everyday life. It wasn't until the magician and stage performer George Melies caught his eye and one of these devices called the cinematograph or what we call them today film cameras. At first he wanted to buy one from the Lumiere Brothers, to which they refused, but being the polytechnic he was, he managed to make one himself.
Mellies understood that this medium could be the gateway to perform tricks he could have never dreamed of performing in front of a live audience. It would be a way to explore the endless possibilities of magic through another medium. This portal, opened to him when one day he was filming a scene in the street, the camera then had a problem. He stopped for a couple of minutes to fix it and then proceeded to film. When he saw the film later that day he noticed a car in the background had disappeared during that cut. It it looked like the car disappeared! That's when he realized the possibilities. He created many films where you push the boundaries of what was thought possible at the time. His most famous film, “The Trip to the Moon” is still remembered today as the first great achievement in the history of cinema.
A trip to the moon wasn't the first motion picture of all time, but it was in many ways the first successful fictional film. Considered by many film scholars to be the first science fiction film of all time, it was also the first motion picture to challenge the established ideas of how long the movie could be, how much it cost and what the art form was capable of showing. At his heart, Melies, was a magician, and he found film to be an incredibly useful way to explore worlds unknown and dazzle his viewers with tricks and effects no one had conceived until then. If you watch a trip to the moon at 24 frames-per-second today's industry-standard then it lasts roughly nine minutes this is the equivalent of 260m of film stock. Nine minutes is nothing to us, it's not only a short film, but a short short film! This was a staggering amount of time for audiences In 1902. The trip to the moon can be considered the first feature-length film and the first epic.
The film is about a council of scientists that decide to embark on an expedition to the moon. They build a Space Capsule and are then launched into space in a canon. The most famous shot of film in one of the most famous shots in film history, the man in the moon hit in the eye by the Space Capsule.
The crew explores unknown worlds with beautiful landscapes in giant mushrooms to even encounter the "Selenites", the moon's indigenous people. The explorers kill a few of the natives and are chased, but they manage to escape in the capsule landing safely back on Earth with one of the natives and are celebrated as heroes in France.
Melies wrote, produced, directed and even starred in the film. He was also involved in creating the sets, wardrobe design and cinematography. The Genius of Melies was that he single-handedly created standards that future filmmakers would follow. Back then, there weren't any general structures, characters, or special techniques for filmmakers to follow during the turn of the century. Even the concept of storytelling through the medium was'nt yet in the general mindset of the people. It was still a novelty that turned out to be something much much more. So keeping that in mind, all this makes Melies’ work a truly creative and pionerring endeavor.
The films of the Lumiere brothers, documented the events of everyday life and presented a way to place the camera in a certain position to evoke a certain emotion, like on the face of an oncoming train. Perhaps because their only reference were probably paintings. But it wasn't until when Melies came around that his style would break boundaries. He always placed the camera as if it were a theatre, because of his background as a stage performer. His films certainly have a theatre-like quality to them, from the elaborate costumes and set designs to the seemingly magical special effects that were unknown at the time. He would also only cut after a scene was over instead of cutting in the middle of this to give you the illusion of watching a theater play instead of a film. In the short film that preceded a trip to the moon, editing usually consisted of very simple cuts. One shot would simply take you into the next, and one scene would just move on to the next. Back then, there wasn't any smoothness to the editing process. Techniques like superimposition, the placement of an image on top of an already existing image, to add overall effect to transitions were first developed by Melies. His creative genius introduced the world to the subtlety of transitioning dissolves, allowing the viewer to move smoothly from one scene into the next. It's important to mention as well as far as the scope of the film goes, that it took Melies 3 months to make. By then time, those time frames meant ages. The same goes for the cost of the film which was only natural considering the amount of film stock they had to use, and Melies’ elaborate set, costume designs and pyrotechnics among other special effects.
Very few copies of the film are hand-colored and it's amazing what that entailed. They had someone paint with a brush over the film stock over every single frame. It's also very impressive that the movie was shot almost entirely in Melies studio, except for the shot where the capsule plunges into real ocean waves which was filmed on location.
The set designs are truly wonderful, expertly crafted and the same goes for the costume design. True to the satirical tone of the film, the scientists in the meeting look more like magicians than scientists. The professor, played by Melies himself, simply draws a picture of the Earth and Moon, and a capsule in its trajectory. There's not even a single equation! However the scientists at first are outraged, then a few accept it with minimum details. The themes in the film range from the exploration of space worlds unknown, to even social commentary on colonization.
A Trip to the moon is undoubtedly a surrealist film creating entities from inanimate objects, blending dreams with reality and theater with the endless creative potential of film. Inspirations for the movie include Jules Verne's novels "From the earth to the moon" and "Around the Moon" among other works. George Melies background as a magician and in theater helped him create the effects for the movie. For the special effects, substitution splice technique, which was also developed by Melies was extensively used. The camera operator would stop for long enough so that something could be added in or moved out of frame. This effect was also used for the famous man in the moon shot, allowing the capsule to suddenly appear in the eye of the actor.
According to Melies’ memoirs, he had a hard time selling the film to exhibitors because of his unusually elevated price. Knowing that he wouldn't be able to sell it before word of mouth would spread, he allowed one of one exhibitor to borrow the film for free so he could show it to an audience to see how the film would be received. Needless to say the film was a spectacular success. Afterwards the film was shown uninterrupted at the Olympia Music Hall in Paris for several months. Although the film was a success in the United States as well, this wasn't exactly great for Melies since the film suffered from a piracy crisis. Thomas Edison among others created copies of the film and gave it a widespread distribution without Melies’ consent. It is said he even claimed he was the creator. Eventually Melies failed to continue making films due to financial problems, and ended up selling toys and candy in Paris.
Most of the prints for “A Trip to the Moon” were lost even though the film was a large success and was forgotten for quite a few years. It wasn't until 1997 that the full movie including the lost final celebration sequence was recreated.
The impact of "A trip to the moon" in the history of cinema is inescapable. It’s creative power in creating a fantasy world in a time where short documentary filmmaking was the norm, makes the film one of the great creative quests of the 20th century. Filmmakers that came after Melies have expressed their love for his work. Being featured in the Scorsese film "Hugo" that clearly shows the affection Scorsese had for Melies’ influence and the evolution of motion pictures. Filmmaker DW Griffith also expressed his gratefulness for Melies’ contribution, stating “I owe him everything”. Even until today the iconic capsule on the moon's "eye" has been a staple in pop culture since the day it was released to the public nearly 120 years ago!
It's a motion picture that can not be missed by anyone, whether a lover of film or a casual viewer. This is where it all begins!