The Birth of Both Sci Fi and SFX: A Trip to the Moon by Georges Méliès
How much do you know about this sci-fi epic and its creator?
It’s probably one of the most memorable scenes in movie history (right) from the 1902 sci-fi spectacle A Trip the the Moon (French: Le Voyage dans la Lune). But how much do you know about this historic film and its director Georges Méliès? If you’re like me, probably very little. Here are several factoids and some of the connections they triggered for me.
Georges Méliès was a groundbreaking film maker who pioneered story telling in the new visual medium of motion pictures. Before Méliès films, moving pictures would show a horse prancing or a train rushing past, all new and exciting in 1900 but nothing substantive. The French director, however, carried the medium to a new level as a method of telling stories and A Trip to the Moon, at just under 13 minutes, in length really is quite a tale.
Méliès was a true original, like Stanley Kubrick, but also Kubrick’s antithesis. If we begin with The Killing, Kubrick’s output from 1956 to 1999 was eleven feature films. By way of contrast, the French director produced 520 films.
The novels of Jules Verne, From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon, were influential catalysts for A Trip to the Moon. According to The Village Voice, this film has been placed on the list of 100 Greatest Films of the 20th Century. (In 1902 it was probably the greatest.)
Like Alfred Hitchcock, the director Méliès frequently appears in many of his films. By “many” I mean 300, and in this film he is the leading character, Professor Barbenfouillis.
When I watched the first scene, in which a pandemonium ensues, it was impossible not to recognize an echo of a similar scene that occurs in Woody Allen’s Zelig in which a pandemonium takes place, with papers being tossed and a chaotic hubbub following. It seems obvious that Allen was tipping his hat to “pay tribute” to this earlier work.
The film begins with a meeting of important astronomers who are each given telescopes so as to turn their attention to the moon. A team is selected and the next scene shows a giant cannon aimed skyward. The astronomer-explorers seal themselves into a space capsule shaped like a large bullet, which a half dozen women push into the cannon.
The cannon fires and the bullet-shaped capsule is a bull’s eye… making its famous splat into the eye of the man in the moon.
The travelers are tired when they arrive on the moon so they lay down to catch a little rest, but there are goddesses or beings who dislike the intruders and send snow and cold, which wakens them and drives them underground. Beneath the moon’s surface is a race of Selenites who get turned to dust when struck by the professor’s umbrella.
The drama doesn’t result in any nail-biting, but it’s great fun. Eventually our pioneer adventurers make it back home, even without the use of a cannon to shoot them off the moon.
In addition to playing the role of Professor Barbenfouillis, Méliès was also director, producer, writer, designer, technician, publicist and editor, wearing an even wider variety of hats than Orson Welles on Citizen Kane.
Méliès, who was born in 1861, came of age at a time when illusionists and magicians were capturing the imagination. He became became a stage magician for a spell, which later played a role in his development of special effects in film making. He invented splicing techniques, multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, dissolves, and hand-painted color. He was also one of the first filmmakers to use storyboards.*
Sometimes we never know how our early experiences will play out later in our careers. For example, Steve Jobs often shared how during his brief stint in college he took a calligraphy class. The result was that he wanted the computer he later created to be able to have beautiful fonts and not just a typewriter look. Méliès’ early fascination with illusions most certainly played a role in his own development as a movie maker.
If you’ve never seen A Trip to the Moon, here’s your chance to catch a glimpse of movie history.
Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com on April 1, 2019.
Not an April Fool’s joke though.