Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902): The Master and the Moon

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This is a big one. Georges Méliès’ 1902 picture Le Voyage dans la Lune is probably the first masterwork of cinema, and stands miles ahead of what we’ve seen so far. Not only did this work establish the science-fiction genre, but it elevated the potential of what filmmaking could accomplish and definitively marked the direction that the art form would pursue.

Excusing the crude metaphor, lets think of filmmaking so far as an elementary school science fair. All of the kids have been working hard to put together their display, some harder than others, but there has been some considerable effort put into each project. A few displays are crude, ugly and poorly constructed. They function as worthy projects, but there really isn’t anything special to be glimpsed. Another crop of entires make some innovative conclusions, and are quite beautifully presented. At any other year these would be the front runners for first place, but there’s one more project at the back of the fair. It stops you in your tracks, and you instantly forget about the other projects at the fair. The lone entry blows the competition out of the water, its not even close. The idea is novel, the display is astounding and the presentation transcends the juvenile competitors flanking it. This is the project that steals the show and redefines what a science fair project is capable of. This entrant is Georges Méliès, truly in a league of his own.

We’ve neglected Méliès for a few weeks because we wanted to save his best work to introduce him, and therefore strengthen his impact on the story of cinema. Méliès was born in 1861, and came of age under the guidance of his entrepreneur father. Taking little interest in the family business, the young Méliès sold his shares and pursued his interests in art. Méliès was particularly fond of stage magic, a passion that would find its way into his later film ventures, and likewise become inexplicably linked to cinematic special effects. In late 1895, Méliès witnessed a presentation of the cinematograph and immediately recognized its potential for facilitating stage magic. Within months, would Méliès would purchase an Animatograph film projector and dip his toes into the moviemaking world.

Leveraging his knowledge of illusion, Méliès developed a filmmaking style that was reliant on camera trickery and special effects. He experimented with superimposition, camera movement and accidentally invented the ‘substitution splice’ of cutting away from a frame to suddenly replace it with a disparate frame. But despite his impressive technical resumé, Méliès is regarded today as the medium’s first auteur. More than any of his contemporaries, Georges Méliès understood the artistic potential of cinematography, and he combined this with his knowledge of the illusory to create a unique style. This style was highly fantastical, and tended to curb the trajectory of the artform away from staunch realism and towards a playful albeit composed output.

In 1902 Méliès released the iconic Le Voyage dans la Lune, a loose adaptation of stories by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. The movie depicts an excursion to the moon by a group of scientists, and the drama that unfolds as they fend off a tribe of aliens. It’s a simple concept by today’s standards, but in 1902 the idea was truly out of this world. Never mind that humans would not commence space travel for another 55 years, or that no reliable photographs of the moon surface existed, Méliès was determined to tell the story. In characteristic fashion, Méliès populated the set with elaborate backdrops, fantastical costumes and lots of magic. With a budget of 10,000 francs and a 3 month shooting schedule, Méliès and the crew got to work building complex moving backdrops and hired professional actors to populate the picture (although the director himself played the role of the protagonist). The film boasts a ravishing design, but it is the editing choices that reverberate throughout cinematic history. Méliès implemented every trick in his repertoire, including fades, pyrotechnics and dissolves. In the movie’s most recognized sequence, Méliès introduces the tracking shot by slowly zooming into the ‘man in moon’ surface, and then presents a quick substitution splice by cutting to the rocket lodged in the moon’s ‘eye.’

Méliès was successful, and his fantastical movies caught on with audiences across the world. His contemporaries noticed the appeal and production houses tailored their oeuvres to facilitate the Mélièsian method. We can see this as early as 1902, when the American Edison company released Jack and the Beanstalk, a whimsical fairytale in the style of Le Voyage. It was a pale imitation, and audiences realized it. So the American producers went straight to the source and began distributing pirated copies of Méliès’ masterpiece. The bootlegged versions did well, with Méliès receiving only a fraction of the money that his film would gross. He continued making films throughout the early 20th century, but the Edison company remained a fierce opponent to the French director. In an effort to monopolize the film industry, Edison collaborated with fellow titans of cinema to form the Motion Picture Patents Company. The MPCC expected a certain quota from American and European directors, an obligation that Méliès was hesitant to uphold. He fought back as best he could, but a string of disappointments and debts to the MPCC drove Méliès to bankruptcy and out of the film business.

Despite an unceremonious exit from the industry, Méliès developed a credibility amongst film scholars in subsequent decades. While many of his films were destroyed during World War I, a sect of devotees set about locating Le Voyage. A partial print was discovered in 1929, and enjoyed screenings in New York to much acclaim. It wasn’t until 1997, a mere 10 years ago, that a fully restored version of the film was produced from surviving splices of Méliès original work.

The effect of Le Voyage dans la Lune ripples throughout the history of cinema, and its influence can be found in far-reaching corners of the galaxy of film. Without Méliès’ voyage, Walt Disney remains an obscure illustrator and Star Wars is never realized. Without Méliès, Wes Anderson’s quirky set pieces are never built, and Steven Spielberg stays away from film school. Without Méliès, ‘movie magic’ doesn’t exist.