Another Trip to the Moon with Méliès: Behind the Digital Restoration of VFX Landmark

by Bill Desowitz
September 2, 2011 3:35 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood

While waiting for Hugo (Nov. 23), Martin Scorsese's 3-D valentine to Georges Méliès, TOH columnist Bill Desowitz writes a fascinating account of how digital advances made possible the painstaking restoration of the first movie blockbuster from the father of special effects, A Trip to the Moon (1902).
The new version of the landmark 14-minute short, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, will screen at Telluride this weekend and at the Academy's Goldwyn Theater on Tuesday. What a way to mark the 150th anniversary of Méliès's birth.

Thompson on Hollywood
In fact, thanks to Lobster Films, the Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema, and the Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage, we can now glimpse A Trip to the Moon in all its hand-tinted glory. Because prior to 1993, all color versions were presumed lost. That is, until Lobster's Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange discovered a severely damaged color print during an element exchange with the Filmoteca de Catalunya.

Then the duo tediously peeled off and unrolled the nitrate elements with their own secret sauce in order to digitize them. It took two years to extract the image fragments. The data obtained was stored on a hard drive for eight years until technology caught up with need.

Cut to 2010, when Groupama and Technicolor came to the rescue with more than 400,000 euros to save A Trip to the Moon, adapted from Jules Verne, whose French title is Le Voyage dans la lune. The digital restoration was performed at Technicolor in L.A. under the supervision of Tom Burton. A black-and-white original nitrate print belonging to the Méliès family and a positive print from the Centre National du Cinéma (CNC) were used during the restoration. The digitization of these elements was done by the Archives françaises du film (CNC-AFF) near Paris.

The result is a revelation -- a bridge between the past and present -- that helps us understand and appreciate just how far the movies have come in nearly 110 years. Méliès was inventing forced perspective with background paintings and using models and miniatures and puppetry and physical effects with water and smoke in combination with stop-motion and running film backwards.

"Because of his background as a magician, Méliès got it instantly," Burton suggests. "'If I cover the lens and backline the film, and expose it again with this little section, I could double-expose it. Wait! If I do it again, I could triple expose it.'" He'd get this [intuitively] while everyone else was just trying to figure out how to thread the film through the camera. And he figured out how to do dissolves, and trick editing where things pop in and out of the frame. Nobody else was doing that."

But it took a bit of digital magic to bring A Trip to the Moon back to life. Burton contends that they rebuilt the film "out of the bucket of digital shards." That's because they worked from different resolutions and file formats. Indeed, when Technicolor got a hold of the materials, they had no idea what they were. So they painstakingly pieced it together like a jigsaw puzzle, only with missing pieces, using the black-and-white original nitrate print as a timeline reference.

So they slowly and painstakingly cobbled the pieces back together by matching, sizing, and rotating them. Then the real work began: They had huge gaps to fill, so they took the black-and-white image and digitally hand-tinted to match the look and technique of original.

One of the great discoveries, though, was that the French flag was painted with Spanish colors. No wonder it was found in Barcelona. But the hand-tinting stayed true to the original find at the Filmoteca de Catalunya.

Another revelation about Méliès, thanks to recent 3-D experiments on some of his other films by Lobster, is that he shot separate negatives to combat piracy by placing cameras side by side. Since they match the interocular offset of our vision, Lobster has therefore managed to simulate a 3-D effect.

Which brings us full-circle to Scorsese and Hugo, in which Ben Kingsley portrays a long forgotten Méliès living in seclusion in a Paris train station in 1931. Between "the machines of the trains, the mechanisms of the clocks, and the projectors of the cinema," the film seemed to "cry out for the extra element of space and depth," Scorsese recently told The Wall Street Journal.

Burton says his jaded restoration team at Technicolor was in awe of Méliès: "They were amazed at what he was able to accomplish in a very small area. A lot of these sets were nothing more than painted canvas panels strung between a couple posts. If he were alive today, he'd be pushing the boundaries -- and I don't mean to give Cameron the same credit as Méliès -- but he'd be inventing camera gear to make 3-D movies like Avatar that had never been done before. He'd be pushing the envelope."

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