Odds are you’ve seen the now-iconic shot of a rocket running into the eye of the Man in the Moon from George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon, the 1902 French film that is considered the first science fiction film ever made. Perhaps you even caught more of Méliès’ work in Martin Scorsese‘s 2011 film Hugo,which cast Méliès as a character, showed clips (in 3D, if you were lucky) from the silent film, and went about recreating the circumstances of the iconic film’s construction.
But maybe you haven’t seen the full 14-minute silent film (that’s 825 feet of film) for yourself. Frankly, the impact A Trip to the Moon had on early cinema — and, therefore, on modern cinema cannot be understated…
We take much of what constitutes the language of modern cinema for granted, but it wasn’t always so. There was a time when filmmakers hadn’t yet thought of using camera tricks to create illusions — what we know today as special effects. Enter French filmmaker George Méliès, a man in love with the art of illusion.
Méliès was more than a filmmaker of early cinema; he was a visionary. Charlie Chaplin called him an “alchemist of light,” while D.W. Griffiths claimed: “I owe him everything.” Terry Gilliam has called Méliès “the first great film magician.”
Prior to being a film magician, Méliès was a stage magician. He even had his own Parisian theater where he would stage magic shows (and later screen films). In 1895, he saw a presentation of the cinematograph — an early version of the film camera (and projector) — by the Lumières brothers, and set about learning the craft of film.
One day, a camera malfunction on one of Méliès films made it appear as if people were transforming into other people instantaneously. Really, the camera had jammed, stopping its recording for a short period of time and then restarting, thus creating what we think of today as a simple video special effect.
At the time, however, the effect — when purposely implemented — was revolutionary. Méliès’ mind immediately started churning, coming up with ideas of magical illusions he could work into his film narratives. The rest is literally film history.
A still from Melies’ “Man With a Rubber Head” — starring Méliès as the rubber head.
Méliès wasn’t just a film pioneer artistically, but also in terms of industry. He built the first movie studio in Europe — a building made completely of glass walls and ceilings on his own property outside of Paris. He was also the first filmmaker to use production sketches and storyboards, and would help paint the sets and create the props for his films.
Artistically, Méliès was the first filmmaker to experiment with double exposure, split screen, dissolve, superimposition, and reverse shots. He also experimented with moving the camera to create the illusion of objects changing size (a trick that was used to great effect in Man With a Rubber Head,< pictured above).
Though Méliès created more than 500 films — in which he also often starred — A Trip to theMoon is his most famous. His longest to date at the time, the film drew inspiration from Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and its sequel Around the Moon, as well as H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon, which was published just a year prior.A Trip to the Moon took three months to film and 10,000 francs to produce.
The plot of A Trip to the Moon is relatively simple, but incredibly ambitious for early cinema. It tells the story of Professor Barbenfouillis (played by Méliès), the president of the Astronomer’s Club. The professor and five of his astronomer friends take a trip to the moon via a space vehicle they build in their laboratory. They crash into the moon’s face. Once there, the men fall asleep, only to be captured by a group of moon aliens (played by real-life acrobats) known as the Selenites. They manage to escape with the Selenites in hot pursuit, falling back to Earth and landing in the ocean. Once pulled ashore, the returned explorers are celebrated the townspeople. Huzzah!
A Trip to the Moonnot only made a splash (that’s a falling-in-the-ocean-from-the-moon reference) in France, but internationally, making Méliès famous in the U.S. It is considered one of the world’s first blockbusters, and was pirated by American film distributors such as Thomas Edison.
In addition to A Trip to the Moon Méliès would make many other epics that relied on his penchant for special effects, as well as his narrative ambition. These films spanned across genre, from documentaries and comedies to historical reconstructions (like a pre-enactment of the coronation of Edward VII) and fairy stories. That last one was Méliès’ best known genre, and wasn’t completely missing from A Trip to the Moon, which was just as much fantasy as it was science fiction.
Méliès was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2015, with the museum noting that “unlike his contemporaries, [Méliès] very early saw film’s potential to show fantastical worlds in a way no other medium could,” and that “his elaborate and theatrical fantasies” were “some of the earliest depictions of other worlds on film.”
A few years ago, I had a chance to visit Paris’ La Cinematheque Francaise, the cinematic museum that Méliès would become the first conservator of later in his life. Amongst the museum’s prized posessions are props from A Trip to the Moon (pictured below), a tangible connection to film’s early history and a rather impressive reminder that Méliès was able to create magic literally out of pots and pans.
In his The Hugo Movie Companion, Scorcese wrote of Méliès and A Trip to the Moon:
Motion and emotion. They were, and are, at the core of cinema. And it was Georges Méliès who provided the final key: magic. He saw moving pictures as a way to enrich and enlarge his stage presentations.
In so doing, he took the movies another giant step forward. The Lumières gave us the world as we knew it, and Méliès gave it to us as we imagined and extended it, with imaginary voyages, disappearances, and transformations.
Do yourself a favor: If you have 15 minutes during your lunch break or at the end of the day, take the chance to watch the first ever science fiction blockbuster, A Trip to the Moon, and try to imagine what it must have been like to see special effects like this for the first time. Let go of the cynicism of the modern cinematic era and embrace film for what George Méliès understood it to be: the art of magic.