A Trip to the Moon is a silent film and the creation of French illusionist and filmmaker Georges Méliès, who I wouldn’t have known about if I hadn’t seen Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film Hugo. While watching Scorsese’s film, I had no idea that Ben Kingsley’s character was an accurate historical depiction of France’s cinema legend Georges Méliès and that most of the antique film frames used in Hugo were excerpts from Méliès’ surviving and reconstructed films. Those images were so wonderful that I couldn’t resist researching this wonderful legend and his films.
For the next four paragraphs, I will be giving you the story of how this once-lost film was reconstructed. The technical details fascinate me. If you want to know more about Georges Méliès, I would suggest viewing Scorsese’s film Hugo and then learn more by reading about Méliès here.
No hand-colored prints of A Trip to the Moon were known to have survived until 1993 when an anonymous donor left a collection of two hundred silent films to the Filmoteca de Catalunya Archive in Barcelona Spain. One of these films was A Trip to the Moon. Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange of Lobster Films acquired this severely damaged color print from the Archive in 1999 and then began the the tedious task of peeling off and unrolling the nitrate prints.
As each group of frames was released from the rigid mass of decomposing film, it was carefully placed on a small light box and digitally photographed. Between 2002 and 2005, 13,375 fragments were digitized and then stored on a hard drive. Unfortunately, technology at that time was not available to reassemble the fragments and restore the film. So they had to wait—a long wait of eight years.
In 2010, three experts in worldwide film restoration teamed together to launch a full-scale restoration using the most up-to-date digital technologies to reassemble and restore the digitized fragments into a complete film. Two were non-profit entities Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema and Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage, and the third one was Lobster Films.
The digital work took place at Technicolor Creative Services in Los Angeles and was supervised by Tom Burton. Some fragments had been previously safeguarded on an internegative print at Haghefilm, The Netherlands. For missing parts in the color version, a black and white original nitrate print belonging to the Méliès family and a positive print belonging to the Centre National du Cinéma were utilized. The black and white pieces were then digitally colored to blend and match. The film was then time-converted to run at an authentic silent-film speed, 14 frames per second. The restoration was completed in 2011, eighteen years after its discovery and 109 years after its original release.