When Serge Bromberg learned that a color version of Georges Melies’ 16-minute silent film Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon)--a rendering that had not been seen in almost a century--had been found in Barcelona, he had to have it. That the celluloid relic had deteriorated into a solid decomposed mass and was damaged beyond all likely repair only made the film preservationist’s resolve deeper. “When you have a piece of the Holy Grail in your hand,” declares Bromberg, in a phone call from Paris, “you say, We have to save it!”
So he did. A decade later, Bromberg is putting the finishing touches on The Extraordinary Voyage, a documentary that chronicles both the making of Melies’ groundbreaking 1902 film and the meticulous, against-all-odds process of restoring it to its full-color glory. The documentary, which closes with the color A Trip to the Moon, complete with a new soundtrack by the electronica group Air, will have its world premiere November 11 at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (the restored short itself debuted at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year).
A distributor is being sought for an American theatrical release of the documentary (after all, no standard exists for showing a 16-minute silent film in theaters) and a Blu-ray release is anticipated for 2012, but the project isn’t going to gross anyone millions. It was done for the love of the art of film and an appreciation for the wonder of filmmaking, much like the wonder that prompted Melies to make what many consider the first sci-fi film, about humans flying to the moon at a time when the new medium was mostly devoted to very real-world events, like trains going into tunnels.
The MoMA premiere culminates a 10-year process that took roughly a million dollars and a faith in technology to render a cinematic feat that even the most seasoned experts had deemed impossible. “It’s just sheer bravado to think you can pull that off,” says Tom Burton, director of restoration services at Technicolor, who came on board a year ago for the final stage of restoration. “It was a gamble,” concedes Bromberg, who came into possession of the film in 1999 and began a risky 14-month chemical process on it in February 2001. The film was placed in a humidor where the chemicals’ vapors prompted the celluloid to unpeel itself. The chemicals were also destroying the film in the process, making the endeavor a race to get each image digitized in order to recreate Melies’ hand-painted film frame by frame before the original film was gone forever. (Bromberg will not reveal the exact nature of the chemicals.)
Little by little, technicians broke the mass apart, revealing individual frames that were then shot digitally and stored on CD in multiple locations for safekeeping while Bromberg and his Lobster Films colleague Eric Lange sought money to complete the restoration. Funding eventually came from Groupama Gan Foundation, a French bank and insurance company and, later, from Technicolor, also based in France, which specializes in restorations.
“This is cinematic altruism at its best,” says Burton, who works for Technicolor in Hollywood, where he has overseen such high-profile film restorations as The Little Mermaid, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. “They did it for the art and for film heritage, not for a high-profit Blu-ray release,” as is the case with most of his projects. When the digital files came to Burton, he was charged with piecing together a rather complex puzzle. “It was pretty overwhelming at the beginning. ‘How in the hell are we going to figure out the order?’” It was a mishmash of full frames, half frames, many of them multiples and in a variety of file formats. His team searched for what he calls the “hero” images, those with the best sharpness, the best color, and the most stable images, to anchor the resurrection.
To most moviegoers, Melies’ image of a rocket landing in the eye of the man in the moon might be familiar, but his name is not. It’s an obscurity the French filmmaker might soon shed. A fictionalized version of Melies, played by Ben Kingsley, has a central role in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, a 3-D film opening November 23 based on Brian Selznick’s best-selling children’s book of historical fiction, The Invention of Hugo Cabret.
“Some of my favorite scenes in the movie are these joyous images of life inside Melies’ studio, where he’s experimenting with this brand-new medium,” says Selznick, marveling at Scorsese’s knack for drawing in audiences with the film’s primary story, about a boy, Hugo, whose father has died and who is living in hiding inside a train station. But the filmmaker has other messages to share. “What you’re actually getting is this master class on the history of cinema from one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.”
Like many people who post videos on YouTube today, Melies was pretty much a one-man operation. He designed the sets, created the costumes, and adapted the story from a Jules Verne novel, according to Selznick. Melies even played the leading character. What he didn’t do was compose music. As far as we know, no score originally accompanied A Trip to the Moon. “It’s an enigma,” says Bromberg, who commissioned Air to write a score, an idea first proposed by Olivier Assayas, a friend and fellow French filmmaker who wrote and directed the Emmy winning miniseries Carlos. The move has been controversial. “Half of them say, ‘It’s a wonderful idea! So unusual!’” Bromberg reports, referring to film buffs. “The other half say, ‘It is criminal! It is a tragedy!’ But we know that if Melies was around today maybe he would shoot it in 3-D.”
Bromberg justifies Air’s funky score as a fleeting gimmick meant to interest younger people in the restored film. “The film has its own life without the Air music,” he says. Melies did not earn much money off of his creation. “There were no royalties,” explains Bromberg. “Once the print was sold to an exhibitor, he could show it as long as the print would run in the projector.” Early films were mostly newsreels and travelogues, shown together at fairgrounds, not yet in proper cinemas. Hugo (and Selznick’s book on which it is based) is set in 1931 and depicts Melies as bitter and alone, an emotional state that Selznick imagined based on research about Melies, who by that time had fallen into obscurity as technology passed him by; silent films had given way to talkies and his talents were no longer valued.
“I wanted my book to be an homage to the real Georges Melies,” says Selznick, who’s thrilled at the timely coincidence of Scorsese’s film and the Melies restoration. “I think everybody has such inaccurate ideas about what silent movies were like because most of us only see little clips on TV or now on the computer. Usually the quality is really bad and it’s something we think of as desperately old-fashioned. But going to see A Trip to the Moon in 1903 was like going to see Avatar [in 2009]. It blew your mind!”