A Journey Through Silent Film’s Time, Color and Space

Last week the Flicker Alley team attended the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ event “A TRIP TO THE MOON in Color: And Other Travels Through Time, Color and Space” – a screening event dedicated to re-creating the impact and charm of restored silent films on the big screen. The evening was presented by film historian/archivist Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films (Paris) and Tom Burton (head of the Preservation Department at Technicolor LA) representing Technicolor Foundation. The Academy’s capacity 1,000 theater saw a packed house of 680 visitors. As we entered the theater and were handed 3D glasses to an early cinema screening, we suddenly got a glimpse of just how special the night would be!

There were a wealth of interesting short films – all extremely rare – many of which had never been screened before in Los Angeles, including the French trick film later hand-colored by Bromberg’s sister KIRIKI, JAPANESE ACROBATS (Segundo de Chomón, France, 1907), which is part of our 2008 publication: SAVED FROM THE FLAMES: 54 RARE AND RESTORED FILMS 1896-1944. Between films, Bromberg would enthusiastically introduce the next, after which he would waltz over to the piano and play its accompaniment.

Another Flicker Alley featured title was the UK short directed by F. Percy Smith, THE ACROBATIC FLY (1910), which is part of our most recent release WILD & WEIRD. An early stab at macro-photography, Smith glued live flies to a match-head and the flies performed acrobatic feats.

While A TRIP TO THE MOON was the most popular film of its day, it was also most pirated. Melies’ solution to this distribution problem was to fashion a camera that could feed two strips of film through it simultaneously, allowing him to finish two negatives of the film at the same time, one staying in Europe, one going straight to the USA. Without knowing it, Melies’ invention has allowed current (and might I add, very fortunate) audiences to see the films in Stereoscopy (the concept of stereoscopic vision involves combining two 2D offset images, each one corresponding to the left or right eye, to create the illusion of depth, or 3D). It was truly magical to see Melies’ hand-colored films in 3D. The original 2D versions of the films – LE CHAUDRON INFERNAL (1903), L’ORACLE DE DELPHES (1903), AND LA CORNUE INFERNALE (1906) – can be found on our set GEORGES MÉLIES: FIRST WIZARD OF CINEMA (1896-1913).

A hand-colored version of 109 year old A TRIP TO THE MOON was considered non-existent until a badly damaged hand-colored nitrate reel was found at the Filmoteca de Catalunya in Barcelona. Serge joked that the reel was so stuck to itself due to its decomposition that had more resemblance to a ‘hockey puck’ than to a film. Tom Burton’s talk went into detail about the painstaking digital restoration process, demonstrating every stage for the audience. The results when it was all said and done were truly remarkable. The color restoration of this film was the opener for this year’s Cannes Film Festival. At the Academy event the film was presented twice. The first screening of the film featured a brand new musical accompaniment by French rock/electronic group Air.

GEORGES MÉLIÈS: FIRST WIZARD OF CINEMA (1896-1913)

The second presentation of  A TRIP TO THE MOON featured the original catalogue description read aloud. Georges Melies was fluent in English from his time living in London where he learned much of his stage craft. With an eye towards distribution in the American market, Melies would write detailed catalogue descriptions of each film in English as well as French. These detailed descriptions were used as the source of live narrations that would accompany the films; a common practice in the age of ‘Cinema of Attractions‘. The Academy’s Randy Haberkamp read the live narration and while Mr. Bromberg improvised a simultaneous piano score. Afterward, the crowd indicated that this was a highlight.

Georges Melies was a magician by trade, and became the first to think in cinema in terms of illusion and storytelling.

Click below to access a free pdf of the TRIP TO THE MOON book, published by the Technicolor Foundation/Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema and launched at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year:

La couleur retrouvée du Voyage dans la Lune – A Trip to the Moon Back in Color

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