The Moon is yellow

The colour version of Georges Méliès’ Le voyage dans la lune (1902), from

May 11 sees the unveiling at the Cannes Film Festival of what may be the film restoration to beat all other film restorations – the colour version of Georges MélièsLe voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) (1902). Its recovery is little short of miraculous.

The most iconic of all early films is known to so many, if only for the shot of the rocket going into the Moon’s eye, but no-one since 1902 has seen in its hand-painted colour form (see the Bioscope’s 2008 post Painted by hand for a short history of this early method of colouring films). Méliès was able to supply coloured versions of his films, at double the price of black-and-white, but until 1993 no coloured copy of La voyage dans la lune was known to survive. Then a print was discovered by the Filmoteca de Catalunya in Barcelona among a collection of 200 early films, but unfortunately in a state of total decomposition – or so it was thought.

Lobster Films in Paris learned of the print’s existence and arranged an exchange with the Filmoteca for a lost Segundo de Chomón film in their collection. The deal was done, and Lobster examined their purchase:

Inside, there was a 35mm film on which we could distinguish some of the first film images framed by the small perforations characteristic of early films. Unfortunately, our round reel looked more like a ring of wood, such was the extent to which decomposition had transformed the originally supple film into a rigid, compact mass. We decided to consult several specialist laboratories. Their diagnosis was irrevocable: the copy was lost.

But undaunted, and with great patience, they started to unwind the film frame by frame. They discovered that the images were not stuck to one another – only the sides of the images had decomposed and had melded together. There was a glimmer of hope.

We progressed centimetre by centimetre, taking out entire strips of film at a time but often in small fragments. Sometimes the image had disappeared. It took several weeks to uncover the quasi-totality of the images. The reel, now unwound, was still extremely fragile. In its condition, it was unthinkable that we could use wet-gate step printing, the only technique that would enable the images to be copied again onto a new film before they could be restored. We had two options. Either we tried to give the film back its original flexibility so that it could be duplicated, or we photographed each image using an animation stand, but at the risk of breaking the film.

They decided on the first option, which demanded chemical treatment which would render the film pliable for a period, but which would hasten its decomposition thereafter. The work was undertaken by Haghefilm in the Netherlands, who after months of work managed to transfer around a third of the film onto internegative stock. The remainder of the film could not be copied and was now in a highly brittle state. These remaining 5,000 frames (out of a total of 13,375) were photographed individually in 2000 using a 3M pixel digital camera, work which took a year to complete.

Then they had to wait ten years, for technology to catch up with what was required next and for the money to be put in place to complete the restoration. This came about in 2010 thanks support from the Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema and the Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage. The film now existed in partial internegative form and in different digital file formats at different resolutions, some digitally scanned from the photochemical restoration, some digital images from the 5,000 individual images, many in an incomplete or broken form. It was a huge organisational challenge, as Technicolor’s Tom Burton explains:

Because the digitization took place over a period of years in different physical locations and different technical environments, utilizing dissimilar gear, the resulting data was not natively organized into a sequentially numbered image order. Each digitization session generated its own naming convention and frame numbering protocol … Several versions of some shots had been created as a result of the separate capture sessions. And due to variations in the specific conditions and equipment used in each digitizing session, the files differed greatly from one another in color, density, size, sharpness and position – it was becoming clear that integrating them into a seamless stream of matching images was to be a challenge of extremely large proportions.

Technicolor sorted out the jigsaw puzzle, re-rendered the files as DPX files, then undertook the process of reconstruction the film with reference to an HDCAM version of a black-and-white print of the film provided by the Méliès family, matching it up frame by frame. Much more then followed to clean, stabilise, grade and render the finished film, filling in colours where these were missing with reference to the use of those colours elsewhere in the film, then time-converting it to the original speed of 14fps. The entire restoration project cost 400,000 euros – for a 14-minute film.

And so we come to 2011 (the 150th anniversary of Georges Méliès’ birth) and the restored film’s presentation at Cannes on May 11. It will be presented with a new soundtrack by the vogue-ish French duo Air. The Technicolor Film Foundation has information on the project on its website, including a truly fabulous 192-page PDF book La couleur retrouvée du Voyage dans la Lune / A Trip to the Moon Back in color, in French and English, on Georges Méliès, his career, his methods, the film and its restoration. It is gorgeously illustrated, and serves as a first-rate guide to the special genius of Méliès. I strongly recommend it. It is free to download (the booklet itself is available at Cannes, but apparently it is not going to be on sale generally). A copy has been placed in the Bioscope Library. All illustrations and quotations in this post come from the book.

The Bioscope will pick up on such reports as it can find about the film’s Cannes screening, and any news of screenings thereafter. It will feature at other festivals, but how widely it will get shown further after that (e.g. if there is to be a DVD or Blu-Ray release) has not been said as yet. However, film, digital cinema and HD release versions have been produced.

This is turning out to be the year of Georges Méliès. As well as the colour restoration of Le voyage dans la lune (1902), this month sees the publication of Matthew Solomon’s book on the film, Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination. Then at the end of 2011 we will have Martin Scorsese’s Hugo Cabret, his adaptation (in 3D) of Brian Selznick’s children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret which features Georges Méliès as a central character. Méliès is played by Ben Kingsley, and the cast includes Sacha Baron Cohen, Jude Law, Asa Butterfield and Chloë Moretz. M. Méliès is about to go global.