TELLURIDE: The expensive, painstaking restoration of ‘A Trip to the Moon’

Posted by · 12:13 am · September 5th, 2011

Following today’s “Shame” screening I really wanted to make it across the mountain to the Chuck Jones Cinema and my last chance to catch Agnieszka Holland’s buzzed-about “In Darkness.” But with 15 minutes to get there before it started, a 10 minute walk and a 15 minute gondola ride ahead, it just didn’t seem to be in the cards. Pity.

Instead, it suddenly hit me that I’d do well to just take in something that didn’t bring with it the pressure of instant coverage. So I looked at the schedule and saw that Serge Bromberg’s cinephile paradise program “A Trip to the Moon and Beyond” was the perfect call.

The program consisted of a number of discovered and restored silents with Bromberg’s piano accompaniment. The material ranged from pre- and post-earthquake footage of San Francisco along Market Street in 1906, Buster Keaton’s “The Love Nest,” the animated “Balloon Land” (from unsung Disney hero Ub Iwerks) and various other treats here and there. The crown jewel of the presentation, though, was the most elaborate and expensive film restoration project in history.

Bromberg explained that back in 1993, an anonymous donor handed over a number of films to Barcelona’s Filmoteca de Catalunya. Among them was a colorized version of Georges Méliès’s silent masterpiece “A Trip to the Moon.” Calling it “the ‘Avatar’ of its day,” Bromberg briefly educated the uninitiated on the film, which was a sensation that traveled and was really the first true hit of the cinematic form. The image above is arguably the most recognizable image in film history, with many probably owing the Smashing Pumpkins for the exposure via their “Tonight, Tonight” music video years ago.

This unearthed nitrate version of the film was on the verge of being completely destroyed due to years of disintegration damage. Bromberg and his team at Lobster Films set off to recover what they could, essentially destroying it in order to preserve it: they placed it in a chamber of sorts and exposed it to gases in order to peel the nitrate print apart and digitally copy whatever frames they could extract. This process was done daily for two years, and at the end of it, they had preserved roughly 75% of the film. But the data had to sit on a hard drive until the technology was available to complete the project.

The next step included the help of the Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema and the Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage eight years later. The extensive — and pricey, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars — process of digitally restoring the film resulted in 95% of it being recovered, Bromberg said. The final 5% came from a print owned by the Méliès family that was then copied and colorized frame-by-frame.

I tediously recount all of that because it’s important to understand the effort that goes into serious film restoration such as this. And perhaps the most famous film preservationist of them all had something to say on the matter: prior to the event, festival co-director Gary Meyer read a statement that director Martin Scorsese had sent. In it Scorsese mentioned his affection for Méliès’s work, in particular as of late as he has been diving back into his work for the purposes of his upcoming film “Hugo.”

With the film completed, Bromberg decided that, in lieu of classical musical accompaniment, something unique was necessary for the aural experience of the film. So he approached the French music duo Air to cook up an original score for the 15-minute film, and with that in place, it was ready for its close-up.

The film had its world premiere at Cannes earlier this year, the first short and the first restoration project to ever open the festival. But in Telluride, it celebrates its U.S. premiere. It also screened with Michel Hazanavicius’s “The Artist” here, a natural fit.

And it was just glorious. As I Tweeted following the program, I felt honored to have experienced it. Events like this really are the heart and soul of Telluride, not Sneak Previews or star-themed tributes or Oscar contender reveals. And I must admit a bit of a sadness over the fact that the responsibility to cover things in the frame of the awards season keeps me from experiencing this festival’s true cinephile identity all that often.

But I was happy to be there tonight for this, and I hadn’t seen Méliès’s film on the big screen since film school nearly a decade ago. It takes you to a time when film felt perhaps more magical than ever, and I have to say, Bromberg absolutely deserved the surprising standing ovation he received at the end of the event. I couldn’t be more appreciative. I really couldn’t.

[Photo: Lobster Films]

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6 responses so far

  • 1 9-05-2011 at 2:35 am

    Steve G said...

    Bravo, Kris! I work at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia so film restoration is a subject close to my heart. Great to hear that the film moved you and that you found some space to write about it. I look forward to catching it one day myself. Sounds fantastic.

  • 2 9-05-2011 at 3:02 am

    Michael said...

    So glad you were able to experience this Kris! I haven’t seen Méliès’s film either since art school about six years ago and I remember being floored by its sheer beauty and ahead of its time ingenuity. I really wish they would find a way to include this restoration with prints of The Artist – talk about turning that into an event film. If not that, just finding a way to get A Trip to the Moon out to a wider audience (of interested cinephiles obviously) rather than just an exclusive festival experience, that would be most appreciated.

  • 3 9-05-2011 at 9:53 am

    Maxim said...

    That’s a truly wonderful and hearwarming recap, Kris. I almost feel like I was there. Funnily, I too, last seen the film in a film class.

  • 4 9-05-2011 at 10:23 am

    Mr. F said...

    I think it would be awesome if they attached a copy of it to every Hugo screening. It would obviously be a great companion, but it would also be a great introduction to silent cinema for the kids that go see it.

    Won’t happen, though.

  • 5 9-06-2011 at 7:48 pm

    Glenn said...


  • 6 12-25-2011 at 11:19 pm

    John Steven Lasher said...

    Why is it that people [Herr Bromberg] who know absolutely nothing about music ‘commission’ new scores for silent films? “A Trip to the Moon” is a case in point. The music by some mob of self-proclamed ‘muzos’ is at complete odds with the visual images. PS: I am a trained composer as well as a producer and director of films.