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October 02
2017

ISSUE

Fall 2017

A TRIP TO THE MOON: A Blockbuster Restored

By PAULA PARISI

An example of what poor condition the print for Le voyage dans le lune (A Trip to the Moon) was in. More than 13,000 frames needed to be resurrected. This is an example of what frame technicians had to work with. The frames were in an advanced state of decomposition while many were stuck together. Tom Burton, Executive Director of Technicolor Restoration Services, called it a “bucket of digital shards.”

 

A blockbuster of its time, George Méliès’s 1902 film A Trip to the Moon is considered the first visual effects film, setting the template for the technical manipulation of images to create onscreen magic. The tale of a group of astronomers fired inside a projectile from a huge artillery canon to the lunar surface inspired generations of filmmakers as well as the VES, which took as its logo the signature image of the bullet-like craft poking the man in the moon’s eye.

Among the VFX techniques pioneered by the French auteur were substitution splices, multiple exposures, forced-frame perspective, time-lapse photography and dissolves. He employed all manner of practical effects – explosions and trap doors – and was one of the first to use storyboards.

Although Méliès made more than 500 films between 1896 and 1912, competing with Edison and the Lumière brothers through the tumultuous birth of cinema, A Trip to the Moon remains the work for which he is best remembered. While it has screened continuously since its release, the color version of the print was believed to have been lost.

The discovery in 1993 of a badly deteriorated color print that had been donated to the Filmoteca de Catalunya in Barcelona led to a meticulous restoration made possible by Technicolor.

“In the history of restoration, I’ve never seen such a crazy project,” says Séverine Wemaere, who was running the now-defunct Technicolor Film Foundation that partnered in the restoration with Lobster Films, whose principals – Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange – were the private collectors that found and acquired the tattered treasure.

“It was 13,375 frames that were completely fragmented and we had to put together like a huge puzzle,” Wemaere adds. This was done in Los Angeles by Tom Burton, who headed up Technicolor Creative Services at the time of the restoration, and his team. It would take 20 years and $1 million from the time of the ruined masterpiece’s discovery until its reappearance, in all its original splendor, to an appreciative audience at the opening night of the 2011 Festival de Cannes. The film then toured the world, exhibited at museums and film festivals, often as a double bill with The Extraordinary Voyage, the restoration documentary directed by Bromberg and Lange.

Decomposed frames from A Trip to the Moon

“A rocket in the eye of moon, what a bizarre idea!” Bromberg says early on in the film, while the notion of ever being able to repair Méliès lost masterpiece must have seemed no less strange. Contained in a single reel, the 15 minutes of footage had melted and congealed into what was described as “a large hockey puck.” The sticky configuration was helped along by the fact that in Méliès’s day, black and white films were hand-painted using dyes that were mixed with glue. The process, which was reserved for A-list movies, was undertaken by assembly lines of up to 200 women.

The process of separating the rigid, compact mass was arduous, and took team Lobster many years. Although they were initially told the print was irretrievable, their experiments prying it apart led to the discovery that only the edges were stuck; the central frames, though scratched and dirty, were relatively intact. Progress was by the centimeter and took weeks.

Once unwound, the brittle reel was sent to the Haghefilm Digitaal in the Netherlands, where it was treated with chemicals to restore pliability. After several months of effort, nearly a third of the film was saved onto an internegative. The part that was not able to be uniformly salvaged was returned to Lobster in shards – some 10,000 pieces which would require the patience of a jigsaw puzzle specialist to recombine.

In early 2000, Bromberg and Lange got their hands on a new three-million-pixel digital camera which they used to capture the fragmented images, which kept them busy through 2005. When finished, they found themselves with a disjunctive masterpiece on a hard drive, but were forced to wait for digital restoration techniques to advance to a level suited to the sensitive task.

Tom Burton, Executive Director of Technicolor Restoration Services in Hollywood, helmed the restoration of A Trip to the Moon at the Technicolor laboratories in Los Angeles. (Photo:Ahmad Ouri)

Technicians labor lovingly during restoration of A Trip to the Moon at Technicolor labs in Los Angeles.

It was in 2010 that the heavy-lifting began for Burton and the group at Technicolor Creative Services. As it happened, at the time of the restoration, Technicolor was also working on Martin Scorsese’s 2012 film, Hugo, about the life of Méliès, and the director wound up incorporating the footage into his project, which  received 11 Academy Award nominations, earning a Visual Effects trophy for Rob Legato.

That happy accident was a long way from Burton’s mind when he began the restoration. “The files we received were in various formats – TIFF, TGA, JPG – and different resolutions. Some were captured via digital camera, frame by frame, and some were from the digital scanner,” Burton recalls. “There was no way to play back a continuous image, nor was the data sequentially organized.” Using for reference an HDCAM telecine of an existing B&W print, the individual frames and image shards were carefully mapped to their proper locations.

From then on, it became a process of iteration. “Playing back this timeline of newly assembled color-tinted images that no one had had the opportunity to view for many decades – possibly a century or more –was very exciting,” Burton says. Ensuing steps included image stabilization – more precisely adjusting the shattered fragments – “de-flickering,” which conformed frame-to-frame densities, and a color pre-grade.

With this baseline look established, Technicolor set about recreating the missing color shards and in some cases frames; about 10% of the film had simply crumbled to dust. Carefully sampling the original color palette, Burton’s crew copied data from the black and white print, carefully preserving the anomalies of the hand-tinting, which included smudging and other quirks. The reconstruction utilized VFX tools including Digital Vision Phoenix/DVO, MTI and After Effects.

“It’s really more a visual effects project in away than a restoration project,” Burton told Smithsonian magazine in 2011. “A lot of the technology that we used to rebuild these frames is the technology you would use if you were making a first-run, major visual effects motion picture. You’d never have been able to pull this off 10 years ago, and certainly not at all with analog, photochemical technology.”


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