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New book! 50 movies to start your discovery of Old Hollywood

'A Trip to the Moon' dazzles 120 years later

Audiences went on "A Trip to the Moon" with Georges Méliès 120 years ago, and the world of cinema was forever changed.

Considered by some to the first-ever sci-fi movie, "Le Voyage dans la Lune" debuted in France in September 1902, with the short film premiering the following month in the United States. It shaped the movies that followed it and the significance of "A Trip to the Moon" is seen today.  

The plot summary of the movie (which would sound at home in any of today's movies) revolves around man's first trip to the moon with a maverick scientist, aliens, space travel and some satire about the scientific community thrown in. 

Audiences, especially in the United States, flocked to see the movie. The film proved so popular, in fact, that pirated copies proliferated. "A Trip to the Moon" became one of the most mass-popular movies in the early days of cinema. 

Related: See the original movie poster for "Le Voyage dans la Lune" and more from the silent film era in the book, "Movie Posters from Silent Films"

Innovations by Méliès

The movie showcases several innovative techniques and special effects that director (and magician) Méliès had honed on his previous projects.

His work introduced more narrative and fantasy in the content of movies (as well as longer running times), and innovated technological techniques that others quickly adopted for spectacle.

The iconic shot of the rocket landing in the face of the man in the moon, for example, used an almost reverse tracking shot. Instead of moving the extremely weighty camera for a close-up (a tracking shot modern filmmakers would use), he pulled the man in the moon toward the camera. 

He also implemented multiple exposure shorts, splices to create on-screen transformations and colorized versions of his movies. 

A 1930 newspaper profile of Méliès described his pioneering movie-making ways:

"Melies was the scenario writer, producer, director, scene painter, stage carpenter and actor. When he was not acting he operated the camera, but otherwise his daughter turned the crank. ...
The "Father of the Film" worked cautiously. Every time he got a new idea for an effect he had to invent his own machinery. He built traps in the floor and runways overhead so that his actors could come into the picture from unexpected angles, giving his pictures a novelty unknown to the stage.

Most of the tricks of the movie trade that seem so impressive today, Melies started in his humble way. He bedecked his actors in fantastic uniforms and splashed his paint brush around for lights and shades.
... He proved himself a genius for creating illusions. ... [And] when he found the day not long enough, with natural light, he installed arc lamps, increasing their number as he enlarged his studio. Here again he was a pioneer. Then he went still another step, and used mercury vapor lights. He made the first fade out and fade-in pictures."

"All I ask for today is recognition of what I did over 30 years ago," he said in the 1930 interview.

Watch the full movie (in public domain) at the Internet Archive.