A Trip to the Moon / Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902)

[First Published 8 October 2008; Updated 12 February 2009; 10 June 2010; 24 February 2012; 27 March 2012]

a_trip_to_the_moon_poster[I’ve been adding to this post occasionally since I first published it on 8th October 2008. I tagged it as a work in progress, but now that I’ve commented a little on every shot, I thought I’d publish the updates (it has more than doubled in length since it first appeared) and declare it (almost) finished. I will continue to update it every once in a while, but I hope you find it interesting and informative in its present form. I still invite comments or further information from anyone who’d like to add to the essay, or who has links or bibliographic references to recommend.]

For the benefit of anyone who is studying this film or just fascinated by it, I’m going to attempt a shot-by-shot commentary on Georges MélièsA Trip to the Moon, released in France on 1st September 1902. It might start out rudimentary and descriptive, but as I add to and re-edit it from time to time it will be embellished with notes garnered from further reading and visitors’ commentaries (feel free to add your observations at the bottom of this post), to see if we can gather together some useful critical annotations for each shot of the film. I’ve included lots of links, some of which expand upon a key point, while others offer a surprising but interesting digression, I hope.

When I first started writing this post, I was working from the version of A Trip to the Moon included in the Flicker Alley DVD boxset, which I mentioned briefly in an earlier post. I was also inspired by Michael Brooke’s attempt to write a commentary on every single film in the set, and would urge you to take a look at his site. Since then, Michael’s blog seems to have gone quiet (I hope it will restart at some point if Michael can find the time to complete his Herculean feat; I wish I could offer such an insightful response to Méliès‘ work), and I  switched to working from the restored version of the film on the DVD that accompanies Matthew Solomon’s book, Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination. Most recently, I have incorporated screengrabs from the restored colour version of the film, which is available as a DVD/CD package with the release of Franch band Air’s new score. While the coloured version is truly spectacular, at times the images are not as sharp as on other prints of the film, so for the time being I’ve kept both sets of images. On 10 April 2012, Flicker Alley released their Blu-Ray edition of the film, packaged along with Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange’s documentary, The Extraordinary Voyage.

My timings may not be perfect, but they should be a good approximation. Most of the shots dissolve from one to the next in the film, as was the director’s custom (partly to make it harder for people to steal and copy individual shots, it seems), so there will be an overlap in the shots – I’ve taken my timings from the mid-point of those dissolves. The film contains seventeen separate shots, but you might argue that the stop-motion substitutions, when the camera is stopped (or the film edited) before the scene is rearranged and shooting resumed, count as new shots. However, I have only counted the very obvious graphic divisions between different views, and I list them by Méliès’s preferred term “tableaux”. The film on DVD lasts for 766 seconds, so the average shot length (ASL) comes out at approximately 42.5 seconds if we include the opening title, and slightly less (42.05) if we don’t. Cinemetrics gives slightly different figures, but seems to be working from another version with fewer shots.

Although Méliès has become associated principally with fantasy films, Elizabeth Ezra (in her book Georges Méliès: The Birth of the Auteur, p.50) attributes this partly to the selection of films shown at a 1929 gala in his honour at the Salle Pleyel, composed of the recently rediscovered films commissioned by the Dufayel Department Store, which were compiled for audiences of children, and which therefore featured a predominance of faeries and fantasy. He also made actualities, historical reconstructions, stag films and other types of views. Often he is cited as the father of film fantasy and the founder of science fiction cinema. I don’t find those kinds of attributions of origins very helpful, since his achievements were primarily to do with how he gathered and repurposed tropes of theatrical performance and proto-science fiction (or “scientific romance“: the term SF wasn’t in circulation at that time) for cinematic presentation. He was a truly extraordinary remediator: that is, he adapted his stage work to maximise the spectacular power of the new medium of film, in which he was now working.

I will include more historical context as I go through each shot of the film, so without further preamble, let’s begin with a shot-by-shot breakdown:

Tableau 1: 00:00 – 03:53

Over the course of about a quarter of an hour of screentime, Méliès’ explorers will plan and execute a trip to, and return from the Moon. We see them choosing the team of adventurers, observing the construction of a massive gun and shell for the launch, before they are shot into the lunar surface, where they dream of celestial gods and goddesses before being captured by the Selenites who inhabit the satellite. Brought before the King of the Selenites, they manage a daring escape and plummet back down to Earth. They land in the sea, are packed up by a steamship and taken back to dry land, where a parade is held in their honour and a Selenite captive is put on display.

After the opening title card, the first shot is a tableau of the astronomical society. The camera position will remain fixed, but you can see how much detail is contained within the frame. The perspective, with its diagonals pointing inwards (see how the angles of the window frames, and the table, stairs and blackboard all turn towards a central vanishing point), draws the gaze into the dead centre of the frame, and various instruments establish this as a scientific venue; I can see an orrery on the right, a graphic match for the diagram of the Earth on the board at the left-hand side of the frame, and you can just see a globe on the painted backdrop, continuing the line of circles and spheres that traverses the middle of the composition. Figures in the background are looking through a telescope which is actually part of the two-dimensional painted backdrop, but their action draws attention to offscreen space and to the moonward view that will motivate the scene.

This is one of many shots that is built around ceremony. The astronomers are standing in rows; the scribes on the left of the frame are uniformed and also in rows. Six servants bring in telescopes, and the President of the society steps forward to announce his plans for a mission to the moon. The pomp and regimentation of these moments may or may not constitute the majority of Méliès’ critique of the scientific establishment, as will be developed in subsequent shots. As the President crosses the chamber to take his place in front of the chalkboard, his tall pointy hat falls off. It doesn’t look deliberate, but he doesn’t react to what may or may not be a wardrobe malfunction. The front row of the society members has been holding aloft their out-sized telescopes, incorporating the tools of their science into the ceremony; suddenly, thanks to a substitution shot (the camera is stopped, the action restaged and the camera restarted, with the join smoothed with some careful editing), the telescopes are transformed into stools, upon which they then sit to hear the President’s lecture on the moon mission. What are we to make of this magic trick? Are these scientists blessed with powers of metamorphosis, or is this just a fantasy environment where physical laws do not apply?

The Flicker Alley DVD includes a newly recorded narration from a script written by Méliès to be read aloud with the film. You can find the full text of this, translated into English, here. The narration clarifies the action, pointing out important details that a viewer needs to spot in order to build up an awareness of the story; these pointers are particularly instructive when they emphasise things are not highlighted in the image. There are no close-ups to pick out the President from the crowd or to give a closer view of his diagram on the chalkboard, for instance, as you might expect to see in much later films, when continuity editing was deployed to give separate shots to individual pieces of narrative information. Heightened performances and gestures help to draw attention towards certain key points, but the frame is very busy with information, and it is sometimes difficult to get a clear sense of what is going on in a single viewing. You will notice throughout the film that the acting by all concerned is not designed to create nuanced character portraits or psychological depth for any of the explorers. It is even quite difficult to distinguish between them as the pace of the film increases. Their physical gestures are often conducted as a group, and usually designed to assist the spectator in looking to the correct portion of the frame. There is therefore a lot of pointing in the direction of where something amazing is happening (Tableau 3 is a very clear example of this), urging the spectator to look at the marvelous sight and not to focus on the experience that the fictional characters are having, but to enjoy his or her own experience of the adventure. Without close-ups and editing, there are no easily identifiable eyeline matches that might help to orientate the spectatorial gaze, so the pointing and waving carry out a similar function.

I always enjoy watching the way the President describes his plans. The chalkboard has a picture of the Earth and the Moon. He draws the barrel of a gun, and a dotted line connecting them. Elementary. Why did it take another six decades for anyone to get to the moon? I’m told that rocket travel is quite simple in principle – you just need a good strong craft with powerful propulsion and some very precise calculations of trajectory. Something like that. Méliès’ version of this is brutally literal – the astronauts will be shot out of a canon aimed directly at the Moon. The force will be enough to get them all the way there. Let’s not beat the film up for its apparent naivety. As Tom Gunning reminds us, in his discussion of the film in Geiger & Rutsky’s Film Analysis:

We must keep in mind that Méliès was not offering an inadequate approximation of realism but a different style, based on acknowledged theatricality and illusion – a fairyland with a sense of humour and irony about itself.

That is to say, the jaunty, frantic excursion undertaken by the explorers is not an attempt to previsualise how space travel might work, but a way of displaying cinema’s capacity imaginatively to construct images of the impossible. The simplicity and speed with which the whole thing takes place is a testament to the compressions of time and space that the cinematic apparatus permits. Or it might express a dismissive attitude towards the sobriety and self-importance of scientists and their cliques. When the plan is described, one astronomer waves his arms to express profound disagreement. “This is madness!” he probably says, or words to that effect. Is there a reasoned debate in which objections are aired, recorded and counter-argued? No. The President throws a book at the dissenter’s head and then picks his favourites from the society to accompany him on the trip to the moon.

The shot has lasted almost three minutes. That’s a long take, even for the early cinema period, but a lot has been crammed in. (In fact, we might want to argue that, because it features substitution cuts, it is not really one shot, but several spliced together to look like a single shot.) We’ve established the will to go the moon, and the means by which it will be achieved, and the personnel who will achieve it (although the astronauts are not clearly individuated, and we know nothing about them and their idiosyncratic personalities). The shot’s ending is clearly marked as the astronauts, having changed into more casual attire for their trip, exit at the right of the frame. The next shots will show more about how the mission will work.

Tableau 2: 03:53 – 4:46

Here we see the giant shell being made. It’s not a rocket, as it’s not fuel-propelled, but a big bullet to be fired from a bigger gun. The workshop is another beautifully painted backdrop, and the frame is again busy with activity, all strategically placed to privilege the view of the shell and to clear a space for the astronomers to enter.

The astronomers, who I should probably now call astronauts (is there a subtext here about the unsuitability of theorists fancying themselves as practitioners?) enter from the right of the frame. Is this taking place immediately after the previous shot, or is it a large temporal ellipsis? Events seem to be moving very quickly, but the team have not changed clothes again since we last saw them. Again, it doesn’t particularly matter whether the sequence of shots is continuous – this is not a realistic account of things – but the entrance and exit of the characters as a marker of a shot’s end or beginning is a key way in which the shots are linked graphically and spatially, even if those tactics do not combine to produce a verisimilar depiction of space and time.

One of the astronauts falls into a bucket of nitric acid. Well, if they will insist on leaving dangerous chemicals lying around, accidents will happen. This is slapstick, but it again pokes fun at the society members, who are out-of-place on the shop floor. They will leave the shot at frame left, having been hurried along to witness the casting of the gun.

In this shot, notice that Méliès makes fabulous use of flat scenery – the rocket itself is a two-dimensional painting, but the shading is designed to give the impression of depth and shape; there is no slavish attention to realism, no attempt to create a seamless illusion, but what I find particularly compelling about this and so many of his other films is that  very dynamic between the warped, seemingly (but deceptively) careless disregard for perspective and scale, and the richly textured detail of the fabricated backdrops. The viewer is asked to reconcile these two conflicting visual schema, the first suggesting that this is no real-world environment, the second subtly persuasive that this is an active, true space.

Tableau 3: 04:46 – 05:17

Having exited frame left, they enter shot 3 from the right. There is continuity between shots here, even if a tableau style dominates much of the film’s organisation. Although the link between the two shots might suggest that the two spaces are  right next to one another, there is no such direct spatial continuity between these shots – the direction of the action from right to left infers a link between the shots (they are continuing their tour of the facilities). If the film has many theatrical qualities (gesticulation towards the audience, lateral movement along the front of the frame/proscenium and painted scenery), it is these quick changes of scenery that make it a cinematic trumping of the limitations of theatrical space. The effort spent in constructing each new set-up is elided in the edit to make it seem like an instantaneous scene change. In his book on D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film, Gunning critiques the idea that early film can be reduced to a “theatrical aesthetic”. He points out how these quick scene changes (“the descent of the rocket is covered by four shots in only twenty seconds of film time”) distinguish Méliès’ work from the theatre stage, as do the substitution and superimposition trick effects on which he often relied:

The cinematic trick of substitution so important to Méliès films drew on both the enframed image and editing levels of filmic discourse. Examining the actual prints of Méliès’s films, Jacques Malthete discovered that the substitution trick almost always involved an act of splicing as well as camera stoppage in order to control the illusion of substitution precisely. Examined from this viewpoint, stop motion becomes, in effect, a form of editing. Likewise, a technique such as superimposition (which often involved refinement through splicing) present a nontheatrical manipulation of space through the devices of re-photography. […] This manipulation of the film image creates an ambiguous space of often-contradictory orientations, quite different from the stable proscenium space of theatricality.

The characters all cluster at the right hand side of the frame. They point into the depth of the forced-perspective backdrop. One raises a telescope, a graphic cue for the spectator to look in that direction and witness, along with them, the making of the gun in the distance. These tricks of perspective are essential to make things seem much larger than they really are, which is not to say that things are kept accurately in proportion throughout. There are some hyperbolic distortions of scale throughout the film, caused by the use of flat surfaces to suggest depth and distance. Méliès painted his backdrops in greyscale, sometimes painting props in this way, too. This gave him great control over the mise-en-scene, controlling the contrast between the various elements – it also enabled him to make certain objects translucent enough that the film could later be hand-painted frame by frame. As Richard Abel notes in a technical footnote in his collection French Film Theory and Criticism Volume 1:

Orthochromatic filmstock was sensitive to the purple-to-green portion of the spectrum, so that objects in these colours showed up as white or light grey in film. It was not sensitive, however, to yellow and red, and objects in these colours showed up as dark grey or even black.

I don’t know if there’s meant to be some kind of environmental message in this shot – the factory that is casting the gun is spewing out enough smoke and steam to darken the entire sky, and given the way the film ends up mocking the triviality of the whole mission (to an extent), this may be another hint at how the effort to send this projectile to the Moon is an extreme waste of resources.

Tableau 4: 05:17 – 06:58

Here’s a good example of warped perspective. The gun is now cast, and the shell is finished, ready for firing. That was quick. The temporal ellipses are pronounced, but still not important – the sequence of events is logical, moving from idea to manufacture to realisation to achievement, even if it is temporally expressionistic. But the girls who will parade around this scientific marvel appear to be standing on rooftops.

When the astronauts enter, they acknowledge the crowds below them. They dwarf the houses in the foreground. The crowds to whom they gesture are presumably somewhere offscreen in the position that would be inhabited by the film’s spectators, one way in which the film solicits the viewer’s involvement. The spatial environments of the film are as distorted as the temporal ones. Melies’ frames are almost always very “busy”, crammed with detail, sometimes, as with this shot, collapsing more than one distinct space into a single composition. Look through the other shots in this essay, and notice the number of compositions that are loaded with competing lines of action or heavily detailed decor. These are extraordinarily complex set-ups.

Note also the decorative use of women in this film. While the men do the planning and the adventuring, conquering and fighting, women are made part of the ceremonial design. They bring in the shell, all dressed in short shorts that are obviously not practical for the shifting of heavy machinery. This use of women as blessed adornments, or as the fantasised figures from a man’s imagination has drawn fire from feminist critics. Méliès didn’t invent the trope of the vanishing lady, whereby the female body becomes an object over which transformative power is exerted by a male conjuror, but he perpetuated it on film. These bare-legged beauties appear whenever there is an occasion to be marked. As Ezra notes:

“The costumes worn by the female sailors evoke the centuries-long tradition of nautical exploration, now replaced by other means (land-based and flying vehicles), and by other destinations (space). As eroticised and trivialised caricatures of explorers, the female sailors both compensate for and remind us of the absence of women from the expedition: they are dressed to travel, but they go nowhere.”

They push the shell into the gun and then wave delightedly to the crowd/camera/audience. Tom Gunning has designated the early cinema period (from approximately 1895-1907) as a “cinema of attractions“, differentiating the dominant presentational paradigm from the cinema of narrative integration which constitutes the majority of fiction films in the subsequent decades:

Rather than being an involvement with narrative action or empathy with character psychology, the cinema of attractions solicits a highly conscious awareness of the film image engaging the viewer’s curiosity. The spectator does not get lost in a fictional world and its drama, but remains aware of the act of looking, the excitement of curiosity and its fulfilment.

If you’d like to read more about the early cinema period, I recommend Joe Kember and Simon Popple‘s entry in the Wallflower Press Short Cuts series, entitled Early Cinema: From Factory Gate to Dream Factory. It’s a very lucid entrypoint to what can be a daunting historical zone for unfamiliar viewers. They summarise Gunning’s ‘Cinema of Attractions’ quite helpfully:

  • The cinema of attractions foregrounds the act of display rather than depending upon a fictional storyline. According to Gunning, it is an ‘exhibitionist cinema’ that advertises the medium of film as an attraction in its own right. It is therefore exemplified during exhibition by showmen and other live performers, such as magicians, freaks and musicians, whose role during exhibition was to draw the admiring attention of paying customers to the films.
  • It exploits the element of ‘surprise, shock and trauma’ experienced by audiences rather than the more sedate pleasures associated with the linear unfolding of a storyline. Like an attraction in an amusement park, it offers to audiences the possibility for  new and surprising experience.
  • It demands an audience’s active response to unfamiliar and disturbing material rather than the spectator’s passive response to familiar and comfortable material. Unlike the convention of silent spectatorship we expect in modern cinemas, the cinema of attractions encouraged spectators to be noisy and interactive. This was a cinema for which the spectator, bombarded by a sequence of images onscreen, noisily participated in the production of meaning.

It seems difficult to imagine or simulate this kind of boisterous viewing experience at home when watching on DVD, but understanding the mode of address of the films of this period can help us to appreciate why Melies might have arranged a film in this way. Moments like this shot, where characters in the film motion towards the camera to acknowledge the extra-diegetic audience, stand as evidence of this “attractionist” aesthetic. You will see in many shots of this film that the tableau have been arranged to facilitate the act of looking, to direct the gaze in a particular direction, as in shot 3, when the astronomers stand to one side to clear the view of the gun casting, with a telescope offering a visual cue to look more closely. Gestures towards the audience are something of a tease, though. They seem to imply that there is a live link between the screen and the viewer, that they can appeal to you directly and receive your response, but there might be a simultaneous sense that this is not really present, that it is an absent illusion. That’s the fascinating paradox of cinema’s play with presence/absence, and the cinema of attractions indulges it energetically.

Tableau 5: 06:58 – 07:23

The next shot features an extremely deep perspective in its backdrop, with a clearly discrepant sense of scale compared to the previous shot. More ceremony marks the firing of the gun, and the girls are commanded into line and order to salute the firing of the cannon. Again, they operate as ornaments. When the gun is fired, with an explosion of smoke, the crowd rushes excitedly into the scene, but the image immediately dissolves to a shot of the moon.

You can see the moon in the top right hand corner of the frame: you probably find your eye drawn to it by the lines of the gun barrel. The next shot will show movement towards the moon, so you can see from the way these shots are linked that Melies always has a logical spatial connection from one shot to the next. The onward rush of the narrative’s breakneck journey is matched by the linking of shots in a sequence that suggests that journey’s progress.

Tableau 6: 07:23 – 07:39

This is the film’s signature image, or at least it will lead up to the famous image of the Moon with a rocket stuck in its eye. Even if you’d never heard of this film, you will probably have seen references to it, in places as varied as The Mighty Boosh, the Teletubbies’ baby-faced sun (itself parodied beautifully here), this iron fence on West 21st Street, New York, in Smashing Pumpkins’ video for Tonight, Tonight, and in an Itchy and Scratchy segment of The Simpsons. If you have a pair of those coloured specs lying around, you can view the image in 3D by clicking on this link. It also forms the basis of the logo and statuette for the Visual Effects Society’s annual awards. The Moon is presented as a man-in-the-moon figure, another break from the rigours of scientific realism: Melies’ films tend to be filled with these personifications of celestial bodies or other anthropomorphic entities.

A shot of a painted moon dissolves into an actor’s face made up as the moon. At the start of this shot, then, it looks as though the moon is marked with three large craters: when the first astronomers saw these dark areas, they identified them as seas (marias) as opposed to the lighter land masses (terrae). It wasn’t until Galileo scrutinised the moon with a telescope that he saw the mountains and craters that cast a shifting pattern of shadows across the terrain, but the old terminology of seas and oceans is still used to describe the flat zones. (Incidentally, both Jules Verne and H.G. Wells have Moon craters named after them. You can see Verne here, and Wells here. Both of them are on the dark side…) In A Trip to the Moon, only the closer view, as the “camera” moves in, anthropomorphises the satellite. Why switch from a painted moon to a moving face? Perhaps it represents the shift in perspective as the adventurers pass from an Earthly space to a distinctly different, more magical environment. From a distance, this moon looks like it really does from the Earth, even if those marks on the surface do look like facial features. Maybe it’s just a clever trick effect, but I like to think it’s a swift journey to a “pre-rational”, fantastic interpretation of the cosmos, and Melies shows the transformation in order to show his own intention to toy with the medium’s realist aspirations.

In contrast to the other shots in this film which, as I mentioned above, comprise very “busy” compositions, this shot clears a space for a single spectacular item at the centre of the frame, vignetted by the clouds. This interstitial location, between the frenetic worlds of Earth and Moon, is the clearest, least cluttered point of the film – naturally,  because it’s in space. This moment of release won’t last long though, and the shot will end with the rocket messing it up. You can almost smell the green cheese.

The effect is achieved with a double exposure. While the vignette provided by the clouds remains fixed, a second exposure superimposes the moon’s face into the black space at the centre of the frame. The illusion of headlong forward motion towards the moon has been achieved by moving the camera in this second exposure towards the face. Just as you’re enjoying this trick, Méliès hits you with another.

A substitution cut abruptly shows the shell appearing in the Moon’s eye. My opinion of this image changes a lot. It’s so familiar now that it becomes rather quaint, but despite its fantastic hyperbole (the Moon doesn’t really have eyes… or does it?), it’s also a violent image. This desecration of the Moon may be read as a statement about the brusque and thoughtless destructiveness of “big science” – this voyage has taken a few seconds of screen time, with no attention paid to the consequences: remember the conscientious objector in Shot 1, who had books hurled at his head for trying to introduce some rational calm to the project? The pre-visualisation of the shot in Melies’s painting of it (see the image at the top of this post) is even more violent, with the Moon appearing to scream in distress, instead of looking disgruntled.

Whatever it means, it’s a good excuse for a trick effect; the surprise of the shell-in-the-eye shot comes from two points. First, the shot seemed to have been a point-of-view shot, as if from the front of the rocket, fast approaching the Moon. Suddenly, the shell appears in the shot, coming in from another direction. Second, the shell is comically out of proportion with the Moon (which is, in reality, 3500 km in diameter). The jolt from this effect comes from the film’s tendency to undercut any continuities of space and scale, seemingly rewriting the relationships between objects and places in every shot. This may be impossible to reconcile, i.e. we can’t decide whether it is a POV shot from the rocket or a “third person” view of the shell landing on the Moon: it might just be both, collapsing the functions of two different kinds of shot into a single image that simultaneously visualises motion towards the Moon and an external view of the Moon landing.

At first, the motion towards the Moon targets it perfectly: the disc is in the centre of the frame, and the motion is smooth and steady. The sudden appearance of the projectile from the side might depict a breakdown of the mission, a miscalculation that botches the endeavour and leaves the explorers stuck in the Moon’s surface. From this interpretation, this shot is a symbolic distillation of the film’s attitude towards the mission. This seems apt, given that the next shot replays the landing on the Moon from a more narratively consistent vantage point. By shattering the expectation that the shot will leave to a direct, centrally targeted landing on the Moon, with an abrupt appearance from a faulty trajectory, the language of the film speaks of failure or at least careless wreckage.

In a magnificent discussion of astronomical imagery at the close of the 19th century and into the 20th, Lynda Nead notes the prevalence of anthropomorphic depictions of celestial imaginings, where the sighting of faces in the moon’s surface retained the traces of superstition and irreverence in what might otherwise have been reduced to another observational science. Of the violated moon-face in A Trip to the Moon, she writes:

This spectacular and memorable image can be read as a symbolic vision of the end of an astronomical science based on the transcription of the observation of the eye and the triumph of a new astronomy based on the superior gaze and representational capacities of the camera lens. […] Paintings, photographs, lantern slides, multimedia performances, amusement rides and films reveal the richness of the encounter between astronomy and the visual imagination at the end of the nineteenth century. Here were pictures that absorbed the viewer and offered an immersive experience of the visual image that disturbed the idea of a fixed viewing position. They created a dynamic, kinetic viewer whose point of view was just as likely to be that of the lunarian or martian as that of an inhabitor of earth.

In no other shot does the anthropomorphism of the Moon come into play – it will not be characterised in this way again. It’s just a phase he’s going through. (Incidentally, you shouldn’t dismiss the possibility of the moon being made of green cheese…)

Tableau 7: 07:39 – 10:28

This is probably the most elaborate shot in the film, piling up a series of delicate illusions. Even though we’ve just seen the shell land in the moon’s eye, this shot overlaps temporally and shows it landing again on the moon’s surface. We see an alternative perspective on the action, again mixing up the senses of proportion and direction. This kind of overlapping editing was not uncommon in this period, prior to the establishment of continuity conventions that require shots to match so that an action begun at the end of one shot can be completed at the start of the next, enforcing the illusion of continuous space and time. Classical continuity shuts down this kind of spatio-temporal disruption. Roberta Pearson notes of the years from 1902 to 1907:

In this period, the multi-shot film emerged as the norm rather than the exception, with films no longer treating the individual shot as a self-contained unit of meaning but linking one shot to another. However, film-makers may have been using a succession of shots to capture and emphasise the highpoints of the action rather than construct either a linear narrative causality or clearly establish temporal-spatial relations. As befits the ‘cinema of attractions’, the editing was intended to enhance visual pleasure rather than to refine narrative developments. One of the strangest editing devices used in this period was overlapping action, which resulted from film-makers’ desire both to preserve the pro-filmic space and to emphasise the important action by essentially showing it twice.

The travellers get out of the rocket and enjoy the scenery.Their gesticulations point out the landscape, but they are framed in a tableau that doesn’t show us that view from their perspective. In a moment they will step aside to give the film’s spectators a clearer view.

They move to the right hand side of the frame and part of the painted backdrop (containing the rocket) slides away to clear space for a view of the Earth rising in the background. The astronauts act as surrogate consumers of the spectacle – look at how they carry on pointing, directing your eye (in case it needed directing towards the biggest, brightest object in the sky). The rocks on either side of the frame, and the clouds at the top create an effective vignette around the black space in the centre. This blackness becomes a kind of screen for more illusions – unexposed portions of the film strip could be run through the camera again to superimpose isolated elements such as this picture of the Earth. The unexposed areas of film are the fertile zones of Melies’s frame, primed for the insertion of novel images as if they are spontaneously plucked from the blackness.

A sudden explosion knocks everyone over. In a neat reversal of the usual relationship between Earth and Moon, the rise of the Earth indicates to the explorers that it is time to sleep. They wrap up in blankets, and we can see enough of their faces to know that they’ve nodded off. The black sky now becomes the canvas for a cosmic display. A comet whizzes past above their heads.

The comet is followed by the Great Bear (Ursa Major), represented as women’s faces in five-pointed stars. More specifically, there are dozens of stars in the Ursa Major constellation, but the seven most famous ones, an asterism sometimes called the Big Dipper (it’s known more commonly in the UK as “the Plough”), are shown here. It’s probably the best known formation of stars in the night sky for people in the Northern Hemisphere, and if you follow the line made by the two stars on the right (Merak and Dubhe), you’ll find the North Star, Polaris, an essential navigational aid for travellers (you know, in the days before Sat Nav). But as we know, orientation, scale and perspective, all the measures of situated vision are undercut by this film: constellations are really just optical illusions – they’re not really arranged in pictorial figurations, and only appear to be so from our position on Earth. As soon as the Plough appears, it dissolves away to reveal Phoebus, Saturn, and two girls with a star (anyone know if this signifies a particular astral body?). At least, the commentary on the DVD tells me it’s Phoebus, but I was under the understanding that Phoebus was the male sun-god. I’ll look into that a little further when I have the chance. In any case, I should stress that none of this is astronomically accurate, but you’ve probably figured that out by now. They make it snow on the explorers, causing them to wake and take shelter in a crater.

According to Paul Hammond, that’s Bleuette Bernon, a Méliès regular, sitting on the crescent moon. Bernon starred in Cinderella (1899), Jeanne d’Arc (1900), Blue Beard(1901) and Le royaume des fées (1904). She also has a Bacon Number of 3.

What is the point of this sequence? Is it a discrete series of spectacles with no connection to a developing narrative, or is it a thematic conceit with which Melies mocks the astronomers for missing out on all the splendour of space? Or is it all a dream?

Tableau 8: 10:28 – 11:40

Climbing down into a crater, the explorers enter a cavernous grotto covered in interested flora, fauna, funghi, and… I’m not a botanist. It looks like a lot of shrooms to me. This subterranean world is the real find: a fallen tree provides a bridge but suggests abundant vegetation. One of the team notes the similarity between his opened umbrella and one of the giant mushrooms. He puts his brolly down on the ground, perhaps to compare their size, and in a precise substitution, it transforms instantaneously into a mushroom and starts to sprout upwards. No explanation is given for this power of metamorphosis – it marks the Moon as a place of magic and mystery rather than a naturalistically consistent environment. (You might think the Moon is not all that powerful or interesting, but some scientists claim that it has a strong influence on human behaviour. There may also be a connection between the Moon and earthly mushrooms, with flushes of shrooms being influenced by the lunar cycle, so it would make sense if the moon was full of the things.)

We get our first sighting of the Selenites, the inhabitants of the Moon. Named after the Greek goddess of the Moon, they seem to be played by acrobats and contortionists, so athletic are their movements. Sure enough, Melies hired them from Paris’s most famous music hall, the Folies Bergère. They’re not so tough, though, since one blow from an umbrella is enough to make them disappear in a puff of smoke, an effect which is again achieved with a substitution cut.

‘Selenite’ was the name given to the inhabitants of the Moon in H.G. Wells‘ novel The First Men in the Moon, published in 1901 and clearly a strong influence on this film (it was later filmed by Nathan Juran in 1964, with special effects by Ray Harryhausen), as was Jules Verne‘s From the Earth to the Moon (1865). Wells imagined the moon with an ice-cold atmosphere, quick-growing funghi and underground aliens. The humans are much stronger than the Selenites, their bodies having developed under the duress of heavier gravitational forces, but Méliès takes the fragility of the alien anatomy to extremes, exploiting the dematerialising powers of his substitution effects. Verne introduced the idea of firing the explorers from a giant gun, and this concept influenced the early rocket scientists, and you can still see many parallels between his story and the Apollo space program. A Trip to the Moon is only loosely an adaptation of these two books, and the adaptation of extensive narratives into 13 minutes of film was a very different process in 1902. Méliès has cherry-picked the highpoints of spectacle and the bare bones of a story, just enough to motivate, complicate and resolve the action. It abbreviates all of the scientific accuracy for which Verne had striven (he acknowledged the need to achieve an escape velocity from the Earth’s gravitational pull while keeping acceleration down so as not to kill the rocket’s occupants) to a set of basic principles of motion – explosion provides propulsion, and the telescopic gun provides direction. Collision with the Moon equals deceleration, and falling from the moon will later provide a way back (no gun is required). What remains are a series of spectacular peaks from the texts.

The correlation between this film and literary referents may have provided a level of pop-cultural interest for audiences, but I’m sure they wouldn’t have expected a similar experience. Cinema offered kinaesthetic thrills, a marvellous blast of visual splendour. Méliès once suggested that he was not interested in story:

As for the scenario, the ‘fable’, or ‘tale’, I only consider it at the end. I can state that the scenario constructed in this manner has no importance, since I use it merely as a pretext for the ‘stage effects’, the ‘tricks’, or for a nicely arranged tableau.

It might be disingenuous of him to suggest that the scenario was unimportant. It provides structure, a causal link between the shots that stamps a singular authorship upon the work and locates it as a complete text – its fundamental linearity and clarity of form, progressing through a sequence of events to reach a resounding and settled conclusion, makes it more substantial than a disparate set of tricks might seem, and also gives it pacing and shape. I hope I’m not projecting onto the film value judgements from a later period when narrative conventions are firmly ingrained and expected as a norm, but the relationship between narrative and spectacle here is one which intertwines them rather than switching between their imperatives and aesthetics. And it shouldn’t be suggested that the story is unimportant. Even if it was not Méliès’ priority as he worked on A Trip to the Moon, the choices he made in selecting the characters, situations and the order in which events occur will affect how we eventually interpret and understand the film as a whole.

Tom Gunning develops the concept of ‘attractions’ by discussing their ‘temporality’. First, he quotes from John Frazer’s Artificially Arranged Scenes:

The causal narrative links in Méliès films are relatively insignificant compared to the discrete events. We experience his films as rapidly juxtaposed jolts of activity. We focus on successions of pictorial surprises which run roughshod over the conventional niceties of linear plotting. Méliès films are a collage of immediate experiences which coincidentally require the passage of time to become complete.

From this, Gunning argues:

Frazer here [see quotation above] contrasts two types of temporality: the linear progression of plotting and causality, and the staccato jolts of surprise that characterise Méliès films. […] Rather than a development that links the past with the present in such a way as to define a specific anticipation of the future (as an unfolding narrative does), the attraction seems limited to a sudden burst of presence. Restricted to the presentation of a view or a central action, the cinema of attractions tends naturally toward brevity rather than extension. […] The temporality of the attraction itself, then, is limited to the pure present tense of its appearance, but the announcing gesture creates a temporal frame of expectation and even suspense. It differs from diegetic suspense, of course, in being concerned less with how an event will develop than with when an event will occur.

So, the peaks of spectacle, when an object transmogrifies or a head flies off from a body, are situated within a temporal framework which connects them, even though they exist as discrete moments in themselves – we could watch an isolated special effect again and again, but the temporal frame accentuates it by placing it within a rhythmic structure that hits crescendos or offers respite from the action as required. Note that every shot begins and ends with a good reason to begin or end – characters will enter the frame or leave the frame, each individual event completed before the next commences. It’s the simplest, most effective excuse to move to the next bit of the story, giving every new shot a reason to be there, and a reason to follow on from the previous one. The shots are all thus linked together in a linear, causal chain. Addressing the subject of Melies’ adventure/voyage films, Paul Hammond has a great interpretation of their significance to the filmmaker’s body of work as a whole:

The simple linear structure of the journey from ‘A to B’ lent itself to the simple linear construction of Star Films: there is a sort of ‘pantographic’ relationship between the metres of film expended and the kilometres of road or ocean or space to be covered.

In other words, linearity (in the form of forward motion) is more than just the path of least resistance that lets Melies ignore the demands of narrative planning: it is precisely what enables the tricks to make sense in sequence, and what facilitates and makes sense of the shot-by-shot workflow of the Star Film production set-up.

For instance, the shot ends with the explorers being surrounded by a crowd of Selenites and taken captive. They are ushered out of the frame, setting up the next scene where they will be brought before the ruler of their captors. The next shot will itself end when the explorers flee the king’s throne room.

Tableau 9: 11:40 – 12:23

The group are brought before the king of the Selenites, who is surrounded by more decorative girls, this time dressed as stars – their costume is obviously a thematic reference to the sidereal theme of the movie, but a nice graphic match with the logo of Méliès’ company, Star Film. Aspect Ratio has a great article about studio logos here, and David Bordwell another one here, so it’s worth remembering that the branding of films is nothing new. Méliès cements that link between the fantastic subject matter of his films and the fantastic capabilities of his film-making outfit: the branding also serves as product-differentiation and hopes to deter illicit copying of his films. [See also Shot 16] A Trip to the Moon had cost 10,000 francs to produce, a huge amount for the time, but that expense is reflected in the care and attention lavished on every set – it feels expensive. The branding of the film didn’t stop its popularity from attracting pirates: Siegmund Lubin, for instance, duplicated it and exhibited in the USA under the title A Trip to Mars. Richard Abel notes that:

Unlike the Lumières and others, Méliès remained above all an entertainer ad owner of a small family business, a position that did not change even after the worldwide success of Le Voyage dans la Lune. In order to prevent others from duping his popular films (no copyright protection existed), he hired sales agents in England, Germany and Spain and, in 1903, sent his brother Gaston to open a Star-Film office in New York.

This ceremonial arrangement of figures might be seen to echo the one on Earth that greeted the rocket launch. Do the explorers stop to chat about their commonality? No. One of them grabs the king and throws him on the ground where, by the magic of a substitution effect, he explodes. These are dreamlike, ephemeral creatures, disappearing in clouds of moon-dust when struck. It’s all too easy for the Earthlings to overpower them. But they don’t stand and fight, instead rushing off out of the left of the frame.

We get a good look at the Selenites in this shot. There’s something of the crustacean about them. They have lobster-like pincer-claws (to use the scientific terminology) and what looks like a hard shell or exoskeleton. Not all crustaceans are aquatic (stand up and be counted, woodlice of the world!), but there’s a definite connection between these creatures and the sea: it seems ironic that the explorers will ultimately escape from the Moon by dropping into the sea. It’s interesting that the Lunar people seem to have developed a monarchical dictatorship – science fiction tends to be a place where earthly concerns can be played out in an imagined context, or by comparing Earth to alien systems of government.

If you’re particularly eagle-eyed (or if you can just be bothered to look at the freeze-frame above), you’ll notice that when the king is snatched from his throne, we get a glimpse of an icon of the Man in the Moon on the back of it: they’re a moon-worshipping people, but since they live on the Moon, doesn’t that make them the lunar equivalent of pagan Earth-worshippers? The Selenites, with their spears and tribal customs, are thus marked with connotations of  non-rational primitivism (Enlightenment beliefs had required people to refrain from such supernaturalism), again firming up the film’s colonialist subtext. We know that the Selenites are not modern, by comparison with the Earthlings, because they have not themselves worked out the means to travel to Earth. Or maybe Melies is saving that for the sequel…

The presentation of the selenite throne room is reminiscent of William Hogarth‘s engraving “Royalty, Episcopacy and Law“, which I’ve noted in a separate post, here. Hogarth pretended to have drawn an accurate depiction, based on evidence from a telescope, of the Moon’s inhabitants, where their affairs seem to be similarly structured around the ceremonial presentation of state institutions. Hogarth, it seems, was using the telescope as an excuse to point out the rigid and emptily automatic underpinnings of contemporary society in his own England of the 18th century.

Tableau 10: 12:23 – 12:51

This is a brief shot, as the explorers rush across the frame and the selenites pursue them. The lateral movement, and the slight downward slope, emphasises the speed of the chase, and the relationship between shots 9 – 11 heightens this sense with movement from right to left across all three shots. In the background, you can see what I presume is the Earth (you can even make out Europe and Africa facing in our direction), a reminder of the distance between these two worlds, but the orientation here is strange. In the shots which follow, the shell will drop down to Earth from the Moon, not seeming to travel in the direction suggested by the Earth’s relative position in this shot. And compare this to the shot of the Moon in the background of Shot 15. I think Melies wants us to maintain awareness of the distance between these two worlds, but the comparative relationship between them is inferred through the edits which connect them, rather than through geometrically accurate spatial consistencies between them. This may be good evidence that we are to note the similarities between the Earth and the Moon, as suggested by the collapse of distance and direction, rather than to experience them as remote and disconnected.

Tableau 11: 12:51 – 13:29

The Earthmen manage to make it back to their “ship” and climb inside, except for the President, who grabs a rope attached to the front of the craft and leaps over the cliff, pulling it with him. It’s not clear how the shell came to be resting on the edge of the Moon, or how the moon suddenly came to be flat, a precipice from which you can tumble down, but if you’re worried about that, I’m amazed you’ve made it this far: this is not a realistic picture of the Moon but an image of a conceptual boundary, an edge of the moon that will mark the transition from Moon to Earth in the space of a few shots. Look at the detail on the Moon’s rock – Melies has painted vines, jagged edges and some interesting spiky flowers. I’m still entirely sure what’s going on with the backdrop – I can make out clouds illuminated by a light source from the bottom left of the frame, but what is the line along the top of the frame? If clouds, they look rather like a mountain range.

One of the selenites vaults onto the back of the shell and is taken along with it. His comrades are left behind to watch the downward plummet.

Tableau 12: 13:29 – 13:33

This is the shortest shot in the film, allowing just enough time for the shell to fall into the frame from the top and out of the bottom. You can still see President hanging from the front, and a selenite clutching the back. There is clear continuity in these four shots which convey the return journey from Moon to ocean, but look closely in the top right hand corner. Is that the Moon behind the cloudy outcrop there? I’m not sure, but if so, it would be another distortion of spatial relationships and realistic scale, akin to the tricks pulled with the original landing on the Moon. The jagged edges of the clouds create a graphic match with the shape of the ridge from which the ship has fallen in the previous shot, so while the drop might not make sense in terms of precise directional and spatial continuity, Melies finds other ways to link the shots.

Discussing this film in relation to the “road movie”, Devin Orgeron claims it as a landmark film in terms of the development of narrative and ambivalent depictions of machine transportation:

A film reliant upon both the wonder and the terror of mechanized travel— here of the lunar variety—A Trip to the Moon establishes the critical link between cinematic narrative and the journey and begins to articulate the cinema’s conflicted relationship to mobile technologies. The cinematic journey provided early narrative filmmakers with the pro- found challenge of creating viable techniques by which the illusion of the passage through time and space could be visually represented.

Tableau 13: 13:33 – 13:38

This looks to me like a superimposed shell (and you can just see the Selenite gripping the back of it) dropping into a location shot of the sea. Notice that the shell has been painted white or pale grey so that it shows up against the dark background. If this is a location shot, then it is the only one in the movie. The rest was shot in Méliès studio. He began constructing a studio at Montreuil (in the grounds of the family home) late in 1896, finishing it in May of the following year (in 1905, he built a second studio next to this one). It was later expanded, but began as 17m long, 6m wide and 6m high at its tallest points, roughly the same dimensions as the stage area in which he performed at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, the magic theatre he had purchased in 1888 after the death of its proprietor and namesake Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin. The walls and ceiling were glass, and Méliès relied on natural light. This studio facility was equipped with trapdoors and moving panels to enable the easy conjuring and disappearances of performers. It had all the capstans, winches and pulleys of the theatrical space in which he usually worked, purpose-built for staging fantasy sequences and mechanical effects. Once we acknowledge the restrictions and repetitions to which a film-maker will be subject while shooting hundreds of scenes within the same confined space, we can see how a distinctive style and mise-en-scène quickly emerged in Méliès’ work.

That said, Frank Kessler has noted that we shouldn’t be too dismissive of the theatrical stylings of a film like this. Although it is often said (and is basically true) that Méliès used a theatrical kind of framing in most of his films (i.e. actors are seen full-bodied, from head-to-toe, the camera fixed in position and the entire set contained within and bordered by the edges of the frame), Kessler shows that this was not a naïve or primitive adherence to his theatrical heritage out of inertia or aesthetic timidity – he was actively constructing a theatrical perspective so as to more effectively play with the spatiotemporal continuity; continuous perspective, as viewers have in the theatre, connotes continuous action, even when the filmmaker disrupts it with trick effects and superimpositions. Tom Gunning puts it like this:

This concern for a unified viewpoint of the action (an act of enframing which does not vary even as the action within it is synthetically constructed by a series of concealed splices) differs sharply from the classical continuity system based on dramatic and psychological analysis and fragmentation. In the classical system a variety of viewing angles and distances are related to a larger spatial whole and these relations are regulated by the rules of continuity editing. While the continuity system maintains a consistent spatial orientation for the viewer, the variations between shots allow a dramatic and spatial articulation of the action. In contrast, the approach of early film privileges the single view- point and its posture of displaying something to the audience. The substitu- tion splice is based on maintaining the apparent continuity of this single view- point, rather than a dramatic articulation of a story through varied shots.

If you think the rocketship’s return to Earth prefigures NASA‘s use of the “splashdown” technique to return its spacecraft on parachutes into the soft landing of an ocean, you’re not the first to notice the similarity. Take a look at this correspondence between David Levy and NASA’s Public Affairs Office, which explains why, even if it wasn’t directly inspired by watching Méliès’ film, it is the best way to land.

Tableau 14: 13:38 – 13:51

This is a fabulous undersea shot, with painted jellyfish in the backdrop, and real newts standing in as large sea creatures. The shell plummets to the bottom of the sea and then buoys up to the surface, disturbing the newts, which are rather large in comparison. The shipwreck in the background is an interesting glimpse of a failed excursion, and the jellyfish provide a graphic match with the umbrellas and moon-shrooms from Shot 8. The explorers have dropped out of the underground world of the Moon into another strange place – is this a deliberate comparison of these two unknown environs?

At the end of Verne’s Around the Moon (1870, the sequel to From the Earth to the Moon), the projectile spacecraft falls back down to the Earth and lands in the ocean. It sinks, but thankfully contains enough air to rise back up to the surface, confounding the  rescuers, who are anxiously dredging the ocean floor in search of the lunar explorers. 

Tableau 15: 13:51 – 14:06

The shell is salvaged from the sea and towed into harbour by a steamer, a more dependable form of transport, here represented by a flat miniature moving through painted scenery and blowing smoke from its funnel. This lateral movement seems comforting after the sickening tumble from the Moon to the ocean floor. The President can be seen on the back of the shell waving a flag and I think, but I’m not sure, that he is being played by a glove puppet. You can also see a Selenite clinging on to the back of the shell. He is now a captive of the explorers. If it wasn’t already clear, this firms up the colonialist subtext that you might want to tease out as you watch it (see, for instance, Novakoala’s comment below). Elizabeth Ezra expresses this quite clearly:

In its depiction of the exploration of a faraway place and hostile encounter with alien life forms, Le Voyage dans la Lune can easily be read as a parable of colonial conflict. When the film was made, France was the second largest colonial power in the world, having emerged from a period of unprecedented imperial expansion at the end of the nineteenth century. While Melies mocks the pretensions of colonialist accounts of the conquest of one culture by another, his film also thematises social differentiation on the home front, as the hierarchical patterns on the moon are shown to bear a curious resemblance to those on earth.

Tableau 16: 14:06 – 15:26

Yet another ceremony. The shell is brought before the mayor and the townsfolk by the troupe of short-shorts girls. You can just see that it bears the logo of “Star Film Paris”, Méliès’ production and distribution company. A nice bit of branding, perhaps to deter counterfeiters by putting the logo in the middle of a concluding shot. Leading the parade is the French magician Jules-Eugène Legris, a regular performer at the théâtre Robert Houdin: the first screenings of the film following his matinee shows at the magic theatre.

The Selenite who had hitched a ride on the shell from the Moon to the Earth has now been captured, leashed and made to dance before the crowd, who bounce along with him boisterously. What more could explorers ask for? They managed to trash the Moon’s surface, obliterate a few of its inhabitants and turn one of its natives into a sideshow act. Even if it was not intended as a critique (could it even be a celebration?) of colonial clumsiness and insensitivity, it’s difficult not to interpret it in those terms today. Notice that they’ve been given outsized (perhaps to make them look silly, but also so that the designs are clearly visible to the audience) medals depicting the face of the Man in the Moon. Although they didn’t exactly conquer it, they’re permitted the fantasy that they somehow now possess it, albeit in miniature. The Man-in-the-Moon faces on the medals resemble the icon of the Moon seen in the throne room of the Selenite king, as if the two races are somehow more intimately connected than they might care to admit. And notice, in the second image from this tableau, that the staging creates a precise graphic match between the Selenite king’s palace, and the ceremonial arrangement here.  The symmetry is striking, the comparison called-for. Both leaders are even flanked by a pair of decorative women.

Compare this to the staging of the opening shot, with the President on the left of the frame and the rows of astronomers on the right.

Tableau 17: 15:26 – 15:36

This shot of a triumphal parade, with crowds dancing around a statue of the President, was believed lost until a complete print of the film was discovered in a barn in 2002. The restored version was screened at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival the following year, and the end shot also appears in this latest DVD release. The President is standing with his foot on an image of the moon, a rocket still lodged in its eye, looking every inch the conquering hero. This reference back to the iconic moment of the shell landing in the Moon’s eye confirms for us, too, that it was not just a spectacular incident, but a key piece of the film’s structured meanings: because the shell-in-the-eye shot operates in a separate spatio-temporal realm from the rest of the film (i.e. it is not smoothly continuous or spatially consistent with the shots that precede and follow it), we might see it as a symbolic summation of the film’s theme that stands out, like an embossed logo, from the rest of the narrative.

Matthew Solomon argues that these rediscovered final shots of the film are not incidental images, but the very moments that “secure” a reading of the film as a satire on colonial conquest and scientific hubris. I hadn’t noticed until Solomon mentioned it, but the President is sculpted holding his umbrella, the instrument that he used to fight the Selenites (but which had presumably not been brought along for that purpose). It’s a rather silly weapon, diminishing the man’s warrior status. The President’s pose mirrors his earlier gesture towards the sky at the astronomical society, vindicating his mad scheme. The pointing finger has been graphically matched to the gun aimed at the moon, denoting the ease with which has idea has been turned into physical reality. Notice the oversized hand on the statue, as if his most important act was not engineering the moon mission but pointing out the opportunity, defining the direction and daring to carry it through. It was he who pointed his telescope in the right direction and then emphasised his plan by drawing a trajectory on the chalkboard in the opening shot. There is, in retrospect, a lot of pointing, a focus on forward motion. A Trip to the Moon collapses time in the same way that it collapses distance – the weight of neither is felt in the few minutes the film takes to watch: was the statue built in advance of the mission, or rushed together by the townsfolk as a spontaneous act of praise? It doesn’t matter – these are a realist’s questions, and they don’t get us very far. What is more significant is the indulgent pile-up of pomp that this foreshortened timespan invokes; the explorers spend as much time celebrating their achievements as they do achieving them, and the screen-time given to each suggests their symbolic equivalence.

The Professor’s arcane robes in this statue mark him out as a wizard rather than a forward-thinking technologist, another striking and surely deliberate anachronism. The celebration accorded the explorers belies the fact that theirs was a rather messy and chaotic success. Is this further evidence that Méliès is mocking the inadequate truth claims of colonialist narratives of entitlement? These explorers have been received as heroes after a mission that saw them running and hiding for most of the time.


The Star Film catalogue lists the thirty scenes that take place in A Trip to the Moon, though these do not correspond to the list of shots – sometimes more than one scene takes place in a single shot. I have copied this in from Tim Dirks’s review from Filmsite.org. It might offer a quick summary and reference tool for an overview of the film:

  • The Scientific Congress at the Astronomic Club.
  1. Planning the Trip. Appointing the Explorers and Servants. Farewell.
  2. The Workshops Constructing the Projectile.
  3. The Foundries. The Chimney-stack. The Casting of the Monster Gun/Cannon.
  4. The Astronomers-Scientists Enter the Shell.
  5. Loading the Gun.
  6. The Monster Gun. March Past the Gunners. Fire!!! Saluting the Flag.
  7. The Flight Through Space. Approaching the Moon.
  8. Landing Right in the Moon’s Eye!!!
  9. Flight of the Rocket Shell into the Moon. Appearance of the Earth From the Moon.
  10. The Plain of Craters. Volcanic Eruption.
  11. The Dream of ‘Stars’ (the Bolies, the Great Bear, Phoebus, the Twin Stars, Saturn).
  12. The Snowstorm.
  13. 40 Degrees Below Zero. Descent Into a Lunar Crater.
  14. In the Interior of the Moon. The Giant Mushroom Grotto.
  15. Encounter and Fight with the Selenites.
  16. Taken Prisoners!!
  17. The Kingdom of the Moon. The Selenite Army.
  18. The Flight or Escape.
  19. Wild Pursuit.
  20. The Astronomers Find the Shell Again. Departure from the Moon in the Rocket.
  21. The Rocket’s Vertical Drop into Space.
  22. Splashing into the Open Sea.
  23. Submerged At the Bottom of the Ocean.
  24. The Rescue. Return to Port and Land.
  25. Great Fetes and Celebrations.
  26. Crowning and Decorating the Heroes of the Trip.
  27. Procession of Marines and Fire Brigade. Triumphal March Past.
  28. Erection of the Commemorative Statue by the Mayor and Council.
  29. Public Rejoicings.

Here, for ease of reference, is a summary of my shot lengths and timings from the above analysis:

  • Tableau 1: 00:00 – 03:53
  • Tableau 2: 03:53 – 4:46
  • Tableau 3: 04:46 – 05:17
  • Tableau 4: 05:17 – 06:58
  • Tableau 5: 06:58 – 07:23
  • Tableau 6: 07:23 – 07:39
  • Tableau 7: 07:39 – 10:28
  • Tableau 8: 10:28 – 11:40
  • Tableau 9: 11:40 – 12:23
  • Tableau 10: 12:23 – 12:51
  • Tableau 11: 12:51 – 13:29
  • Tableau 12: 13:29 – 13:33
  • Tableau 13: 13:33 – 13:38
  • Tableau 14: 13:38 – 13:51
  • Tableau 15: 13:51 – 14:06
  • Tableau 16: 14:06 – 15:26
  • Tableau 17: 15:26 – 15:36

In case it’s useful, here’s a graph of those shot lengths:

This doesn’t prove an awful lot, but I wanted to experiment and see what the data might demonstrate. You can see that the length of shots tends to shorten towards the end of the film as the pace quickens (shots 12 – 15, for example, show the speed of the explorers’ escape from the Moon). The opening shot is by far the longest, establishing the voyage and the characters who will undertake it, but shot 7 is also unusually long. Technically, I could have recorded this as several shots, since it comprises many composited elements in the sky above the surface of the Moon. There’s a lot going on, and it’s taken from several separate shots blended together.

Additional Notes:

    • Segundo de Chomon remade the film for Pathe in 1908. You can see it on Flicker Alley’s DVD Saved from the Flames. I’ve made a separate blog post about this version, which you can find here – I’d love to know more about this film, or hear your thoughts on the comparisons if you have anything to add to my sketchy observations. There are some stills from each for comparison here, and you can read a review of the DVD here. Vincent Whitman directed an animated version of the story for the Lubin Manufacturing Company in 1914, but I’m told that this does not survive today.
    • Although adapted loosely from From the Earth to the Moon and The First Men in the Men, the design of the film must surely have been influenced by Jacques Offenbach’s operetta Le Voyage dans la Lune, first performed in 1875 and revived periodically for the rest of the 19th century. Produced without Verne’s permission, the similarities were obvious enough for the writer to complain about it in writing. Nearing the end of his life, Offenbach was facing financial difficulty, and decided to write three operettas at once, one of which was Voyage dans la Lune. The All Music Guide has this to say:Because Offenbach seems to have placed particular emphasis on the music that was to have accompanied the special visual effects, the work is best encountered in its original context, rather than shorn of its visual component. The level of musical craftsmanship does, in any event, reflect the hand of a composer backed by decades of experience, a composer who had by that time become a vital force in the life of French musical theater.”If you read French, you can find the complete libretto here. You might also like to read Laurence Senelick’s article about Verne and Offenbach here.
    • To see more images from A Trip to the Moon, follow this link to my Flickr pages to see the full set of frame grabs I made for this post.
    • In May 2011, at the Cannes Film Festival, a restored colour print of the film was screened, with a new soundtrack by French electropop band Air. Here’s a clip of the film, in colour, with a sample of the music:
    • Air’s soundtrack for the restored film has also been issued on CD, and in an edition with an accompanying DVD. You can hear them discussing scoring the film on NPR’s  ‘All Things Considered’ here.
    • Simon Braund has written a nice article for the March 2009 issue of Empire. I’m glad that this will give A Trip to the Moon some exposure, though it doesn’t advertise the film’s availability in any DVD format, so I hope its viewership isn’t restricted to those who choose to watch it on YouTube. It’s interesting how easily the short sharp shocks of Méliès’ trick films have found a home in the hyperactivity of the internet, but there are better ways to watch his work. I’m going to assume that a lot of the misattributed dates in Braund’s article are the fault of a sub-editor, and the films attributed to 1886 and 1887 should be dated ten years later, but there is also a claim that Méliès met regularly with his idol Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin while stationed in the French Infantry near the magician’s estate. Méliès, it is suggested, had been enamoured with Robert-Houdin’s performances, which he’d witnessed as a boy in 1871. Now, since Méliès was born in 1861, and Robert-Houdin died in 1871, this latter claim is highly unlikely, but I’m happy to be corrected by a verifiable source – Robert-Houdin had, I think, retired many years earlier. I have seen it mentioned elsewhere, but this is not a sourced article. The first claim, that they had met while Méliès fulfilled his military service, is impossible, but he may have visited the estate. But thanks to Braund’s article, I now know that A Trip to the Moon was used as the backdrop to some prog-rock on The Old Grey Whistle Test, and he prompted me to seek out Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, in which Melies plays a key role. You can read a complete digital copy of Robert-Houdin’s memoirs here.
    • The final episode of HBO’s 1998 mini-series From the Earth to the Moon is entitled Le Voyage dans la Lune, and it intercuts the Apollo 17 moon landing with scenes of Méliès (played by Tcheky Karyo) making A Trip to the Moon. I’ve blogged about it in a separate post, which you can find here, where you can see frame grabs of some of the detailed reconstructions of Méliès’ studio. I think they did a really good job of the design.
    • The 21st episode of season 21 of The Simpsons includes a recreation of the Man in the Moon shot as part of an Itchy and Scratchy Cartoon. You can see pictures from this scene in a separate blogpost here.
    • Want to see the Man in the Moon shot recreated in Lego? Of course you do – see it here:
    • If you can’t find the Flickr Alley DVD of the film, or locate another source, you can see the film for free, in a less than perfect format, at the Internet Archive, where you can stream or download it to play on your computer or iPod or whatever gadget you’re using these days.
    • On Monday 20th July 2009 at 8pm, Turner Classic Movies televised A Trip to the Moon as part of a series of programmes celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo Moon Landings. I hope they removed their annoying logos from the corner of the screen. I’ve certainly never seen it shown on TV in the UK – does anybody know of any other screenings it has enjoyed?
    • There’s a review of the film at a blog I recently came across that covers scientific romances of the Edwardian and Victorian periods, Voyages Extraordinaires. It has a strong focus on Jules Verne, naturellement.
    • South African animator William Kentridge paid tribute to Melies in a series of short trick films compiled as 7 Fragments for Georges Melies (2003), as well as the slightly more linear Journey to the Moon, which you can (almost) see in a very lo-res copy on YouTube:
  • Paolo Cherchi’s Usai’s excellent biographical essay, ‘A Trip to the Movies: Georges Melies, Filmmaker and Magician (1861-1938)‘ can be found online thanks to the publication of back issues of Image journal.
  • Matthew Solomon’s edited collection about the film, entitled Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination was published by SUNY Press in May 2011, and is an invaluable contribution to studies of Méliès’ work. Meticulously researched, with as much detail as you can possibly lavish upon a single short film, it compiles new essays and revised versions of previously published work: contributors include Ian Christie, Andre Gaudreault, Frank Kessler, Paolo Cherchi Usai, Tom Gunning and many more. No doubt I will, in due course, have to make several additions to this very blog post to incorporate some of the new information gathered in Solomon’s book. You can read an interview with Solomon at The Bioscope.
  • Gareth Walters’ blog The Amazing Movie Show features notes and research for his forthcoming book, including a recent post about A Trip to the Moon. I recommend you read it all, but in particular it features some useful technical information about the film, and some acute observations concerning the names of the characters: “Even the names of the expedition group are deep with meaning: President Barbenfouillis (which translates as “messy beard”) may be a simple parody of Verne’s hero, President Barbicane of the Baltimore Gun Club, but other members of the crew show elements of parody and homage: The original Nostradamus predicted man’s travel to the moon, Alcofrisbas is taken from the fact that François Rabelais wrote his satirical fantasy Pantagruel under the nom de plume Alcofrisbas Nasier), Omega is possibly a reference to Camille Flammarion’s apocalyptic 1893 novel Omega: The Last Days of the World (La Fin du Monde), and Micromégas is a reference to Voltaire’s 1752 short story of that name about a giant from the star system Sirius visiting Earth. Parafaragamus has no known derivation, but is a name Méliès would use again in 1906 in The Mysterious Retort/Alchimiste Parafaragamus ou la cornue infernale).”
  • Internet highlight The Bioscope has a post that keeps track (especially in the comments section) of recent in interest in Méliès, including available films on DVD, websites and other information.

See here for a slideshow of all all my images from the film:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Here’s that Smashing Pumpkins video that explicitly references the film:

Alex Suskind at Moviefone cites the Smashing Pumpkins video for introducing him to Melies.

Other Relevant Posts from Spectacular Attractions:

More Stuff to Read:

[You’ll find plenty of reading embedded in the text above if you follow some of the links. Below are some other sources I’ve consulted, some of which are available to read online.]

  • Richard Abel. “People 1890-1930: The Men and Women Who Made French Cinema”, in Temple & Witt (eds.) The French Cinema Book. California UP, 18-33.
  • Elizabeth EzraGeorges Méliès: The Birth of the Auteur. Manchester University Press, 2000.
  • Lucy Fischer (1983) ‘The Lady Vanishes: Women, Magic and the Movies’, in J. L. Fell (ed.), Film Before Griffith, Berkeley: University of California Press, 339-54.
  • Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attractions: Earl Film, its Spectator and the Avant-Garde.” Thomas Elsaesser (ed.) Early Cinema: Space Frame Narrative. BFI, 1990.
  • Paul Hammond, Marvellous Méliès. St. Martin’s Press, 1975.
  • Dona A. Jalufka & Christian Koeberl, “Moonstruck: How Realistic is the Moon Depicted in Classic Science Fiction Films.” Earth Moon and Planets, 85/6 (2001), 179-200.
  • Frank Kessler, “The Gentleman in the Stalls: Georges Méliès and Spectatorship in Early Cinema”, in Ian Christie (ed.), Audiences: Defining and Researching Screen Entertainment Reception. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012, 35-44.
  • Lynda Nead, The Haunted Gallery: Painting, Photography, Film c.1900. Yale University Press, 2007.
  • Devin Orgeron, Road Movies From Muybridge and Méliès to Lynch and Kiarostami. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
  • Matthew Solomon (ed.) Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination: Georges Méliès’s Trip to the Moon. Albany: SUNY Press, 2011.
  • Paulo Cherchi Usai, Lo Schermo Incantato: Georges Méliès (1861-1938). Gemona: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto/International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House/Edizioni Biblioteca dell’Immagine.
  • Linda Williams. ‘Film Body: An Implantation of Perversions’, in P. Rosen (ed.) Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader. New York: Columbia UP, 1986, 507-34.

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43 thoughts on “A Trip to the Moon / Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902)

  1. The fanciful sets and costumes make me consider the film as an animated fairy-tale or fable, a children’s adventure story, mediums in which contemporary colonial expectations and preoccupations are perhaps naturally exposed.

    I can’t think of another science fiction film which has this kind of approach to aliens – I found A Trip to the Moon impossible to watch without thinking of colonial narratives and how the explorers are positioned as being so obviously superior (the astronomers with their massive gun and, uh, umbrellas trouncing the hapless natives armed with only sticks). Most aliens in film – films that I’ve seen anyway, most of which are rather more recent – are placed in positions of power. So 2001: A Space Odyssey has its enigmatic monoliths, evidence of aliens who are literally operating on another level of existence, Alien has its killing machine that no-one really understands until too late, War of the Worlds has its microwaving tripods. I wonder if this is part of a modern general recognition of colonial hubris or merely comes part and parcel with modern expectations of space travel and exploration being both largely beyond our capabilities and (when it is within our grasp) a greatly humbling experience.

  2. Thanks, Novakoala. Melies certainly has a reputation for this kind of lively, fanciful fantasy. I’ll put a note about that in the main text, because he made all kinds of films, but the ones which have stuck to his name are the ones like this.

    It has become untenable for films about space travel to shake those colonialist subtexts – H.G. Wells was certainly critiquing that when he wrote War of the Worlds in 1898. It must have been a shock to find Earth the object of conquest and slaughter by an invading race with superior machinery. It’s deeply flawed, but I have some time for the Spielberg version, which is very blatantly a post-9/11 version of that idea. And the ending, in which the aliens are destroyed almost incidentally, rather than through human ingenuity is conceptually powerful if dramatically flat (though I wouldn’t change it!). So, Melies was probably aware of Wells’ more troubling version of the idea of space exploration. Hollywood movies like Destination Moon and Conquest of Space kept that colonialist narrative flowing in the 1950s, and one of my undergraduates wrote an excellent dissertation a couple of years ago about Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica as hubristic imaginings of other worlds as places to peer into, study and impose Earthly values upon (but the new BG is quite clever in undercutting that). We always presume that aliens will possess superior intelligence, and that this will be used to overpower puny humans. You’re right on that, but there are exceptions. I have a soft spot for Starship Troopers, in which the aliens are portrayed as extremely vicious products of a ruthless, insectoid hive mind, but it becomes increasingly troubling that humans are prepared to wipe them out indiscriminately with great glee. It’s an excessive film, but I think it wants you to be perturbed by that excess; it’s certainly not subtle in showing how Earthlings fervour in defending their planet so quickly tips over into fascism and extreme self-discipline. It’s either the cleverest or the stupidest film, depending on how much credit you’re prepared to give it.

    As for whether or not A Trip to the Moon wants you to be similarly unnerved by the arrogant ease (or is it amiable righteousness?!) with which its explorers go about their mission (hey, the fall asleep almost as soon as they get to the Moon!) is an open question, and no doubt its reception will change over time. My instinct is that it has no malice in its representation of aliens, but I guess that’s how colonialist texts work – by assuming automatic entitlement and privilege.

  3. Pingback: Le Voyage dans la Lune. « Vitamin Briefcase

  4. Pingback: From the Earth to the Movies « Spectacular Attractions

  5. Thanks for the great analysis of this movie. I was thrilled to watch it on youtube. I am really interested in the set design and the materials used. Thanks for describing it all!

    • Thankyou, Deb. Glad you found it interesting. I occasionally update this post whenever I stumble across an extra bit of information, so do let me know if there’s anything else that needs explaining. I’m hoping it’ll provide detailed annotation for the whole film.

  6. Many thanks for the excellent analysis. I recently undertook my own research, and you’ll find some references to the celestial bodies (Phoebe, Saturn) and their meaning in my blog entry (http://tinyurl.com/qf464y). Looking forward to reviewing the rest of your site (I discovered it through a google search for Segundo de Chomón).

    • Thanks, Gareth. Surprised I haven’t come across your blog sooner. Have corrected this now, and added you to my blogroll. I’ve also posted here about From the Earth to the Moon, which is linked to from this post. Hope you like it – I love your observations on the names of stars and characters. I’ll add a note at the bottom of my post.

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  24. Dear Sir,

    I’m currently writing my master’s thesis about Georges Méliès and Le Voyage
    Dans La Lune. Your blog is a very helpful source of information.

    According to my professor, I need to define my topic. I was wondering if you,
    as a true connoisseur of Le Voyage Dans La Lune, have some insights in how I may
    define my topic.

    Thank you in advance.
    With kind regards,


    • Hi, Laura. I think your professor probably means that you need to decide what it is that you want to say about Melies and this film. It’s OK in the early stages to read around the topic, but when you start writing you need to find an angle and an argument that will add something new to discussions of the film. You’re lucky that the film has received so much attention lately, with a newly restored colour print, and Matthew Solomon’s collection of essays about it, not to mention Scorsese’s Hugo, which coincides with the 150th anniversary of GM’s birth. What is that interests you about this film/filmmaker? Is there a particular aspect that strikes you as worthy of attention, which other critics are not mentioning, for instance? Plenty of people have pointed out the colonial allegory, which is there if you want to find it (e.g. the explorers end up wrecking the place they visit, and enslave one of its people), or you might consider the film as an especially interesting early example of adaptation – it is drawn from a synthesis of multiple sources (Jules Verne, H.G. Welles, Offenbach). Or you might want to write about it as an example of early narrative plotting in relation to debates around early film and spectacle (e.g. Tom Gunning’s ‘Cinema of Attractions’). I’ve tried to give a range of ways to think about the content of the film in this blog post, but there is still more to say about the context in which it was made, and lots more to say about the afterlife of the film, and how it has been circulated in the century since it was made (I’m currently writing an essay about this myself).

      I hope that helps, but let me know if you’re having any particular problems.

      • I’m having trouble with finding an angle to write something about Méliès. I find Méliès interesting because he was so innovative for his time.He created imaginary worlds. He founded some special effects, mise-en-scène,… But I can’t find an angle to start my thesis.

      • Depending on when your deadline is, and the nature of the assignment, you don’t need to decide on your topic straight away, I guess. It’s perfectly reasonable to read around the subject, learn as much as you can about Melies and early cinema, and then find an angle once you’ve surveyed the field of study. If you establish your angle and argument too early in the research, you end up sifting the literature for things that back up your thesis, rather than letting your responses emerge more naturally out of your reading as you go along.

      • Do you happen to know where I can find reviews of Le Voyage dans la Lune when the film was first released? So from the beginning of the previous century?
        Thank you in advance!

  25. Pingback: Going Home Tonight By Allison Crowe Paired With A Trip To The Moon (1902) By Georges Méliès « DrHGuy – Another Other Leonard Cohen Site

  26. “A Trip to the Moon / Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902) | Spectacular Attractions” optionsonstock ended up
    being a wonderful blog post. If it had a lot more photographs this could be even even better.
    All the best ,Taylor

  27. Pingback: Georges Melies – Moving Images

  28. Hey Dan great article so much detail and I found it a much easier read than many of the books I’m reading on Melies , I’m doing a presentation specifically about Melies’s contribution to special effects and I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind answering a few questions as I need some primary research.

    Firstly what is your background in the field, where and what do you teach, also where did you study

    1.Do believe that George Melies is the most important contributor to special effects
    2. How many different effects are applied in A Trip To The Moon and could you add a little detail of how Melies created these effects.
    3.What would you say is the most complex SFX shot in the whole film?

    Thanks Very Much

  29. I don’t know whether it’s just me or if everybody else encountering
    problems with your site. It looks like some of the written text on
    your posts are running off the screen. Can someone else please comment and let me know if this is happening to them too?
    This may be a problem with my internet browser because I’ve had this happen before. Cheers

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  32. Hello, this is really great reading. I am thinking – what is the Moon saying when he got hit in the eye by the rocket? In the end, it seems he is saying something?

  33. Pingback: Georges Méliès’s Robinson Crusoé film resurfaces in Pordenone | Richard Hartley

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