Two weeks before Cannes, French restoration expert Serge Bromberg made a final trip to Hollywood, where Technicolor had spent the previous 10 months working on an unprecedented repair job. For the first time in Cannes history, the festival will open with a classic film, unveiling a bold, digitally revived color version of Georges Melies’ 14-minute masterpiece, “A Trip to the Moon,” with a fresh soundtrack by Air.
Sponsored by the Technicolor and Groupama Gan foundations, this landmark reconstruction followed a path even more outlandish than the plot of the film itself — a there-and-back space travel adventure best known for its signature image, in which a bullet-shaped rocket lands smack in the eye of the moon — and will kick off a global screening push to reintroduce auds to Melies’ sci-fi marvel.
One of cinema’s earliest blockbusters and a cornerstone of early special effects, “Moon” was a massive international hit more than a century ago — “the ‘Avatar’ of its day,” according to Bromberg, who is preparing a documentary about the film’s restoration and significance. Though today’s audiences have seen “Moon” only in black & white, vivid hand-tinted prints were available to wealthy customers at the time. (This one belonged to a Spanish collector, as evidenced by a shot in which France’s Tricolor flag is presented in red and yellow.)
“From the very beginning, Melies was thinking about how to use color,” said Severine Wemaere of the Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage, “but this color print of his most famous film disappeared when Melies burned all of his negatives in 1923. For almost 100 years, no one knew where it was.”
Then in 1993, Bromberg and Lobster Films partner Eric Lange learned that Spain’s Filmoteca de Catalunya had managed to locate a copy. Lobster had in its possession a rare Segundo de Chomon film the Filmoteca coveted for its collection, and so an exchange was made.
Unfortunately, the single reel of nitrate stock was at such an advanced state of decomposition that it would often fall apart on contact. It looked like a block of wood, warped and shriveled, with chunks missing and the edges fused together in parts.
“No one knew what to do with what we had been given,” Bromberg told Variety. “As the old joke goes, you can’t turn hamburger back into a cow.”
And yet Bromberg and Lange set out trying to salvage what they could, carefully unspooling the print and making hi-definition photographs or scans of as many of the film’s 13,375 frames as possible. They set up a humidor in Lange’s basement and exposed segments of the film for as long as needed (sometimes as much as two years) until the material was pliable enough to scan or photograph — often the last step before it disintegrated completely.
Years passed before the Lobster Films duo was able to find the financial support to proceed.
“There are some films that will always find the money to be restored. We usually get the difficult ones,” said Groupama Gan’s Gilles Duval, who partnered with the Technicolor Foundation on a project estimated at half a million dollars. Together, the two orgs turned to Tom Burton, head of restoration services at Technicolor’s Hollywood-based facilities, with whom they’d worked on “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.” “We knew they were the only ones mad enough to take this on,” Duval said.
Though only 14 minutes long, “Moon” would require considerably more work than the typical feature-length fix-up job. The raw material, stored on hard drives containing what Burton affectionately referred to as “the bucket of shards,” amounted to thousands of individual frames and fragments, captured on a range of devices under inconsistent lighting conditions.
As Burton sees it, “This was more of a resurrection than a restoration.”
The team’s first task was to identify where each piece fit in the overall timeline of the film, using a black-and-white print of “Moon” on loan from the Melies estate as their guide. Shattered frames needed to be reassembled, while missing ones had to be borrowed from the monochrome version and individually tinted, then color-graded to match.
“Every frame is different in terms of density, quality and image structure, so there was no way to find a pristine sample of what this is supposed to look like,” explained Burton, who chose to preserve artifacts of the original hand-tinting, including instances in which the aniline dyes had caused the emulsion to sag, as well as the occasional brushstroke or thumbprint left by one of the painters.
According to Burton, “The expectations were different on this project from anything we’ve worked on before. There’s no way we could make it look the way it did the first day it was screened. We did everything we could to find the pieces and put it back together, so that for the first time in 100 years audiences could just see the film.”