Director: Georges Méliès
Film Form Main Category: Mise-en-Scene
Film Form Sub Category: Settings
Terms Discussed: Constructed Settings, Props, Industrial-Fantasy Style, Background Paintings
A Trip to the Moon (1902), by Frenchman Georges Méliès, arrived around the beginning of cinema itself, and its industrial-fantasy styled, ‘cinema of attractions’ thrills captivated audiences at a time when projected moving images seemed like magic. Novelty ruled, and the immediacy of “now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t” action exhilarated early 20th century audiences. Yet, the narrative wears thin today. The contemporary appeal lies within the beautifully constructed settings, not thin narrative, stylised performances, or puffs of smoke. Elements of mise-en-scene, particularly the setting’s background paintings, still charm the modern audience, as its influence sparkles upon not only contemporary cinema, but other modern mediums as well.
In the late 1890s, fellow Frenchmen, the Lumière Brothers ushered in the cinema of attractions era of ‘actualities’ that contained little-to-no narrative. The subject matter consisted of crowds leaving factories and parents feeding babies. The novelty wore off quickly. Although A Trip to the Moon’s plot is more complex than that, the narrative is hardly compelling today. Professor-astronomers build a rocket ship, launch themselves to the moon, immediately become captured by skeletal-minions, but kill the leader, escape, and return to Earth. So if the entire plot can be summarised in one sentence, what still makes the film endearing 110 years on? The profound charm that radiates from the richly detailed industrial-fantasy world occurs in the superb background paintings and props.
A Trip to the Moon’s visual influence transpires to various contemporary mediums. The opening scene, in the astronomy chamber, has a tubular, steam-punk aesthetic with a skyward telescope that echoes Dumbledore’s office in the Harry Potter (2001-2011) films. A beautiful underwater backdrop painting, as the rocket sinks to the bottom of the ocean, is reminiscent of early Disney cells, and even their more recent titles such as The Little Mermaid (1989). Nintendo’s Bullet Bill character appears in many Mario Bros. video games, and its large bullet-shape body echoes the film’s rocket ship prop. Similarly, Don Bluth’s fantasy artwork in Dragon’s Lair, an animated arcade game from 1982, contains a playful, simultaneously inviting and imposing form of nature versus manufacture. Alternative rock band, The Smashing Pumpkins, brazenly honour Méliès in their Tonight, Tonight (1996) music video. The entire clip pays homage to A Trip to the Moon, including the rocket-ship launch, Victorian attire, and, of course, the cake-moon. The visual style has influenced not just films, but a range of contemporary mediums such as video games and contemporary music artists.
A warm glow emanates from A Trip to the Moon’s mise-en-scene, and in particular, the background paintings. Of course, the narrative holds a significance within pre-classical cinema history, but now man actually goes to the moon, so the thrill of the story is lost. The narrative is like an old trick that no longer works. However, the trick that still works very well is the films aesthetics, as shown by its contemporary cross-medium influence. Over the last century or so, many sci-fi and escape movies have been produced, and most contain a more complex, more compelling narrative than A Trip to the Moon, yet few evoke the playful, enigmatic dreamscape and wonder of a moon made of cake.