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The first known science fiction film was made 107 years ago

reproductionGeorge Méliès: magic on the screenreproduction

Science fiction films were first made by a French film maker for whom the expression “Once upon a time…” was used many times. In 1902, George Méliès made what is considered the first film of this genre, which has predicted and inspired new technologies. The 14-minute long feature, The Trip to the Moon (Le voyage dans la Lune), was based on two books by writers who loved to write stories with scientific elements – From the Earth to the Moon, by Jules Verne, and The first men in the Moon, by H.G. Wells. The film tells the epic of six astronomers who build a space capsule to travel to the moon. The space capsule shoots out of a cannon and lands on the Moon; the scientists are chased by Selenites, but they are able to return to Earth.

“The trip to the Moon was one of the first science fiction films,” says Ismail Xavier, a film critic and professor at the University of São Paulo’s School of Arts and Communications. “We cannot state that he was the first one to do so, because many people were producing films at the beginning of the century and we do not have all the records.” It is certain that Méliès was the first filmmaker associated with the idea of future and technology. His empathy with and desire to work with moving images were simultaneous and grew together with cinema.

George Méliès (1861-1938) was a stage magician and the owner of the Robert Houdini theater in Paris, where he staged his magic tricks. At the end of 1895, he was one of the one hundred people invited by Louis and Auguste Lumière to watch the first movie session in a small room in the basement of the Grand Café, in downtown Paris. The Lumière brothers had invented the cinematograph, a machine that captured images in photograms and projected them quickly, creating the illusion of movement. Méliès realized the potential of this invention for his magic performances and unsuccessfully tried to purchase the equipment.

So Méliés built his own camera and started to make films in 1896. At first, he filmed only isolated events – such as street scenes – and then showed them in his theater. Storytelling and continuity were not that important in the early stages of filmmaking, between 1895 and 1908, says Ismail Xavier. “At that time, cinema was an attraction, it was trick cinema, somewhat similar to a circus performance, where skits and situations are presented independently,” he adds. The stage designing was apparent and the effects were not subtle, and were made to be noticed. The tricks were the main attention-getter. “This was a show-off cinema, which enchanted viewers because of the technique and the new technologies. Narratives and drama only began in 1910.”

The trip to the Moon was an exception in those times because it had a narrative, with many special effects and scenarios. The scene where the space capsule hits the eye of the Man in the Moon is one of the best-known images in the history of cinema. Méliès was one of the earliest filmmakers to use special effects and characterize aliens. He is said to have been the first filmmaker to use the multiple exposure of negatives to obtain “colored” films, through the process of painting the film, to create fade-in techniques (when an image appears out of a dark background) and fade-out (when the image disappears) and to produce skits and story boards, among other innovations. He built Europe’s first film studio.

This pioneering spirit did not result in any financial success – Méliès was bankrupt by 1912. In 1926, Leon Druhot, the editor of a film magazine, found him selling toys in a kiosk in Paris. Leon Druhot wrote his story and some of the more than 500 films shot by Méliès were restored. In 1931, the filmmaker received France’s Legion of Honor Medal. Although this medal was no consolation prize because he died in poverty, Méliès was publicly praised by two other cinema geniuses. “I owe him everything,” said D.W. Griffith. Charlie Chaplin considered him “the alchemist of light.”