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Image: "Trip to the Moon" restored
Technicolor Film Foundation
Restorers have added the color back to Georges Melies' 1902 film classic, "A Trip to the Moon."
By Space Insider columnist
updated 5/22/2011 8:40:54 PM ET 2011-05-23T00:40:54

NASA's Apollo astronauts may have first put bootprints on the moon in 1969, but moviegoers made the round trip long before that — in fact, way back in 1902.

Thanks to innovative French filmmaker Georges Méliès, a pioneer of early cinema and special effects, audiences were transported across the intervening void to the moon. His 14-minute silent film, "A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage Dans La Lune)," was arguably the "2001: Space Odyssey" of its time.

The film portrays members of the Astronomers' Club, dispatched on an expedition to the moon. Their mode of propulsion — a huge cannon — borrowed from French novelist Jules Verne's space adventure "From the Earth to the Moon," which was published in 1865.

The film shows the intrepid travelers arriving on the moon safe and sound, only to encounter the Selenites. They escape the clutches of the Selenite king and hustle back to Earth in their bullet-shaped vehicle.

Landing in the ocean, the explorers are fished out by a sailor. All this is followed by cheers, decorations and a victorious parade for the six conquerors of the cosmos. ['Transformers' Film Trailer Rewrites Apollo History]

Making a splash at Cannes
Now, rocket ahead 109 years. A restored color version of the classic film is wowing theater patrons again, beginning with this month's Cannes Film Festival on the French Riviera.

When it was first released, Méliès' "A Trip to the Moon" was both in black and white, as well as a hand-tinted color version.

The color adaptation was thought to be long lost. But a colorized print of the film was recovered in Barcelona, Spain, about 18 years ago.

On close examination, it became painfully obvious that time had not treated the nitrate print well. It was severely damaged and in such poor condition that refurbishment of the film looked impractical.

Enter the digital age
In 2010, a cooperative film restoration project was launched by Lobster Films, Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema and the Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage. [Top 10 Movie Computer Interfaces]

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Brought to bear were state-of-the-art digital technologies, with the fragments of the 13,375 frames reassembled and painstakingly restored, one by one, to create a fully reinstated color version of the film.

Handling the damaged color print was not easy. It involved peeling off and unrolling the nitrate prints to be able to digitize them. That effort took two years, and images were stored on a hard drive for eight years.

The digital color restoration of "A Trip to the Moon" took place at Technicolor's laboratories in Los Angeles, under the watchful eye of Tom Burton, executive director of restoration services at the company.

21st-century soundtrack
"This is the most complex and ambitious restoration project we have ever taken on," leaders of the restoration venture declared in a joint statement by Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films, Gilles Duval of Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema and Séverine Wemaere with Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage.

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The budget to complete the task was purportedly somewhere in the range of $500,000 to $600,000.

According to a statement from Technicolor, the objective now is to circulate the film to the largest audience possible.

Back in 1902, at the time of its first release, "A Trip to the Moon" was screened with a musician on stage playing "popular music," as described in the film reviews of the era.

For that purpose, the French band Air composed an original soundtrack to accompany the silent film. That inventive musical duo has among their credits the critically acclaimed album "Moon Safari."

Explains Air musician, Nicolas Godin: "'A Trip to the Moon' is undoubtedly more organic than most of our past projects. We wanted it to sound 'handmade,' knocked together, a bit like Méliès' special effects. Everything is played live … like Méliès' film, our soundtrack is nourished by living art."

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is a winner of this year's National Space Club Press Award and a past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines. He has written for Space.com since 1999.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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