The history of film-making is one which is considered rich and dynamic. The films evolved as technologies evolved and the artistry was better expressed as technology in filmmaking also improved and developed. In tracing the history of filmmaking and in considering its early beginnings, it is interesting to note how significant changes and developments in the late 1920s and early 1930s soon affected the look and the sound of films. This paper shall compare two films, one from its early beginnings, and another during the early 1930s when major improvements in film technology were noted and full length feature films were created. The films chosen for this comparison are: “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) and “Alice in Wonderland” (1933).
The film “A Trip to the Moon” is a 1902 silent French film which was directed by Georges Melies (Kovacs, 1-13). It is a story of explorers deliberating about going to the moon. A decision is made to build a space capsule to go to the moon and immediately it can be seen that the capsule and some of the explorers later make it to the moon. They later discover ‘lunar inhabitants’ and a skirmish breaks out where some of the lunar inhabitants explode when hit by the explorers; eventually the explorers make it back to earth with one of the lunar inhabitants accidentally riding their capsule (Kovacs, 1-13). Their glorious return is soon celebrated by the people of earth. The lunar inhabitant seems to be celebrating with them as well. This film shall be compared with the 1933 “Alice in Wonderland film.” “Alice in Wonderland” is an adaptation of the book of the same title with some added elements from the sequel “Through the Looking Glass” by Lewis Carroll. The film is directed by Norman Z. McLeod with the screenplay adapted by Joseph Mankiewicz and William Cameron Menzies. While both films are in black and white, a major difference between them is that “Alice in Wonderland” is a full-length feature sound film with a running time of 90 minutes while “A Trip to the moon” is a short silent film which runs for about 18 minutes at 12 frames per minute/9 minutes at 24 frames/16 minutes at 14 frames per minute.
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Melies’s style in most of his films is very much theatrical as seen in its stylized sets with usually a stationary camera capturing the action. This style seems to make the audience feel like he or she is watching a play in a theatre (Kovacs, 1-13). McLeod’s “Alice in Wonderland” is filmed from different cameras and angles with much movement noted in the camera work. In this case, there is less theatre-feel in “Alice in Wonderland” as compared to “A Trip to the Moon” as the former now features camera work which are dynamic and which are able to follow the actors where they go (Dancyger, 3-4). “A Trip to the Moon” was filmed before the age of narrative film editing and therefore does not use the cinematic editing styles which Americans and Europeans would come to later expect in their films (Dancyger, 3-4). This translates to the lack of camera angles and intercutting of the shots. Instead, Melies’s film presents a unique dramatic scene which is not interrupted or edited (Kovacs, 1-13). This style appropriately fit the theatrical style at that time and for the purpose it was filmed.
Some advancements in the approach to film making was nevertheless already evident in “A Trip to the Moon,” specifically in the temporal continuity shown by the film, with an event presented two times – the first time is when the capsule hit the eye of the moon and in a closer shot, the capsule shown in the surface of the moon (Kovacs, 1-13). In this case, the director applied nonlinear storytelling with time as well as space shown as repeatable as well as flexible moments (Jones, 15). Before the onset of continuity editing, other filmmakers also experimented with time. Silent filmmaker Edwin Porter considered temporary discontinuity as well as repetition in his “Life of an American Fireman” film (Sklar, 33-36). This style of temporary repetition would become popular in modern television while watching sports when instant replays are made available to the audience (Sklar, 33-36).
The assessment of Melies’s films is based on how film at that time has been presented. The technology at that time, including cinematic vocabulary was limited but critics now do not deny the influence that the film and Melies’s films have had on the creations of cinema during its early years (Kovacs, 1-13). “A Trip to the Moon” can be understood better in the context of a 19th century play and some have faulted Melies for not developing a more intimate way of storytelling. Nevertheless, the first years of storytelling are very much associated with cinematic attractions where the focus of filmmakers was the presentation of the spectacle or attraction, not so much on specific matters like editing. The shift to the more intimate storytelling approach can be seen more in “Alice in Wonderland”; but the power of the integrated story film is undeniable in Melies’s “A Trip to the Moon” (Pallant and Price, 63-65).
As a full-length feature film, “Alice in Wonderland” included elements which were not included in “A Trip to the Moon,” most distinctly with its long title sequence which lasted about three minutes where the actors and the characters they were playing were shown (Pallant and Price, 63-65). There is a significant amount of anonymity in the movie for most of the actors in the film because of the costumes the characters had to wear which, most of the time covered their faces. In “A Trip to the Moon,” the characters might as well be anonymous as well as their faces can hardly be seen. The camera does not focus on each individual faces of the characters and there are hardly any singular characters playing starring roles in the film which merit distinction. As a feature length film, “Alice in Wonderland” has the luxury of presenting the story at length, with deliberation and at a pace which builds to momentous and suspenseful scenes (Pallant and Price, 63-65). The story was presented in almost the same way as one would imagine a book being translated to film – slowly and deliberately. In “A Trip to the Moon,” the story is told at a quick pace, with a concept formulated, acted upon, results experienced, and outcomes reached, all in the span of about 9-18 minutes depending on the frame speed.
As a feature length film, “Alice in Wonderland” had multiple sets which were built in different scales in order to support the narrative of Alice becoming bigger and smaller. There are only a few sets in “A Trip to the Moon” and they are not as accurate as the sets used for “Alice” (Pallant and Price, 63-65). The optical trick is already used by Menzies and McLeod in order to make Alice appear bigger. There is no such trick or effect used in “A Trip to the Moon” (Dancyger, 3-4). Optical illusions are used by Menzies and Mankiewicz to present the story to great effect to the audience (Pallant and Price, 63-65). This shows how filmmaking has somehow evolved from its early years because in “A Trip to the Moon,” there were moments when these sorts of illusions could be used to portray the story, but at that time was not conceptualized as yet.
Most of Alice’s encounters with the magical creatures were presented on conventional stages and in a way, the stage setup was also apparent in “A Trip to the Moon” where each scene was conceptualized as a staged-scene. Menzies designed the look of the stage using the book illustrations of Lewis Carroll’s story (Pomerance, 2). In some of the sets, there are paintings used. There were no deliberate and aesthetic elements included in “A Trip to the Moon.” Attempts to provide a look of the characters close to the book characters was also made in the Alice film; in “A Trip to the Moon,” efforts were also made to make the characters look close to what they were imagined to be (Dancyger, 3-4). The lunar inhabitants for instance looked like other-worldly creatures, and the scholars debating at the start of the film looked like scholars with what appeared to be formal robes matching the time frame when the film was made.
The transitions and special effects in “Alice in Wonderland” would look outdated to modern eyes but these effects exquisitely flow from one frame to the next (Pomerance, 2). Menzies and McLeod applied state of the art special effects available at that time and the makeup they used created an authentic look for the film, very much reminiscent of the book. In “A Trip to the Moon,” significant efforts were made to use the tools at their disposal at that time in order to make the film. Both films were effective in telling the story with both films effectively making use of the technologies and developments in filmmaking to great effect. Both films also did their best to be innovative and unique in their approach and they would serve their purpose of being initial trendsetters in filmmaking during their time.
There are essential similarities and differences in the 1902 “A Trip to the Moon” and the 1933 “Alice in Wonderland” films. Both films are in black and white and are early attempts at filmmaking, with “Alice in Wonderland” emerging from the age of full-length feature films. “A Trip to the Moon” was created during the period of silent film when sound did not yet translate onscreen while “Alice in Wonderland” came during the era of sound. Both films served the storytelling process well with “A Trip to the Moon” being shorter and faster in its narration and “Alice in Wonderland” being more relaxed and deliberate in its storytelling. As expected, “Alice in Wonderland” has more advanced visual effects processes in its arsenal while “A Trip to the Moon” is less evolved in its use of set design, costume, and visual effects. Nevertheless, both films have used innovative tools to support their filmmaking process and their efforts have translated well onscreen. Both films now would be considered outdated, but their impact on the evolution of the filmmaking industry is very much undeniable and necessary.
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