Film 1: Sci-fi silents (1901-1906)

Take a magical trip to the moon and back with three early silent sci-fi treats.

Visualising the impossible has been one of the great drivers of development in film for over a hundred years, leading to more and more convincing evocations of the future. All kinds of things we now associate with sci-fi can be traced back to silent comedies – invisible men, robots, gigantism, miniaturisation, cryogenics, anti gravity devices, rockets and space travel, aliens, psychic powers and of course, time travel.

Lessons

Mister Moon (1901)

Night has fallen and the moon rises but all is not what it seems!

UK 1901
Production Company Mitchell and Kenyon
Running time 3 min
Certificate U

In this very short film the actor Percy Honri becomes an ukelele-playing moon, which formed part of a musical show. It was probably made as an advertisement for a live performance. We see Honri’s face as a man in the moon with a tiny drawn-on body with fingers for dancing legs and miniature ukulele. The moon rises, plays and dances and then sets again.

Another version of this film was found in the Mitchell and Kenyon collection. This was taken from a negative that may have been intended to be processed very dark to hide the tears in the black cloth through which the head appears. Otherwise the two films are very similar.

Lessons

Watch outtakes from Mr. Moon on BFI Player

A Trip to the Moon (1902)

Man’s first trip to the moon – in 1902!

France 1902
Directed by George Méliès
Production Company Star-Film
Running time 8 min
Certificate U

Widely considered to be the first ever sci-fi film, A Trip to the Moon is one of cinema’s most celebrated treasures. Georges Méliès was a special effects pioneer who made use of innovative camera trickery and plenty of imagination. The story, a fusion of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne novels, follows a team of astronomers who make an exploratory (and extraordinary) trip to the moon on a rocket ship.

Full of classic imagery, from the chorus girls loading the space gun to the rocket landing in the man in the moon’s eye, this enchanting film exquisitely showcases cinema’s unique ability to depict the fantastical.

Lessons

The  Motorist (1906)

A speeding car takes its passengers on an out-of-this-world journey…

UK 1906
Directed by W.R. Booth
Production Company R.W. Paul
Running time 3 min
Certificate U

An early road movie of sorts, this film opens with a couple in a car not only refusing to stop for a traffic policeman but then driving over him! An out-of-this-world chase ensues as the car, pursued by the policeman, scales a building, flies through the air and then leaves the earth’s atmosphere altogether.

W.R. Booth was a stage magician turned filmmaker, whose hand-drawing techniques pointed the way towards animated cartoons. His taste for fantastical imagery echoes the work of fellow illusionist Georges Méliès – the grinning moon a definite nod to Méliès’ French fantasy.

Five years later, Booth would make The Automatic Motorist (1911), a virtual remake of The ‘?’ Motorist, but on a bigger scale.

Watch The Automatic Motorist on BFI Player

Lessons

Buy early sci-fi on BFI DVD: Early Cinema: Primitives and Pioneers and RW Paul – The collected films 1895-1908

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