On Friday 12 December 2014, thanks to a unique collaboration between the BFI and BBC Arts, the BFI National Archive’s new restoration of A Message from Mars (1913), Britain’s first ever sci-fi feature film, will be released online (on BFI Player and BBC Arts Online) with a new score by composer Matthew Herbert, Creative Director of the New Radiophonic Workshop. This is the first time in a century that the film will be seen at its full length and with its restored tinting and toning. The plot bears a marked resemblance to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, making this an appropriate release for the 12 days of Christmas.
BBC Arts Online have also made a special film report on the story behind the restoration of A Message from Mars (1913), going behind the scenes at the BFI National Archive and interviewing the expert curators and technical specialists who spent six months bringing this film back to life for the digital age.
A Message from Mars forms part of the BFI’s huge UK-wide celebration of Sci-Fi film and television, Days of Fear and Wonder, which explores this perennially popular genre from the earliest days of cinema to the latest Hollywood blockbusters.
Heather Stewart, Creative Director, BFI said:
This is the first in a long line of great British sci-fi films. The genesis of science fiction in British cinema has a distinguished but little known history. Now for the first time in a century audiences across the UK can enjoy the beginnings of British cinema’s most popular genre in a stunning new restoration and with a fantastic new soundtrack.
Matthew Herbert, composer said:
A Message from Mars has such a unique visual language, from acting to camera angles, that it has required a different approach to the soundtrack. So many conventions we associate with sound and music in film didn’t seem to be relevant. Apart from the sound design, all the musical contributions are made from recordings we made of a piano, the instrument of choice for film accompaniment in 1913. We chose a specific piano from 1913 to give it an authenticity of tone and, partly due to its age, we managed to coax a whole range of exciting textures and timbres from it.
Manipulation of these sounds was also done by members of the New Radiophonic Workshop, in part to acknowledge the kind of experimentation the original Radiophonic Workshop did with keys on piano strings (like the Doctor Who Tardis sound). It’s not been an easy job to create a new soundtrack in under 10 days but the idealistic naivety of the film itself has allowed for a more stripped back, impressionistic approach – a simple sound, for an innocent picture. Don’t be fooled though, the message that the rich should show compassion, grace and tolerance for the poor couldn’t feel more contemporary or relevant.
A Message from Mars is the first full-length science fiction feature in the history of British cinema. As a punishment for stealing someone’s ideas a Martian is condemned to go to Earth to change the heart of a selfish man. The Martian will only be permitted to return to Mars if he is successful in his mission.
This fascinating film was based on a highly popular stage play which saw many revivals over 30 years in Britain. It features the first on-screen imaginings of Martians by a British filmmaker, as futuristically clad members of the Martian court. Thought transference, instant space travel, mind control and the use of a far-seeing crystal ball all feature in this ground-breaking film.
A Message from Mars survived in the collection of the BFI National Archive as two shortened versions with significant imperfections in the third reel and a number of missing scenes. Scans from these copies were combined with a tinted and toned print from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art to bring the film back to its original running time. Restoration specialists at the BFI National Archive, in collaboration with the team at Dragon Digital in Wales, spent over six months painstakingly working to identify the missing scenes from each copy and produce a new master featuring the best available image quality and with the applied colours of the original prints meticulously reproduced.