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Friday, December 9, 2011

Filming Imagination

Ever since the arrival of motion picture film in the 1890's, the medium has been used not just to document the world around us but to convey the hidden, inner world of the imagination.  Magician-turned-filmmaker Georges Méliès was an early pioneer of portraying fictional worlds through cinema.  His 1902 film, Le voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon), used elaborate sets, stop-motion animation, hand-coloring, and other special effects to transport audiences to the curious lunar surface.

Méliès and his films are enjoying a revival thanks to Martin Scorsese's Hugo (in which Méliès is a major character) and a recent restoration of the hand-colored version of Le voyage dans la Lune, long believed to be lost, complete with an original score by musical duo Air.  Below is video of the black and white version, with an English narration and a more traditional film score.

At the Human Studies Film Archives, we deal mostly with documentary films.  I was both delighted and intimidated when I wound into the original 16mm film rolls for Jorge Prelorán's experimental short, Claudia.  Here I found extensive splicing due to unusually short shots, multiple soundtracks and credit rolls, and superimposed animation, some of which was scratched into the film's emulsion.  In time I sorted out four versions of the film, each with a different musical score.  Prelorán intended that all four versions be viewed in succession, to experience the different impressions given by the various soundtracks.

All four versions of Claudia have recently been preserved thanks to an Avant-Garde Masters grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation.  The original film was faded and suffering from acetate deterioration.  One set of credits had to be carefully re-created, using a mix of digital tools and film.  The preservation work was done by Bill Brand of BB Optics and Colorlab.  Here is video of Version I in its entirety:

Claudia (Version I) (1972), by Jorge Prelorán

Although he is primarily known as an ethnographic filmmaker, Prelorán made several experimental films and even a feature-length fiction film, Mi Tia Nora (1982).  His very first film, Venganza (1951), is a noir crime story.  The style and plot of Venganza make it easy to imagine that much of Prelorán's youth was spent in his local movie theater.  His last film, Obsesivo (Obsessive) (1996), is an inquiry into the creative process itself.  Claudia is one of several short, playful films Prelorán made during his long career as a filmmaker.  He called these films 'bagatelles', or little songs.  This bagatelle was filmed in Tucumán, Argentina in 1965, during an afternoon spent with the five-year old Claudia, the daughter of a friend.  She was about the same age as Prelorán's own daughter, whom he saw little of and missed. 

Méliès' work was the beginning of a long tradition of experimentation in film. Set design, special effects, and animation have evolved a great deal since his time and yet, there is still something magical and transporting about La voyage dans la Lune.  The same is true of Claudia, with its hand-made animation and deceptively simple approach.  Take a few minutes to watch the film (it is only six minutes long), and see if you don't break out in a smile.  An ode to imagination, childhood, and the joy of play, Claudia was Prelorán's attempt to capture an inner world and portray an experience not visible to the eye, nor to the movie camera. 

Karma Foley, Human Studies Film Archives

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