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How Georges Méliès’ films are still influencing cinema, more than 100 years later

The filmmaker’s spirit of adventure is the subject of a VR Google Doodle.

A scene from Georges Méliès‘s 1902 film A Trip to the Moon
A scene from Georges Méliès‘s 1902 film A Trip to the Moon.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

If you’ve ever watched a science fiction movie, or one that uses special effects, then you owe a debt of gratitude to Georges Méliès, the subject of today’s Google Doodle and one of the few people who truly deserve to be called a “visionary.”

One of cinema’s most important pioneers, Méliès worked in an age when the medium was changing rapidly and when the whole world was obsessed with scientific discovery, explorations, and expeditions to the furthest reaches of the planet. So it’s fitting that a Doodle created in another age of fast-paced cinematic change — our current time — honors him by using some fancy technology of its own.

Méliès, born in 1861, was an innovator par excellence, experimenting with effects in his films that blew people’s minds in an era when film itself was still startling to many people. Employing things like time-lapse photography, multiple exposures, dissolves, pyrotechnics, theatrical machinery, and more, he dazzled his audiences. It looked like magic. (You can see some of these effects on the Doodle’s background page.)

Méliès was working around the turn of the 20th century, a time of burgeoning scientific exploration and big dreams about the future of mankind. The filmmaker tapped into those through his experimentation with effects, and through stories he told tales of discovery.

Méliès’s most famous film is probably Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon), from 1902. It’s a work of science fiction, inspired partly by stories by people like Jules Verne. In the almost 13-minute film, a group of space explorers travel to the moon, encounter a tribe of strange beings, capture one, and return to Earth. Méliès himself played the crew’s leader, Professor Barbenfouillis.

Méliès returned to that idea of being an explorer again and again in his movies, including 1904’s The Impossible Voyage, in which a group of explorers undertake an epic voyage to the center of the sun. And on May 3, 1912, Méliès released À la conquête du pôle (which translates to The Conquest of the Pole). The full film is 44 minutes long, and it pokes sly fun at the then-recent South Pole explorations of Roald Amundsen, with effects that give the whole story a magical feel.

Inspired by Méliès’s yearning for discovery and fascination with exciting new technologies, Nexus Studios, the creators of the Doodle, decided to try their hand at one of today’s most interesting burgeoning cinematic technologies: virtual reality and immersive 360-degree video. Bringing those two effects together, they incorporated some of the filmmaker’s favorite trick photography moves — multiple exposures and disappearing subjects among them — to make a short film called Back to the Moon, in homage to Méliès’s 1902 movie.

To watch the film in its full virtual reality splendor, you’ll need a mobile device (or one of Google’s virtual reality devices) and the Google Spotlight Stories app, available on Google Play or in the App Store.

Or you can watch it as a simple video below. If you click on the film as it plays, you can drag it around for the full 360-degree experience.

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