Air: Scoring A Cinematic Marvel, 100 Years Later

Jan 29, 2012
Originally published on January 31, 2012 11:00 pm

In 1902, director Georges Melies released his magnum opus: Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip To the Moon), often considered the first science-fiction movie ever. Even if you've never heard of Melies, you've probably seen the film's most famous shot: a moon with a human face, wincing at the spaceship that has just crashed into its eye.

What almost no one has seen since the film's original release is its true color palette. Modern audiences know Le Voyage as a black-and-white movie, but in fact, Melies hand-painted each frame of the film for special screenings. Those hand-painted reels were lost for decades; when they were discovered in Barcelona back in 1993, archivists began a years-long process of repairing the badly damaged film. For its soundtrack, they asked Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel — the French duo known as Air — to put together an original score.

The new restoration debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and the soundtrack album is coming out in a few days. Godin and Dunckel tell NPR's Guy Raz that as exciting as it was to write the music, the real thrill was seeing the movie the way Melies intended.

"It's like another movie — you don't look at it the same way," Godin says. "The color makes the movie very modern, like something as entertaining now as it was in the past. The black-and-white version is more like a piece of a museum."

Dunckel says the duo watched the movie every day for a month — and that by the end, he started to feel like a part of the original film crew.

"I can recognize on the screen any character, any woman, any man. I can see how much fun they had. I can feel the energy, the fact that they were so young at the time," Godin says. "I felt part of the whole process."

Watch a scene from the restored version of Le Voyage Dans La Lune, featuring original music by Air.

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Time now for music and a film score 110 years in the making.


RAZ: In 1902, the very genesis of filmmaking, director Georges Melies released his magnum opus: "Le Voyage Dans La Lune," "A Trip to the Moon," the first science-fiction film ever. You know, the famous shot of the moon with a human face and then it grimaces when the spaceship lands right in his eye? That's the movie I'm talking about.

Melies hand painted each frame of his movie for special screenings. It was once in color. But those hand-painted reels were lost for decades, that is, until they were discovered in Barcelona back in 1993. Archivists worked for years to restore the badly damaged film. And for its soundtrack, they asked the French duo known as Air to write the score.


RAZ: The restored version debuted at the Cannes Film Festival back in May, and the soundtrack album is coming out in a few days. Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel are Air. They heard rumors that the long-missing colored reels had been found, and Nicolas Gordin could hardly believe it.

NICOLAS GODIN: It was like a legend. It was like the Loch Ness monster.

RAZ: They didn't know what colors these characters were.

GODIN: No. When it was done in 1902, they were setting the film to some theaters, and the theaters would show the movie until destruction. So, really, none of them have been survived. So we were - it was like, oh, my God. I can't believe we're going to see it. You know, it was like a big moment because many people heard about that movie, but no one in the world have seen it.

RAZ: They saw, of course, a black and white version of it but never a color version.

GODIN: Yeah. It's very different.

RAZ: Right.

GODIN: The black and white version is more like a piece of a museum, you know? The colored version is more like you watch it like you would watch a normal movie. You know, it's very cool.

RAZ: It's also terrifying. And you could imagine watching that in 1902. Of course, the basic story is a spaceship lands on a moonscape and all these men emerge from the spaceship wearing, obviously, period clothing, so top hats and long-tailed coats, and out pop mushrooms in this landscape, these sort of Technicolor mushrooms, and then aliens begin to attack them, and they fight against the aliens, and the aliens disappear in puffs of smoke. It's a very psychedelic film, actually.

GODIN: Yeah.

RAZ: You know, I think I would get the fear if I watched that film back in my college days.

GODIN: Yeah. That's the reason why we wanted to do some fear sounds. And that's why we didn't choose to use like a traditional soundtrack, you know, like it used to be in 1902 with the piano like the (unintelligible).


RAZ: And by the way, for folks listening to this conversation, obviously, this is very visual. And you can see what we're talking about if you go to our website,


RAZ: There's a piece on this record, it's called "Decollage," and it seems to hint at Stanley Kubrick's use of Strauss in "2001." And I don't know whether you thought of that, but did you sort of borrow from other science fiction scores in your compositions?

JEAN-BENOIT DUNCKEL, MEMBER, AIR: No. But talking about Strauss and other artists try it (unintelligible), you know? And this is the main instrument we experiment on this album. We - it's been a long time where we wanted to try to recall the tympanis, and so we crossed the line this time. We rented some big tympanis and we put them on a lot of the songs.

But I think all the other references to science fiction (unintelligible) is more like in our subconscious because we do music in very instinctive and spontaneous way, and then when we listen to the record, it's, oh, this reminds me of this movie, this reminds me of this movie. You know, it's in our blood.


RAZ: My guests are Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel. They're the electric duo known as Air, and their new record is a score to the century-old silent film "Le Voyage Dans La Lune." You guys have obviously done film scores. You've done work for Sofia Coppola's films "The Virgin Suicides" and "Lost in Translation." How did you do the music for this? Did you watch it over and over and over again, you know, with instruments in front of you?

AIR: Yeah. We watched the movie all day long for like one month. It was, like, very intense. At some point, I remember where I was so familiar with the movie that I feel part of the team back in 1902. And I can see how much fun they had to shoot that movie. I can feel the energy, the fact that they were so young by the time.

I discovered that with "Virgin Suicides" because when you look at a movie all day long, you start to know all the moves of the actors and you know exactly what they are doing, and so you feel part of the set at some point. So I really felt after one week I'd been hired by George Melies to compose the music of his movie, you know?

RAZ: Wow.

AIR: I felt part of the whole process. It was very strange.

RAZ: And Melies did not write a soundtrack for this film in 1902, right?

AIR: No. He was not thinking of music when he was doing this movie because cinema was not associated with sound. And when they asked us to do that, we wanted to be sure that really he had no indication, no recommendation, he really had no thought about any music on the top of it because we never wanted to take the place of someone else or to betray the work of a composer.


RAZ: You have worked together, the two of you, a long time. And clearly, you have a strong partnership and presumably a strong friendship. Is it easy to work together? Does it - is just kind of flow?

GODIN: Oh, we are like a couple. You know, we have good moments and bad moments.

AIR: And part of the thing is that we are different. We like to kill a lot of the other ideas. It's a lot like the melody that you hear on the record are the surviving things. It's like evolution, you know? I mean, the species that survive are the most adapted to the situation. And we are playing this kind of record to our music, so it's sort of an artistic fight.

RAZ: I read that you guys worked on a very tight schedule to finish this music. Why?

GODIN: Because I think they were so scared not to be able to achieve such ambitious restoration process. And when they were close to finish, there were so much buzz around this movie that they decided to show it at the Cannes Film Festival. So they were not expected such a short deadline. So when they called us, they said, look, sorry, but one month from now, it's going to be shown at Cannes in the South of France. And that's it. There's nothing we can do about it.

So we were pretty scared because we just finished the day or two days before. You know, we were scared of the reaction of the audience. We were thinking, oh, my God, how can they dare to touch such a monumental cinema? So when we were in Cannes, I was very stage fright. And the light went dark and it was the giant screen - because we worked on a computer - I saw what we have done. And I said, oh, my God, this was much more like spectacular than I imagined.

And after 15 minutes, people start to applause, and that was such a relief for me. I was like - it was - I didn't enjoy that night because I was so terrified.

RAZ: You were terrified because of course you did take on this sacred film and you're worried that people are going to say, what is this music?

GODIN: Yes, exactly.

RAZ: And, of course, they didn't.

GODIN: No, because we helped the movie. We served the movie. We made the movie entertaining. And that's what the dream of Melies (unintelligible). And now, with the color and the music, this movie is really - it's such a good piece of art. And people have fun, people are entertained. You know, it's great.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: All of you will be back home safely. So join us with no fear on our fantastic trip to the moon.

RAZ: Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel are the duo known as Air. Their new record is an imagined score to the 1902 silent film "Le Voyage Dans La Lune." You can hear a few tracks and see a snippet of the film at our website, Gentlemen, thank you so much.

GODIN: Thank you.

AIR: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.