As humans took their first steps on the moon, the world watched on in amazement. Now 50 years later, our awe has been reignited with Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary, Apollo 11.
This documentary film diverges from all the conventional trademarks of the genre. It does not include interviews, narrations, elaborate animations, or virtually any modern materials. Instead, Miller takes on a direct cinema approach to storytelling by using primarily archival film and voice recordings, most of which were never before publicly released. Thus the story of Apollo 11 isn’t just retold, it’s re-lived.
Audiences are “transported into a parallel universe” as Miller described, where they experience the mission through the eyes and ears of spectators, mission control personnel, and astronauts. Reportings from Walter Cronkite and public affairs officials drive the narrative as they once did in 1969. Use of air-to-ground transmissions give a rare and private peek into the human story behind the massive technological effort.
Kennedy Launch Control Center. All images courtesy NEON / CNN Films.
The seriousness of flight controllers emphasize how risky this operation was, while the astronauts unexpectedly provide comic relief. For instance when astronaut Michael Collins respiration sensors malfunction, he playfully responds to mission controls’ concerns by saying “If I stop breathing, I’ll be sure to let you know.”
The film even goes so far to recreate the ambiance of this landmark event by producing a music score with only instruments available at the time and songs from mixtapes these astronauts were listening to in space. All these details add new layers of personality and give a unique perspective into the most well-known Apollo mission.
However, the film’s achievement goes far beyond its cinematic storytelling. It has impacted history, unearthing incredible never before seen large format 65/70mm film and over 11,000 hours of uncatalogued recordings, marking advancements in technology, and sparking an archival preservation and restoration movement.
Thanks to partnerships with NASA, the National Archives and Final Frame (the post house Miller engaged for the massive job), along with the help of custom built tools, Miller was able to recover, restore and digitize decades old archival that now look and sound like they could have been shot today. Previously unusable due to lack of technology at the time, the rediscovered large format film was digitized in 8K with the only prototype scanner of its kind that was created specifically for this project.
Todd Douglas Miller
Miller’s team also coded software that could sync and restore 30-track audio tapes from each mission control operators headset. But technology didn’t do all the heavy lifting as there was no substitute for manual labor when it came to syncing this audio to the film recorded without sound.
Using Adobe Premiere Pro, Miller whittled down nine days of the Apollo mission into the feature film that debuted at Sundance Film Festival in 2019, and subsequently won the festival’s U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Editing.
The meticulous level of care Miller and his team used to depict the action and emotions of this eight day mission into a coherent, mesmerizing 90 minutes has surpassed all the requirements and conventions of filmmaking. It took a team of insanely passionate people that went to great lengths to preserve the mission’s historical integrity and spirit, and I got to speak with Todd himself to discuss it all first-hand.
Creative COW: What launched your interest in space travel and motivated you to take on such a huge project?
Todd Douglas-Miller: My fascination with space travel kind of subconsciously goes all the way back to my youth. I grew up in Ohio and it’s the birthplace of aviation. In that part of the country, I don’t think you can walk down the street and not hear the names of Neil Armstrong and John Glenn. So I certainly had a fascination with it when I was a kid.
And then my interest in space really jumped into overdrive once we did the short film Apollo 17, and started really getting into the research of it all. We experimented with the storytelling form that would go into what we would do with Apollo 11. I was introduced to all these really wonderful archivists and historians, tech advisers and got a lot of feedback. All the mistakes that we learned doing that short film we corrected for Apollo 11.
How did you approach Apollo 11 differently than the Apollo 17 film in order to take it to the next level?
When we were working on the short film for Apollo 17, I did have a couple of archival reels transferred to digital because a couple of shots were just really really bad. If you’re working with NASA and the National Archives, then you have to use their approved vendors. I wasn’t really happy with the results from those approved vendors. When I had approached the National Archives, I approached it under the auspice that I wanted to digitize everything in their collection, all the 16 and 35 mm film, and of course this was back before we even knew about the large format material.
I’ve been working with Will Cox at Final Frame, our post house, for quite a long time and when he told me he was getting into the film scanning business, I kind of thought he was nuts because who’s doing that nowadays? And I asked Will, is he prepared to take this on, and he said, “Yeah, bring it on.”
And at the time, both of us were thinking maybe it would top out at a hundred, maybe a hundred and fifty [reels]. But when it got up to four hundred, five hundred at the final tally it was easy to say yes to because of this discovery of this large format material — it was astounding.
We were a victim of circumstance that Will was crazy enough to say yes.
How did the rediscovery of this large format film change the trajectory of the film?
It was a couple of months into the research on behalf of the National Archives. We were working with the archivists. They were working with our cut producer and we got a progress report in the way of an email. And that alluded to this large format material.
We had several 65 and 70mm reels shipped up to Final Frame and we put them on this prototype scanner. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. It was just absolutely astonishing. It was like I’d transported into a parallel universe or something. And to also see not just the quality of it all but just how much of it there was — I was just taken aback. It was just extraordinary.
And at the time our idea was just to scan in 4K. And Will, in the middle of an entire meeting room with the National Archives said, “Y’know, if we wait six months we’ll be able to do 8K.” And of course the National Archives and all the other people [from the government] were like “Yeah, let’s wait.”
I was really nervous about it because I knew my editing window just shrunk, and of course it ended being like eight months.
Above, the 5.5-million-pound crawler-transporter and rocket launcher. Below, the crawler and rocket coming into position for launch.
What struck you the most seeing this newly uncovered film for the first time?
Before we started working on the film, we were just trying to saturate ourselves and watch as many fiction and non-fiction films related to space as we could. And in watching those you had the sense that it was just the astronauts and a couple of guys in mission control. And that clearly was not the case.
A lot of the films that we were getting out of the National Archives from NASA were some of these really great industrial films. Once we really got into reviewing all the materials we were scanning, it was really apparent that it was such a global effort. It was not just a few people, and it stretched decades. And it was this amazingly complex thing that got put together in a relatively short amount of time. The project itself was less than a decade, even though you had predecessors in the Mercury and Gemini programs, but it was just astounding to me to see how many people were involved to make this thing successful.
So does that explain the 11,000 hours of mission control audio from you had to go through?
Yeah, that was a whole other thing. That happened around the same time as the large format discovery. And those audio recordings were all the flight controllers and everyone in mission control who had a headset got recorded onto these loops.
It’s just a real credit to the people that were working on it. Particularly Ben Feist, our consultant engineer up in Toronto, who subsequently was hired by NASA to do data aggregation for the Mars mission. And rightfully so, because without his work and a couple of others, we would never have been able to sync up all that 11,000 hours and know exactly when things happened and what day they happened on.
Ben had several people that wrote some code and some software to be able to basically apply an algorithm to this 11,000 hours to not only sync it all up, but also clean it all up as well because it was just in a really bad state of affairs. So my audio team — my sound designers and mixers — even before they got it, it was cleaned up. Those guys usually deal with seconds or scenes of syncing here and there, but this was a giant data problem. That’s the way that Ben looked at it, as this kind of data set problem, and applied his background in technology and some unique solutions to that problem.
But the other problem was that we didn’t really have any audio on any of the large format film or any of the other archival video as well. So when Ben had actually synced all that up, it made it at least a little bit easier to get through and try to start generating transcripts, writing down everything, and trying to piece together what was unique in that 11,000 hours. We could utilize sound bites from that, that would make it even more accurate than what had previously been understood about the Apollo 11 mission.
What was that process like to sync all this mission control audio to the footage that had no sound?
This was really how the entire project really started, even going back to our short film with Apollo 17. My archive producer Stephen Slater, who’s based out of the UK, had this crazy idea to sync all these mission control flight operators, all the footage of them with publicly available audio. This was what they call the “air to ground transmission”. And it’s really tedious stuff. It’s taken him years to do it. I’ve tried it. I’ve probably got [through] 0.1% of what you see in the final film.
And then when we had this 11,000 hours of audio, it gave him even more ammunition to go back and he was actually able to sync all of the footage that had anybody speaking, with audio for the first time. That became his primary focus. But it was a real team effort. Because we knew we were going to be bouncing back and forth between space and mission control after the launch once they were in space. We just needed to know if there were any historically significant things that he could think of, or sound bites that we could utilize with things we had already edited together.
Above, Neil Armstrong. Below, Buzz Aldrin.
It’s remarkable to hear about the amount of work you and your team put into just getting these archival recordings to a usable condition. For audio that wasn’t available or salvageable, how did you manage to recreate it so that it sounded like it was recorded in 1969?
Initially we were going to hire an entire team of sound designers to work on it. But we were working on the project for so long that Eric Milano — who operates just a couple of blocks away from Final Frame, here in New York — had the time. He did it all himself: all the foley, all the sound editing, mixing, all the re-recording, everything. He was the only one that worked on it outside of our IMAX audio mixer, Brian Eimer from Toronto.
We tried to use the original archival audio when possible, but a lot of times it was recorded on quarter inch tape and had all this sound drift in it. It was just really bad. So Eric went about the process of enhancing all of that. And we had a ton of references that we gave him.
And then we had an opportunity to test a lot of the scenes down at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. on the IMAX screen. It was wonderful, because we could sit there, Eric, Will, everybody — we could get in a room and just from a technical standpoint see what the film looked and sounded like.
Eric, to his credit, did just a ton of proximity audio editing. Could we get the sound of the launch right? What did it sound like inside of the spacecraft? What does it sound like if you put a microphone next to the camera during the launch from two miles away? What does it sound like if you’re 50 feet away? What does it sound like if you’re by the UAV building? How could we enhance [speech] so that the audience knows that when these guys are talking, it’s through a headset at mission control, or that it’s going out in the lunar module or the command module?
So it was just a tremendous effort by all of those people to make the film as realistic as it could be.
What post tools did you and your team use to help facilitate the process?
All the offline editing, all the graphics — we used Adobe. Premiere Pro was the real workhorse on the film, which I edited with. I did all the animations in After Effects, too.
When Ben ultimately delivered the files to us, they were all cleaned up, all 11,000 hours, through Adobe Audition.
I even used Adobe Acrobat for my stuff (laughs), documents and boards and things.
And then Will and the guys at Final Frame, all of that was through Film Master and Nucoda. And we used Colorfront’s Transkoder for a lot of node transcoding of data.
Having a massive amount of film and audio available to you, how did you stay organized and on track during the editing process in Premiere Pro?
From an editing standpoint it was a really great subject matter to pick because the mission itself was on a clock they call general elapsed time, the GET, so everything is locked in. You could go through the transcripts and know exactly when people were talking, when the public affairs officers were narrating the events of the mission to the public, when Neil Armstrong was saying his words.
So, it ended up being something that was fairly — I won’t say easy because it was pretty difficult — but we had a road map. It was kind of our script because it was a historical thing that had happened.
When we initially started out, we had a nine-day timeline. So the mission itself spans eight days and three hours, and if you add on some of the pre-launch activities, post launch, you’re really looking at nine days. And we knew that the film was going to span that.
From the very beginning, we just wanted it to be like you had just dropped in and you knew where you were going to go in the timeline. Once we had that sequence, every day became a sequence. So we basically had nine sequences. And then we could just drop in everything — we wanted to know where and when everything happened. So if you had every still frame and still footage that was taken, all the video, even the television transmissions, etc., and you could just drop it into those nine days.
And then for me from an editing standpoint, one thing that I find very valuable is my collaboration with my music composer, Matt Morton. We’ve known each other since we were kids, and we’ve just worked together for so long. If you were to really get in there and dissect the timeline, it’s a very mathematical edit, and everything is based on Matt’s music cues.
One of the things I always get from Matt when we start a film is usually like in 3:4, 4:4 times. He’ll give me a track that’s kind of our theme, and I just keep that on mute in my final sequence as I’m editing. And if I ever get lost in the edit, I just flick that on. It’s usually like some acoustic guitar thing that I’ve got, a fairly simple thing. For Apollo 11, it was a ukulele. And that ended up being expanded into some of his bow compositions that he did for the score.
So how did you condense that nine-day edit to the final product? Did you play with the expansion or compression of time?
Yeah, I knew we wanted to hit major parts of the mission. Things that happened. And then once we started really getting to work with the astronauts and the families, you find out there’s a lot of things that hadn’t been portrayed in a fiction or non-fiction film. And things that they thought could be of interest.
I also tried to saturate myself in as much material as possible. Reading all the astronauts’ autobiographies, seeing interviews that they’d done in the past and then just talking to them. So, and this goes for historians as well, I knew there were certain things that the public hadn’t seen that we could design and then fit a scene around.
And if you watch the film, some of the more technical things are some of the most interesting in my mind. Any time you’re firing an engine in space, it’s risky business. It’s a life or death situation. Any time you’re docking or undocking, exact same thing. There’s just this natural tension that existed during the mission, that if you just step back and just let it play out, it would naturally be exciting on screen.
It was tough to have a lot of things you had to cut into the floor. But we also knew we wanted it to fit under two hours. It was trial and error, just to go through it, and keep going through it, and going through it, and going through it, until you whittle it down. It’s just a block of wood and you’re shaping it into something.
But I will say this: Ben Feist took all those straps and made a nine day version of his that he released on a website called apolloinrealtime.org. People can see basically the entire nine-day edit up there and experience the entire mission in real time.
Well I know what I’m going to do all next week.
Better grab your sleeping bag and alarm clock.
This film is not only an achievement of technical aptitude, but in the historical preservation of the human spirit. Why is preserving archival media so important, and how do you hope this film will impact the future?
We need to be reminded as a human species what we do. What we can accomplish. So many things in the media, whether it’s film or television, are very depressing. I think an achievement like this, which is to my mind the greatest single event that happened in human history, needs to be celebrated. And younger generations should see what we’re all capable of.
I think from just our small part of it, our work continues. We have a ton of things that we learned that will affect the historical record of Apollo 11, and we’re still working and will be working with NASA and the National Archives in the coming years to correct a lot of things. So future generations can look back and be more informed on what the entire Apollo program did.
Neil Armstrong really said it best. He talked about how all of us are on this spaceship Earth and we all have a limited amount of time and supplies. We’re all astronauts and we all have to take care of each other. And I think if our film in some small way could echo that, or people could reflect on that, then I think we have at least done our job in some small part.
But from a filmmaking standpoint, we’re just another link in the chain of all these other space films, and I think it’s incumbent on all of us to tell these stories so people are constantly reminded of how great it was.
In other words, it wasn’t just one small step for man, but one giant leap for mankind?
No pun intended, right?
Courtney Lewis is a New York based editor and motion graphic designer. Her work includes commercial content for Amazon’s Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Squarespace, Madison Square Garden, and Jameson Whiskey.