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Giant Steps Are What You Take: Managing the Amazing Material in “Apollo 11”

"What started out as a simple editing exercise—could we tell the entire story of the mission using only archival materials—turned into a cooperative effort by an international team of experts to create the definitive work on Apollo 11 for the screen"

From director Todd Douglas Miller comes the documentary Apollo 11, a cinematic event 50 years in the making. Crafted from newly-discovered 65mm footage and more than 11,000 hours of uncatalogued audio recordings, Apollo 11 takes audiences to the heart of NASA’s most celebrated mission—the one that first put men on the moon.

Constructed entirely from archival materials, Apollo 11 captures the enormity of the event by giving audiences the direct experience of being there.

“The mission of Apollo 11 is one of the greatest achievements in human history—hundreds of thousands of people spread across tens of thousands of
companies all focused on putting the first humans on another world,” Miller says.

Immersed in the perspectives of the astronauts, the team in Mission Control, and the millions of spectators on the ground, viewers vividly experience
those momentous days and hours in 1969 when humankind took a giant leap into the future.

Miller and his team were working with NASA and the National Archives (NARA) to locate all existing Apollo 11 footage when NARA staff members made a startling discovery that changed the course of the project: an unprocessed collection of 65mm large-format footage, never seen by the public,
containing stunning imagery of the launch, the inside of Mission Control, and recovery and post-mission activities.

The footage was so pristine and the find so significant that the project evolved beyond filmmaking into one of film curation and historic preservation.

The other unexpected find was a massive cache of audio recordings—more than 11,000 hours—made by two custom recorders which captured individual
tracks from 60 key mission personnel throughout every moment of the mission.

The Apollo 11 film team members created code to restore the audio and make it searchable, then began the multi-year process of listening to and documenting the recordings, an effort that yielded remarkable new insights into key events of the mission as well as surprising moments of humor and camaraderie.

“What started out as a simple editing exercise—could we tell the entire story of the mission using only archival materials—turned into a cooperative effort by an international team of experts to create the definitive work on Apollo 11 for the screen,” Miller recalls. “The remarkable discovery of a cache of untouched large format film and audio recordings added another dimension to the project: it was more than just a film now, it was an opportunity to curate and preserve this priceless historical material.”

Read more: Apollo 11: “Who Wouldn’t Cut a Complete, Nine-Day Edit of the Mission to Create an Accurate Timeline from Which to Cull a 90-Minute Documentary?” 

Read more: Documentary Apollo 11 Retells History With Wide Eyes – and a Wider Perspective

“A lot of works have been made about Apollo 11, the first mission to land humans on the moon,” explains historical consultant Robert Pearlman, “but what sets this film apart is the fact that this is history being made again—new footage that was previously unknown has been expertly restored and scanned at the highest resolution possible, presenting never-before-seen footage from what many consider the crowning achievement of humankind to date. We’re able for the first time in history to get new glimpses and new information about how we landed men on the moon.”

“The original source material was 70mm, which is the widest-format film you’re going to find,” Pearlman explains. “The detail that’s brought out is considerable — for example, there’s a scene capturing the astronauts—Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins—suiting up for the mission. We knew that scene was filmed, but when it was shown to the public, it had been cropped to 35mm in order to match the other film
that was available. Many scenes like this have been expanded to a widescreen view, and we see them in high definition for the first time. For the viewing public, this means a more visceral, you-are-there feeling, including being in the room with the astronauts as they’re getting ready that July morning.

Read more: Todd Douglas Miller on Shooting for the Moon with Apollo 11

“Originally NASA held the footage in a storage facility but over the years it was transferred to the National Archives, where it was more or less
forgotten,” Pearlman continues. “Some of the footage was prepared for a documentary released in the 1970s, but once again the footage was cropped. This is the raw footage as it was originally taken, and since NASA didn’t have the funds or interest to produce more material, it sat unused. Fifty years later, the possibility of finding footage we’ve never seen before is becoming more and more rare, if not impossible.

“Because it’s such a famous, iconic event in history, one would think that all footage that was ever to be seen from it would have already been discovered.”

The digitization of the 65mm collection—as well as the re-scanning of 16mm and 35mm materials—was undertaken at Final Frame, a postproduction house
in New York City, that helped create a custom scanner, capable of high dynamic range scanning at resolutions up to 8K. The resulting transfer—from which the film was cut—is the highest resolution, highest quality digital collection of Apollo 11 footage in existence.

Read more: Apollo 11: “Who Wouldn’t Cut a Complete, Nine-Day Edit of the Mission to Create an Accurate Timeline from Which to Cull a 90-Minute Documentary?” 

“For historians, it’s an opportunity to see the whole layout of what was happening that day,” Pearlman says, “featuring details that weren’t previously available. The fact that these new reels were discovered by coincidence sitting in the National Archives so close to the 50th anniversary of the moon landing makes for a wonderful discovery, giving us the ability to celebrate it properly.”

“This film only exists because of the tremendous efforts and sacrifices of an extremely talented group of individuals. From the archivists and researchers, to the postproduction teams and production partners, everyone labored for years to ensure we got it right.”

“It’s just been an incredible experience,” Miller tells Stephen Saito.”You realize that close to half a million people worked on the Apollo project, spread across 20,000 companies. It was just an immense undertaking. In fact, we didn’t have 20,000 companies working on this [laughs], but at times it felt like we had just as many people.

“To see it up on the big screen is an amazing testament to the skill and precision of all those people back then that made it happen, and it goes too to the technology that exists today to showcase this imagery.” To read the full interview, click here.

“Apollo 11 is wholly different from what we’ve seen before, told from many perspectives heretofore lost in the rush to make heroes out of a few,” says Monica Castillo. “This documentary has the ability to freshly surprise us with 50-year-old footage, turning us back into kids staring in wonder, wide-eyed, as we watched a rocket take off for the very first time.” To read the full article, click here.

Read more: Apollo 11: Immersive Doc on Moon Landing Is a Masterpiece

“This extraordinary accomplishment doesn’t just add to our shared knowledge of what happened in the nine days between take-off and splashdown,” writes David Fear. “It greatly broadens, deepens and enhances every single aspect of the journey that the Apollo 11 embarked upon. It may or may not be the definitive recounting of that giant leap for mankind. But it’s undoubtedly the single most immersive portrait of how an army of technicians, flight-control teams, organizational bigwigs and, crucially, three brave men took us to stars and back.

“This doesn’t just feel like a movie. It gives you the sensation that you’ve been transported right into the middle of history.” To read the full article, click here.