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Giant Steps: Missions and Memories on ‘In the Shadow of the Moon’

Between 1968 and 1972, nine American spacecraft voyaged to the Moon and 12 men walked on its surface. They remain the only human beings to have stood on another world. Director David Sington’s

In the Shadow of the Moon

brings together 10 of the surviving Apollo astronauts (including eight who walked on the Moon) and allows them to tell their story in their own words. This firsthand testimony is interwoven with stunning and rarely seen archival material re-mastered from the original NASA film footage. The result is an intimate epic that communicates the daring, the danger, the pride and the promise of this extraordinary era in history.

The film received the audience award for best documentary at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. It was released theatrically in September by TH!NK Film and will be broadcast on the Discovery Channel and Discovery HD Theater.

The film got its start during production of


producers Christopher Riley and Duncan Copp’s 2004 drama/documentary

Space Odyssey

, for which Apollo 15 commander Dave Scott acted as technical advisor. “Dave felt that, though there have been hundreds of documentaries about Apollo, nothing had ever come close to touching what it was all about,” says Riley.

Sington adds, “I never felt that you got to know the astronauts as people. You never really got a sense of what the experience meant to them.”

Though Sington and Editor David Fairhead had made numerous science-oriented films for television, the theatrical project


was a first for both and required a different approach. “First of all, you want to avoid narration, because narration is very tele-visual,” says Sington. “If you’re sitting in a big, darkened room with a lot of other people, it’s an immersive experience, whereas the experience for commercial television is more broken up. The pace is quick, with a lot of stuff coming at you, whereas for a theatrical film, you’re trying to draw the audience in and keep them in.”

Sington continues, “Most documentaries for television rely on [narration] far too much, often as a quick and easy way to solve problems in the cutting room. In our case, the astronauts are literally their own storytellers.”

Stop by for a Chat

Getting the astronauts to tell their stories on the level Sington was looking for was no small feat. “Everybody told us, ‘You’re not going to get anything emotional out of them. They’re not going to say anything that we haven’t heard before,'” recalls Riley. The team had a good friend in Dave Scott, who helped open doors which might otherwise have remained shut by vouching for the filmmakers’ ethos.

Crucial to their intimate approach, the director says, was spending time with the subject the night before the interviews began. “We told them, ‘We want to come and see you. We want to interview you over a couple of days. We want to take you out to dinner, we want to meet your wife, we want to get to know you.’ It was a bit of a stretch for them because it’s not how most people approach them.”

The film’s unmediated approach is carried over to the film’s shooting style. During the interviews, the subjects appear to be looking directly down the barrel of the lens, which Sington accomplished by placing himself underneath the camera. “I wanted a sense that the astronauts are talking directly to the audience. I wanted my presence to be completely invisible,” he explains. “The astronauts are looking directly at the camera lens and therefore directly at the audience. Quite deliberately, they ‘look us in the eye’ and, of course, we are able to look them in the eye. We took a couple of days to experiment with different setups, lighting arrangements and backdrops to get the right look.”

Director of Photography Clive North photographed the interviewees with a Sony BVP-750 digital camera system, lighting the subjects with SoftLites. “It gives you a direct light, but it’s good for the interviewees because it’s not hot,” says the director. “It gives lovely modeling on their faces.”

Even though much of the film’s spectacle and visual beauty comes from the various archival materials, these men are what give it its true dimension. “These are still very handsome men,” Sington says, “and our DP, Clive North, brought out this fantastic chiseled quality to their faces. Several people who have seen the film have said that, despite all the stunning archive in the movie, the most arresting images are the astronauts’ faces. We knew we were breaking some rules with the choice of big, big close-ups, which you don’t often see in the cinema, but I think it really works, thanks to Clive’s skill with light and lens.”

Mining the Archive

Besides the interviews, the major component of the film is archive footage, which comprises film shot on the ground and in space. The footage shot in space–some of it engineering footage and some of it shot by the astronauts themselves–has spent most of the last 40 years in cold storage, literally, under liquid nitrogen. The material shot on the ground–of training, construction, and in Mission Control during the actual missions–is stored primarily in the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Producers Duncan Copp and Chris Riley spent many weeks in the NASA film library examining cans of film. Riley notes, “Between 1958 and about 1972-73, when Apollo was winding down, NASA shot approximately 10,000 rolls of 16mm film that covered everything they were doing on the ground, be it development of space suits or the spacecraft. They really did cover everything.”

“The archive is well catalogued,” says Sington, “but, in the end, the only way to know what’s on a roll of film is to look at it, and Duncan and Chris opened literally hundreds of film cans and watched miles and miles of film, some of which had clearly not been looked at or used since it was shot in the ’60s.”

The project benefited from having a filmmaker, instead of simply a researcher, do the hunting. “Chris treats his search almost as if he’s directing, as if he was going to shoot something,” notes Fairhead.

Forensic Photography

Particularly awe-inspiring are shots taken in space showing various stages of the Saturn V booster rocket separating and falling back to Earth. The footage was photographed by camera pods placed in various sections of the rocket for later study by engineers.

Sington says, “This material was shot so that the engineers could investigate the cause of any problems–in effect, a sort of visual ‘black box’ recording. There were cameras built into the various stages of the Saturn V rocket that would automatically film key moments, usually at high frame rates, on 16mm film. The cameras would then eject and re-enter the atmosphere, where they would be caught mid-air by high-flying aircraft equipped with nets.”

Explains Fairhead, “The amazing thing is, this footage was made for engineers, not for filmmakers. If it went ‘bang,’ they wanted a way to figure out what went wrong.” If nothing went wrong with the mission, the footage was generally discarded or left undeveloped. Because these images were taken for forensic and not filmmaking purposes, the film languished as raw, undeveloped stock for years.

Launch footage was similarly captured by 16mm and 35mm cameras located in more than 20 fireproof housings (or “bunkers,” as Fairhead refers to them) around the launch gantry, some running at frame rates upwards of 100fps.

Barely any of this footage was seen by the public until filmmaker Theo Kamecke was hired by NASA just a few months prior to the July 1969 launch of Apollo 11. “NASA realized they should have commissioned a documentary to themselves to tell the story of Apollo 11, so they had to scramble to get this production together,” Riley explains.

Kamecke’s film,

Moonwalk One

, which debuted on television five years later, included a good amount of this launch footage–along with additional 70mm footage he shot himself. “Much of it that you’re used to seeing on TV over and over again over the last 30 or 40 years was just transferred once only, onto some crappy old 1970s videotape,” Riley says. “And that [transfer] was copied again and again and the [original film footage] was never returned to.”

“These tapes,” Sington observes, “copied and re-copied, have formed the archive basis for most of the documentaries subsequently made. We’ve grown so used to seeing those few shots–getting fuzzier and fuzzier over time–that many people think that’s all there is. But, beyond this selection, there is a great mass of unseen material that, for obvious reasons of preservation, has been difficult for filmmakers to access.”

As they embarked on

In the Shadow of the Moon

, the filmmakers learned that NASA was in the process of scanning the archive film footage at HD resolution. “We knew that all that material would be available to us in all its re-mastered glory, and NASA was kind enough to provide us with digital clones. I think we’re probably the first filmmakers to exploit this fantastic resource.”

Telling the Story

When planning the film, Sington came across a challenge. “The fundamental problem with doing a film about the whole Apollo program is that the climax to the story is the landing of the Eagle and the first step on the Moon [on July 21, 1969],” he says. “And that comes halfway through your story. [Apollo missions to the Moon continued through December 1972.] So, dramatically, you’ve got a problem: how do you prevent the second part of the film seeming like an anti-climax?”

The solution lay in making the Apollo 11 story the backbone of the film–featuring mission astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, and “CapCom” Charlie Duke in Mission Control–but using all the other astronauts heavily to help tell the story.

One of the more remarkable segments Fairhead assembled involves the landing of Apollo 11’s Eagle lunar module on the Moon’s surface at the Sea of Tranquility. Armstrong landed the lunar module just seconds before the vehicle would have run out of fuel, prompting Capsule Communications (“CapCom”) officer Charlie Duke to express the relief of his fellow Mission Control specialists by telling the astronauts, “Roger, Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue here. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot!”

Ever since that episode, viewers have only


, not seen, Duke say the line. However, for


, Riley unearthed footage shot by NASA during the moments leading up to the landing, enabling viewers to now see Duke’s expression during the event.

There were actually several cameras photographing the Mission Operations Control Room: a pair of handheld 16mm cameras, Theo Kamecke’s 70mm camera and a video camera mounted high above the room. Sington notes that the footage “was nearly all mute, but we were able to visually lip-sync this footage with the audio recording of the flight controller’s loop, which had been restored. It was difficult–a sort of audio-visual Rubik’s Cube–but it enabled us to re-create the atmosphere in Mission Control at that historic moment in a way I’ve never seen before.”

The challenge then for Fairhead was to find a way to sync the loops with the brief moments of film available. “You’ve got a sequence of events taking place over an hour, and perhaps 12 minutes of film shot over that hour,” says Sington. “The question is, which 12 minutes?” Fairhead spotted several points at which Duke appears to be mouthing “Roger,” finally matching one of those up with sound from the audio loop. “I suddenly found a sync point, and then, all of a sudden, there it was, this magic thing–Charlie spoke in time to his words. It was one of those little breakthrough moments,” says Fairhead.

“Normally, archive can only be illustrative,” Sington notes. “But once this footage was synched, it wasn’t archive anymore. I could treat it as if that was my cameraman at Mission Control shooting stuff for me.”

Unfortunately, the “turning blue” line is not among those seen, for one simple reason: the cameraman ran out of film just at that moment, visible in footage captured by the above-room camera. “You can see him turn away from Charlie Duke to reload the camera,” says Riley. “And you think, “Damn! What a moment to run out of film!”

Fairhead instead used a brief clip from the 16mm film camera running automatically on the lunar module as the Eagle lands, perfectly synched in the timeline–and whose film magazine conveniently runs out at the appropriate moment, revealing white leader. “It helps to illustrate just how tight the whole landing was,” he says–and why the boys in Houston were “turning blue.”

Fairhead pieced together footage from 60 hours of interviews and 30 hours of archive material, eventually creating a four-hour first pass over several weeks. The first cut was refined with Sington, sequence by sequence, in what Fairhead describes as a very collaborative process. “It was a really good, shared way of working.”

In the Shadow of the Moon

is a feast for space enthusiasts, both for the rich use of rare archival footage and for the insights the film provides into the experiences of those who lived through those moments. The experience won’t be one easily forgotten by the filmmakers, either.