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Contender: Apollo 11 Documentary


When documentary filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller was urged by his chief archivist to make a film about the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, to be released the year of its 50th anniversary no less, he had no idea of the mountain of footage and audio he would come into in creating the 93-minute project.

Remembering the moment with his archivist, Miller was unaware of what was yet to come in undertaking a similarly-titled Apollo 11 documentary. “That was way before we knew there was 18,000 hours of audio,” Miller recollected.

To undertake the enormity of a legendary space program film, Miller began by piecing together the timeline of the entire mission, then discovering where the holes were.

“I tried to quantify how much material they had with Apollo 11,” the director said of the North American Space Administration. “NASA has various archives, which are all controlled by individual archivists.”

With materials at The Johnson Space Center in Houston, The Marshall Space Center and The National Archives in College Park, Maryland, Miller was deluged with both audio and large-format film footage, shot in 65mm and 70mm.

Apollo 11 launch, 1969; courtesy of Neon CNN Films
Apollo 11 launch, 1969; courtesy of Neon CNN Films

“NASA had primarily two cameraman working around the clock on the Apollo missions, documenting what was going on in the launches and missions,” Miller explained. “A large portion of the footage was used for a film called Moonwalk One. They had a professional crew of cinematographers working in conjunction with this production, co-funded by NASA.”

Critically, all of the significant original negatives that Miller found related to the Apollo 11 mission had been sitting in cold storage in College Park, Maryland for the past 50 years. To bring the footage into the digital world, Miller called upon a friend of his who owns a post-production company called Final Frame in New York City.

“They were getting into the film scanning business when a lot of people were getting out of it,” Miller said of Final Frame, communicating that cutting-edge technology was developed by European engineers. “There wasn’t a real efficient way of transferring this footage—we developed a film scanner with new hardware and software.”

Initially, Miller aimed to scan all film footage in 4K resolution, but he was told that if he waited six months, he could scan the material in 16K. He agreed but ended up waiting for eight months, though test scanning indicated that the results would be phenomenal, though not without its pitfalls.

“We were taking film reels out of cold storage—we had to ship them in various stages in cold storage vehicles,” Miller explained. “We survived two government shutdowns. We had hard drives and negatives in one location—we couldn’t get them back in time. We had to have backup plans; it was a little scary.”

Apollo 11 Shot of the Earth
Apollo 11 Shot of the Earth

Eventually, Miller’s team scanned 500 reels of film, including 16mm film, 35mm film, plus the key 65mm footage.

“It ended up being about 60 hours with the large format [material],” he said. “Almost double that for everything else. NASA had given us a hard drive that had 18,000 hours of audio and 11,000 [of that] was from Apollo 11. That took much longer to go through. It had a lot of technical problems—we had to transcribe it.”

To deal with the enormity of film and sound, Miller brought in an A-list team of artists with a ‘divide-and-conquer’ approach to the overall project. “[Producer] Thomas Petersen ended up having a real gift for finding those moments in the 11,000 hours,” Miller said of his wealth of found audio, noting that he had an ultimate goal. “Find interesting things to break up the monotony of the jargon of travelling to space.”

Additionally, Stephen Slater served as archive producer, making crucial contributions to Apollo 11. “He worked for a couple of years just lip-synching all of the mission control footage,” Miller detailed. “He had gone about the crazy idea to try to match up the publicly available air-to-ground audio with the MOS footage. It took him a very long time, over a year, but he was able to get every single frame of footage synched up.”

Of interest, Miller was also engaged as the Apollo 11 film editor. “It was my job to organize all of that [footage and audio],” he described. “To be clear, we had a bunch of other guys working on audio and footage-related. The mission spans nine days—lay the nine days in the timeline. It was a group effort to aggregate that footage.”

Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11 Mission, 1969; Courtesy of Neon CNN Films
Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11 Mission, 1969; Courtesy of Neon CNN Films

As if the massive amount of film and audio were not enough, the Apollo 11 astronauts also shot 1025 still images in space with their Hasselblad cameras.

“It was my job to keep the creative vision always moving forward and on task,” Miller stated of work done at his offices in Brooklyn and at Final Frame in Manhattan, New York City. “It was about a three-year edit, editing as we were going. I wanted to use every frame that we could.”

Using his editing experience, Miller gauged the length of every individual sequence he required to tell the full story of Apollo 11. “The film is very linear,” he revealed. “The intro would be around five minutes; a launch sequence around ten minutes. I always knew it would fall in and around 90 minutes. I had two-hour edit, and it felt too long.”

During post-production, Miller unveiled an analogy between Apollo 11 the mission and Apollo 11 the film: both required success in each link of the chain.

Apollo 11 Astronaut on the Moon, 1969
Apollo 11 Astronaut on the Moon, 1969

“That’s kind of what the edit was,” Miller conveyed. “Suiting up will last 90 seconds—let’s move on to unbroken shots of the landing; I never wanted to leave from that one shot. [Next,] the lunar module docking with the command module. The thing you struggle with is the transitions. Luckily, because we did have so much material, we were able to make those creative choices—a luxury that you rarely have.”

In the end, Miller and his crew felt a ‘profound’ sense of responsibility in crafting their Apollo 11 documentary. “We were all just humbled by it,” he pointed out. “The mission of Apollo 11 was the pinnacle of human history—our technological ascendance. That brought the world together in a very tumultuous time that nothing else has done since. I feel very honored.”

Though he claimed, “I’m all spaced out,” after completing Apollo 11 in time to coincide with the 50th anniversary of that world-renowned mission, Miller stepped back, noting, “never say never.” His next project is an archival-based documentary which might supersede Apollo 11 in its sheer size.

In closing, Miller offered, of large-format cinema, “I’m glad to be part of a team to develop the technology. I’ll be really excited to see what future filmmakers do in future generations.”

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