A half-century ago this summer two men stepped foot on the moon, the first time in our species’s history that human footprints were made on an object beyond Earth. Commemorations of the fiftieth anniversary are planned throughout 2019, and kicking off that great milestone is the new film “Apollo 11,” which begins its one-week IMAX run Friday before moving into general release March 8th.
Composed of vintage footage from the launchpad at Cape Kennedy in Florida, Mission Control in Houston and inside the spacecraft itself, “Apollo 11” covers, in ninety-three astonishing minutes, the nine days from the movement of the Saturn V to the launchpad until Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins splashed down in the Pacific over a week later.
Director Todd Douglas Miller (“Dinosaur 13”) first began work on the documentary in late 2016, which began with combing through the vintage 16- and 35mm footage shot in July 1969 in and around the NASA scientists, as well as of spectators watching the takeoff from nearby.
“We started to put everything into a timeline that basically spanned nine days,” Miller said Wednesday during a sit-down interview in Washington, D.C., the day after an IMAX showing of “Apollo 11” at the National Air and Space Museum. “It was looking at every single frame of footage, every still photograph, every audio that we had.”
“Even all the television [footage], we wanted to see it all from the networks’ [perspective]. What things hadn’t been told before, and also, just from an editing standpoint, to see what was available to tell the story.”
“Apollo 11” is not so much a documentary as cinema vérité of the purest order. There is no narration; technicians, scientists, engineers and the astronauts themselves are seen going about their million tasks in amazing footage that has been so sparklingly restored that, but for the telltale late-sixties clothes and cars, could have been made last year.
Miller said that much of the footage taken inside NASA during the mission has never been seen before by the greater public.
“[They] had these wonderful public affairs officers who sat next to the flight directors. I knew that we could utilize [them] for the most part as narration” in lieu of a famous actor doing the voiceover, Miller said. “They were keeping the public informed in real time of exactly what was happening. And I always thought they were a wonderful [way] to explain some of the technical jargon and kind of ‘dumb it down’ for people like me in a digestible way.”
One of the most difficult puzzle pieces for Miller and his crew was syncing up the recorded audio from the headsets worn by dozens of NASA personnel with the old film footage itself—much of which was made without sound.
“I was initially hesitant because I knew how much work was going to go into it,” Miller said. “I was trying to help sync up a lot of this audio, and I found out very quickly that I was a neophyte.”
Fortunately for Miller, he had the services of Stephen Slater, who acted as “archive producer” on the film. Slater expertly paired up the silent footage with Mission Control audio from the Apollo 11 voyage so that each person’s lips moved in the film in time with the recorded headset audio.
“There is no one on the planet that is doing it—just Stephen,” Miller said. “It’s a maddening process and so tedious and time-consuming. But it was integral.”
Miller employs split screen frequently throughout “Apollo 11,” which allows the viewer to behold both the situation in space as well as back on the ground at the brain center in Houston. When asked if this was done on purpose given that Woodstock, which happened just weeks after the Apollo 11 mission, became a documentary in which split screen was also employed, Miller says the technique was in fact utilized by many films of the era.
“I try to be a student of cinema, certainly of editors,” Miller said. “[Martin] Scorsese’s work as an editor on ‘Woodstock’ was amazing. But more, if you watch any of the old space films, they utilize split screen a lot to tell parallel stories happening at the same time. So I’ve always found split screen an effective way to do that.
“I always knew one thing I really wanted to do was highlight all the individual flight controllers,” he said of the sequence in which flight director Gene Kranz is seen seeking the all-clear from the various stations inside Mission Control. “An effective way to do it [was] with split screens.”
Despite the wealth of footage of the astronauts inside their spacecraft and personnel on the ground, very little film exists of the Apollo’s actual flight between the Earth and moon and back. To fill in the gaps, as well as simplify complex astrophysics for the lay viewer, Miller resorted to elementary animation to detail how the various stages of the spacecraft would separate from one another and how the lunar module would get into orbit around the moon before the Eagle itself separated for the surface.
“The fact that we could show things like the passive thermal control maneuver, the way in which the spacecraft was articulated on its way to the moon, [and in] exactly what direction it turned when they were doing docking” made the case for the animation, Miller said, adding that it was always important to him that the audience have as accurate a notion as possible of where the astronauts were along their nine-day journey.
Miller said the animation style was inspired by another previous space documentary called “Moonwalk One.” He created some basic animation as a “temp track” until he and his collaborators could create something better.
“We never really got anything back that we really liked,” he said, adding his original idea wound up being the finished product. “I wanted more of a minimalist approach, and that was always the mantra throughout the entire film: If we were going to show any kind of graphical reinforcement, whether it was titles or animations…you only get what you need to know, whether it’s velocity graphics, altitudes” etc.
“And I wanted my mom to understand it too,” he said with a smile.
Composer Matt Morton, Miller’s frequent collaborator, has provided an enervating score for “Apollo 11.” But rather than triumphal themes to herald a new era in the history of mankind, Morton’s score is muted and often in minor key, which creates a sense of anxiety—perhaps appropriate given that thousands of decisions and millions of moving parts were required to get the astronauts safely to the moon and back.
Miller said that Morton used only instruments available in 1969, including going out and purchasing a contemporary synthesizer.
“You think ‘synthesizer’ and your mind automatically goes to electronic,” Miller said, “but it’s a living, breathing thing. Air travels through this contraption and creates this soundscape.”
Miller said he listened to Morton’s early compositions while editing, which he said informed the overall timbre of “Apollo 11.”
“It was a wonderful way to work from an editing standpoint: I didn’t have to go and get temp music; I could just use my musical score that he made ahead of time,” Miller said.
When asked what he might say to conspiracy theorists who insist the entire moon landing was somehow faked, Miller points to the fact that hundreds of thousands of people worked on the mission, yet none have come forward with claims of fraud.
“You can whip out your telescope, you can look at the lunar module” still on the moon’s surface, Miller said. “We know [if you] put two people in a room, they can’t keep a secret, let alone an entire nation.”
While Miller describes the conspiracy theory as “water off the duck’s back,” he said he nonetheless did keep his eyes out in the footage for Stanley Kubrick, whose “2001: A Space Odyssey” came out the year prior to Apollo 11’s own odyssey.
“Apollo 11” was produced in conjunction with CNN, with whom Miller worked on “Dinosaur 13.” The film is being distributed through Neon. Miller describes putting the doc together as “the joy of my life” and says collective projects of exploration such as the Apollo missions give him some hope for humanity’s future.
When asked what he might conceivably do next, Miller says it will certainly be another large-screen film.
“We’re invested,” he said. “We developed a really good working process with shooting on film and developing amazing material like this.
“We’ve got the team in place, so we’re looking forward to future projects.”
WATCH THE “APOLLO 11” TRAILER