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Using Footage of the Apollo 11 Mission, This Director Reconstructed the Moon Landing for IMAX

Apollo 11 mobile
Courtesy of CNN Films

Screenshot 2019 01 07 10.55.01
March 14, 2019

Marketing teams can be hyperbolic. Whether a poster or a YouTube pre-roll ad, they will often exaggerate their message, claiming that you’ve “never seen this before” just to draw you in. But not all things require melodramatic marketing pitches, especially something as sensational as Apollo 11’s moon landing.

 

At the time, the cosmic watershed was only observable through limited means—you either tuned in via a crackly television broadcast in 1969, or attended the launch in person at Cape Canaveral. Beyond director Theo Kamecke’s doc Moonwalk One and monochrome clips at your local science museum, there isn’t much cinematic material on the storied launch that the public can access. Director Todd Douglas Miller sought to change that. He decided he would show the entire journey on a 72-foot IMAX screen in his new documentary film, Apollo 11.

 

Sifting through 11,000 hours of Mission Control audio, 16-millimeter and 35-millimeter films, and 177 previously undiscovered rolls of 65-millimeter Panavision film footage of the vessel’s launch (stored outside of D.C. at the National Archives Facility), Miller and his team have torn a wormhole in the space-time continuum for viewers to travel back to launch day in July 1969, transforming history into a 93-minute spectacle.

 

Years in the making, Miller started the project during the filming of his last feature, Dinosaur 13. He worked with archivist Stephen Slater—a space-history superfan—to sync the audio to the picture, an incredible feat. The hard-earned results will fascinate even the most uninterested viewer. Unmarred by talking heads or voiceovers, the minimal graphics and film’s score, created by a Moog 1968 reissued synthesizer, comes together to create a sonic and aesthetic experience that feels authentic to the core. Here, Miller explains how he rebuilt an iconic moment in American history.

The History

A lot the footage that ended up in our film was a direct product of some of the great cinematography that they did on Moonwalk One in and around the launch, during recovery and in mission control. The director on that was Theo Kamecke. He hired two really great cinematographers. One of the guys was Urs Furrer. They called him “The Bear.” He used to handhold these giant large-format cameras. We certainly owe those guys a lot for the gift that they gave us, which was this footage. But that company, Francis Thompson Inc., had been shooting large-format films for the better half of a decade leading up to Apollo 11.

Astronaut in article
Courtesy of CNN Films

The Discovery

It was always my intention to use the highest-quality imagery that was out there, whether that was film footage, the TV transmissions, both broadcasts—anything from the command module. And then also all the available audio. We worked with NASA National Archives.

 

Several months into the project, we got an email from our supervisory archivist [Stpehen Slater] that there was this discovery of a collection of large-format reels, and there wasn't just one or two, but there appeared to be over a hundred of them, and we didn't really know what was on them.

 

When we first saw the first images, we were just as shocked as what audiences are now when they see it. It wasn't just that: We were also given access to over 11,000 hours of Mission Control specific audio that had never been heard before. So you have to say that started a very long process of not only getting the materials for the film, but also archiving and curating these materials and working together with National Archives to preserve all of it.

rocket in article
Courtesy of CNN Films

The Restoration

We had a dedicated software guy and dedicated hardware guy. Every reel was unique. But what's even more unique about the particular scanner [we used to scan the footage] is that unlike telephony as it was known in the past, nothing actually touches the negative of the film. The film itself rides on a cushion of air, so we could basically use any gauge of large-format film: 35mm, 16mm, 8mm. Didn't matter. We weren't concerned with any mechanics.

 

It was a lot more economical and quicker to work with a scanner like this. But that was only half the battle. We also had to deal with [digital] storage solutions—the data rates were quite large that were coming off the scanner. So the guys had to come up with elaborate workflow solutions to be able to handle it, so I could get an edit back to them and then they could really get in there and do the restoration work, the magic on the material.

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