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Inside the Making of the Mind-Blowing ‘Apollo 11’ Doc

Director Todd Douglas Miller and archivist Dan Rooney on unearthing rare footage of the historic space mission that sets a new course for doc filmmaking

apollo 11

Mike Collins, left, gets suited up in the documentary 'Apollo 11.'

CNN Films

Todd Douglas Miller knew that, when it comes to making documentaries — like 2014’s T-Rex fossil hunt Dinosaur 13 — things can get a little stressful. Still, this new project he had been working on was something else entirely. Sitting in an office in New York City last year, the filmmaker would regularly await the arrival of one of many climate-controlled trucks being driven up from College Park, Maryland. The two drivers were instructed not to stop — and even then, only if they had to switch seats. Miller would regularly check traffic conditions, especially when some of the drives took longer than he hoped. “That was the most nerve-wracking part,” he says. “A lot of sleepless nights.”

Then again, it’s easy to understand why Miller was apprehensive. Inside those trucks were cartons crammed with unreleased, one-of-a-kind, five-decade-old film footage of Apollo 11, the 1969 mission that first saw man land — and stomp around on — the moon. That footage, along with similarly never-heard hours of audio, would eventually be pieced together to form the director’s exuberantly greeted new portrait of the event, Apollo 11.

The real-life equivalent to last year’s biopic First Man, the movie (which opened for a one-week-only IMAX run on Friday and goes wide on March 8th), tells the story of that historic first mission from preflight to victory lap. On paper, it sounds routine: footage of astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins being prepped for launch, the sight of clean-cut-Woodstock crowds gathering in nearby parking lots to watch, shots from inside the capsule as the astronauts orbited, and landed on, the moon.

But thanks to the intimate, wide-screen format on which it was originally shot, Apollo 11 offers a new, large-format window into those nine historic days. You won’t find any talking heads weighing in on the mission, nor are there any new interviews with survivors Aldrin or Collins. It’s just 93 minutes of narrative with bits of newly added electronic music. “No big, bombastic scores, no narration — it’s all been done before,” Miller says. “It had become a parody of itself. I wanted to let the footage speak for itself.”

Apollo 11 originated with the filmmaker’s interest in a project about the last Apollo mission, 17. In search of better-quality footage than had been publicly seen, he reached out to NASA and the National Archives in spring 2017. Some 11 clips were used in a little-seen 1972 doc, Moonwalk One, but most of it — 279 reels, much of it large-format 65 mm — sat in their original metal canisters at a National Archives storage facility in College Park. Thanks to climate-controlled rooms, the footage appeared to be in good condition, but discerning what was on those government-shot reels was a challenge. “We were initially confused about some of the markings,” says Dan Rooney, head archivist at the National Archives. “Some would just say ‘Apollo 11.’ There were limited instances of another word on the can, like ‘Apollo 11 recovery.’ They were not well described.” At NASA offices in Houston, Miller also unearthed nearly 20,000 hours of audio from Mission Control and inside the capsule, capturing both the sounds of the technicians and the astronauts as they toiled away, gossiped and worked through problems. Now they just had to overcome the hurdle of actually digitizing footage that only existed on old reels.

Enter the trucks. The New York post-production facility Final Frame was hired to scan the footage and digitally convert it. Until then, no one had actually seen the footage — just the raw film. Finally, Miller, Rooney and their team gathered in a screening room to get a sense of what they had and saw, to their amazement, sharp footage of the Saturn V rocket (carrying the Apollo spacecraft) rolling down a highway toward the launch pad. “We were all kind of stunned,” says Rooney. “Usually when you’re looking at archival material, you’re seeing blemishes or imperfections in the images. I don’t think I saw any. We realized, ‘Okay, we need to fully pursue this.’ ”

The painstaking results are evident throughout the movie, from shockingly crisp footage of the crowds (try to spot LBJ, Isaac Asimov and Johnny Carson among them) to previously unseen alternate clips, shot by Aldrin, of the moment Armstrong set his feet down on the moon’s granular surface. The grainy quality of that footage can be attributed, Miller says, to “dust particles” still found in the camera. But the footage of Armstrong bobbing on the surface of the moon (some of it never seen before) is still haunting. “There’s a reason,” the directorsays, “that Aldrin and Armstrong are honorary members of the American Society of Cinematographers.”

What also impressed Miller were the more intimate, human-scale moments, like film of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins being suited up in their hazmat-like cocoons for the voyage. “Two days earlier, they did a dry run and you see them joking around and being jovial,” he says. “When you see them on the lift-off day, you can now clearly see their faces, how the weight of the world is on them about what they’re about to do. It was so striking. It’s chilling.”

Has viewing all the footage vanquished from Miller’s mind any of the conspiracy theories about faked landings and suspicious flags that lard YouTube? “We were hoping we would find something like that — a little stage somewhere,” he jokes. “But we didn’t. Having eyeballed the originals [footage], I don’t put a lot of weight into it. I actually love those stories about Aldrin punching people who bring it up.”

For Miller, Apollo 11 also has a higher purpose beyond blowing moviegoers’ minds. “It shows that people can accomplish something great together,” Miller says. “We got to spread our wings and go out there. That’s what I hope people will take away, that we can do something like this again if we have the will. Do we? That’s the question.”

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