“Apollo 11” Takes a Fresh Look at the First Moon Landing

In the new documentary “Apollo 11,” director Todd Douglas Miller uses rarely-seen archival footage to make the lunar mission feel vivid, tense, and recent.

The Apollo 11 crew boards the van for the launchpad, July 16, 1969. (Neon/CNN Films)
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The new documentary Apollo 11 doesn’t tell space buffs anything they didn’t already know, but it certainly shows them things they’ve never seen. There’s no omniscient narrator, no present-day talking heads opining about the historical import of the old footage we’re seeing. The 93-minute film relates the story of the moon mission’s launch, landing on the lunar surface, and return to Earth solely through imagery and sound painstakingly sourced from the Apollo era.

While director and editor Todd Douglas Miller has done a masterful job of shaping a daunting amount of material into a tense and cohesive narrative, the movie’s most glorious selling point is the surprising sensuousness of the footage itself, much of which has never before been released to the public. During the Apollo program a crew supervised by film editor Theo Kamecke shot dozens of reels of the Apollo launches and the earthbound circuses surrounding them in the ultra-high-resolution Todd A-O 70 millimeter format—part of a deal between NASA and MGM Studios to make a feature documentary on the moon shot for theatrical release in the early 1970s. NASA used the Todd A-O format to shoot a lot of their in-house footage from the period, too.

The Saturn V rocket carrying Apollo 11 blasts off from Kennedy Space Center, July 16, 1969. (Neon/CNN Films)

Kamecke used some of his material for a now-obscure 1972 release called Moonwalk One that fell victim to the public’s shockingly fast dropoff in interest in subsequent missions after Apollo 11. The leftovers were filed away at the Motion Picture, Sound, and Video branch of the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland. Which is where this breathtakingly beautiful footage documenting one of the greatest achievements in human history sat unseen for more than four decades. Not until Miller asked NARA archivist Dan Rooney what he had on hand from Apollo missions was the imagery that now forms the core of Miller’s electrifying new movie uncovered.

Air & Space / Smithsonian spoke with Miller by phone in New York City the week before he came to Washington, D.C. to open Apollo 11 at the Lockheed Martin Imax Theatre at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Lunar Module pilot Buzz Aldrin had more pressing tasks on his mind than turning the camera on before liftoff. (Neon/CNN Films)

Air & Space: You had agreed to make this film before you knew about those 165 reels of 65 millimeter film from the Apollo era. Didn’t that discovery come after you had already taken on a commission to make a documentary about Apollo 11?

Miller: That’s correct. Initially the plan was to scan all 16 and 35 [millimeter film] that was available and then any other assets: audio, TV, anything. Anything the various NASA facilities and certainly the National Archives had in the vaults. It wasn’t until we started researching what exactly was available which happened a couple summers ago. We sent our archive producer Steven Slater, who is based in the UK, to College Park. And he worked with the archive at NARA. And it was shortly after that trip that we knew about the existence of the 65 millimeter collection. Once word got out that we had developed a prototype scanner to deal with that, some of the various other NASA facilities, namely Marshall, had some 70 millimeter [film] that we also scanned for them.

You had to develop a new scanner for the 70 milimeter film?

Yeah. There wasn’t really any good technology out there to do a telecine or any kind of scanning. We got it in 16k resolution.

I read that great Vanity Fair feature about your movie back in December, which talked about how some of this footage was used—albeit in a very different way than you used it—in a documentary called Moonwalk One, a movie obscure enough that I had never heard of it. Did you know that movie before you decided to make Apollo 11? Obviously, there was a huge amount of footage for you to cull from, but you were you wary of trying to create a new film from some of the same materials?

Oh yes, Moonwalk One is one of my all-time favorites. It’s become a cult classic among space nerds. I’m of the mind that if I’m going to make a film about a subject, I want to devour everything there is to know about it. Not only reading every biography—Michael Collins’ book Carrying the Fire, for instance, certainly had a big impact on me and on this film. There was another film that was made [in 1968] called Bridge to Space that was really great. And [Al Reinert’s 1989 documentary] For All Mankind, obviously. I love them all for various reasons.

Moonwalk One in particular is an anomaly in that the actual production history of it involves a company run by Francis Thompson. [Thompson, who died in 2003, was a pioneer in the field of large-format and multiscreen films that were the clear precursor to the modern IMAX format.] I’m just an absolute fan of large-format films from the ’50s and ’60s. These guys really experimented with fractured narrative. It was a lot of films that were played at expos and special venues. Cinerama: Three cameras, three production screens. Francis himself directed a film called To Be Alive! that plays out the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens and that movie was edited by Kamecke. It was shown in Cinerama, but they did a cut-down into 65 millimeter and it won an Academy Award. The interesting thing about Moonwalk One was that it was a coproduction between NASA and MGM. MGM backed out about a year into preproduction and Francis took another job but he recommended Theo to direct Moonwalk One.

[Kamecke] retired from filmmaking and became a sculptor in upstate New York. And he passed away [in May 2017] as we were making the film. I dedicated Apollo 11 to him and to Al Reinert.

Far from home. (Neon/CNN Films)

It’s just astonishing that footage of this quality—and historical import, obviously—was unseen for so long.

What’s interesting is the actual Panavision collection of large format actually predates Apollo 11 and the Moonwalk One guys by years. NASA, through Technicolor down at the Cape, had a couple of cameras, old Mitchell 65 cameras, and they were documenting with these cameras as early as Gemini. Certainly all the [early] Apollo missions—8, 9, 10—all had large format coverage. It was almost like a dress rehearsal. A lot of the same shots that you see in our film from Apollo 11, there are very similar shots [from] the other missions and they just screwed them up. But they nailed it on 11, which was great.

The cool thing about Moonwalk One was they had two cinematographers. One was this guy, Urs Furrer, they brought in for the day of the launch. They called him “The Bear.” And he would hand-hold this giant Mitchell camera 45 years before [director Christopher Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema] were doing that on things like Dunkirk and Interstellar.

Spectators await the Apollo 11 launch in Florida, July 16, 1969. (Neon/CNN Films)

The consensus among the part of the Air & Space staff that has seen Apollo 11 and that collectively has a strong familiarity with most of the Apollo footage that has been released over the decades is that there’s just an astonishing variety of new material in your movie. And you just said that all the Apollo missions were filmed in high quality. Did you give yourself license to use film from the other Apollo missions, or is everything we see in Apollo 11 from Apollo 11?

We did use some shots from other missions. We were very lucky to have Mike [Collins] and Buzz [Aldrin] and Neil [Armstrong's] sons Rick and Mark all involved very early. They were so gracious with their time, and with me pestering them with questions. “Did we get it right? Did it look like this?” This is a roundabout way of answering your question, but something Neil talked about all the time—and he said this at [the National Air and Space Museum] on the 40th anniversary of the mission—when he was asked about the most indelible moment of the mission, he said it wasn’t the first step, or landing, or the launch. It was going to the moon and seeing the moon with a solar corona and having it have this sort of 3D look about it. And I asked Buzz about it. We showed him some shots we were thinking about using from some of the other Apollo missions. He was like, yeah that’s it. That’s exactly right. Same thing with Mike. They all remember that.

I’d read about that for years, and I’ve wondered why I’ve never seen it portrayed in either a fiction or nonfiction film. So we used that from another mission. And then probably the most important one was the TLI sequence, the trans-lunar injection. They light the candle and they’re going to the moon after orbiting the earth for a couple revolutions. All the astronauts talk about this; it’s one [of the] beautiful scenes. Nine times out of ten they TLI-ed right into a sunrise. It’s this amazing moment. So we just happened to find on Apollo 9 that they actually shot that. And it just looked amazing, the sunrise over the earth. So the minute we saw that, again, I said “Buzz? Mike? Is this what it looked like?” So the TLI is from Apollo 9.

The re-entry sequence is taken from an unmanned mission. That was actually an idea that we had pretty early on, because the 11 one is not all that great. And Buzz forgot to turn on the onboard audio, by his own admission. [Laughs.] So as an homage to all the other Apollo missions, we have a collage of everyone’s voice and put it all in there during their re-entry, predominantly on 17, because they said some really great stuff and it’s accurate to a T on when it happened.

One of the things that we’re doing is documenting all this in a production journal. Because it is really important to the space community. I talk endlessly with Al Reinert about this because he got blasted by the space community about For All Mankind, for using composite shots from other missions. It’s polarizing to some people, and we want to be very transparent about why we did it. Because Apollo 11—it wasn’t their mission to document everything. That was for 10 and some of the other missions. [The crew of Apollo 11] were there to land and come home safely.

What’s really great is that Buzz shot one of the greatest landing sequences of all the Apollo missions. And again, he forgot to turn on the camera during lunar liftoff. [Laughs.] So at the Sundance Film Festival, Rick Armstrong said, “Why didn’t you show the flag bending over?” And I said, “Because that’s from Apollo 14.” There’s a situation where I didn’t want to do a composite. Everybody thinks that the flag fell over on 11 when it’s actually from 14. And I think it’s a cool part of the historical record that Buzz forgot to turn the camera on. [Laughs.]

Mike Collins shot that footage of the lunar module coming up from the surface of the moon?

Yes! And I think that is one of the greatest things any human being has ever shot in all of cinema. And we show it as an unbroken shot, just like he shot it.

There’s definitely an entire thing we’re putting together on not only the research but also our decisions to use or not use certain things.

Neil Armstrong suits up. (Neon/CNN Films)

Was there anything you were hoping to discover in all those reels of film from NARA or from Marshall there and you just couldn’t find?

Stanley Kubrick hiding in a corner somewhere.

Apollo 11 is now playing at the Smithsonians National Air and Space Museums Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Centers Airbus IMAX Theater, and at cinemas nationwide.

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