As captivating as Miller’s IMAX footage is, what truly distinguishes Apollo 11 is its audio archives. Ranging from back-room chitchat to the haunting Moog-infused score, Apollo 11 highlights just how many technicians and flight control teams were necessary to send three brave men on an ambitious journey around our moon and back safely.
As in Asif Kapadia’s Senna and Amy, this documentary uses archive footage to tell its narrative without on-screen narration or other forms of distraction.
What’s the deal?
As cinema becomes more and more CGI-driven, it can be easy to forget that documentaries about some of history’s greatest space missions could once be made with such breathtaking, high-definition footage. Apollo 11 filmmakers managed this feat thanks to their collection of archive footage that had been painstakingly restored using techniques similar to what can be found on Criterion Collection releases.
The resultant film is an engaging experience that should leave audiences breathless. Beginning with an impressive opening shot depicting a Saturn V rocket crawler being transported onto its pad by crawler transporter — recalling scenes from Star Wars but with machinery weightier and grander than that rendered with modern computer graphics — Miller and his crew craft an experience which feels just as monumental today as it did 50 years ago.
To achieve such an astounding look, they relied primarily on archive footage available to them – thanks to the National Archives’ generous policy allowing producers to use NASA resource materials in films, they had access to some incredible shots. Slater also utilized his longstanding work syncing NASA’s silent 16mm archive with air-to-ground flight loop audio for maximum impact – creating an extraordinary sense of connection between mission control engineers and astronauts on Earth that is both breathtaking and deeply moving.
No doubt about it: this film’s main draw is its stunningly restored 65mm film. It looks absolutely beautiful on an IMAX screen, while sound restoration adds another level to its experience. Archival clips spanning from rocket launch to landing on Moon can be powerful when combined with backroom dialogue and astronaut voice-over narrations.
One complaint I had with the original HD release of this movie was its resolution; unlike most modern movies that use 2K for postproduction and then upsample to 4K for cinematic and home video releases, this film had scan resolutions between 8K-16K – an unfortunate choice considering this is an outstanding cinematic experience and Ultra HD should offer its full experience.
What’s the story?
Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11, released earlier this month to rave reviews at its debut screening in IMAX theaters, received 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, and is now playing nationwide in cinemas across the United States. A stunning time capsule of footage captured during its original mission 50 years ago and all that went into ensuring it would remain available to future generations – it truly stands as testament to both their accomplishment and preservation efforts.
The movie begins with stunning images of NASA’s crawler transporter carrying the Saturn V rocket to its launch pad and carrying astronauts safely through to space, an extraordinary sight indeed. Once launch day comes around and astronauts begin blasting off into space you realize you are witnessing something truly monumental. Long tracking shots of the command module docking with service and lunar modules are even more striking. Hollywood dramatizations of space travel often depict this scene, with the “passive thermal control” alarm sounding in their cabin–though here it doesn’t ring out directly; instead it is broadcast over their helmeted earpieces as warning. Miller and his team used meticulous detective work in editing of archival footage; pairing audio from recorded NASA communications with silent 16mm images from mission control room to complete this feat of editing.
Many of the other archival footage featured in the film is equally striking. Miller and his team scoured through National Archives’ vast holdings of NASA films for available material to digitize on a custom scanner capable of 8K resolution, producing one of the highest quality collections of Apollo 11 footage available digitally.
Matt Morton utilized an impressive collection of musical instruments and effects–ranging from a Moog modular synthesizer IIIc to a Binson Echorec 2 (tube echo), all the way to a Mellotron (an early keyboard sampler used by bands such as The Beatles and Led Zeppelin)–to compose an orchestral score that immersed audiences into an emotive mood. No stranger to experimentation, Morton has never created such a beautiful and dynamic score as this.
What’s the point?
Visually, Apollo 11 65mm is breathtaking to experience in an IMAX theater. From initial shots of NASA’s crawler transporter transporting the massive Saturn V rocket to its pad or tracking shots showing it ascend into a crisp blue sky – everything about this film is impressive and beautiful – not even to mention how all back-room loops and mission control chatter were restored and integrated into it!
Instead of Brian Eno’s expansive 1989 documentary For All Mankind, which covered all facets of Apollo program including its landing and was set to an atmospheric soundtrack by Todd Douglas Miller’s film debuting at Sundance this year and now enjoying limited theatrical release with 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Miller provides us with an unprecedented glimpse into witnessing humankind’s greatest technological feat unfold in real time.
The most impressive aspect of Apollo 11 65mm is its large amount of brand new footage, some of which is completely unprecedented. NASA staff filmed every aspect of training, assembly and testing as well as rolling it to launch pad; this footage had originally been intended for Project Apollo (an unproduced 1970s movie), but found its way into Apollo 11 65mm instead.
Atmospheric sounds from Walter Cronkite’s narration are included as are conversations among astronauts and control room. Together, this provides us with an immersive window into this iconic mission.
But that wasn’t all; while working on the film, one of its producers discovered an unprocessed reel of audio that revealed much about each individual involved, including an excerpt of an LP by The Who that astronaut Neil Armstrong allegedly played while flying in spacecraft.
What’s the conclusion?
There’s something exciting and magical about discovering that an entire town or region of them exists! I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a night than by joining my beloved friends at this extraordinary party! Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11 documentary is an essential viewing for those interested in space exploration or simply seeking an epic cinematic history experience like no other. Spanning 93 minutes, it pushes technical limits of large format filming as well as archive material to its limits. Filmed entirely on 65mm with audio left uncatalogued for decades, this historical-documentary-style movie relies solely on archive footage with no voiceover narration. Miller spent hours combing through never-seen 65mm archival footage and old radio recordings to compile this film, which tells the full story of this mission – from its arrival at launch pad to astronaut bio-isolation following landing.
The resulting footage is truly spectacular. IMAX-sized images often dazzle viewers, drawing them right into the moment whether it be gazing upon a Saturn V rocket climbing its crawler to launch pad or seeing Neil Armstrong nervously sweaty face as he suits up for spacewalk. As soon as Mission Control workers crunching numbers on calculators come onto screen, their faces become humanized again as this movie reminds us it took more than just astronauts to bring this mission into being.
As is often the case with archived footage, its clarity can be breathtaking. This recently discovered 65mm film exudes detail at every turn – from rocket tracks leading up to launch site to expansive views of Cape Kennedy and spaceship itself; computer monitors, writing on papers, clothing creases and skin textures can all be clearly seen; subtle on-screen text provides additional context while Matt Morton’s soundtrack adds additional insight.
The result is a powerful, intimate documentary that immerses you directly into one of humanity’s greatest milestones. This film serves as an invaluable counter to those who claim that Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landings, and should be watched by anyone who believes humanity can achieve anything when put its mind to it.