A man sips a beer, eyeing the horizon from a Florida parking lot. Nasa techs sit in a lobby as headlines blare of Ted Kennedy’s car crash in Chappaquiddick. They’re two of the many striking details – ordinary, recognizable moments amid one of humankind’s most extraordinary achievements – restored to full vitality in Apollo 11, an all-primary source documentary, meticulously restored. The 93-minute documentary, released for a limited time in the US on IMAX before a wider release, and to be shown in museums later this year, captures the first moon mission and its spectators in the visceral, wide-lens color of cinema epics – an achievement in historical preservation that hinged on the discovery of long-unopened boxes idling in archives.
Last month, the film premiered to enthused acclaim at Sundance, following on from a banner year for documentaries from the recently Oscar-anointed Free Solo to fellow box office hits RBG, Three Identical Strangers and Won’t You Be My Neighbor. Apollo 11 is set to continue the trend but it is distinguished, however, by its stark commitment to the historical record: the film is made up entirely of restored footage and audio from the historic 11 mission in July 1969.
It’s a far cry from three years ago, when much of the record from Apollo 11 remained analog or boxed away. At the time, director Todd Douglas Miller, fresh off The Last Steps, a short about Apollo 17, wasn’t looking to dive back into the heavily mythologized missions to the moon. When Stephen Slater, a Britain-based independent archivist who has peerlessly synced existing 16mm Mission Control footage with separate audio recordings, approached Miller about creating a project to honor Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary this year, Miller balked. “I was like, ‘No. Not happening. I’m all spaced out right now’,” he said to the Guardian. “But it became addictive.”
Miller and his team, including producing partner Tom Petersen, began with Apollo 11 footage they and Slater had already gathered for other projects. Between other work, the team and post-production office Final Frame tinkered with it, “just kind of constructing it with nothing more than, ‘Could we do this?’ We knew it was basically going to be an art film, but could we make it something that would be compelling?” Miller said of this period in late 2016.
The answer, with significant help from Nasa and the National Archives, was a resounding yes, especially once Miller’s request for all Apollo 11 archival material unearthed long-forgotten, large format, 70mm footage that captured the launch day in Hollywood-level rich detail.
“The reels had been sitting there untouched, labeled ‘Apollo 11’ with some dates but nobody even knew what was on them,” said Miller of the discovery. Dan Rooney, the supervisory archivist for the National Archives’ Motion Picture, Sound, and Video branch knew of the existence of 65mm and 70mm Apollo-related footage – leftovers from Nasa promotional videos and a 1972 movie called Moonwalk One, shot in the same level of wide detail as 60s epics like Cleopatra – but didn’t know what they held.
Some of the treasures, beautifully caught: backroom footage of Nasa staff preparing a nervous yet genial Neil Armstrong in his space suit; a drowsy woman atop an old car, parked early to watch lift-off; the fiery trail of Apollo 11 reflected in a woman’s oversize, mod shades.
Miller said the process quickly snowballed into a historical preservation project to transfer all the large format, 16mm and 35mm film into digital. “The way to do it is to do it all. If you’re going to do one, you might as well do it all,” he said. In order to work around the clock, the team set up shop at a post-production studio, Final Frame, in New York City, and enlisted climate-control vans to safely transport the archival film back and forth from DC. “We just felt an immense responsibility to curate all the materials and make sure that they of course got back to their homes in a timely fashion,” Miller said.
Miller worked with Nasa’s chief historian, Bill Barry, as well as Rooney and volunteers who contributed their own archival efforts as word of the ambitious project spread through the space enthusiast community.
“It felt like kind of a passing of a baton,” said Miller. “It was a real group effort to preserve materials that they had worked on decades ago.”
Ultimately, Miller and his team sifted through material spanning nine days, including over 11,000 hours of previously uncatalogued audio provided from Nasa’s troves. Paring down that real-time journey – every audio and video snippet, often overlapping, from the Apollo 11 mission – into a coherent, well-paced feature feels intimidating in retrospect, Miller said. At the time, it was immersive work. “We all felt just a huge responsibility to get it right,” he said, recognizing that “our work was informing the historical record itself”.
For example, as a federal agency, Nasa has long relied on volunteers in its preservation efforts; most of the existing transcriptions were old volunteer copies. Miller’s cataloguing helped correct discrepancies. “Really the proudest moment for me in working on the film was being able to just contribute in a very scientific way — ‘this guy didn’t say that, it was this guy’, or, ‘that didn’t take 12 seconds, it took 13 seconds’.”
The cooperative effort – archivists, drivers, production and post-production – is a small reflection of the massive coordination behind the real Apollo 11. “Close to 400,000 people worked on [Apollo 11], spread across over 20,000 companies; it was just an immense operation,” said Miller. And in the context of the late 60s – as the Vietnam War expanded into a tragic morass, fresh off the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy – “certainly there are parallels to [today]”.
Miller said he’s watched the film at every screening. “[Each time] I see things that I’ve never seen before, and I’ve been looking at it for years,” he said. Ultimately, the historical record testifies to Apollo 11 as “one of most, if not the greatest, example of when a government could actually come together and do something that inspires the world”.
Looking back on the preservation process, Miller sees a smaller scale marvel of teamwork. “I’m just incredibly proud of everybody who worked on it, from the audio guys to the people who transported [the material], the drivers … Hopefully this film proves that when a great many people come together, they can do something good.”