Shortly before he died, the first man to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong, said that when people look back on the Apollo moon landings, it’ll almost be like ancient history. But after seeing the documentary Apollo 11, you’ll go home feeling the exact opposite. To create such a breathtaking experience, the filmmakers had to create a new film scanner to capture real of 50 year old 65mm film in 8K … and it looks like it was just shot yesterday.
“Certainly, being a fan of the large-format films of the ’50s and ’60s that were told in the direct-cinema style, that’s what I wanted to do with Apollo 11.” – Todd Douglas Miller
The documentary, which opened everywhere last week, shows the mission of Apollo 11, as it happened, from beginning to end. Produced Neon Films in cooperation with CNN Films and directed by Todd Douglas Miller, the documentary was made possible thanks to the hard work that the National Archives had done in preserving reels of never before seen documentary footage, archival material, audio loops, and more. Literally tens of thousands of hours of uncataloged footage in various other formats from audio only, to 35mm, 16mm even very early video represented petabytes of data, when it was finally transferred.
“We were all dumbstruck immediately at how beautiful the cinematography was.”
The 65 mm, and some 70mm footage that served as the source material for the film, was viewed by the production team, and immediately they saw it so well preserved, that when presented on screen, it looked like it was recently shot and they were watching dailies. Miller knew watching the sudden bursts of 3-4 seconds of scenes preparing for the launch, that he had to use the footage as the centerpiece of the film. But they would have to create a brand new film scanning workflow to image the footage in 8K and 16K resolution.
That’s where Will Cox of the post production house Film Frame came in. Cox wanted to not only scan the footage at the best possible resolution, he wanted to be sure that any future filmmakers would never have to scan the aging film again in order to use it as source footage. So they literally created a brand new 8K and 16K film scanner and workflow to achieving the goal. “We were running the most important film on the world on a scanner that was a prototype,” Cox said. “It was inspiring and terrifying.”
Miller added that the detail in the footage, captured the heavy weight of history that was landing on the shoulders of astronauts Neil Armstrong, Mike Collins and Buzz Aldrin as they prepared for launch. “What really got me was the emotion on their faces,” Miller said. “You could see the weight of what they were about to do, in a way I had never seen before. That’s when I knew we had something.”
I have to say that the filmmakers are right. This film was, quite literally, 50 years in the making, not only from the perspective that it captures the heartbeat of the entire 9 day mission, including the historic “giant leap for mankind,” but it does it in such a way that the audience doesn’t watch the film, they experience it. I just recently returned from a vacation in Florida, where I visited NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, and was standing in many of the rooms depicted in the film Apollo 11, especially the launch control room.
And then see it as it was back then, it was like I was literally there. That’s how good the footage is. Add to that the stunning sound and immersive quality of watching it in IMAX, and well, it was like I was eight years old all over again. And I didn’t need any gimmicks like 3D or virtual reality. Just a great image, and some incredible story telling.
If you haven’t seen the Apollo 11, as a filmmaker you are missing out on a real treat. This is how a documentary should be made. As a space history fan, if you miss Apollo 11, well, you’re committing sacrilege.