How the 'Apollo 11' Documentary Pulled Off a Feat as Incredible as NASA's

A movie in 2019 makes the 1969 Moon landing look like it happened yesterday.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to preserve movies, but when it came to the reels documenting the historic Apollo 11 Moon landing, that’s exactly what happened.

In Todd Douglas Miller’s new dream-like documentary Apollo 11, audiences get a front-row seat to history as they bear witness to recently unearthed footage documenting NASA’s historic mission to the Moon, in stunning high definition clarity. But the film was only possible, 50 years after the fact, because NASA had the foresight to document and take care of its own recorded history.

Throughout the duration of the Apollo Missions in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the agency commissioned a crew led by Theo Kamecke, director of the documentary Moonwalk One, and Al Reinert, director of 1989’s For All Mankind, to shoot hundreds of reels worth of footage behind the scenes at NASA. Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins also shot their own footage, a feat that made them honorary members of the American Society of Cinematographers. 

When it was all over, NASA behaved like true geniuses and carefully put the reels away in cold storage. And then, they forgot about it, until Todd Douglas Miller came around.

“They had a plan for this, and it worked,” Miller tells Inverse. “We owe a debt of gratitude to the forward-thinking people at NASA. They had the foresight to not only process [the footage] quickly, but to give it to the National Archives where it was in cold storage where it belonged and was curated properly after all these years. It’s a really great story about proper preservation.”

Adds Miller, laughing a little: “The fact that people forgot about it is another story.”

In an interview with Inverse, Miller reveals how Apollo 11 became the most visually arresting movie of 2019, an achievement 50 years in the making.

Apollo 11 Documentary
'Apollo 11,' a new immersive documentary from Todd Douglas Miller, unearths perfectly preserved 70mm footage of the Moon landing. The result is a film, shot in the late '60s, that looks like it took place yesterday.

Here’s my absolute burning question: Who shoots history up close and just puts it away?

You have to put yourself back in that time and that era. Apollo Missions happened very successively, on some reels you would have a launch, and in the same reel you would have a roll out of another vehicle. These camera guys are running back and forth between miles trying to capture everything that’s happening.

NASA, to their credit, have been shooting things going all the way back to the Gemini Program. There was a Technicolor facility down there, they had all these cameras. The people that preserved it, they were developing these in the lab down there and shipping them, and luckily, it was preserved properly.

How did Apollo 11 get started as a movie?

We were working on a film trying to ascertain properties of a Moon rock collected on Apollo 17. Through that, we were exposed to NASA, National Archives, and Steven Slater, our archive producer in the UK. The footage we uncovered weren’t footage we were gonna use, but our production partner CNN were interested in short films and gave us free reign to do what we wanted. We had all this Apollo 17 stuff lying around and thought we can make a short, all archival thing. It was nothing more than an editing exercise. We did that as a 30-minute short called Last Steps.

Probably four to five months later, in May of 2017, we got an email from Dan Rooney, supervisor archivist, alerting us to a large collection of large format reels. They said “Apollo 11” on them. They had some dates. But beyond that we didn’t know much. We knew they were probably in good condition, but the discovery itself was exciting.

What did you find?

Of the Mission Control audio, 11,000 hours dedicated to Apollo 11 out of 18,000 of Project Apollo. Of the large format there’s hundreds of reels, and of the 16mm and 35mm [footage], hundreds more. We deal more in data sets, so on the footage side it approaches a petabyte of data, and we have an additional 4-5,000 hours of dedicated audio from the air to ground onboard audio and direct voice recordings.

How do you even begin to sort through all of that data to make a film?

Just playing in a dark room for awhile and it pops out in the other end!

We didn’t know the full scope of it. In fact at the time we didn’t know what the number of reels were, but we knew it was a very large number. We started testing that footage and we were blown away by some of the first imagery that came off the scanner.

Several months later we were alerted through NASA to 18,000 hours of dedicated Mission Control audio. It came off a speech recognition system at the University of Texas in Austin. Word got out that we were working on this large scale project, it started growing larger through the underground network of space enthusiasts who had contributed to all of our understanding of Apollo 11. A lot of engineers, ex-NASA employees, and film preservationists started sending us hard drives of things. It turned into a real team effort to try to tell the most accurate and best story that we could.

Apollo 11 Documentary
'Apollo 11' (2019)

How did you sync thousands of hours of audio to thousands of hours of film?

This was Steven’s reason for being. To be clear, this was footage from Mission Control that had no audio on it. We would go to the audio and the air to ground transmissions [and sync them]. He has synced all of this amazing footage sometimes just by reading lips. Sometimes you get lucky and get a clock in a corner and work with time code. But that sucks you in. It should take ten minutes to sync something, and it takes you hours, and you want to do another one.

How did turning the film into an IMAX picture happen?

CNN was interested in doing a 50th anniversary of the Moon landing. Frankly, I thought it wouldn’t work. I wanted to do something more experimental, but they stuck with us. Last summer after we had half the film completed, NEON jumped on board as distributor and they wanted to walk into the door with IMAX right away.

We had been working with IMAX on what was going to be a special edition version that would be about 40 minutes of sights of the museums and NASA facilities, but NEON were interested in working with IMAX to do a commercial release which we never envisioned. They wanted to see this wedged in-between all the superhero flicks and I’m glad that they did.

Apollo 11 Documentary
A look of the Earth from the Moon, as seen in the new documentary 'Apollo 11.'

The structure of the film is immediate and immersive. It’s not in any way retrospective, you don’t have anyone from NASA speaking as a talking head. What dictated that creative choice?

That was always the intention from the beginning. I’m a fan of that style. It’s more applicable in this genre where you’re used to seeing, no offense to NatGeo, the talking heads or boring, dry narration. It felt false to me.

This is one of the most significant things humans have done and I felt like I had never seen it treated with reverence for the imagery. Didn’t matter if it was large format or not. The images themselves are astounding; the fact there’s 16mm footage of the landing, Michael Collins and Neil Armstrong shot some of the greatest things in cinema.

Apollo 11 reminds us of our greatest single achievement, and in the decades since that achievement has lost its luster among people. Do you think we could ever get ourselves together and go back to the Moon again?

I want people to take away the same feeling I felt, it was great to get into a time capsule and work with these materials. I was struck every day by the sheer undertaking, hundreds of thousands of people spread across thousands of companies to accomplish a common goal. It’s an astounding statement on humanity, and it happened less than 50 years ago. I think it can happen. I’m a happy optimist. History is cyclical. If we did it once, we can do it again.

Apollo 11 is in theaters now.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Media via NEON, CNN Films