Newly Found Footage Brings Moon Landing To Thrilling Life

March 3, 2019

The eye- (and ear-) popping IMAX documentary Apollo 11, about NASA’s 1969 mission to put men on the moon, reminds us of our shared sense of national purpose, one that director Todd Douglas Miller found very much alive while working on the film. Miller started out several years ago making what he thought would be a fairly conventional documentary about the famous mission, cobbling together whatever footage he could round up. Things changed, though, when folks at the National Archive made a remarkable discovery — reels and reels and reels of pristine 65 mm Hollywood-quality film (actually shot by Hollywood pros), most of it never seen, filmed as part of a proposed joint venture between NASA and MGM that, unlike Apollo 11, never really got off the ground. The moon mission geek community is pretty tight, so it wasn’t just Miller who was excited. Everybody was. There were all sorts of amateur collectors of video and audio who wanted to pitch in, giving Miller volumes of valuable material that he used to assemble the story of the launch and of the mission seen in Apollo 11, which opened Friday. This communal feeling intensified when word circulated that Miller and his team had developed a process to take the vintage film and convert it into high-resolution large-format digital video suitable for IMAX. Folks inside and outside NASA with access to their own film offered it for use. “When people found out we could handle this kind of material in a professional and really reliable way, it was exciting for them. And it gave us access to material that really enhanced the narrative, especially stuff that was taken in and around the launch pad,” Miller said. The material (along with rare audio that NASA technicians held on to, and that hobbyists had collected) allowed Hill and company to create a real-time visual story of launch day that takes in the activity, astronauts, technicians, and the flood of tourists lining the Florida launch site. The immaculate large-format images bring impressive scale to the awesome size and power of the rocket, but a special poignance, too, to the shots of bystanders gathered to witness history. Hill is still amazed at the artistic sensibilities of those who shot the footage. “Imagine, with this massive rocket lifting off and heading into space, having the presence of mind to know how important it would be to turn around and record the human reaction to the event. That’s unbelievable to me,” he said. Also unbelievable — that men could physically do it. The large-format cameras were massive and cumbersome (one of the men who shot the footage came by his nickname, “the Bear,” quite honestly). “Imagine how lucky we are,” Miller said. “This is 50 years before Christopher Nolan was doing this. To be able to be a part of restoring this, to bring this to people in a format like IMAX, is really a privilege and an honor.”