Director Todd Douglas Miller discusses his documentary Apollo 11 about the historic mission to the moon, sifting through archival footage, offering new perspectives, and getting the sound right.
Todd Douglas Miller’s new documentary, Apollo 11, is so effective at bringing you into the excitement of this landmark event, you feel like you’re watching a narrative movie about it. You have to keep reminding yourself that the stitched-together archival footage of the historic mission is real and everything on screen actually happened, right down to the TV broadcast with the chyron “live from moon”.
The score and editing are make you feel like you’re reliving this slice of history that the film borders on propaganda. We’re constantly reminded of this Great American Achievement as the camera scans the sea of people gathered nearby to watch the launch and then get to track Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins on their journey. Yet one of the most surprising insights of Miller’s documentary is just how little time they spent on the moon as a fraction of the total trip. Miller lets us feel how brief that moment was by telling the story in chronological order, giving us step-by-step insights into the key events of the mission.
The most fascinating parts of the film also left me with the most questions, offering a new perspective on a well-known story. I found myself wishing there were a 10-hour explainer companion documentary to accompany this tight feature film. The films opens on an image of the tracks of the loud, slow-moving vehicle – like a giant bulldozer — that transported the giant Saturn V rocket from its building to the launchpad; tiny people in the frame provide the scale. The vehicle that merely moved the rocket on the ground is itself a feat of engineering. I found myself wondering how long it took to move the rocket, how much the rocket weighed, and how this rarely seen vehicle even worked.
Inside mission control, the camera pans across the depth of the room to reveal rows and rows of computers, many people seated at each, reading printouts. It’s a reminder of how primitive the technology was and what a huge collaborative effort was required to mount the moon landing. But it also made me wonder just what all those people in mission control, and all those giant computers — collectively less powerful than my iPhone — actually did. I learned less about this in the documentary Apollo 11 than I had from the fictionalized Apollo 13. Still, there’s much value in seeing just what went into each part of the voyage to the moon, from the rotating teams at mission control to the poor sound quality of the transmissions between earth and space that were the only mode of communication.
If First Man left you cold with its lack of psychological insight about Neil Armstrong — and its cold dismissal of Buzz Aldrin as basically an asshole — Apollo 11 won’t fill that gap; the astronauts barely come off as characters. We hear them more than we see them, and it’s mostly to deliver light banter or matter-of-fact status reports. They don’t come across as individuals so much as three important cogs in this massive NASA machine, because the star of Apollo 11 is the rocket, the mission, and the moon. Miller’s use of split screen footage repeatedly reminds us that the mission to the moon involved so many moving pieces and so many people; the astronauts are just bit players like everyone else.
There’s something ingenious about putting together this heavily documented mission into a documentary without talking heads — especially since the entire mission was narrated by the astronauts, mission control, and news broadcasts, when audio was the main form of communication. It keeps you immersed in the action, but at a great cost: most of the time, you don’t know what’s happening beyond the basics. A simple animation was created for the film to help the audience track the flight-path and the key maneuvers, which is extremely helpful. But even as a trained engineer and space enthusiast with a fair bit of background knowledge on the mission, I had trouble following all the intricacies. I felt like I needed footnotes for each scene.
I talked to director Todd Douglas Miller about how he condensed 10,000 hours of archival footage and audio into a taut 90-minute film, how he chose what scenes to feature, and why getting the sound right — especially of the Apollo 11 launch — was such a challenge.
Seventh Row (7R): I know that you had 10,000 hours of footage and almost as much audio. What is the process for actually sorting through all of this?
Todd Douglas Miller: To look at all available footage, audio, still photography, everything, we laid it out on a timeline to see exactly when things happened. There was a nine-day version of the film, which is crazy to think about.
Now, [the footage is] not 24 hours each day because the guys were sleeping, but it’s from the moment they woke up to the moment they went to bed. Or it starts an hour before they woke up and an hour after because there’s a lot of stuff that happens with mission control; that’s a 24/7 operation, to monitor the spacecraft as the crew was sleeping.
We then went through the transcripts to see exactly what were the major moments in the mission that we wanted to focus on. We were given audio that was unprocessed, uncatalogued, didn’t have any transcripts. It was listening to all of that and then trying to find the little human moments, that other people would gloss over,and then try to interject that into those nine days.
7R: Once you have this enormous cut, how do you approach whittling that down?
Todd Douglas Miller: It was knowing what the highlights of the mission were, a fairly module type of approach. You know you have a launch you can design whole scenes around. You knew you had certain technical things: the stage sequence after the launch; they go into orbit; they fire off an engine that’s going to get them to the moon, and then they are going to do some fairly complex technical things.
What really guided us was talking with the astronauts, talking with their families, and reading their autobiographies. Michael Collins, the command module pilot, wrote a great book in 1974 called Carrying the Fire. It has a lot of great anecdotal stories in there about his trip. Same thing with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin: they’ve given enough interviews over the years.
Buzz is still alive, so it was great to show him scenes: “This is what you said was an important thing that happened. What do you think of this? Did we get it right?” He’d say, “Well, you can do this, or you can do that”. Then we go back to work on it, and show him it again. It was a great way to work.
7R: So when you are figuring out the key points in the story of Apollo 11, is that mostly from those interviews and books or is there additional research? Are you watching and seeing what you find interesting? How are you figuring out what those key moments are?
Todd Douglas Miller: Yeah, all of it, just saturating yourself with as much media and resources as you can. There have been so many things written about not only Apollo 11, but the entire Apollo series. To understand that, you have to go back and read and watch films on the Gemini project — and before that, you have Mercury, and before that, the early rocketry.
We take a long time making our films because we enjoy the research process, and it certainly was a deep dive on this one. More importantly, talking to people that were there. It was especially important to me to try to find things that happened or things that weren’t written about in the moment. Going back to the original transcripts was a tremendous resource for us — thousands of pages long, every single word that was spoken by the astronauts and mission control. We were lucky enough to be given these materials and contribute to the historical record.
You see holes when you start doing that kind of research, things that hadn’t been presented in either fiction or non-fiction films, things you could use for the project to be unique. We wanted to apply certain filmmaking techniques, both to the story structure but also technically, that are throwback filmmaking techniques to the guys who were shooting on pre-IMAX large format cameras back in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
7R: What kind of techniques?
Todd Douglas Miller: There are really great filmmakers that were working in large format back then — pretty avant-garde guys going out there and playing with fractured narrative — shooting Cinerama films for expos and special venues. We also used other techniques of the time like split screens.
NASA was producing tons of really great industrial films leading up to the Apollo missions. They were all shot around these new facilities being built in Florida and Texas, and they’re stunning. They are really great windows into what the culture was back then. From a filmmaking standpoint, they were very progressive in some of the things that they were presenting and how they wanted it to be conveyed to an audience.
7R: You mentioned watching other fiction and non-fictions films about the space program and seeing gaps. What gaps did you notice that you were able to fill with your footage?
Todd Douglas Miller: One thing I’ve never seen depicted in any film before was the translunar injection burn, TLI. You always hear from the Apollo-era astronauts talk about it, which they called “TLIing right into sunrise”. After launch, they go into Earth orbit. They circle a couple times and make sure their systems are good before firing off the engine that is going to take them to the moon. When that engine fires, it’s actually on the dark side of Earth. Armstrong says it right on the onboard recorder, “We’re going right through the terminator,” meaning they are coming out of the dark part of the Earth and into the light. They all talk about this amazing sunrise that’s happening and they are going right into it. We found that in the archive from previous Apollo missions. They had shot it. To show that to Mike Collins and Buzz Aldrin and go, “Is this what it looked like?”, and have them validate that, was amazing.
Another scene I had read about from Neil Armstrong, and have now talked about it with his sons Rick and Mark, was he had been asked before what his most idyllic part of the mission was. It wasn’t landing on the moon. It wasn’t even the first footsteps. It was seeing the moon from about 100,000 miles out and having a solar corona appear.
We found some archival of that from another Apollo mission, and we screened it for Buzz Aldrin, because he’s gushing about it in the air to ground transmission. So he says, “Well, we were back a little bit further, a little bit more rays” so we can go back into the edit room, dial it in, and show him again. “Yep that’s it.” We got it.
7R: You’ve mentioned a few technical things depicted in the film that weren’t really part of the historical record and that most lay audiences won’t know about. How did you approach illuminating that for a lay audience who may have no idea what’s going on?
Todd Douglas Miller: The original approach was we were going to do some pretty heavy duty 3D animations that were going to be very similar to what you see on the screens in mission control that display with Eidophor projection. It’s a very unique look, but we didn’t really like the look of it, and it was going to be quite frankly pretty expensive.
There’s a cult classic space film called Moonwalk 1, and they did something really cool. We owe these guys a debt of gratitude. The cinematographers who shot so much of the footage that ended up in our film — it’s breathtaking footage that they shot. In that film, they also did this old school cell animation, and I always found it fascinating. It’s not scientifically accurate, but we used that as a guide: these chalk-stick figure outlinish type things. They just kind of grew on us. We had every intention of changing it, but the response we got from everybody was pretty enthusiastic, and they stuck. It highlights the simplicity so someone like my mother can understand it. But the way that the spacecraft is oriented, the way they come apart, the way they dock and undock — it’s a very complex dance. To try to articulate that in any other way would have been challenging.
7R: How did you approach the sound in the film? You have both the audio recordings, that you can sync with the images, and score.
Todd Douglas Miller: One of the things I’m most proud of is the work of Eric Milano, our sound designer. We initially planned to hire a big team to do foley work, re-record mixing, and all the other stuff you do with audio. Eric just had a while to work on it, and up he’s just so talented as a sound designer that he ended up doing all the sound editing himself — sound effects, enhancing… He went back and took archival reference, and if it was too poor quality, he recreated it using the reference. More times than not, he took the archive audio and enhanced it, cleaned it up, made it come alive.
My music composer, Matt Morton, did what I thought was going to be a crazy idea. He wanted to do a period score using period-era instruments — everything 1969. He predominantly used a Moog synthesizer that was a reissue from 1968. He didn’t know how to play it, but as much as we did a deep dive into the research, he did a deep dive into old school electronica from the 1950s and 1960s. It’s a real testament to those guys and the work that they put into it.
Our IMAX audio mixer, Brian Eimer, up in Toronto, did all of that himself too. When you go to the IMAX screen, you feel like you’re enveloped in that world. That’s a reflection of Brian’s and Eric’s work. That’s my favourite part of it. The footage is amazing, but the audio is what really brings you in.
7R: What kind of things would be recreated with the audio?
Todd Douglas Miller: For instance, the sound of the Saturn V taking off: we spent a good couple of years getting that just right. We had audio that was recorded in different areas around the launch site from that day, but nothing of really good quality and nothing that captured what you heard about when you talked to people that were actually there.
The full dynamic range of what a Saturn V rocket sounds like: It’s the loudest thing that man has ever produced, so we wanted you to feel that. It was a chore to get that just right. We did a lot of testing.
Rick and Mark Armstrong watched the launch with their mother on a boat in the Banana River, so Eric did some proximity editing for the shots we had that were near there. When you’re two miles away, what does [the launch of the Saturn V rocket] sound like?
There’s other people that are in the VIP area — what’s that sound like? What’s it sound like when you are right up close to it? If you’re one of those motorized large format cameras? A lot of that type of stuff.
We also had the onboard audio, and it never sounded the same all the time. But we knew if we changed it a lot, it would throw people out of it. Eric threw different frequencies in there to make it sound like we were on board. Even though the dialogue didn’t change, the background ambient sound stayed the same, which allowed us to develop a soundscape where it felt like every time you heard that ambient sound, you knew you were inside the spacecraft
We had reference in the onboard audio. We tested the ambient sound to find a good frequency tone that wasn’t annoying and that would allow people to actually still hear the dialogue of the astronauts and also what it did sound like. Above all else, that’s what ruled the day on any decision: authenticity about all.