With the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing nearly here, many filmmakers are having a look back at this towering achievement, including director Todd Douglas Miller, whose Apollo 11 had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival yesterday.
The film commemorates the massive event of 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the lunar surface as the world watched. It does so almost exclusively through archival material, including audio and 70mm film unearthed specifically for the doc and never before seen.
Miller went to the National Archives and NASA to collect material for the film, and was able to use his connections to unearth all kinds of rare material that had, in many cases, never been digitized.
That meant digitizing large format prints for the first time, using brand new technology developed during production — luckily a company in London was just then developing a suitable scanner. It also meant achieving a level of crisp image quality not often associated with such dated material. “You’ve seen plenty of footage over the years from this mission, but you’ve never seen it in this clarity,” EP Courtney Sexton, VP of CNN Films, tells realscreen.
While much of the story is told through audio from the time, including recordings from inside the shuttle, part of the story is also told through creative visualizations and an original score by Matt Morton, which uses a replica of a contemporaneous Moog synthesizer to capture the spirit of the times.
“Music is always important, but [viewers] should pay particular attention to the composition by Matt Morton,” says Sexton. “He has taken a contemporary approach, using these analog devices to create a score that allows it to feel of today, but transports you to the same sort of musical devices that would have been of the time.”
Miller had already explored similar subject matter in his short film The Last Steps, an earlier collaboration with CNN Films, who would go on to produce Apollo 11. The Last Steps chronicles Apollo 17, the last mission to the Moon, in 1977. It was also made up of archival footage, eschewing talking heads, interviews, or reenactments — that project helped Miller develop the contacts that would prove so useful in uncovering a treasure trove of archival footage.
“It became a proof of concept for what Apollo 11 is,” says Sexton of the short. “It was a no-brainer to go back to Todd and see if he would be interested in making a similar concept film for Apollo 11, so that was the birth of the idea.”
CNN Films approached Miller with the Apollo 11 anniversary project, born out of an idea by Jeff Zucker, president of CNN, to mark the occasion. From there, Miller’s Statement Pictures came on board to produce with CNN. Neon signed on as theatrical distributor at Cannes after seeing a 20-minute teaser.
Apollo 11 is produced by Miller, Thomas Petersen and Evan Krauss, with Amy Entelis and Courtney Sexton serving as executive producers for CNN Films and and Josh Braun for Submarine. Alexandra Hannibal is coordinating producer, and Stephen Slater is archival producer.
CNN Films has broadcast rights.
The film will have several encore screenings until Jan. 31. See its full Sundance listings here.