1895 Films’ Tom Jennings deconstructs Nat Geo’s “Apollo: Missions to the Moon”

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic first manned lunar landing, National Geographic will launch the two-hour documentary film Apollo: Missions to the Moon from 1895 Films, the Los Angeles-based studio founded ...
July 4, 2019

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic first manned lunar landing, National Geographic will launch the two-hour documentary film Apollo: Missions to the Moon from 1895 Films, the Los Angeles-based studio founded by Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Tom Jennings.

The intimate and immersive film weaves together more than 500 hours of footage, 800 hours of audio and 10,000 photos to detail the entirety of NASA’s Apollo Space Program — from the ill-fated Apollo 1 mission, which claimed the lives of three astronauts, to the final flight that brought the program to a close.

With no narration or talking heads, Apollo: Missions to the Moon recounts the key moments of America’s space race through first-person storytelling, newly transferred film and never-before-heard audio. The doc also boasts several firsts, including the combination of NASA footage with black-box recordings from Apollo capsules and the synchronization of 30-track audio from mission control.

1895 Films’ Jennings serves as executive producer. For National Geographic Documentary Films, Bernadette McDaid is executive producer and commissioning editor, and Hamish Mykura is EVP of programming and development.

Apollo: Missions to the Moon premieres Sunday (July 7) at 9 p.m. ET/PT on National Geographic and airs globally in 172 countries and 43 languages.

Ahead of the premiere, Realscreen caught up with 1895 Films president and executive producer Tom Jennings to discuss what sets Apollo: Missions to the Moon apart from the myriad lunar landing anniversary projects and why audio plays such a crucial role in archive-led documentaries.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

What sets this film apart from the other Apollo anniversary projects coming out this summer?

We were really aware that there were going to be a lot of other programs coming out at the same time because that’s just how these major anniversaries go. Ours is the [strict archive-only] format that we use, telling the story in real time with the media from that time but we go from Sputnik to the beginning of the space shuttle. So you get the entire Apollo program, really get an understanding of it in a way that I think sets us apart from the other films.

What we did is we created characters of the astronauts. So it’s not just Neil Armstrong – all of the Apollo astronauts are our character, their wives are characters, the Mission Control people became a character, the spacecraft themselves from Sputnik and the space shuttle, that was a character. We created these characters within the archives where we could build in story arcs basically following the Hero’s Journey story template, and we apply that to these characters that we knew existed in the archive, otherwise we would have been completely lost. There would have been no way out of all this footage, but in doing it the way we did, it allowed us to isolate where we had to go next and it was really a saving grace in putting this film together.

apollo9This project encompasses 500 hours of footage, 800 hours of audio and 10,000 photos. Can you walk me through how and where you gained access to that archive?

It’s very easy to just say we’re going to do the Apollo story and go to CBS News and pull every clip from Walter Cronkite for eight straight years. Everybody’s going to be pulling Walter Cronkite. He was almost the voice of the missions from a media point of view, but he’s also very expensive and you can blow your footage budget pretty quick on Walter Cronkite. What we did is we would go to logical local markets, the stations around Cape Kennedy where the rockets were launched. If I was a news director back then I would have sent my reporters out to cover the story from a local point of view. We did the same thing in the Houston area. Cronkite’s great but to get this boots-on-the ground feel from local people who you’ve never seen or heard before, it’s just like you see the whole story with fresh eyes.

One thing that’s very unique is we were working with some researchers who had been marrying the audio from mission control to the video and film that was shot in Mission Control; the audio lived in one city and the video and film we lived in another and no one’s taken the time to put it all together. We were really trying to find moments that would help us tell the story where Mission Control no longer was like a silent movie. It’s amazing how sound just completely changes the complexion of footage and stills where it makes the whole thing come to life.

Can you tell me why audio is so important to the process of this series? 

Audio is absolutely king because we cannot tell our story without it. It might be an oversimplistic way of describing what we do, but it’s like we’re building a podcast and then putting images that matched that podcast together so that it comes to life for television audiences. Without the audio there’s nowhere to go. You have to go back to traditional narration and talking head interviews to help push it along. But with the audio, that’s what places you back in the 1960s. You get to hear people talk, they’re describing things as if they’re happening right now. There’s an immediacy to it that you can’t get from someone telling you what it was like back then, that’s the difference.

Audio is the foundation of what we do, but most people don’t think about it because they’re watching a movie.

apollo7What are some of the more typical challenges you face in creating an archive-focused project like Missions to the Moon

The hardest part for me in general with all of this is we wind up gathering so much great stuff it’s what to leave out. The floors of our editing bays are littered with heartbreak, I have to tell you, because we wind up falling in love with some of this stuff. It’s really hard to let go sometimes.

We are very careful when we build these things. Especially with something like Apollo; everything in it is extremely accurate. National Geographic requires us to be accurate. Even the shots of the moon in the sky from various parts in the story, they’re from the same year or the same mission that we’re talking about. We don’t borrow a moon from 1975 and put it in 1968 just because it looks better. We go to great lengths to be accurate in the footage that we use and people can know that what they’re looking at is basically a compressed real-time telling of the story and that’s something we’re really proud of.

(All photos courtesy National Geographic. Main photo via NASA/National Archives and Records Administration)

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