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NAB Apollo11

NAB 2019: The Making of ‘Apollo 11’

Rarely does a documentary film not only relate past events, but along the way preserve the culture and set new standards for future filmmaking: Apollo 11, currently in theaters, does just that. At the 2019 NAB Show, the National Association of Broadcasters industry meetup in Las Vegas, April 5-11, filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller reflected on his multi-year project to celebrate the moon landing on its 50th anniversary.

Miller started by asking the audience “Who was alive when the moon landing took place?” and “Who remembers it?” He got the audience of film and television professionals to laugh when he shared that he was minus-7 that year.

NAB Apollo11
Filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller talking about the making of “Apollo 11” (photo by author)

The next laugh came unintentionally.

As Miller explained all the technology that didn’t exist in 1969, he brought up on the large screen an episode of Adam Ruins Everything wherein Adam attempts to convince a Generation Z dingbat that the moon landing really happened. The audience was getting into it when the video hung. After half a minute or so of clicking around, someone from the audience yelled, “They didn’t have YouTube back then, either.”

The audience roared and Miller wisely decided to move forward without the funny video.


Miller’s previous film, the Emmy Award winning Dinosaur 13, also involved restoring and using archival footage. That film told the story of a group of archeologists who, in 1990, discovered the most complete fossil of a tyrannosaurs rex ever found. They then found themselves involved in a 10-year battle with the U.S. government, powerful museums, Native American tribes, and competing paleontologists.

NAB Apollo11

He followed this up with a short film called The Last Steps, about the last Apollo mission to the moon. That project introduced him to NASA and the National Archives. When Miller, who produces, directs and edits his projects, realized all the footage that was out there, he set a goal to create a film about the moon landing in time for its 50th anniversary using only archival footage and sound, with no modern-day talking heads.

In order to create the highest quality documentary possible, he set a goal for 8K video to screen on IMAX screens. But there were challenges.

So Much Footage

Everyone knew there was a lot of footage of the Apollo 11 flight, but it had never been all brought together or organized. Also, the above-referenced differences in technology meant that footage was in different formats than are currently in use and shot at different frame rates.

Sound was also an issue. Although hundreds of hours of recordings of the flight crews and astronauts existed, most of it was not synced with the video.

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Reels of unknown footage challenged the filmmakers

“There was a nail-biting period,” Miller explained. “We were working three shifts around the clock. We survived two government shutdowns and were working in a physically hostile-to-film environment in downtown New York. We were moving film from College Park to New York in climate-controlled vehicles.”

One of the highlights for Miller was when they discovered one of the largest private collections of Apollo 11 films, belonging to Stephen Slater, who joined the production as Archive Producer. “Next to getting married and having kids,” Miller said, “that was one of the most special moments in my life.”

Digitize What?

Miller’s team also found that for some of the old formats, such as TODD AO and Military Grade One, no equipment to digitize them existed. So, they had to build the equipment from scratch.

With the audio, he received help from a group at the University of Dallas who were digitizing 11,000 hours of Apollo 11 recordings. “At any given time during the flight,” Miller explained, “there were up to 60 tracks of audio being recorded. The problem was that we didn’t know when they were talking to one another.”

He gave credit to Ben Feist for taking on the audio as a data technology problem. They also relied on creative tricks such as spotting clocks on walls in the old film to create time checks.

“From a storytelling point of view,” Miller recalled, “I’d be walking home listening to this stuff, and I’d look up and there was the moon. It was kind of surreal.”

Cue the Music

Music for the film was composed by Matt Morton. Morton had worked with Miller on both Dinosaur 13 and The Last Steps. The music for The Last Steps was totally modern. For Apollo 11, they took a different approach.

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Composer Matt Morton in front of his Moog Synthesizer

The music you hear, as you look at the faces from 1969, are sounds those people could have heard.

Miller explained that Morton used only instruments created pre-1969. “He even found a Moog Synthesizer from 1968,” he said.

Miller also said that, reversing the normal workflow of a composer looking at the final cut and adding music, he listened to the music and edited to it. Morton details his creative process for the Apollo 11 music on his site.

Learn More

To find where and when you can see Apollo 11, check the official page. You can watch the trailer, below.

To find out more about NAB and its efforts at enabling broadcasters to serve their communities, strengthen their businesses and seize new opportunities in the digital age, check www.nab.org.

About Leo Sopicki

Writer, photographer, graphic artist and technologist. I focus my creative efforts on celebrating the American virtues of self-reliance, individual initiative, volunteerism, tolerance and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.

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