The latter film, directed by Todd Douglas Miller, became the top nonfiction box office hit of 2019, making more than $15 million worldwide. It is also, arguably, the most ambitious documentary of the year. Miller and his team faced a mountain of archival material from the 1969 NASA mission that landed the first astronauts on the moon. And that was before they learned the National Archives had come across a cache of 65mm film from Apollo 11 that had sat undisturbed for decades.
“It was just mind-boggling to see that quality,” Miller tells Deadline. “It puts you right there.”
But using that material presented a formidable challenge, because it had to be scanned.
“We developed a new type of prototype film scanner to be able to handle all of this and there was only one in the world,” the director told an audience after an IMAX screening of the film in September. “It was built specifically for our project.”
The challenges by no means ended there. Miller and his associates gained access to 11,000 hours of mission control audio, but there was a hitch.
“When we got the original audio files they weren’t synched… 30 tracks [came from] the front room of everyone that had a headset on at mission control, and then in the back room there were an additional 30 tracks,” Miller recalls. “There were no transcripts for any of it.”
Then came the task of matching the audio to the scanned archival footage, a process akin to finding needles in a field full of haystacks. By way of example, Miller noted at the September screening, “We needed to know exactly when, you know, Bruce McCandless sitting at the CAPCOM station had on a white shirt…It was really crazy work. That took the better part of a year and a half just to do that.”
Some audio had to be recreated, as in the case of alarm signals that went off as the lunar module neared the moon’s surface, a very tense moment for NASA and astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.
“In talking with Buzz Aldrin he said, ‘Yeah, we had headsets so we could hear it.’ So NASA went back to the MIT Flight Dynamics Group, they found the exact kilohertz tone that was in the earpiece, so we got to give that to our sound designer, Eric [Milano], and he put it in there,” Miller revealed. Later, the director checked the work by playing the recreated alarm for surviving astronauts Aldrin and Collins (Armstrong died in 2012). “We get Buzz and Michael in [Smithsonian’s IMAX theater]. ‘Is this what it sounded like?’…You kind of hone it and get it as accurate as humanly possible.”
All that effort would have remained at the level of an impressive technical achievement were it not in service to a compelling piece of storytelling. Apollo 11 has connected with audiences, film festival juries and critics, winning dozens of awards including Best Documentary at the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards. It is also nominated for the PGA Award for best produced documentary.
In June, Miller and his documentary were honored in Zurich, Switzerland at an event with special significance for the filmmaker.
“We were awarded the Stephen Hawking medal along with Elon Musk and Buzz Aldrin and [composer] Brian Eno,” he tells Deadline. “All the Apollo astronauts came out, the surviving ones, and there was a lot of flight controllers there, like Charlie Duke and others. And I was in this 5,000-person seat arena, and I was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been because a lot of them hadn’t seen the film before, a lot of flight controllers and flight directors. But ever since that screening they’ve been so supportive.”
Another honor came with the announcement in mid-December that the film had made the Oscar documentary feature shortlist.
“These things—I think it’s a humbling experience, but it’s just further great recognition for everyone that was involved,” Miller comments. “I’m just honored to be a part of such a great project like this.”
Perhaps the director’s greatest achievement is taking a story familiar around the world, repeated in textbooks and remembered on anniversaries, and making something visceral and new about it. Miller accomplished that by making an “as-it-happened” film that meticulously documents the nine-day mission from launch to touchdown on the moon, to the dangerous and ultimately triumphant return to Earth.
“There tends to be a bit of a space fatigue, I guess you could call it,” Miller acknowledges. “We’ve been so saturated with that imagery for so long…We were, I think, lucky enough to find that there were some untold stories, mainly on the technical end of things. And that really became a byproduct of working with NASA and finding out that there was certain things that hadn’t been either accurately depicted before or had never been depicted before and we wanted to put in there. But I think more was taking the totality of all the footage and the audio and trying to make it representative of this incredible achievement that is a reflection of all of us.”
Miller adds, “It’s the pinnacle of human evolution, in my opinion. I think a thousand years from now people are going look back and see this thing that happened in 1969 as the real high point in human evolution.”