'Apollo 11' Director On Editing 11,000 Hours Of Footage Into A Coherent Movie [Interview]

During the 2019 SXSW Film Festival, I sat down with Apollo 11 director Todd Douglas Miller and space historian Robert Pearlman.This is a film that I fell in love with from the moment that I saw it during the world premiere at the Ray during Sundance.  While I regret that I was unable to see the film on an IMAX screen, Apollo 11 is one of those films that you must experience on the biggest screen you can find. It's not often that a documentary crosses over into the editing category during awards ceremonies, Apollo 11 is one of those films that I hope people strongly consider for Best Editing.

Here's my interview with Miller and Pearlman, where we dig into how this massive undertaking came together.

Apollo 11 was one of my favorite documentaries when it screened during Sundance.  How did you go about deciding to make a documentary on Apollo 11?Todd Douglass Miller:  When you're given access to these national treasures, it's pretty easy to to make a documentary out of—at least that's the original idea.  But it really started with all of the original footage which was all on 16 and 35 millimeter and then seven months in, we get this amazing email from one of the supervisory archivists at the National Archives.  We had been going around the spider-working network of NASA facilities and also National Archives—just kind of casting a wide net as to what was available out there. We get this email a few months into the research project that says there's these large format materials.  We get them tested up at our post house Final Frame facility up in New York. Needless to say, we were all just flabbergasted at what we saw on screen. The project really took a bend that wasn't just about the film itself, it was also about archive preservation, the curation of these materials and ensuring that they were going to be cared for properly.At what point in the process did you first learn about the undiscovered 65mm footage or the 11,000 uncatalogued hours?Todd Douglas Miller:  The footage itself happened about three months into the research so it was the tail end of 2016 when we really went full in on it.  It wasn't until May of the following year when we actually learned of the discovery of this. I say discovery is a loose term because it was really a rediscovery of it all.  It had been there all along. It's really a great story about archive preservation. The fact that there was not only the original negative but there was preservation material from some of the other collections that had been dispersed at various NASA facilities over this 50 year period.  Then of course the original negatives being at the National Archives in College Park was that was flooring. That was just one half of it. The other half was also the discovery of 11,000 hours of audio as well of archive material. That just was an immense undertaking on behalf of so many on the team.  I think that really shifted—at least from a directing and editing standpoint—my mindset into what the possibilities for a feature length version could be because now we really had a lot to choose from. We owe a debt of gratitude to not only the National Archives with footage but also on the audio end, the University of Texas in Austin had been working with these materials and digitizing them for a speech recognition project and working with NASA.  They didn't need it for a film but we came along and obviously utilized it for that. The work that those guys did on this was tremendous.How were you able to figure out what was what let alone being able to match things up appropriately on screen?Todd Douglas Miller:  The first order of business was working with Robert [Pearlman] as our independent chief historian, Stephen Slater, who was our archive producer, and putting together a nine day version of the film.  We really want you to look at every single second of the mission which spanned nine days—eight days and some change. All told, it spanned nine days—to look at every available still image—whether it was 16mm 35mm large format, TV broadcasts, and links, we wanted to see all of it.  Of course, all the audio, too. That was a real tedious way to do it but we need to know exactly what was all out there not only to educate ourselves but also we had so much new material. We needed to see where things lined up and where the holes were and what we could do with those.How beneficial were NASA and the National Archives in working on this project?Todd Douglas Miller:  The National Archives and NASA were both tremendous.  I would say that we couldn't obviously have done a project without them but all along the way, they were extremely supportive.  The chief historian at NASA, Bill Berry, and his group were immensely helpful with a lot of the technical ins and outs in verifying things.  I would constantly call Robert in the middle of the night and go, "Hey, what did this thing sound like" or "What was this?" He is the go to expert for all things not only Apollo-related but space-related but to be able to not only verify that but sometimes we when we would weave a parallel path with NASA and then Robert and get a really great conclusion.  It was like working on a Ph.D. thesis in of way. Because it was so much new information coming to and because we were striving for accuracy, we really wanted to verify information as much as possible.This film consists entirely of archival footage.  Was there—at any point—discussion about having on-camera interviews?Todd Douglas Miller:  No.  The nice thing is when you see the film—even though it's not traditional narration—there are these public affairs officers who sit in mission control fairly close to the flight director in the back and off to the left and they function as their narrators.  They were just like all the other flight controllers. They operated in shifts. I think that they—for me, from a filmmaking standpoint—just gave really nice nuance and also articulated exactly what was going on during the mission at any given time so it was kind of a natural thing to use them as narration.I know that you touched upon it during the Q&A following the Sundance premiere but at what point during this process did you learn about First Man?Todd Douglas Miller:  We knew of First Man pretty much when everybody else did.  I do remember getting some emails via NASA.  Robert was a tech advisor with them. So we had discussed some things but for the most part, we both had our heads down working on our independent projects.  They were so far ahead of us. At that point in time when they were probably wrapping up, I was having sleepless nights over whether or not the footage would safely get back into the National Archives as we were working with them.The Sundance documentary jury honored you with a special award for editing.  Can you talk about the process of editing this film down to the final cut?Todd Douglas Miller:  The initial cut was nine days.  It was actually longer than that and I think about it because we had all this training mission and then we had all the post-flight things.  The astronauts did a world tour so we had a whole day of just that and then we had days of training mission all laid out the timeline. First of all, I was so humbled and honored to get that award.  For me, it was better than winning a Grand Jury Prize because it was a reflection on everyone that worked on this film and it was such a technical exercise but it was also it was very creative. Everybody brought their best work to this thing from the music to the audio editing to the film restoration to Stephen Slater and his sync project to sync up voices in Mission Control.  It was a tremendous honor but it's like making a sculpture—you sit back, you get it done, you look at it and then you work on it some more. You sit back, you look at it, and you work some more. That was just a tremendous honor for sure. It's just a reflection of not only the film as a whole but all the individual parts that make it up.As I told composer Matt Morton during Sundance, part of me wanted to compare his score with that of Justin Hurwitz' phenomenal score of First Man but another part of me knew that would be wrong.  What were you all aiming for with the score?Todd Douglas Miller:  Matt wanted to do a period score.  He wanted to use of all instruments pre-1969.  I thought he was crazy at first. And it turned out to be—having worked with him for my whole career and knowing him since we've been friends since we were little kids—the right move and the way that it was just a perfect process for this film. He pre-scored 90 percent of it.  Me, from an editing standpoint, it was just so great to get these hour-long compositions in the middle of the night. I could walk in the next day and establish tone and pacing around his music. He's like everyone else on this project. Robert's here so I can say like we all strive to be like Robert on this project.  I'll call Robert in the middle of the night or during the day or whenever and say some obscure fact like what was Mike Collins carrying in that paper bag walking to out to the Astrovan from the suiting up room. Not only will he know exactly what I'm talking about but he'll email you a picture of exactly what was in the bag.  Matt—with his score—did a similar thing. He did a deep dive into—he wanted to primarily utilize a mode synthesizer but he didn't know how to play it. He did a deep dive into researching electronic music from the late 50s and 60s. The Moog was in vogue then in the mid-60s and just been invented by Robert Moog. He got this reissued 1968 Moog synthesizer and learned how to play it.  He also just saturated himself in space films, literature, and everything. He brought his own unique spin on the thing. That's one of the things I'm most proud of and the soundtrack just came out and I listened to it on the plane on the way over. It's amazing.Before opening in theaters on March 8, Apollo 11 had an exclusive IMAX run.  Have you had a chance to watch the film in IMAX yet?Todd Douglas Miller:  I was literally perched up for every single screening.  I drove the projectionist nuts. Actually, they were really great.  I live in New York so I watched it and did Q & for the first weekend up until one on the Upper West Side in Lincoln Square.  After I watched it a few times all the way through, I would sit in different seats. For the last few, I would sit in the back for the first half and I go up and see it in the projection booth.  The guys were so nice there that they actually built me this little chair. I think they felt bad that I was standing next to a projector but it's quite something to see it at eye level on that screen.  It's fascinating.[At this point, space historian Robert Pearlman chimes in to discuss his role in the film.]Robert, can you talk about your role in the film?Robert Pearlman:  Sure.  As Todd mentioned I was sort of the beck and call for when there were questions coming up about the footage about what they heard the in the audio.  As a historian and journalist, I sort of focuses specifically on space history. It was diving back into not just the overall history of the program but the fine details.  A good example is that as the astronauts were approaching a landing on the moon, they encountered several alarms, which is shown in the film. A 1202 alarm, a 1201. There's a whole story about how there was a guy in the back room, Jack Harmon, who recognized those alarms only because he had taken part in the simulation where he sort of got chewed out by the head of mission control for not knowing what they were.  He had a cheat sheet made up that he had on his desk but before he could even find that cheat sheet, he remembered what it was and called it up to the front room. We hear that audio for the first time in this film because of the 30-track and the resyncing of that audio together so we hear him calling Steve Bales who gives the word to Gene Kranz as the flight director, who then tells Charlie Duke as the capsule communicator to radio it up to the crew and you hear that whole exchange.  But what we don't hear is the alarm itself because unlike a lot of films that have portrayed it, it's not a blaring alarm in the cabin. It was only in their earpiece. You couldn't hear it on the space-to-ground. The only people to ever hear it were the astronauts. So we got this question—so what did it sound like? So diving into the documents, I finally found a discussion of the alarm and basically the decibels that it was and the length and what scale would we cross and provide that.  Then in the studio, they made that sound back up, they sent me back a file and said, "Is this what it sounds lik?." I was like, "Well, I wasn't there but yes that is." Later we found out from Mike Collins and Buzz Aldrin that that's actually what they heard. There was that aspect of it and it was also just providing feedback when there were decisions to be made about substituting in film from other missions when we didn't have Apollo 11 footage. Apollo 11 was focused on going to the moon for the first time and landing people there.  They were not focused—their task was not to document the whole thing on film. The fact that we have as much as we do is amazing. Initially, NASA didn't even want to give up the weight to put a camera on board—a film camera not video camera but a still camera onboard the lunar module. They didn't want to let them take pictures on the moon because of the weight issues.Todd Douglas Miller:  Having said that, they still shot 1,025 images spread across seven magazines.  It was pretty amazing.Robert Pearlman:  There's this tremendous archive of it but it didn't capture everything.  There were times where there needed to be a decision made. Are you serving history well at the same time as serving the film well in terms of when you substitute footage from another mission and when you don't?  I think Todd did an amazing job of striking that balance.Todd Douglas Miller:  This was driven by the by the astronauts really.Robert Pearlman:  The scenes that are substituted in are historically accurate.  They're not replacing something that they didn't do. They are actually showing on screen the activity like trans-lunar injection or capturing what the astronauts saw like the eclipse of the solar corona that the Apollo 11 astronauts saw on the moon.