Lights! Cameras! Apollo 11! Director Reveals Inside Look at Epic Moon Landing Documentary

The new documentary "Apollo 11," out in theaters today (March 8), pulls viewers into the historic launch with never-before-seen footage and widescreen views, narrated entirely with broadcasts from the time. The film was released in IMAX theatres March 1. 

Director Todd Douglas Miller originally began working with the National Archives' collection for another space-related film, where he had to learn the provenance of a particular moon rock collected during Apollo 17. That led to a short documentary for CNN Films built from Apollo 17 archive footage, but when CNN Films asked about Apollo 11 — the first moon landing — Miller was not interested.

"I'm like, I don't know — it's too much, it's too saturated, who's ever going to do something that's new about Apollo 11?" Miller told "But little by little I kept getting drawn into it, late nights, and I really just fell in love with the story."

Related: Eleven Hidden Space History Details in New Documentary 'Apollo 11'

"Apollo 11," directed by Todd Douglas Miller. (Image credit: Neon)

And then he and colleagues began to dig — including rescanning all of the National Archives' footage.

"I think the National Archives and NASA thought we were nuts at first when we asked for everything, but we said it's the only way to do it, it's the only way that I would want to be involved, so they graciously obliged," Miller said. "They had no idea how much they actually had."

The group began years of work scanning and converting the footage, including some that had never been digitized before. They also synced all the mission audio with available video footage, and put the whole thing into a giant timeline of how Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins got to the moon and back again.

"A nine-day edit exists of the entire film; we wanted to know exactly what was happening at every single second of every single day," Miller added. "Ben Feist, who did the lion's share of all the audio restoration work with the 30 track … will be coming out with probably that version on a website."

New Views

The Apollo 11 launch activities — including Mission Control, the astronauts themselves and the crowds of people waiting to watch the historic mission — were highly documented on camera, and seeing it all seamlessly tied together provides a sense of immediacy to the whole project. Plus, it shows the real population that made the mission happen, rather than just the few who have been spotlighted in later work.

"We stumbled across this footage of this woman in the firing room," Miller said. "We researched it, we heard her on the 30 track during the initial launch preparations, and her name's JoAnn Morgan; she was the lone woman in the firing room, not only for Apollo 11, [but also] for previous Apollo missions, and then she had a long career at NASA." 

He also included footage of an African-American man who was usually portrayed in Apollo films as sitting in Mission Control — but he wasn't, he was in one of the back rooms, the space analysis room. "He had a very important job, and that was to analyze radiation levels for what was going on in the command module from the solar radiation, and every night, Buzz, Neil and Mike radioed back what their levels were, and it was his job to sit there with his team and analyze all that ... and also to monitor solar flares that were coming and to know if they needed to orient the attitude of the spacecraft to combat that, which I thought was incredible."

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Of course, not every interesting person and exchange made it into the film.

"Another woman, Poppy Northcutt, was a 25-year-old mathematician that was in the back room at JSC, and of course it was the Manned Flight Center back then," he added. "We don't show it in the movie, I can't wait to release the audio later — but she basically corrects one of the retro guys, I won't say who, on flight trajectories after the lunar liftoff … and he's just not getting it. Why is our math off?"

But overall, "It was all these underreported stories that we kept finding through the archives, all these underrepresented people that we really wanted to highlight in the film," Miller said. "And we never found Stanley Kubrick in any of the frames that we saw."

Real time

Though Miller interviewed the people involved and read the memoirs and histories of the mission, he never wanted to include contemporary voices in the film — even the simple line drawings illustrating the mechanics of the space maneuvers, while made for the movie, have a retro feel.

He takes as an example the trans-lunar injection (TLI), when the Apollo spacecraft maneuvered into lunar orbit. "All the Apollo guys talk about it, because most of them call it TLI-ing right into sunrise. I'd never seen that depicted whether it was a fiction or a nonfiction film before."

He had footage from another Apollo mission of that moment which he shared with the remaining Apollo 11 astronauts: "We showed it to Mike, we showed it to Buzz, is this what it looked like? Yes. Or you might want to tweak this here. It was such a great way — it was like, I was doing the interviews, modern-day interviews, but with them on the sideline to go, 'Is this what it looked like?' and tweak it to make it so."

And he says that far from having no commentary, the four public affairs officers who were working in shifts during the mission serve as guides over the course of the film.

"They're amazingly witty, they dumb it down for people that don't want all the math that goes on, and we could kind of choose when to highlight that," he said. "People say there's no narration, but it's literally like watching a sporting event. You're watching it play out in real time."

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Sarah Lewin
Associate Editor

Sarah Lewin started writing for in June of 2015 as a Staff Writer and became Associate Editor in 2019 . Her work has been featured by Scientific American, IEEE Spectrum, Quanta Magazine, Wired, The Scientist, Science Friday and WGBH's Inside NOVA. Sarah has an MA from NYU's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program and an AB in mathematics from Brown University. When not writing, reading or thinking about space, Sarah enjoys musical theatre and mathematical papercraft. She is currently Assistant News Editor at Scientific American. You can follow her on Twitter @SarahExplains.