At 02.56.15 GMT on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong completed the greatest accomplishment in the history of mankind by setting foot on the surface of the Moon. Of course, while it was Armstrong who took the "one small step for man" the "giant leap for mankind" was the result of years of hard work from thousands of Nasa employees at the cost of billions of dollars and several lives – eight American astronauts died either testing or training for the mission.
But while the footage of Armstrong stepping off the Apollo Module and on to the Lunar surface remains etched in minds, Todd Douglas Miller's documentary, Apollo 11, dives deep into the detail and toil of Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins's nine-day journey to the Moon and back. Far from being patched together with whatever archival footage they could get their hands on, Miller and his team had the full backing of Nasa and the National Archives, and as a result, were provided with pristine and never-before-seen bits of footage that paint a meticulous and intimate portrait of what the astronauts actually went through.
Miller started work on the documentary towards the end of 2016, as he wanted to make sure it was ready in time for the 50th anniversary. But it wasn't until May 2017 that he discovered 40 to 50 hours' worth of reels from a high-tech camera that dated back to Nasa's first Gemini mission in 1962, as well as more than 1,000 images that Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins had snapped on their trip. "That really shifted the project, because no one had known about these priceless reels," Miller tells The National. "We also noticed right away that there were all these aerial shots. So we immediately knew that somebody, somewhere, had put this huge, large-format camera on a helicopter. Then the next thing we saw was the astronauts suiting up for the mission. And words can't describe our reaction. We were just completely speechless."
That was the moment Miller really knew they had something special. He then compared that to recorded footage of the mission's dry run just days prior, where all operations except the actual Moon landing were performed. The atmosphere in that footage was "very jovial". It was a completely different scenario to what the filmmakers saw as the astronauts prepared to actually walk on the Moon. Armstrong had clearly had a haircut, too, he recalls. "You juxtapose that with the footage from the day of the launch and you can just see the weight of the world on their faces. The sheer gravity of what they are about to do. So to be able to see that detail in the footage really shook me. I was not prepared to be able to see that kind of emotion. These guys did not know if they were going to come back or not. And this footage was going to take us on that journey."
Miller and his team had to undergo their own rather intense mission to create Apollo 11. Not only did they have to sift through the avalanche of footage they had acquired, but they had to assemble it into a minute-by-minute breakdown of the nine-day journey, which they then edited down to a 93-minute film.
The team had to whittle down the big moments to focus on, find the transition scenes, and then rifle through audio – just in case something had been missed that hadn't been told before. "Time was the most crucial aspect to understanding everything. The mission spans nine days. We knew we wanted to tell the entire story of those nine days. There is a nine-day version of this film, where every single frame of footage is made up of either a film reel or a television broadcast or the broadcast from space that the guys did or a photograph. We had the timeline all laid out exactly how it happened," Miller says.
Throughout the process Miller would ask Aldrin and Collins, "Let's make this about you. What haven't you seen?" The constant communication between the trio, as well as with Armstrong's sons Mark and Eric, allowed him to focus on moments that had previously been overlooked. It led them to one of their most monumental discoveries: that of Armstrong's favourite part of the mission as a whole. And it's not what you might think. "It wasn't setting his foot down on the Moon, it wasn't even landing on the Moon or getting home safely. It was going to the Moon and seeing it a hundred thousand miles out and having a solar eclipse happen. Seeing this 3D version of the Moon.
"Luckily, one of the Apollo missions shot that footage. We put it up and showed it to Buzz, and asked him, 'Was that what it looked like?' He was like, 'Oh, that's the greatest part of the mission.' He even told us how to work on it and accentuate it."
And Aldrin, for instance, was the only one who could tell them which alarm was going off during the landing – whether it was the “1202” or “1201” alarms. This was crucial to get right, Miller says. “We wanted to know what the alarm sounded like in the headset, because we’ve never seen it represented in fiction or non-fiction. “So we worked with Nasa and found a document that had the exact tone that was in the headset and we were able to replicate it. We played it for Buzz and he confirmed it. That was the level of collaboration that allowed us to get everything as right as it possibly could be.”
Not only did this allow Apollo 11 to create an authentic retelling of the space flight, but it also humanised Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins in a way that audiences have never been privy to before. This was the intention, Miller says, and one way to do that was humour.
"You know, Buzz gets off the ladder and says, 'I'll make sure not to close it on my way out.' That's hilarious. These guys are engineer pilots and aerospace engineers and had fought in wars. Aldrin shot down a Korean pilot and Armstrong watched a tonne of his buddies die on the USS Rudolph. So they had steel running through their veins. But to use humour like that, I don't want to psychoanalyse, but it must have been some kind of defence mechanism, as well as camaraderie."
Does Miller think that Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins shared a common characteristic that made them perfect for the Apollo 11 mission?
"First of all it is just their expertise. The differences in their personalities and whether they all got along or not has been analysed enough. But they all shared this intense focus, and that comes through their on-board air to ground transmissions. There were moments in this mission where there was nothing coming through the loops of communication. Whereas in other Apollo missions there was."
Miller is now adamant that the trio knew the gravity of what they were doing at the time. And despite the fact their personalities were all vastly different, they shared one important quality: determination. “These are the three guys you want to put in a command module and blast into outer space. It was just an amazing accomplishment and an amazing team effort.”
Apollo 11 is on DVD and available at Amazon.com