How a vintage film format brought Apollo 11 back to life

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface in this photo taken on July 20, 1969. The documentary Apollo 11 contains real-life footage of the mission.
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface in this photo taken on July 20, 1969. The documentary Apollo 11 contains real-life footage of the mission. PHOTO: NASA

WASHINGTON • New documentary Apollo 11, which tells the story of man's first steps on the Moon, contains footage so striking that it seems practically a crime that it remained hidden for nearly five decades.

The film - which premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January but hit American theatres only last weekend - injects new life into the most famous space mission of all time, which transfixed the world from July 16 to 24, 1969.

It blends images that are well known with long lost gems found in a US National Archives warehouse and digitised for the first time.

"A good 50 per cent of the film is images that have never been seen before but really, 100 per cent of it has really never truly been seen before - the quality of it all," director Todd Douglas Miller said in a recent interview.

The visuals are mesmerising: seen in colour in a theatre, the tracks of the giant National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) crawler-transporter - used to carry the massive Saturn V rocket that launched the crew into space - fill the entire screen.

The captivating shots were a few of the many found on 177 65mm reels uncovered by Mr Dan Rooney, supervisory archivist of the National Archives film section.

They were found poorly labelled, without any real indication of their contents except for a generic Apollo 11, at a storage facility in the Maryland suburbs where the temperature was below freezing.

"We knew these large format holdings existed, but it took a lot of research to really understand what was there," said Mr Rooney, who worked with Miller to bring the reels to the silver screen.

"The real discovery part was in the research that led us to a lot of new information about the content and the quality of the material."

All told, the National Archives provided the film crew with 279 reels of 16, 35, 65 and 70mm film. The 65mm and 70mm were considered the luxury format of their time, used in cinemas in the 1950s and 1960s.

Only a part of the trove was used for the 1972 film Moonwalk One.

Nasa used the large formats for filming ground operations at the Kennedy Space Centre and on the ship used to retrieve astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins at the end of their historic mission.

As the camera pans from the top to the bottom of the rocket, viewers get a sense of its sheer enormity, as the astronauts silently pull on their suits. Also captured is the space mania among the public at that time, as thousands took to Cocoa Beach to watch the launch, binoculars in hand.

Back at the National Archives, a team of 25 is working to finish digitising the rediscovered film reels to make them public.

Mr Rooney says it is likely that all the material related to Apollo 11 and in the National Archives' possession has now been found, but adds: "I can't say for sure that they don't exist somewhere else."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 13, 2019, with the headline 'How a vintage film format brought Apollo 11 back to life'. Print Edition | Subscribe