DirectorTodd Douglas Miller
Release Date(s)2019 (November 4, 2019)
Studio(s)CNN Films/Statement Pictures/Neon/Universal (Dogwoof)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: B-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: C+
If you’re like me, and are either a spaceflight historian or enthusiast or both, you probably think you’ve seen every piece of footage there is of NASA’s legendary Apollo 11 Moon landing. I certainly thought I had. I’ve viewed all the previously released film and video, heard hundreds of hours of audio recordings and interviews, and read all the books. But Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11, produced by CNN Films and distributed by Neon, is a genuine revelation—a kind of miracle that I never imagined possible.
The film is constructed from 100% archival footage, shot by or with the permission of NASA, during the Apollo 11 mission. But the wonder of it stems from the fact that the filmmakers discovered (with the help of the National Archives) some 165 reels of large format 70mm film, some of it shot in 1969 by Theo Kamecke (in 5-perf 65mm Todd-AO format) for a film called Moonwalk One (originally backed but later abandoned by MGM). Fully 61 of those reels were directly related to Apollo 11, most of which hadn’t been seen in decades. (You can read more about this discovery here at Vanity Fair and here at my friend Robert Pearlman’s CollectSpace website.) The U.S. Government also had rare 10-perf 70mm engineering film relevant to the mission. And of course, abundant 35mm and 16mm film footage was shot by NASA, much of the latter by the actual Apollo 11 astronauts—Neil Armstrong, Mike Collins, and Buzz Aldrin—during the mission.
In terms of the large format footage, I’m trying to think of another documentary discovery that would be equivalent, and all I can come up with is this: It’s as if the combat camera footage from the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944—notoriously lost when a soldier carrying it back to ships offshore on D-Day accidentally dropped the bag of film into the English Channel—hadn’t actually been lost but just misplaced in a government archive somewhere.
Finding this overlooked Apollo 11 footage means that we have a whole new perspective on aspects of this mission that none of us has ever seen before. And the clarity and quality is remarkable. Among the cache of footage are views of the crawler transporter carrying the Saturn V rocket to the launch pad, thousands of Americans gathering around the space center to view the launch, notables like Johnny Carson, Isaac Asimov, Jack Benny, and President Lyndon Johnson in the VIP stands, new views of the rocket on the pad, footage of the hundreds of engineers and controllers in the Launch Control Center, and views of the recovery operations at sea on the USS Hornet. It’s a treasure trove.
What Miller and his team have done is to marry that footage with the best of the previous documentary film to tell the story of the mission, from the arrival of the rocket on the pad and the astronauts suiting up for launch until the moment they emerge from their period of bio-isolation after the mission. But there’s no narrator—through the entire film, you’re hearing the voices of the actual astronauts, mission controllers, and members of the press (Walter Cronkite, in particular) who participated in the mission. This is thanks in large part to a second fortuitous source, which is NASA’s recent release of the “30 track” audio recordings from the mission, newly restored by audio technicians and volunteers from the public. These recordings encompass some 11,000 hours of previously unheard audio that includes 60 different members of the Mission Control team. That audio has been cleaned up and matched to all of the existing footage.
With all of this audio and film assembled for the first time, it’s as if you’re a fly on the wall for the entire mission. There are no visual effects. All that’s been added are simple graphics to explain the mission timeline and what events are upcoming. As you’re watching some of them, like the actual landing on the moon, you also have subtle on-screen text that shows altitude, fuel remaining, and the like. This is enhanced by an ambient score by Matt Morton composed almost entirely of instruments available at the time (with the addition of John Stewart’s Mother Country, a popular recording at the time that was played by the astronauts via cassette tape during the mission). The result is a completely immersive viewing experience, offering fresh and deeper-than-ever insights on one of the most important events in human history. It’s almost hard to imagine that we ever thought we understood the mission fully before seeing this documentary.
Apollo 11 has been released on Blu-ray here in the States by Universal Studios Home Entertainment (a disc I’ve reviewed here at The Bits), but unfortunately a physical 4K version hasn’t yet been forthcoming here. The good news is, an indie distributor called Dogwoof has just released the film on Ultra HD in the UK. The disc’s 2160p image presents the film in the same 2.20:1 aspect ratio as seen in IMAX screenings. The clarity of the large format footage is even more stunning than it was on the Blu-ray release, obviously due to the fact that much of this footage was scanned in 8K and 16K. But the bad news is that the high dynamic range grade (HDR10) is way too aggressive. The result is that significant shadow detail now disappears into crushed blacks (especially in the 16mm Mission Control footage, but really throughout the whole film), while the highlights are occasionally too hot looking (in the astronaut walkout, for example, suit detail is lost). But what’s far worse is that the color grade is completely different here than on HD. The opening shots of the crawler-transporter look really pink now, and they don’t on the previous Blu-ray. (I should also add that I’ve had the privilage of standing next to that crawler-transporter on the actual causeway at KSC and I can confirm that it isn’t pink. So the 4K color grade is in error.) There are glaring differences throughout the entire film. It’s as if a different person graded each version, using very different approaches to the coloring. But while the Blu-ray is lovely and natural looking, the 4K HDR… just isn’t. It certainly pops, and some shots actually look great. But color-wise, the film looks very different than it did before and I found it off-putting. I’ve reviewed over 200 4K UHD titles here at The Bits (and looked at many more), comparing each to their BD counterparts. Rarely have I seen such a dramatic difference in the coloring between the HD SDR and 4K HDR. And a lot of detail has been lost.
The way an HDR grade is supposed to work, is that you create a more life-like chroma and contrast space. Darks are deepened but without losing detail, brights are brightened but again without losing detail, and the color should look similar and accurate but also enriched by the fact that you’re now in a 10 or 12-bit 4K color space (as opposed to 8-bit in HD) and by the fact that you now have a wider gamut. The result is a more natural and dimensional image. What’s not supposed to happen are drastic changes to the color palette; what was green or gray before should not now be pink. So this HDR grade fails on all counts. Part of the problem here, I suspect, is that this documentary is compiled from multiple image sources, and each offers different degrees of contrast and color information available in the negative. So when grading for HDR, you have to grade each shot individually—and you have to treat each film format differently (what works well for 65mm neg doesn’t work as well for 16mm). A one-setting-fits-all approach just doesn’t apply here. Overall, this HDR grade should be much more restrained than it is and it’s deeply frustrating. I really want to love this image. But this whole presentation is so uneven that honestly, I much prefer the Blu-ray image.
[Editor’s Note: I’ve now compared the 4K HDR version on Vudu to the Dogwoof 4K disc, and it appears to be the same. So this is how the HDR is apparently meant to look. Nevertheless, the difference between the Blu-ray color timing and the 4K HDR grade has been noticed by others as well. The comments and screenshot comparisons in this post at Blu-ray.com are worth checking out as is the rest of that thread.]
Primary audio on the 4K is offered in the same lossless English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix that was available on the Blu-ray (a 2.0 DTS-HD MA track is also available). Now, keep in mind that this is a documentary with audio composed almost entirely from vintage recordings, so don’t expect a lot of sonic wiz-bang. What you get is mostly front and center, with the surrounds used for ambience. The exceptions are moments where the score really kicks in and of course the Saturn V launch. But the dialogue audio is largely clear and clean, with the exception of radio crackle, crosstalk, and other qualities inherent in the original recordings. This 4K audio is certainly reflective of the theatrical sound experience. Optional subtitles are available in English SDH, which is handy for moments when the astronauts and mission controllers are all talking at once or when jargon or engineering terminology is being used.
The US Blu-ray release included only two extras and both of those carry over here in HD:
- Apollo 11: Discovering the 65mm (1:31)
- Theatrical Trailer (1:53)
The trailer is the same one that was on the Universal Blu-ray. Oddly though, the Discovering the 65mm piece is more than a minute shorter than the version on the previous BD (which was 2:54). Yet this 4K disc adds one new HD feature that’s pretty great:
- Trans-Earth Injection Cue Walkthrough with Composer Matt Morton (14:38)
The film’s composer walks you through the many different layers of his Moog-infused score for the scene when Apollo 11 begins its burn home from the Moon to Earth. It’s pretty fascinating, especially for score aficionados and fans of the Moog. No Digital code is included in the package, but you do get a nice set of four postcards featuring Apollo 11 imagery that are exclusive for this release. You also get a Region B Blu-ray version of the film with the same extras.
I must say, I’m very disappointed. Apollo 11 is film I absolutely love. This is a singular piece of documentary filmmaking, nothing less than 50-year-old history made real and immediate right before your eyes in a thrilling 93-minute experience. I was a year and a half old when this mission happened, but I’ve studied it my entire life. Yet after seeing this film, I feel as if I was there in person. But while I appreciate the new featurette, the uneven HDR and significantly altered color grade on this 4K release really detracts from the added resolution. As a result, not only am I sorry to say that I can’t recommend this 4K release, I sincerely hope that if there is a US 4K release forthcoming, the filmmakers will supervise a re-do of this HDR grade with a much lighter hand. And please fix the color.
- Bill Hunt