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Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11 in IMAX gives viewers an unseen glimpse of the moon landing

Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11 in IMAX gives viewers an unseen glimpse of the moon landing
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takes viewers back to the launch, flight, moonwalk and return of astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. It features stunning, never-seen footage of the preparation and launch, including crystal-clear images of thousands of spectators – eagle-eyed viewers will spot Isaac Asimov and Johnny Carson in the crowd.

But there’s a wonderful new piece of audio from several days into the flight, recorded on the far side of the moon when the astronauts were out of contact with Earth. They’re prepping the lunar module when Aldrin says: “Let’s get some music.” Then we hear folk singer John Stewart crooning a patriotic, melancholy song titled “Mother Country.”

A scene from the documentary Apollo 11 launch. Neon/CNN Films via AP

“If you played it for me a million times I would never hear it, it’s so faint,” says Miller. “But my producing partner Tom Peterson came in one morning … he said you’ve got to hear this song.”

Miller, Peterson and others had been working their way through 11,000 hours of just-released audio from the Apollo 11 mission – individual controllers in Houston, ship-to-Earth communications and passive recording on Apollo 11, which in this case picked up the sound of Aldrin’s proto-Walkman. The film then transitions to a clearer version of the song, which swells on the soundtrack.

“This is not only the first time that we know that it played,” says Miller, “but it was the first time the musicians knew it had played. We contacted John Stewart’s widow (and fellow folk singer) Buffy Ford Stewart; she was just amazed.” Turns out the Stewarts were friends of many of the astronauts; John later released a song called “Armstrong,” and another, “Walk on the Moon.”

“Mother Country” is just one of the aural treasures in Apollo 11. Composer Matt Morton used a ’68 Moog synthesizer to create the incredible heartbeat sound that plays just before the Saturn V rocket lifts off. “Even though it’s a synthesizer it’s organic,” says Miller. “Air enters into it.”

And sound designer Eric Milano became, in Miller’s word, “obsessed” with the fidelity of his work. He and Miller spent hours inside the Imax theatre at the Smithsonian in Washington, listening to their film.

“We would invite Mike Collins and Buzz – Is this what it sounded like on the inside? OK great.” Then they’d bring in launch witnesses – including Armstrong’s sons, who had been on a boat in the nearby Banana River – to provide feedback on the noise of the Saturn V liftoff.

“We wanted to enhance it, to put the audience there,” says Miller. That included using a so-called Shepard tone, favoured by Christopher Nolan in Dunkirk and other movies; it’s an auditory illusion, a tone that sounds like it’s always rising in pitch, without ever doing so.

But it also meant knowing when to leave the audio alone. “The EVA on the lunar surface, we didn’t want that to be touched in any way. We wanted it to stay as natural as humanly possible.”

Visuals you may have seen a hundred times get a fresh look in Apollo 11. Miller includes a three-and-a-half-minute single take of the view from the lunar module from orbit to landing, and another of the docking with the command module after the moonwalk.

“To show both of those in an unbroken shot was always the intention early on, and really inspired the tone of the film,” says Miller, who then gives credit where it’s due. “There’s a reason why all three astronauts are American Society of Cinematographers members. They deserved it. They shot some of the most iconic things in cinematic history.” And with its clarity, vision and sound, Miller’s film makes it look like it was shot yesterday.

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