History in the Remaking: Piecing Together the Spectacular Sound of ‘Apollo 11’


Director/editor Todd Douglas Miller’s first small step into space documentaries was The Last Steps (2016) — a 20-minute short film on the final manned lunar landing mission Apollo 17, which was cut from newly restored footage captured by NASA and the Apollo 17 crew.  While working on that film, archive producer Stephen Slater sparked Miller’s interest in the Apollo 11 mission. With the door to NASA and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) now open, and with CNN Films eager to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing with a new film, Miller was prepared to take the giant leap into creating the 90-minute IMAX feature film Apollo 11. Watch the film’s TV premiere on Sunday, June 23 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CNN.

Miller’s inquiry to NARA for Apollo 11 audio/visual materials resulted in the discovery of an unprocessed collection of 65mm large format footage that documented six Apollo missions including Apollo 11. The pristine footage contained shots of the launch, the inside of Mission Control, the capsule recovery, and post-mission activities. The 65mm collection was digitized at Final Frame, a post-production facility in New York City that helped create a custom, high dynamic range scanner capable of scanning at resolutions up to 8K. At Final Frame, they also re-scanned the existing Apollo 11 16mm and 35mm materials. Altogether, it’s the highest resolution, highest quality digital collection of Apollo 11 footage in existence.

Eric Milano, Apollo 11 sound designer/Foley artist/re-recording mixer (Photo credit: Todd Miller)

The search for Apollo 11 material also yielded over 11,000 hours of new Mission Control audio — individual track recordings of 60 key mission personnel throughout every moment of the mission. Among those voices were official NASA public-affairs officers, who calmly narrate the events as they unfold. For example, leading up to the launch, there’s a leaking gas valve that crews quickly try to repair, reported on matter-of-factly by one of the public-affairs officers.

Then, there was the meticulous, forensic process of syncing the Mission Control audio to the images since all the footage was MOS (without sound). It required patience and detective work — like, searching for visual clues in the footage that corresponded to events unfolding in the recordings. For instance, in Apollo 11, when you see Flight Director Gene Kranz saying, “CAPCOM, we’re go for landing,” you actually hear him saying those words. That’s all thanks to Slater, who put those two pieces of the Apollo 11 mission puzzle back together.

It wasn’t just the Mission Control footage that was shot MOS. “None of the footage from any part of the film had sound whatsoever,” says Eric Milano, Apollo 11 sound designer/Foley artist/re-recording mixer. “All of that had to be re-created or re-synced, such as the voices from Mission Control that were synced by hand. The moments where you see lip-sync were not because the camera had audio. It’s because ‘space nerd’ Ben Feist spent a lot of time digitizing and organizing the Mission Control audio while developing a custom algorithm to remove tape wow and flutter from all 11,000 hours.  And Stephen Slater spent a lot of time syncing that to picture.”

Milano handled sound editorial and pre-mixing at The Love Loft audio post studio in New York. While he wasn’t involved with the lip-sync process, he was busy creating sound for everything else in the film.  “Todd [Miller] was still cutting the film when he came to me with the first 20 minutes, saying I had a week to do everything, mix it, and get it good because of an upcoming screening with some big wigs. I didn’t even have time to hire anyone else. I just had to make it happen and make it awesome. Sometimes when the pressure is on like that, great things result.”

Milano began work on the first 20 minutes of Apollo 11, which covered the pre-launch footage on the ground. Helicopters fly over crowds gathered in a parking lot near the launch site. Enormous crawler-transporters carry the rocket to the launch pad. A massive swing arm extends the gangplank to the shuttle’s entry point. There are bleachers set up at a different location where a PA system broadcasts the voice of NASA’s public-affairs officer giving the play-by-play of what’s happening. Every single sound — crowds, applause, environmental sounds, helicopters, mechanical sounds, etc. — was edited in by Milano. “Everything we wanted to hear, to bring the film to life, had to be re-created and made to sound like it was happening in 1969,” he says.

And the voice coming through the PA, of course, was edited in too. Milano added processing to make it feel real. “Apparently, that’s how it actually was on the day. But, we had to re-create that because the footage didn’t have audio,” says Milano. To make the voice sound like it’s coming through a PA in 1969, he used several plug-ins by AudioThing. “They make these old analog processing emulators. My favorites are Speaker, Reels, and Fog Convolver. I used them to give an analog feel. Then I put a little delay on the voice and voilà.”

The challenge of building the crowds was to find and layer together voices that were indistinct enough and era-appropriate enough. The outdoor crowds ranged in size depending on the shot, and their sounds needed to match the anticipatory mood of those on screen. There’s a scene in which hundreds of journalists gathered for the event. The film cuts to different shots of them busily typing on typewriters and making phone calls. Milano crafted a bustling ambience and crowd, but then went one step further for added immersion and believability. “There’s a fairly close-up shot of a reporter clearly saying something that I felt we would have heard. I wanted everything in these first few scenes to feel as real as possible, to help the audience feel as though they were very much there. Having a medium close-up shot of a guy with his lips flapping and not hearing him wouldn’t have supported that.  So I set up a mic and did my best imitation of a 1960’s reporter while lip reading!  It actually worked well and helps sell the scene,” says Milano.

For inside Mission Control, Milano mixed telemetry sounds and machine sounds with real background voices that he pulled from the Mission Control recordings. There’s one scene in which the camera rolls past row after row of machines and people sitting at their work stations. Milano wanted to emphasize that movement, so he played machine hums through a speaker in his studio and passed a handheld mic in front of it each time the camera passed a row of machinery. Those recordings “gave the machine sounds a natural EQ and volume that was in sync with the camera movements,” he explains.

One of the most powerful sequences in Apollo 11 is the rocket launch. The ignition and liftoff sounds are from actual recordings from people who were there. Since those recordings are in the public domain, Milano was able to use them for his re-creation of the event. “You want to be as authentic as possible because it’s a documentary and you want to get the factual sound,” says Milano. He deferred to consultants on the film — including Neil Armstrong’s son — who were actually at the launch and were able to share very specific details they remembered about it. “One that Neil’s son was really into was this sort of popcorn sound that was happening toward the end of it.  So, if you listen to the section that follows the initial blast off, you hear this crackling, popcorn sound which almost sounds like distortion. But it’s not. That’s actually how it sounded. That sound was in some of the recordings and so we tried to emphasize that.”

As the rocket lifts off, there’s a close-up of the thruster slowly rising through the frame and the whole screen lights up with fire. To add movement to what would otherwise be a steady-state burning sound, Milano gradually boosted the high frequencies in time with the flaming booster visuals. “Just as the fire comes onto the screen, I start to EQ a particular band in the high-frequency range. This gave the sound some dynamics and movement, so it changes as the picture is changing. It really emphasized that now the fire is on-screen and the rocket is really taking off at that point,” he shares.

Eric Milano, Apollo 11 sound designer/Foley artist/re-recording mixer (Photo credit: Ross Kauffman)

Milano used the FabFilter Pro-Q 2 to EQ movement into the thruster fire sound. It was also invaluable for removing specific harsh tones from the Mission Control audio. And, he used it to create the sound of the astronauts’ cassette player in space.

There’s a scene in which the astronauts, returning home from their successful mission to the moon, decide to play some music. The song, “Mother Country” by John Stewart, comes through the tiny cassette player speaker. Using the AudioThing plug-ins, Milano gave the track a 1960’s analog tape sound and tiny speaker feel.  Then, as the device spins lazily in zero-gravity, Milano used the FabFilter Pro-Q 2 to add some movement. “I wanted it to feel like it really was spinning and all I used was EQ to create that effect,” he attests.

The AudioThing plug-ins were also used in the re-creation of the 1202 alarm that goes off during the lunar module landing. Milano points out that the only place that alarm sound was playing was in the earpiece of the astronauts. It was never recorded. Fortunately, the spacecraft manuals were so precise that they even included specs on the 1202 alarm sound. “It was a sine wave tone at 440 Hz that plays for a half second and then it flips up to 1 kHz for a half second. It then oscillates back and forth. Just from that write-up, I was able to re-create that sound using the signal generator in Pro Tools.  Then, I ran that through a chain of AudioThing plug-ins to make it sound really dirty. That’s how we re-created the 1202 alarm, which hadn’t been heard before except by the astronauts and the technicians of that time,” says Milano.

As a documentary, Apollo 11 was focused on accuracy, but the film has a fine sense of artistry as well. From a storytelling perspective, the film takes an in-the-moment approach as opposed to a looking-back approach. There are no voiceovers commenting on the event. There are no insert interviews with experts or participants. Instead, Miller uses the dialogue between Mission Control and the astronauts, and the recorded audio from the NASA public-affairs officers, to replay this historical event as if it was happening right now. The Apollo 11 mission plays out in a linear timeline, from pre-launch to capsule recovery.

In terms of sound, Milano crafted a soundtrack that adds to the immediacy of the story perspective. The audience feels a close connection to those in the driver’s seat and to those on the ground. Take the launch sequence, for example. As the countdown nears completion, all ambient sounds fade away. Only a deep, chest-thumping heartbeat sound punctuates each final second. Your own heart beats in time, and you internalized the magnitude of the moment. “Even though you see a little bit of flame, the director wanted to keep that silent until after the heartbeats went away,” says Milano, who final mixed Apollo 11 in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround at Gigantic Studios in Mix C. The film was then upmixed for IMAX by Brian Eimer at ImagesInSound in Toronto, ON.

That heartbeat sound was from composer Matt Morton, who has scored all of Miller’s films. Morton’s Apollo 11 score uses only era-appropriate instruments, including a 1968 Moog Synthesizer IIIc. “I love Matt Morton’s music, maybe a little too much!” says Milano. “There’s one part where the Lunar Lander has to reconnect with the larger capsule that has been orbiting around the moon. You see this tiny dot of the Lunar Lander from a camera that is on the larger capsule, and the dot gets bigger and bigger as the Lander gets closer. There is beautiful score there by Matt Morton. When first laying it in I got so lost in its beauty that I started really pushing it in the mix and the director pulled me back, laughing and saying this couldn’t be the biggest scene in the movie. It was certainly a big moment but not the biggest. I think that speaks to Matt Morton’s talent, that he had me so lost in his score that I forgot about the mix for a moment and just wanted to turn it up!”

Learn morehttps://www.cnn.com/shows/apollo-11-cnn-film

Images courtesy of CNN Films


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