An Interview with Stephen Slater, Apollo 11 Archive Producer

Stephen Slater, Apollo 11 Archive Producer

Stephen Slater, Apollo 11 Archive Producer Congratulations on the film. It’s amazing. It must be very gratifying given your background with NASA archive footage and the work you’ve done on space related films. How did your interest in that footage evolve?

Stephen Slater: Thank you very much, the reaction has been really heartwarming.

I guess my work on these long form projects started when I produced and directed a documentary called “Destination Titan,” about an unmanned spacecraft that landed on the moon of Saturn called Titan, which first aired on BBC FOUR in 2011. Apart from shooting interviews I pretty much had a hand in everything on that project, and it involved a significant amount of archive, which sparked my interest in that side of storytelling.

The film detailed how a group of British scientists built an experiment for this European space probe and the personal sacrifices involved, and given that much of this had happened in the mid 1990s (when I was a child), I needed to locate stock footage of them building the probe, from the mission control room during the encounter when the scientists were waiting for the data to come back, and all that kind of thing. It was a real labor of love doing all that.

FN: Was that when you started collecting NASA footage and building your space archive?

SS: I’ve always been interested in the Apollo programme since watching Apollo 13 at the cinema as a child, and so that occurred parallel to the Titan project, and it was around that time (circa 2010) when I started taking a deep interest in the extant archive from the Apollo era. I undertook this rather crazy project where I would attempt to lip sync audio from the "in flight" air to ground communication loops, to the 16mm mission control footage, which was all shot completely silent. 

There was only one guy in mission control who was talking to the astronauts, he was called the capsule communicator (CAPCOM), and so I’d look for footage of him where his lips were moving, and I'd then try and locate the corresponding audio. I was also working with a stock footage library (no longer in existence) who supplied a lot of NASA material, and that led to me working on projects related to Apollo, and becoming known as a specialist archive producer... although I’m still not really sure what that title means! 

FN: So that experience led to your work on the Apollo 11 project?

SS: I worked on quite a few space documentaries.. I suppose the main one being “The Last Man on the Moon,” which is a biographical documentary about Gene Cernan, who was the last of the Apollo astronauts to leave the lunar surface in 1972. It was probably a good year of research that went into that film.

By the time of that project I’d already built up this large collection of NASA footage, and it had become easier for producers to come to me for material than to go directly to NASA (mainly because of their cumbersome bureaucracy, and fast turnaround schedules). So I was already used to receiving enquiries, and supplying footage specific to various productions.

In early 2016, Todd Douglas Miller, who is the director of Apollo 11, contacted me about a short film they were making about the Apollo 17 mission called the “Last Steps" (actually the same Apollo mission which Gene Cernan commanded). Todd's idea was to tell that story only with archive, in exactly the same style as Apollo 11 would become. It was a short, 30-minute film, from CNN Films / Great Big Story, which premiered in late 2016, and it was during the production of that film that the key relationships were formed for the Apollo 11 film.

So, a couple months after I’d sent Todd all this Apollo 17 footage, he came back to me and said, ‘here’s a rough cut, what do you think?’  And my reaction was "wow, this is great".  It just really jumped off the screen.  The music and the editing were pretty much perfect.

"The Last Steps" premiered at the Hamptons Film Festival in the first week of October 2016, and it was after that screening when we all met face-to-face for the first time that I first pitched the idea, "well you’ve got the anniversary coming up and I have this background with the Apollo 11 synchronised footage.. I think that’s something we could work with for the 50th anniversary"... which by that stage was 2.5 years away.  So that’s how it started.

FN: Got it. So how did you begin putting together this NASA archive? If I’m not mistaken you have something like 20,000 hours of NASA footage in your own archive.

SS: Yeah, it’s a combination of my own research and relationships I’ve formed with NASA, but then also through projects I have worked on over the years I’ve just accumulated a lot of that material, but more importantly the knowledge of how to navigate the sources, and being able to find where things are. So I see what I have as the "greatest hits" of NASA (although I obviously have a lot more than that), and that's probably good enough for most films, but then there’s a huge other layer of material behind that, which we can tap into for more in depth projects like "APOLLO 11", when I'm fully deployed as a researcher.

I didn't have absolutely everything related to the Apollo 11 mission when we started production on "APOLLO 11", which is why we went and scanned things like the 70mm footage. That came to light what we started to dig very deep.

FN: So most of the material in the film came either from NASA itself, from the National Archives or from you.

SS: Correct. Some of it was material that I had anyway.  Anything that was shot in space came directly for me, so we didn't go back and re-scan all that stuff, but for all the footage that was shot on the ground, like the 70mm reels and a lot of the 16mm reels, it was a case of assessing whether we had the best quality, and if we needed to go back in and have it re-scanned.  So we actually went in and upgraded some of the footage I already had available.

The 70mm reels were completely unknown to me so that’s the real new "headline" element I’d say we found for this film.  There’s actually quite a few things, but that was the most significant.

FN: So you were doing a couple of key things. You were attempting to get the most definitive visual record of the mission, and you were also going back and trying to get the best quality restoration of it.

SS: Well the first task was to locate (as crazy as it sounds!) everything that existed in the NASA archive related to Apollo 11. We set ourselves that challenge.  I obviously already had a lot of stuff anyway, so it was a case of sourcing additional bits and pieces. We can never know for sure that we have everything of course, but once we had a good idea of what existed it was a case of transferring it all in the best possible resolution, and that involved working out what format it was shot on, and whether what we currently had access to was the original, or some kind of duplicate. We would also have a team at the National Archives inspect the film keycodes to ensure that the team were scanning an original source every single time. Then there’s the 70 mm footage of course, which we found out about via an email from one of the supervisory archivists in May 2017. That was one of the greatest days of my life as a researcher, because it was so unexpected.

I remember before we really came to terms with just how amazing it was that I was viewing 16mm shots of things like the astronauts suiting up, or the Saturn V on the way to the pad. At the time I was thinking we might need that, but it obviously proved completely superfluous once we saw the quality of the 70mm, as it turned out that the 70mm operators had covered very similar scenes, and this footage was just light years better in terms of resolution.

For mission control there was a lot less 70mm available, and what we had was badly underexposed, therefore we had to rely largely on the 16mm. But having the large format reels available for other elements of the mission significantly changed the scope of the project.

FN: I’m amazed that the 70-millimeter footage could have stayed hidden for so long.

 SS: It’s actually not true that I didn’t know of its existence. There was a film that NASA commissioned called “Moonwalk One,” directed by a quite an avant-garde filmmaker called Theo Kamecke. NASA wanted to document the moon landing and have a sort of official film, and they hired Theo to do it. He worked with the Francis Thompson Company, which produced a lot of large-format films in the 60s, and it was actually Theo’s first project as a director.

In 2009 for the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing I worked with a team to restore “Moonwalk One” and release it on DVD.  It’s quite a trippy, avant-garde, and in some respects quite dated, piece of work. But it has a lot of very famous shots in it, including shots of the crew walking out and people watching the launch, with the rocket reflected in peoples sunglasses, etc.  All of those shots originated in “Moonwalk One.”

Theo supervised the "restoration" 10 years ago, and actually for that project we used a 35mm print that he just happened to have. At the time we thought we were using the only surviving or the best original copy of the film, but that turned out not to be the case. It was common knowledge that they shot many scenes in the film, particularly of the Apollo 11 launch, in 70 mm, and I'd been led to believe that those elements had been destroyed.

FN: So you knew that it had been shot but you didn’t know that it had survived?

SS: I certainly knew that the “Moonwalk One” launch scenes had been shot in 70mm, but I wasn’t prepared for the fact that there was so much other footage from that time, shot in that format. There were hundreds of reels that we found spanning from the Gemini programme, all the way through to Apollo 13.

FN: So how many total hours of footage was there?

SS: Well it’s approximately 165 reels of 70 mm film, plus a lot of additional engineering footage of the launch, which was shot in a format called 70mm 10 perf (no, me neither!!). But I would say an average of between 5 and 10 minutes per reel. We are not talking hundreds and hundreds of hours of 70mm footage, but we are talking about several hours of very high quality stuff. They didn’t just leave the camera running to shoot the floor, after all film was expensive, even with NASA's budgets! So it’s quality over quantity for sure. But still there are hundreds of times more than we were able to include in the completed "APOLLO 11" film.

FN: Was there a particular type of camera that was used to shoot the 70 mm?

SS: It was a format called Todd AO. The inventor's name was Mike Todd, and he was (one of many people!) married to Elizabeth Taylor. The company is still going although they are actually not making film or cameras anymore, I think they provide sound related services.

Their 70mm process was used to shoot the “Sound of Music” and “Lawrence of Arabia” and a lot of those cinerama types of films in the 50s and 60s, and then it just kind of fell out of fashion and I guess IMAX took over. So it was a precursor I’d say for IMAX.  But 70mm as a format has obviously had a recent resurgence with Tarantino and Chriostopher Nolan, albeit not with exactly the same flavour of 70mm

FN: I understand that the restoration was done with some kind of new prototype scanner?

SS: Well there’s very restricted scanners in the world that can deal with 70mm film, and for the ones that did exist, I think before this project there was one in L.A and one in London, however it’s extremely cumbersome, they’re very slow at scanning stuff, and it’s not something that we could contemplate because the National Archives will not just send this film anywhere. We had to enter a partnership agreement with them, which meant that the film was then sent to our facility at Final Frame in New York, who had developed a prototype scanner that could really deal with the reels properly and scan it in a far less cumbersome way, and in the timeframes that we needed, so we wouldn’t need to have a 10 year production schedule!! With this scanner, essentially it's a lot more flexible than most, in that it’s not pin registered, and the film doesn't need to physically touch the scanner, it rides on a bed of compressed air.  But you need to talk to somebody more technical than me, to understand the inner workings!! The short answer is that yeah we invented the scanner effectively to do it, although not me personally. I do have certain skills but I don’t know how to do that!

FN: The lip-syncing really adds a lot to the film. The idea that you got that audio synced to the shots in mission control, it is just a crucial piece of the film.  So that’s something you’ve been doing for years.

SS: Yeah, to follow on from what I said earlier, all we had available when we started this project was the CAPCOM audio, so whenever the crew spoke to the ground there was a guy in mission control who could communicate with the astronauts, and I had lip-synced some of that dialogue from the Apollo 11 descent and landing in particular. But what we started this project we gained access to an additional 11,000 hours of what’s known as the "30-track audio".

All of the guys in mission control had communication headsets, and in each of those headsets they were talking on their own unique loop. There are essentially 60 channels of audio from the nine day mission, so when one of those guys was talking and it was an official communication he would key his microphone and then what he said would be recorded onto that loop. So for example, you could listen through the guidance officer's loop if you wanted to know what he was saying at a particular time in the mission (e.g during the landing!) , and you could isolate that channel.

It might sound easy, but actually the way we received the audio was on a hard drive full of random files, and because it had come from analogue tape, there had been a lot of technical issues introduced when it was digitised like wow and flutter,  which basically meant that you couldn’t lock it into a timeline.

A lot of our production team's work mirrors the controllers at the time. We were guided by something called the Mission Elapsed Time, which is a clock that starts when the rocket launches and ends when they splashdown. And for us to be able to work with that effectively we needed to get all of that audio into a timeline and lock it to the mission clock. One of the 30 track channels actually had contained something called I-Rig Timecode, and my colleague Ben Feist and his team worked out a way of deciphering that, and correcting all the audio so that it was locked to that timecode, and therefore to the mission clock.

The end result of that is that we had an audition project for each tape, and a nine-day timeline where I could on/off any of those channels at any time.  So if I want to know what the retrofire officer is saying at 103 hours into the mission I can go to that point in the timeline, isolate that channel and voila. Where my skills really come into play is if we have 16mm footage showing (for example) the retrofire officer talking, and we know he was on shift at a certain time, then we can use that information to go to an approximate mission time, and I can do my lip-syncing and hopefully eventually match the words with the footage of him mouthing!!  So we did that for every clip like that throughout the whole mission. Eventually, pretty much every time we had a shot of a controller who appeared to be talking, I would find a way of locating that audio.

There are hundreds of those clips from the mission now correctly matched, but obviously we were only able to use a certain number of them in the film.

FN: What kind of cameras did they have in the capsule and on the moonwalk?

SS: They had two 16 mm cameras, one that went down to the lunar surface, and one that stayed in orbit.  And they could be shot at varied speeds (24 frames a second, 12 frames a second, 6 frames or 1 frame per second were their parameters).

When Buzz Aldrin went down the ladder he left the camera running in the window at one frame per second in the window, and it captured them erecting the flag, etc.  So there is 16 mm and there is also television footage, which we haven’t talked about. That was obviously significantly lower quality than the 16mm.

FN: And that was being broadcast from or sent from the capsule and being recorded on the ground?

SS: Yeah, it was sent to tracking stations on the ground and relayed to Houston. But there's a whole other story of how those pictures were recorded, and in some cases misplaced or lost. We didn't actually include very much of that in the film because it isn't very cinematic.   

FN: So in terms of getting most of the footage, you didn’t need to track it down from people around the world, like collectors and so forth.

SS: The National Archive was the main repository for the film. The 16mm footage from the flight I already had, so we didn’t need to track any of that down. I’m not sure there would have been any benefit in re-scanning that because what I have is very good, with it being a high-definition transfer.

It’s not entirely true that we didn’t rely on other people.  There are some amazing researchers in Australia who actually supplied us with the television material, but you'd need another four articles to describe that saga!

FN: Do you have any favorite moments in the film?

SS: My favorite archive in the film is the shots of the people on the beach on the morning of the launch. It just puts you right back in 1969, like opening a time capsule. I think that’s really powerful when you can see hairstyles and trends from the time, coupled with the realisation that many of the individuals pictured are now dead.

My favorite sequence in the film is actually when the landing module is rendezvousing with Michael Collins in the command module.  I like it because of the music, and pacing really. That is footage which I’ve had in my collection for 10 years, so it wasn't a "never before seen" moment, but Todd just let it run and let it breathe. And, although I do think the 70mm material is amazing and everyone’s been amazed by it, I don’t think that’s what makes the film a success. It’s been well-made, it’s been well edited, there’s been a vision behind doing it a different way, and I think people are responding to that. So if we lived in an alternative universe where that 70 mm stuff had been destroyed, Todd would still have made very good film because I think he knows what he’s doing.

FN: So had you ever seen that footage on the big screen before? What was it like to see it at that scale?

SS: No I hadn’t. No one had. The first time I saw it we had a test screening at the IMAX Theater in DC at the Air and Space Museum in late 2017. We selected some reels to prioritize and get transferred, which was the reels of the astronauts suiting up in the crew quarters, and the crawler taking the Saturn V rocket to the pad.  So as I’m sure you can imagine it was amazing seeing all that for the first time. It was amazing, although I felt more emotional seeing it with Matt Morton’s music in the finished film.

At one of our Sundance screenings, during some of the shots of the recovery depicting the naval helicopters winching the crew up from the floating capsule, I remember feeling quite emotional. That’s when it really hit me I think.

FN: Your space archive, do you make that commercially available?

SS: Yes I do.  I get a lot of inquiries about it.  Obviously those are becoming more numerous now, given the wide release of the film. But I don’t really have a set way of working with producers. Licensing is not really the right term to use when people want to work with me, as it’s not really the service I’m providing. I’m not trying to sell myself as a footage library really.  It got a bit crazy during the anniversary, particularly last minute requests the week of the anniversary!

The other thing I found is that it seemed that every broadcaster in the world was trying to do the same thing that we did with "APOLLO 11", so it puts you in this rather weird position where you almost want to say to people, why don’t you go and do a different film? Tell a different story. Why would someone want to do exactly the same thing that we are doing? It’s something that frustrates me about our industry sometimes... the lack of imagination. But I suppose it’s ultimately flattering that there are lots of interest in this subject, and therefore interest in my archive.

FN: What’s next for you?

SS: Well actually I’m not sure I can talk about that. Let’s just say I’m doing a non-space related film!

FN: Will you do more space related projects in the future?

 SS: I’ll see. I mean, if someone comes to me and wants access to footage, and I’m just supplying the material, then I can see that that’s going to carry on. As to whether I’ll be involved in a project like "APOLLO 11"… it’s hard to see how you could really improve on that, as it was such a unique thing to be part of. It would have to be something completely different I think.