David Sington’s Certified Fresh film In the Shadow of the Moon puts us on the Apollo missions, learning first-hand from its crew and through astonishing photography captured onboard the full scale and experience of their missions to the moon. Featuring footage never before seen and all-new interviews with astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Mike Collins and more, it’s a stirring portrait of brave men’s missions to teach us more about the world beyond our own. Rotten Tomatoes caught up with Sington, rather appropriately at London’s Science Museum, to find out more about the film.
Everyone has a fascination with space and the Apollo missions, but what was fascinating about the film was how much footage I don’t think many people have seen.
David Sington: The people who found it really are the producer Duncan Copp and his colleague Chris Reilly who was the archive producer. My company did a film which Duncan directed for us a few years ago. It was a television documentary for National Geographic about a shuttle mission so Duncan spent a lot of time at Johnson filming the training. The public affairs people at Johnson are also the people who look after the archive, so Duncan basically saw this large room full of racks of film cans and asked what it was. They said it was the Apollo film archive, and Duncan realised that basically no-one had actually explored this archive.
At the time of the missions Nasa made thirty-minute film documentaries, from this material, which it put out to the media. If you ring up Nasa and say, “I’d like Apollo footage please,” you get a box of these tapes. And it’s a lot of material; it was a lot of missions. I think for the vast majority of people making a Nasa documentary, that footage is enough. But obviously behind those little films there are 10,000 rolls of original film material, from the early days of the programme right through to the end. I think a lot of people just didn’t really realise it was there.
Nasa themselves had never sought to exploit this material and because we knew about it I think that was a big incentive for us to do the film. It would give us an opportunity, with a decent budget, to spend time in the archive and see what was there, but we were confident there must be hours of interesting material and that it wouldn’t have been seen before.
How does it work in terms of clearing this footage for the film?
DS: The brilliant thing about Nasa is that as a publically-funded organisation this material is public domain. In theory anybody can use it and it’s license-free. However, you also have to get hold of it. That, I think, requires that you can show the archivist that you know what you’re doing and that you have a serious purpose. They’re not going to let any old Tom, Dick or Harry go rifling through these film cans because it’s historically important material. It’s a little bit like going and looking at manuscripts at the British Museum. In theory it’s open to all, but in practice you have to be a reputable scholar and show that you know what you’re doing and that you have a serious purpose for looking at this stuff. Fortunately we had a pre-existing relationship with the people at Nasa because of the previous film we’d made.
Remastering from the film stock to High Definition video is an expensive business and that’s really where the expense lies. We spent a huge deal of money on the archive doing that, so again, in theory it’s free, in practise it’s really, really expensive!
It’s certainly well worth the effort; seeing that footage as sharp and clear as it is in the film is a sight to behold. You realise that you’re not seeing computer graphics, you’re seeing what these astronauts saw.
DS: To me it’s obviously a fantastic technical achievement, Apollo, but it’s also a human experience. A great adventure. It’s also, I think, a really profound moment in human history; because what makes us human is that we’re self-aware. We know our situation while other animals don’t. That self-awareness was certainly not complete, or lacked a crucial element, until human beings were able to leave the Earth; to go into space, and look back at the Earth and then return to it. It’s like leaving your home as a child, or leaving your home city; when you come back you see it differently. I think these people, and there were only twenty-four of them in the whole of human history, have seen what that is, what our human situation is. And that understanding was communicated to us through the pictures but I think you also want to hear it from them, to listen to them talk.
It’s also an important threshold or step in the evolution of human consciousness if one wants to put it in rather grandiose terms. It’s nonetheless true. So I think understanding the human level, the human experience, is very important and that’s the importance of the Apollo missions. It’s not that we returned rock samples from the moon, though that was scientifically enormously important, but that human beings went. It wouldn’t have been the same if it were just a robot, as the Russians sent to the moon.
DS: They’re smart regular guys. I was quite surprised, actually, at how diverse they were as people. Alan Bean’s a very different character to Buzz Aldrin, who’s different again from Mike Collins, who’s different from Charlie Duke. They’re actually as diverse as you can possibly expect ten men of the same nation and generation to be. And also, I think, they’re very funny, and that was another thing that took me by surprise. That allowed the film to have a bit of humour which I think is important for any film, it helps the audience engage with it.
I think we were getting them at a good time as men in their seventies. They were able to look back, I think, once all the hoopla had fallen away. It got them back to the real essence of the experience. And I think that that experience of leaving the Earth and returning has marked them all. It’s a good thing; it gives them a perspective on life. They’ve literally seen the world from a different perspective and a perspective we’ve not seen in film except through photographs, which is not really the same thing. I think that perspective just gives them a rather wonderful sense of what’s important and what’s not important. I think people who know what’s what in some way are calmer and easier to deal with and they don’t get fussed about trivial things. It’s a very attractive personality trait.
In a strange sort of way, they’ve probably got a clearer idea than any of us of our own insignificance too. There’s a line where one of them can’t believe just how fragile the Earth looks from that far out.
DS: I think that the great power of film is that it can take the audience somewhere new, somewhere they haven’t been, and allow them to experience things vicariously through the characters in the film. That’s really the essence of drama, and it has been since the ancient Greeks. As Aristotle explained, it’s all to do with empathising with the characters and feeling, through them, the pity and fear of dramatic events. So I think that one can do that equally powerfully in a non-fiction film. That’s really what we were trying to do, to allow the viewers to share the experience that the astronauts had. What did it feel like to do these things? Obviously, nothing can match the experience itself but I hope that with the footage and the experience of the astronauts themselves one does get some sense of what it was like.
At least I think one certainly gets a sense of what it was like to witness the events through television at the time. And I think that’s also partly what the film’s about; what it was like to be back on Earth in those heady days sharing that experience. I think that certainly the film does achieve that.
I walked away feeling that nothing has really been that absorbing since. No event, to my mind, had captured the imaginations of so many, so powerfully and so positively. It made me wonder why that fascination dwindled and why the space missions aren’t as powerful for people anymore.
DS: I think that’s because, in a sense, the element of human exploration is not present at the moment. The space shuttle, and the Russian space craft, can’t venture beyond Earth orbit. They don’t go fast enough, fundamentally. That means that we’re just going somewhere we’ve been before and we’re seeing things we’ve seen before, so it’s unsurprising that people aren’t as wrapped up in the 105th shuttle mission as they are in the first landing on the moon. That’s just human nature and it’s entirely right and proper.
But I think it’s interesting that now the shuttle is really reaching the end of its life, I think that’s the reason we’ll go back to the Moon because there’s really no point in building another spacecraft to take people into orbit. We’re not really going to learn anything more from going up into orbit and really there aren’t very many things that people can do in orbit that can’t be done by machines. So unless we’re going to give up completely on human space flight, which I just don’t think we will, I think we will go back to the Moon and we will go to Mars. Or at least we’ll try. Going to Mars will be a really big challenge.
And presumably we’ve still got quite a lot to learn from the Moon.
DS: Oh, absolutely. The Apollo missions took men to another world and brought them back again but I think that eventually human beings will leave the Earth and never come back. We’ve got amazing technology, now, for creating images and I think if we can send men to the Moon and Mars the experiences they share with us will be even more vivid than they were during Apollo. One of the things that I think the film hopefully brings out is the political effect of going to the Moon. The way it allows people to see themselves, simply, as human beings first and foremost. And I think that’s a very valuable thing politically.
If we go back again in twenty years that sense of global solidarity will be enormously important. Issues like climate change are global issues. All our problems now, the serious ones, are really global ones; political, environmental and economic problems. What happens to mortgage lending in America effects the production of factories in China and vice-versa. We need to develop a sense of ourselves in one place rather than many, many different places. That’s not to say we need a World Government, I think that would be too far for people, but we need a gut feeling of ourselves as human beings first and I think that’s the value of going to the Moon. It’s not primarily, actually, to do with the scientific knowledge that we gain, though that’s obviously very interesting.