About the National Archives

Society of American Archivists article "One Giant Leap . . ."

September 2019

"It all started with a simple reference request."

What started, according to Dan Rooney, the chief of our Motion Picture, Sound, and Video Branch, was a major preservation and digitization project that significantly increased access to the National Archives’ film and audio recordings relating to the Apollo lunar missions.

When Todd Douglas Miller, a filmmaker based in New York, called Rooney about his plan to make a documentary about Apollo 11, he didn’t know exactly what would turn up in the Archives. What our Motion Picture staff uncovered was a trove of large-format film reels documenting the Apollo 11 mission from pre-launch preparations and lift-off to the lunar landing and safe return to Earth in July 1969.

Miller’s documentary film Apollo 11 premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2019. It opened in theaters across the country in March, and the DVD is currently available for purchase.

The film made its television premiere on CNN in June, and a special edition has been created for museums and science centers around the world. The high quality of the scanned NARA film holdings is being showcased for an even wider global audience through a partnership between CNN Films and Samsung to advertise Samsung’s new 8K TV.

Apollo 11 has won much acclaim since its release and was awarded Sundance’s Special Jury Award for Editing. At a July 18 screening at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, for staff, Miller presented that award to the National Archives.

NARA’s partnership with Moon Collectors, a Brooklyn, NY-based independent production company, reached far beyond the production of a single documentary film. The cost and required technology for reformatting of these films had long made an in-house project out of reach.

Archives staff had been working with the filmmakers for nearly a year, consulting and fulfilling reference requests, when we learned of their experience working with large-format film materials and their access to specialized scanners that are extremely friendly to archival films for all gauges up to and including 70mm.

At that point, it was apparent that this one project for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 could become a major opportunity for NARA to preserve, digitize, and make available many of its 70mm film holdings. The resulting digitization agreement covers not only the amazing Apollo footage but also many other 70mm reels from other record groups and donated collections.

This project enabled Archives staff to identify and analyze National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) films and images so that Moon Collectors could use the best possible sources to reformat the films at the highest resolutions.

The result was the digitization of 279 reels of previously unprocessed Apollo-era films, mostly large-format reels (65mm or 70mm), creating a massive data set in the hundreds of terabytes.

Roughly 70 to 80 percent of the documentary Apollo 11 is made up of film footage from the National Archives. The soundtrack relied heavily on audio from 11,000 hours of previously uncataloged sound recordings, also from the holdings of the National Archives.

The success of the partnership depended on a number of factors: a commitment to shared research and knowledge of holdings, a commitment to preservation, technical expertise, the development of custom hardware and software, advancements in scanning technology, and more.

This project underscores the power of archival audiovisual materials. Seeing and hearing the people and events of the past inserts you directly into that moment in time. In the case of the Apollo material, the clarity of the footage makes you feel a true witness to that historic flight to the Moon 50 years ago.

Thanks to the work of Archives preservation and archival staff and our digitization partners, the world has an unprecedented and breathtaking glimpse of this historic milestone.

And it all started with a “simple reference request.”