Listen: ‘Apollo: Missions to the Moon’ Director on Creating a Story from Archival Footage

Podcast: 'Apollo: Missions to the Moon' Director on Doc's Powerful Archives
Courtesy of National Geographic

National Geographic’s “Apollo: Missions to the Moon” stands out of the crowd of 50th anniversary Apollo 11 documentaries, in that it crafts a narrative using only archival footage about multiple Apollo missions.

Director and executive producer Tom Jennings spoke with Variety‘s “TV Take” podcast with executive editor of television Daniel Holloway about the documentary.

Jennings recalled a conversation he had with the studio about releasing the documentary ahead of the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. “‘You know there are going to be like twenty of these?,'” he pointed out. The response: “‘Yes, it’s up to you to figure out how to make it different.'”

What’s different about the doc? “We have no narrator or no interviews. We didn’t want to lock ourselves into just [Apollo] 11. We have to show the context in which it existed,” said Jennings. 

The documentary begins with the first Apollo mission and details the lives of the mission’s three astronauts with archival footage. “We literally created character lines from archival footage like a feature film director would,” said Jennings. All three astronauts died in a fire during a launch rehearsal.  “To experience the tragedy of losing [the astronauts] early on in the film they became characters in the film to us.”

Over the last decade, Jennings has produced many documentaries with National Geographic without narrators or talking heads. “There were entire worlds out there that exist in archives that people have not tapped yet. If you assemble it in a way that feels like the footage was shot for you for a film and you have enough audio to tell the story you can make a time machine in a sense,” said Jennings. 

Jennings shared stories of tracking down obscure archival footage, such as an NBC puppet recreation of the moon landing and a Pink Floyd recording at the BBC to provide the soundtrack to the Apollo 11 landing live.

“Apollo: Missions to the Moon” will premiere on National Geographic on July 7.