Apollo 11 Tag

“Apollo 11” Goes 4K

"Apollo 11" Goes 4K

If you’ve read my review of the original HD release of Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary film Apollo 11 from earlier this year, you may recall that it was a bit more of a rant than a proper critique. Not about the film, mind you. Apollo 11 still stands as one of the year’s best cinematic efforts, especially in the more straightforward, less editorial approach it takes in capturing this one monumental moment in history.

 

The rant was instead about the film’s home video release, which was originally HD only, with no mention of a UHD/HDR followup. As I said in that original review, this was doubly troubling because Apollo 11 is among a small handful of films released recently to actually be sourced from a 4K digital intermediate. In fact, its original film elements were scanned at

resolutions between 8K and 16K. Given that most modern films, especially Hollywood tentpoles, are finished in 2K digital intermediates and upsampled to 4K for cinematic and home video release, the lack of a UHD option for Apollo 11 was as infuriating as it was puzzling.

 

Thankfully, that mistake has been rectified. Apollo 11 is now available in UHD with HDR on most major video platforms, including disc and Kaleidescape, with the latter being my viewing platform of choice. I know I mentioned purchasing the film in HD via Vudu in my original review, but that purchase doesn’t offer any sort of upgrade path for UHD, the way Kaleidescape does.

 

At any rate, I did a lot of speculation in that first review about the sort of differences I thought UHD would make for this title. And having now viewed it, most of those predictions turned out to be true. UHD does, indeed, reveal a lot of detail that was obscured in the HD release. That makes sense given that the source of so much of this film’s visuals existed in the form of 65mm/70mm archival footage.

 

One of the biggest differences you see when comparing the 

HD and UHD releases is in the textures of the Saturn V rocket. Ribbing in the first three stages of the rocket that dwindle to nothing in HD are clear and distinct in UHD. The little flag on the side of the rocket is also noticeably crisper, and the stars in its blue field stand out more as individual points of whiteness, rather than fuzzy variations in the value scale.

 

As predicted, the launch of Apollo 11 also massively benefits from HDR grading. The plume of exhaust that billows forth from the rocket shines with such stunning brightness that you almost—almost—want to squint.

 

One thing I didn’t predict, though—which ends up being my favorite aspect of this new HDR grade—is how much warmer and more lifelike the imagery is. In the standard dynamic range color grade of the HD version of the film, there’s an undeniable cooler, bluer cast to the colors that never really bothered me until I saw the warmer HDR version. Indeed, the HDR grade evokes the comforting warmth of the old Kodak stock on which the film was captured in a way the SDR grade simply doesn’t.

 

It’s true that the new UHD presentation does make the grain more pronounced in the middle passage of the film—where 65mm film stock gives way to 35mm and even 16mm footage. That honestly has more to do with the enhanced contrast of 

this presentation than it does the extra resolution. HD is quite sufficient to capture all the nuances and detail of this lower-quality film. But the boost in contrast does mean that grain pops a little more starkly.

 

This does nothing to detract from the quality of the presentation, though, at least not for me. And even if you do find this lush and organic grain somewhat 

distracting, I think you’ll agree it’s a small price to pay for the significantly crisper, more detailed, more faithful presentation of the first and third acts.

 

If you haven’t picked up Apollo 11 yet, congratulations—you get to enjoy your first viewing as it should have been presented to begin with. If you already bought the film in HD, I can’t recommend the upgrade to UHD highly enough. Thankfully, for Kaleidescape owners, that upgrade doesn’t mean purchasing the film all over again.

 

It is a shame Universal, the film’s home video distributor, has for whatever reason decided to hold back bonus features. The featurette included with the UHD Blu-ray release, which covers the discovery of the 65mm archival footage, is missing here—although it’s widely available on YouTube at this point (and is embedded above). And only Apple TV owners get access to an exclusive audio commentary. Then again, given how badly the studio fumbled the original home video release, it’s no real surprise that they’ve dropped the ball on making the bonus features widely available.

 

Don’t let that turn you off of the film, though. This is one that belongs in every movie collection, especially now that it’s available in UHD.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Chasing the Moon

If you’re looking to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing from the comforts of your sofa, needless to say you’ve got a ton of options. From Ryan Gosling’s intense portrayal of Neil Armstrong in First Man to the just-the-facts-ma’am documentary approach of Apollo 11, on to the recently remastered HD re-release of HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon, the space race has been covered from just about every angle imaginable. And yet, despite the fact that I have an

entire shelfful of DVDs and Blu-ray discs dedicated to the Apollo program, I’ve never seen anything quite like PBS’ new documentary mini-series Chasing the Moon.

 

That’s largely due to the documentary’s placement within PBS’ larger pantheon of programming. The three episodes that comprise this new and different doc fall within the 31st season of American Experience, the network’s series about our nation’s history and the oft-controversial figures that propel that history.

 

As you might expect if you’ve ever tuned into American Experience, the emphasis here isn’t on the scientific or engineering marvels that took us to the moon, nor the trials and tribulations of the astronauts themselves. Instead, Chasing the Moon plants the space race firmly within the geopolitical climate of the era, giving the viewer a hefty helping of historical context.

 

The first episode, for example, starts with a spotlight on Apollo 11, and even includes some shots similar to those seen in the recent IMAX documentary of the same name, 

but then sort of backs up and says, hang on, to understand how we got here we need to back up to 1957 and the Soviet launch of Sputnik. And to understand that, we need to back up again to World War II, to unpack the complicated relationships between Germany, the US, and the USSR. This presents an opportunity to unveil some archival footage I’ve never seen, such as the Germans testing their V-2 rockets and the Soviets trumpeting their early successes over the Americans.

 

Shockingly (to me, at least), there’s also extensive voiceovers from Sergei Khrushchev, son of the former Soviet Premier and a rocket engineer in his own right, who provides some modern perspective on the Russian side of the space race. Inclusions such as this, combined with the larger focus on politics—how they influenced the space race, and how the space race influenced them—make Chasing the Moon perhaps one of the most important documentaries on the Apollo program I’ve ever seen. Important in that it will give future generations insight into why all of this happened in the first place, not merely how.

Chasing the Moon

Granted, if you’re looking for a spectacular AV presentation, you might be a little disappointed. Since education is the primary impetus behind Chasing the Moon, no real effort has been made to clean up much of the grainy, scratchy archival footage and TV broadcasts that comprise the bulk of its visuals. Still, you’ve got a few avenues by which to view the series (which runs just 20 minutes shy of six hours over the course of three episodes), and quality of presentation may affect your decision about which road to take.

 

There is, of course, cable/satellite or antenna, as PBS will continue to rebroadcast all three episodes in the days surrounding the anniversary of the moon landing on July 20. There’s also the free PBS app, which is available on most streaming devices and requires no subscription, just a free login. The quality of presentation here is a step up from cable/satellite, but not quite up to the clarity of over-the-air broadcasts if you’ve got a decent antenna.

 

You can also purchase the show in 1080p HD with 5.1 sound from Amazon for $7.99 or Vudu for $9.99. There’s no real reason to opt for the latter unless you just hate Amazon Prime’s cluttered interface, as both are practically identical in terms of presentation. Or you could opt for the Blu-ray release for $25, which adds a few bonus features, including a making-of documentary and an interview with the director.

 

However you watch, though, I think Chasing the Moon deserves your attention, due to its distinctive take on this most historic event. Just don’t go in expecting the rah-rah flag-waving typical of Apollo documentaries. This is a warts-and-all exploration of the messy and often contentious reality of the space program from a societal and political perspective, and as such it touches on a lot of truths that more celebratory retrospectives often leave out.

 

In a weird way, though, that makes the big event all the more worthy of celebration.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.