The Sheffield man behind the Apollo 11 moon landing film which is wowing critics

An acclaimed new movie about the first moon landing, putting viewers at the heart of possibly mankind’s greatest endeavour, owes much to the painstaking work of a Sheffield filmmaker.

By Robert Cumber
Monday, 04 March, 2019, 10:28

Apollo 11 features never-before-seen footage of the mission which captivated the world, including breathtakingly crisp scenes of Neil Armstrong and co suiting up, the spacecraft blasting off in front of gasping crowds, and anxious exchanges in the control room.

For people not yet born in the summer of 1969, the documentary offers a chance to witness this epoch-defining moment as if you were there, while even those who lived through it can enjoy an unparalleled insight into the turbo-charged emotions experienced by NASA’s finest.

A scene from the new Apollo 11 documentary about the first moon landing (courtesy of NEON CNN FILMS)

The film could not have been made without the skill and dedication of Stephen Slater, a 32-year-old freelance film archivist living in Sheffield city centre.

He helped unearth the new footage and spent countless hours synching scenes from the control room with recordings of the words being spoken, bringing to life the momentous accomplishment as it unfolded.

“I would say this is the best chance of experiencing the mission almost as it happened," he said.

Stephen Slater, who worked on the new Apollo 11 film as an archive producer

“It’s the most remarkable archive film footage I’ve ever seen, and I’m in awe of what they’ve done with it.

“What you had before had this murky quality and felt like archive footage, but this doesn’t. It feels like being in the room with them and experiencing the mission as they did.

“The more I see the film, the more emotional I feel. At the Sundance Film Festival people were coming up to us in tears having watched it.

The Apollo 11 launch (courtesy of NEON CNN FILMS)

“Putting a man on the moon for the first time was just an amazing achievement. It’s the kind of story we need in this climate. It’s so inspiring and shows what we can achieve when we’re not having a go at each other.”

Apollo 11 is unlike most documentaries. There are no talking heads to explain what you are seeing. Such is the quality of the fresh footage, it is left to speak for itself, with only a stirring soundtrack added to the words as they were spoken at the time by those involved.

The new footage is so clear that as the astronauts pull on their suits you can see their faces etched with the magnitude of what they are about to undertake.

Spectators watch the launch of the Apollo 11 moon landing mission (courtesy of NEON CNN FILMS)

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The film has received rapturous reviews, with one critic for The New York Times gushing that it is ‘entirely awe-inspiring’.

Stephen, who has lived in Sheffield since 2013, grew up in the Peak District and went to school in Bakewell before studying at The Sheffield College.

His passion for space exploration began when he was mesmerised as a young boy by the 1995 film Apollo 13, starring Tom Hanks and Bill Paxton, about the ill-fated 1970 lunar expedition.

His vast library of film footage from the Apollo missions, and his experience of working on space documentaries, made him the go-to man when director Todd Douglas Miller wanted to mark the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 with a totally fresh look at one of the most heavily documented achievements in history.

Stephen had previously worked as an archive producer on 2014 documentary The Last Man on the Moon, about the final Apollo 17 mission; and he directed the 2011 BBC documentary Destination Titan, about landing a spacecraft on one of Saturn's moons.

The treasure trove of new material Stephen and his colleagues unearthed for Apollo 11 largely consisted of extensive footage shot for the ambitious but little-known 1972 Moonwalk One film, made for NASA by the avant-garde director Theo Kamecke.

A scene from the new Apollo 11 documentary (courtesy of NEON CNN FILMS)

The unused reels from that movie, shot in the same high definition Todd-AO format used for the likes of The Sound of Music, were previously thought to have been destroyed but were actually languishing in the US National Archives and Records Administration's Maryland depository.

Stephen described first learning of their existence as the ‘eureka’ moment when he realised this documentary could be something truly special.

There is no UK release date yet for Apollo 11 but we can expect to see it on our screens ahead of the 50th anniversary of that ‘giant leap for mankind’ on July 20, 1969.

There are still conspiracy theorists, of course, for whom the moon landings were an elaborately staged hoax, so could this new documentary be enough to convince them it actually happened?

Stephen is doubtful, saying that like flat earth believers there is no reasoning with them, despite the volume of evidence.

“They will always say people were in on it but can all those people in the control room really have been living a lie?” he adds.

Despite his passion for space, Stephen, who has previously worked on documentaries about the Hillsborough disaster and George Best, says he is now looking for a new challenge but is not yet sure what that might be.