- May 10, 1999
[SIZE= 22px]In the Shadow of the Moon[/SIZE]
This is a THINKFilm feature and an Image Entertainment BluRay release, starring the NASA archives, as well as ten of the surviving Apollo astronauts who at least orbited the Moon, and directed by David Sington. Also of note, and perhaps deserving higher billing, is the role played by Philip Sheppard’s score.
The feature is presented in multiple aspect ratios, representing the variety of the original sources, from near 1:1 to the HDTV interviews in 1.77:1, with DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The feature runs about 100 minutes. After a fairly quick load, there are a variety of warnings and logos: FBI warning, Image Entertainment, Thinkfilm, two “the interviews aren’t our fault!” and then the menu. According to the packaging, subtitles are available for English-SDH and Spanish. I have been unable to find any other sign of the subtitles on either of my Bluray players, and am hoping that this omission is due to mine being an advance review copy.
The packaging is a standard Bluray case. Retail price for this Bluray title is $17.98, and will released in the United States on August 10, 2010. The program itself is rated PG for ‘mild language, brief violent images, and incidental smoking.’ Although one might call it almost pervasive smoking — although they did not smoke in space.
The Feature — ½
This is the story of a collection of young Americans who went to the Moon. How they got there. What they did there. How they got back. And what it meant to have been on the Moon. By itself, none of these are terribly uncommon subjects; and I would hate to have to count the number of documentaries about the Apollo programs over the last almost forty years. But many of them share a lot of common themes and features: what are the big stories, and show us the common pictures.
In the Shadow of the Moon takes a refreshingly different approach. First, while loosely covering the five or six primary subjects, they asked for the uncommon stories. Of course some of the old ‘warhorse’ stories come out. But then there are numerous others. Many touch upon the computer errors that flash up as the Eagle lander is on the final descent to the moon’s surface. Buzz Aldrin explains the what, how, and why of those errors. And takes the blame for being the who. Another is Mike Collins, talking about the preparations that had been made in case he had to return to Earth without Armstrong or Aldrin — and the feature includes some of the prerecorded tape of Nixon’s address should that have happened.
The second major aspect of this films ‘different approach’ is the amazing depth of research that went into the archival footage. Yes, some of the traditional footage from NASA is shown. But much of it is ‘new:’ researched from the archives, and lovingly transferred to HD. And the real beauty of it is that some of this footage has basically never been touched since it got processed back in the late 1960s or early 1970s, offering a new standard for pristine. Beyond the NASA archives, we also have a variety of period video and film, showing not just news and feature reporting, but cultural tie-ins: I’ve got a Secret, for example. And, of course, films and tapes of J. F. Kennedy, and news anchoring by Walter Cronkite.
And as the credits roll, many of the astronauts give their opinion to those who say that they [the astronauts] were just performing on a soundstage in Arizona.
Stylistically, I have a ‘bone to pick’ with the production. The modern interviews are just too close. I am not an otolaryngologist, and do not want — or need! — to see the interior of Buzz Aldrin’s nose. Nor am I trying to steal Michael Collins’ retinal prints.
The Picture — ½
The picture quality varies — drastically. The modern-era HDTV interviews are beautifully sharp and clean. Some of the ‘untouched’ archival 16mm and 35mm films are also quite gorgeous. Some of the more common films that only exist as about tenth generation duplicates — transfer less well. And, coming from the video tape of the era, some of those shots are lovingly duplicated to the feature in all of their horrible gory. Even the high-band 2-inch quadrature recording video tape from 1969 is — iffy. And after 35 years, the physical changes to the tape make perfect recovery even more difficult.
[Technical aside: quadrature recording was the first practical system for recording television to tape. However, rather than the helical scan systems such as VHS or just about any other tape system, where the head ‘drum’ is tilted at a shallow angle to the tape, allowing the spinning head to travel a very long tape-path before having to switch to a different tape-head, quadrature used a transverse system. Because of the motion of the tape (fifteen inches per second,) the video paths were not perfectly straight. And because they only had about two inches of travel, each head could only read or write a sixteenth of a field — or 1/32 of a complete frame — before having to switch to the next head. On playback, if these head-switches are not perfectly aligned between the player and the recorder, it manifests as a sparkling bits of static distributed in a regular pattern throughout the frame. VHS and many other formats have the same problem, but since their head-switch occurs between each field, or every half-frame, the burst of noise occurs in the ‘overscan’ part of the video frame.]
That said, the transfers of the films, tapes, and original photography for this feature are quite nice. The various sources are represented in their original full-frame aspect ratios, often showing the hairs or dust caught in the camera gates, but showing the full frames. The producers claim to have not employed any retouching or cleaning or other image processing, and there are some otherwise correctable damaged frames, but they chose to follow rather a purist’s approach to the documentary, not just showing the stories that they found, but also documenting the styles and technologies of the era.
And, as I have said elsewhere, sitting up close and personal with a 95” screen, this 1920x1080 presentation is excellent.
The Sound —
I am not sure just how to rate a documentary’s sound. In this one, there is no narration. The interviews are clean and clear. The period footage has sound of various quality from a variety of sources. Is it the fault of the producers that the sound is not perfect? I suppose not. Given the limitations that they had, I am very pleased with the quality of this feature’s sound. The rocket launches (and explosions) will not shake the walls down, but even the rocket-launch sequences — well, this just isn’t that kind of a film. Instead, they use either archival recordings (even for the Apollo XI launch,) or even some sound-effect cues that are merely suggestive.
And lots and lots of music.
There are numerous extras and special features on this disc, just about all of which are in Standard Definition.
The feature can (user selectable) be introduced by Ron Howard — about two minutes long.
There is an 11 minute feature with the composer Philip Sheppard, Scoring Apollo.
There is a 6 minute feature Inspired by Apollo by Ron Howard, talking about how the Apollo program may have inspired individuals (such as himself,) to larger groups, up-to and including most of the world’s population.
There is a commentary track with the Director David Sington, Editor David Fairhead, and Archive Producer Chris Riley. This is a fairly extensive track, covering the origins of the archival footage, particularly if it was not from what it ‘appears’ to be from. (Launch rehearsals instead of actual launches. Or from Apollo IIX instead of XI.) Also included are discussions as to the How or Why they used certain materials, sounds, and other production-related techniques.
There are 18 short stories and segments not used in the film, ranging from 45 seconds to up to about three minutes, on subjects ranging from Sputnik to Playboy, or even why the first fifteen seconds after ignition were the most dangerous — at least with respect to the launch!
And there is a trailer, running at about two and a half minutes.
In The End — ½
The shadow of this Moon holds a dual-meaning. First, and most directly, of course, is when the missions were literally ‘on the dark side’ and unable to see or communicate with Earth. And second, and where this documentary really separates itself from the rest of ‘the pack,’ is how the Moon, even after all of this time, still casts its own ‘shadow’ over the lives of those who went there, both in the most personal levels, as well as over humanity at-large.
The feature is a beautifully produced work, both artistically and technically. The disc is very nice, and, for once, many of the special features are actually special. A concern of mine is the discrepancy between the jacket and the seeming lack of subtitles actually on the disc. Again, this might be a pre-release ‘side-effect,’ rather than a dropped feature.
In spite of this glitch, I still find myself saying that this is a highly recommended release.