It's been 50 years since humans first landed on the Moon. Despite current plans to resend people to our nearest natural satellite, there'll still be some years until it happens. 8 Days: To the Moon and Back is a 90-minute BBC Two “feature drama” that recreates the Apollo 11 mission and its historic first touch-down.
The film uses an unusual technique aimed to bring the retelling closer to reality: its visuals are composed to fit around declassified cockpit audio, with actors lip-synching their lines over recordings from Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins as they make their round trip to the Moon. The result is a surreal success, a radical and distinctive approach to one of humanity’s most implausible achievements.
“We’d been thinking about making this feature for a couple of years now,” explains Andrew Cohen, the project’s executive producer. “We knew that this big 50th anniversary was coming up, but the challenge of finding a novel way of telling the story of Apollo 11 is just incredibly difficult – it's so well trodden.”
The team sifted through dozens of hours of cockpit audio that was declassified in 2009 – a process that revealed a wealth of odd exchanges between the astronauts, stoical military men whom we tend to remember only through their delivery of iconic lines. The director, Anthony Philipson, dubbed these moments “space humor”. “We just realised that these moments of humanity, these little gems were lurking in the archive,” he says. “For instance, there's this bizarre locker room banter where they compare the craters to ladies’ breasts, calling them ‘slumping big mothers’.”
In researching the film, the team paid meticulous attention to the actual scientific data behind the journey, even plotting the landing path the lunar module took in order to get their CGI visuals correct. To match these discoveries, and to distinguish their film from previous documentaries, they decided a radical technique was needed and settled on using the original audio recordings in the finished product. “[We understood] that this audio could allow you to make the documentary that NASA never made,” says Cohen. “We wanted to feel as if you're in the capsule, with those three astronauts, listening to their words”.
This lip-synching technique, known as verbatim, is well-established in theatre but uncommon in film. Previously, it has featured most prominently in Clio Barnard’s 2010 documentary The Arbor, whom Philipson acknowledges as an influence. The team were hesitant to make use of it at first, and with good reason: it’s an extraordinarily difficult feat for an actor to pull off.
To appreciate the scale of the challenge, try to imagine the process from the actors’ point of view. Each had a tiny earpiece fitted, conveniently hidden by their spacesuits, through which three beeps would signal that a recording of the first line was about to be played and that they should prepare to start lip-synching in perfect time with the recording. You can actually have a go at this process at home, using headphones, a mirror and audio recorded from some conversation.
The challenges are many. First, you need to memorise your lines – not just as words that appear on a script, however, but as a recording, with all the umming and erring, odd pauses for breath and stutters that make up a person’s natural speech. Second, you need to convey the emotional impact of the story – in this case, being the first humans to land on the bloody Moon – but your dramatic toolbox is reduced only to reacting to the pre-recorded audio with facial expressions and body movements, like a mime. (You can speak out loud as you deliver the lines, but the sound will be left on the cutting room floor, replaced in post by the real thing.)
Since the BBC’s budget didn’t stretch to flying three actors into space, the film relies on CGI to portray the view from the Apollo cockpit, which means the actors spend much of the film interacting with just a green screen; your bedroom wall will make a perfect substitute. Finally, you need to deliver this performance while appearing to be weightless. Ready? Go.
The effect is dreamlike. The lip-synching cannot succeed perfectly – the audio is clearly not the actors’ own voice, but there is something magical in this detachment. Even the silences are moving. The best of come from Mike Collins, played by Jack Tarlton, the often forgotten astronaut who piloted Apollo 11 but did not accompany Aldrin and Armstrong in the lunar module. We see him peer lonely from his spaceship window as gravity orbits him in and out of radio contact.
The audio itself is surprisingly wild. As they step down onto the Moon’s surface, Aldrin and Armstrong joke about not locking the door on their way out. At another point, a switch snaps off, one among hundreds on the spaceship’s antiquated-looking control panel. It turns out this is the one the astronauts need to flick to get them back off the moon’s surface. “Nasa scientists worked long into the night, in vain,” the film’s captions tell us. Eventually, Aldrin, who took communion in space with vacuum-packed wine and bread, fixes it by shoving his pen in the broken slot.
8 Days: To the Moon and Back succeeds because the source material bears this radical technique. Not much in history compares to the sheer weirdness of the Moon landing, where three guys flew at almost 25,000 mph through the most hostile environment known to humanity in a spaceship with internal parts that looked like crisp packet foil and a computer processor less sophisticated than the first PCs, all while politicians back on Earth promised to land on Mars by the year 2000, and just so one superpower could stick its proverbial finger up at the other.
“If you put the politics aside, as a piece of human endeavor, it's just captivating,” says Philipson. “I think that it's the last big human achievement of its kind, the first and the last, certainly at the modern age that you can look at and go: hey, look at what we can achieve.”
Words: Will Bedingfield