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Shooting For The Moon: Local documentarians win accolades for Apollo 11 film

J.R. McMillan

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It’s difficult to fathom in the age of thousands of channels—not to mention Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu—a single moment when the entire world was watching the same thing at the same time on television. But in July of 1969, nearly every set was tuned in to watch human history unfold.

But five decades is a long time to forget, and grainy footage and faded photos let memories dim and make the achievement sometimes seem more distant than the Moon itself. It was Ohio’s own John Glenn who first took Americans into space, and Neil Armstrong who placed that first footprint on the lunar surface. So it was only fitting that two guys from Ohio would once again astound audiences with the imagery and adrenaline of that fabled first step on our nearest celestial neighbor.

Todd Douglas Miller and Matt Morton grew up in Gahanna and have known each other since grade school. Their short-lived high school band played a few graduation gigs, but when it came time for college, they parted ways yet remained creatively connected. Miller moved to Michigan for film school, but when his student documentary set in their hometown needed some songs to round it out, Morton’s college band he’d formed at Denison University supplied the soundtrack. It was their first filmmaking collaboration, but hardly their last.

At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, their latest project, Apollo 11, stunned the jury and the industry with long-forgotten, large-format footage that made the Moon launch look like it happened yesterday. They’d set out to make a movie, but created a time machine.

“When we first contacted the National Archives about transferring every frame of film they had from Apollo 11, I’m sure they thought I was nuts,” recalled Miller. He knew the task was so daunting that no one in half a century had dared to even consider it. “About three months into the project, they wrote us an email with a progress report on everything they had in 16mm and 35mm from their NASA collection. But buried in the middle of the message was this discovery of 65mm Panavision footage. We didn’t know how much or the condition at the time, but it looked promising.”

“Promising” is polite for unknown, but optimistic. Some of the reels had dates, a few even had shot lists. Others just had “Apollo 11.” It was an uncatalogued mess by studio standards, but an untouched tomb of priceless artifacts to Miller and his team.

“The parallel story is that the post production facility I’d been working with in New York for a very long time was just getting into the film scanning business when a lot of companies were getting out,” Miller explained. “They were developing technologies that could handle large format film up to 70mm. The stars really did align.”

In an earlier era of film before a stream of electrons delivered pristine pictures and sound, images and audio weren’t one product until a film was edited and printed for exhibition. Apollo 11 curates thousands of hours of both down to an hour and a half opus using raw materials and equipment designed specifically for the project, most of it never seen or heard before. Miller and the team worked for weeks in three shifts, 24 hours as day, scanning each frame, and divvying up 11,000 hours of mission control and flight recordings to match up to footage later.

“We copied all of the files and just put them on our phones. My producing partner had this knack for finding these little moments of humanity. Our office is between our two houses. It was just a short walk for both of us, so we’d listen on the way,” Miller recalled. “I’d show up having just listened to 15 minutes of static and he’d have this revelation captured from the onboard audio of this song, “Mother Country,” which we ended up editing into the lm. He also found audio of a woman’s voice who was a backroom flight controller arguing with one of the front room controllers about the return trajectory. Researchers and historians are going to spend decades on just the audio.”

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But even the rich texture of images and conversations lacked the palpable tension necessary to pull everything together and put the achievement of Apollo 11 in the proper context for audiences. Luckily, Miller already had someone in mind working side-by-side from the start.

“When we did the first test screening, we basically had footage of the astronauts suiting up leading right up to the launch and the liftoff,” explained Matt Morton, who composed the entire score from his basement studio in Hilliard. “But what stuck with me most was the look, not of fear, but the sense of duty and the weight on their shoulders. I scored it with the same reverence and gravity, in that moment when they didn’t know, when none of us knew, if they were going to make it.”

Echoing the images and audio required rethinking the way the two had worked previously on several shorts, commercial projects, even acclaimed documentaries like Dinosaur 13 and The Last Steps, which chronicled NASA’s final mission to the Moon. Morton wanted something old, but original.

“When I told Todd I only wanted to use pre-1969 instruments, and most of the sound to come from an old Moog synthesizer, he needed some convincing,” chided Morton. “I try to stimulate discussion with all of my clients, offering suggestions and perspective from my take on the project. But Todd and I have this shorthand. I know how he feels about different styles of music down to the instruments. We can be honest.”

The result is an immersive experience that puts audiences of any age on the launch pad, in the lunar capsule, and on the Moon with unprecedented authenticity. The whole lm feels almost voyeuristic with a direct cinema style that’s been all but abandoned in favor of contemporary cut rates and CGI. But perhaps most notable are the reaction shots throughout. If 2001: A Space Odyssey was Stanley Kubrick’s vision of mankind venturing into the unknown void, then this could be Steven Spielberg’s, amplified by a score as deceptively complex and unnerving as any science-fiction thriller.

The enormity of Apollo 11 begs for the biggest screen possible. Both Miller and Morton recalled fond memories of eld trips to COSI as kids and the curiosity it helped foster, which comes full circle with a special 47-minute museum cut now screening at COSI’s IMAX theater throughout the summer—just the right length for aspiring astronauts and aerospace engineers. The score is available on CD and digital, but will have a special anniversary vinyl release as well.

Also worth noting, neither has any firsthand memory of the Moon landing. They’re barely old enough to remember the moonwalk. Apollo 11 is effectively a found footage documentary, one that could earn both Miller and Morton an Academy Award for a film shot entirely before either of them was born. Both were quick to quash such speculation, as sincere artists do, rewarded by the achievement, not the accolade. As with previous projects, inspiration remains a primary motivation.

“Just last week I was in Amsterdam for a premiere at the EYE Film Institute and learned they have 39,000 reels of film in their archive,” revealed Miller. “Future filmmakers should get out their flashlights. There’s a lot more footage waiting to be rediscovered.”

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It’s Lit! Tips for creating a light display that’s the envy of the neighborhood

Linda Lee Baird

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Byron Gunter has always been a holiday light enthusiast. While most kids save their allowance money for candy, toys, or new clothes, Gunter saved his for Christmas lights. “As a pre-teen, my display got so large it was featured in the local paper, and the rest was history,” he said.

It was an interest Gunter maintained into adulthood and brought with him when he moved to the Lucy Depp Park community in Powell in 2014. “One of the largest factors in buying my house was the ability to have a large Christmas light show,” he said. When Kevin Rhodus moved into the neighborhood a few months later, one of their first conversations was about the possibility of organizing a large-scale holiday light show. “Kevin brought the technical background needed to make it happen, and here we stand today, with one of the largest neighborhood light shows in Central Ohio,” Gunter said. The show now includes five neighboring houses over 7.5 acres in the Lucy Depp Park community.

Photos: Brian Kaiser

Gunter and Rhodus, along with their neighbor Dave Johnson, answered some questions for (614) about how to set up your own fabulous holiday light display, and how they are giving back to the community through their show.

(614): Tell us about your setup process. What does it look like to organize this show?

BG: We start hanging lights in early September. It takes over two months to get everything up. There are over 200 trees, bushes, and props that are each individually controlled. We lost count of the exact number of strands a long time ago. In addition to hanging lights, we have to set up controllers, run data cabling, mount antennas and get all the infrastructure in place to make the show happen. There is a lot of behind-the-scenes involved to get 7.5-acres to all turn on and off at the same time.

(614): How do you organize the display across houses? Is the design collaborative, or does each house create its own display?

KR: Each year we have a dinner in early fall with all the families involved with the show to finalize our plans. Each house involved creates and hangs their own displays. Then we work collaboratively together to program it into one large continuous show.

(614): What is the process for programming your light show? Does the programming take the same amount of time every year?

KR: We start off programming the show by making our own soundtrack each year. We spend most of the spring and summer deciding what songs we want to use next year. From there, we use software to synchronize each tree to the soundtrack and create what is called a sequence. As we add more houses and more complex displays, the amount of time required grows exponentially. Last year it took approximately 80-100 hours to sequence the six-minute show. This year that number will increase a lot with all we added. Once the show is sequenced, we load it to multiple mini- computers (Raspberry Pi’s and Beaglebone’s) that control sections of the show and are tied together via a large network. We monitor everything connected to the network 24/7 and instantly get email alerts if any problems occur.

(614): How does the show change from year to year?

BG: Each year the show gets larger and larger. We have kept a tradition of adding another house (or more) every year. We also are constantly evolving our displays. For example, pixels allow us to control each individual bulb in a string of lights. We grew from just one pixel tree last year to wrapping over 100 trees in pixels this year.

(614): Last year, you collected donations at the show to raise money for a local charity. Are you planning to do so again this year?

DJ: For the second year in a row, we are raising money for Peace for Paws Ohio. This organization is very close to us, as my wife is the Medical Director and on the Board of Directors. Peace for Paws rescues pets from high kill shelters across the state of Ohio. Many of the pets in the neighborhood are rescues from Peace for Paws.

(614): How much was raised last year?

DJ: Last year we raised over $5,000 dollars for Peace for Paws. The money went directly to help with the vet bills for many dogs and cats in their care.

(614): Do you have a sense of how many people visited?

DJ: We don’t have a final number but most nights we averaged somewhere between 200- 400 cars.

(614): What’s the cost of putting on this annual light show? Do you accept donations?

DJ: The cost of doing this is way more than our wives know. Almost all the lights are LED so there is very little increase to our electric bill. Almost all the cost is tied up in lights, extension cords, and controllers. Any donations we receive go to Peace for Paws.

(614): What’s an unexpected challenge you’ve experienced, and how did you overcome it?

BG: By far, traffic has been our largest unexpected challenge. We had no idea what the turnout would be the first year when we simply put out on Nextdoor that we were doing a light show. Within a day we had cars trying to go the opposite directions on one-lane roads and driving through yards to get around stopped cars. We quickly realized we needed to control the traffic and make the show one direction.

(614): What advice would you give to anyone who wants to elevate their holiday lights this year?

KR: Do it! There are tons of great online and local communities, [such as] Light Up Ohio, of Christmas light enthusiasts. It’s very easy to start with a small display and grow it each year. A lot of our fun we get out of doing the show is experimenting and trying new ideas each year.

(614): Anything you’d like to add?

DJ: We all got really lucky with the light show to be able to have a group of neighbors turn into a close group of friends. It has really brought our neighborhood together and gives us an amazing opportunity to give back to the surrounding communities.

This exchange has been lightly edited. For times and directions to Lucy Depp Park,, visit lucydepppark.wordpress.com.

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The Wilds celebrates the birth of another rhino calf

Mike Thomas

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It isn't deja vu. For the second time in a little more than one month, The Wilds is celebrating the arrival of a female white rhinoceros calf. The calf was born in the conservation center's large, heated rhino barn during the early morning hours of Friday, December 6, 2019.

This calf, who has been named “Bing” as recognition of donors Drs. Hetty and Arthur Bing, is the 22nd white rhino to be born at The Wilds.

“Each birth of a rhino here at The Wilds is an incredible achievement as all rhino species continue to face significant threats in their native range," said Dr. Jan Ramer, vice president of The Wilds, in a statement. "Over the years, we have learned more about rhinos, contributed to scientific knowledge about them, and helped raise awareness to inspire people to take action to help protect them. Our work is not done! However, the birth of this rhino calf is certainly exciting as the calf represents hope for the future.”

Bing and her 10-year-old mother, Anan, who was also born at The Wilds, are doing well and continue to bond. Animal Management staff note that Anan, who has previously given birth to two other calves and is an experienced mother, is being very attentive to her newborn. This is the second offspring for Bing’s father, 21-year-old Kengele, who was born at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. His first calf, Scout, was born at The Wilds on October 23, 2019 to mother, Agnes. 

Guests may have the opportunity to view Bing and Anan, along with the other rhinos, in the rhino barn during a Winter at The Wilds tour within the coming weeks. Tours are available at 11 AM and 2 PM through April. Reservations must be made at least 72 hours in advance. For more information, visit TheWilds.org

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Hunger Games: Wendy’s tabletop RPG is a fast-food fantasy feat

Mike Thomas

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Distracted by the raucous sounds of the festival beyond the garden walls, you almost don’t notice the shrouded figure emerging from behind the old statue. You and your companions turn to leave, but hesitate when the mysterious man calls out to each of you by name. When pressed, the stranger warns of a malevolent force known as “Hunger,” which is gathering its power somewhere deep in the nearby forest. He knows you and your stalwart party of adventurers will do what must be done...

If you’ve spent any time with Dungeons & Dragons or its various progeny, you can probably guess where this is going. A journey into the enchanted forest, traps, treasures, attribute checks and plenty of scribbled notes on pieces of scratch paper. But even if you’re an old hand at the tabletop stuff, odds are your campaign never included golden chicken nuggets and sentient cheeseburgers.

Dublin-based fast food chain Wendy’s has never shied away from the improbable. When nearly all of burgerdom had settled on circular patties, Wendy’s went square. Competitors hocking frozen meat? Wendy’s tackled logistical challenges to serve “fresh, never frozen” burgers. Even in the new frontier of social media, the brand was an early standout in the trend of corporate-tied accounts adopting sassy, comical voices.

The trick with innovation is that it’s hard to stay ahead of the curve. With a Twitter war raging between two Southern-style chicken sandwiches, or Colonel Sanders launching a finger lickin’ good dating app, a witty online presence can only take you so far. In the increasingly polarizing and absurd meta-conversation surrounding fast food online, how’s a brand to stay above the fray? If you’re Wendy’s, you swing for a critical hit by launching a comically overwrought, burger-themed D&D-style table-top game.

Photos: Brian Kaiser

At first blush, the rulebook for “Feast of Legends: Rise From the Deep Freeze” seems like nothing more than a marketing campaign disguised as an absurd extended joke. Upon cracking into the 91-page tome, (made available by Wendy’s as a free downloadable PDF) would-be adventurers will discover that this game actually packs some beef.

If that last pun caused you to cringe, this is probably not the game for you. The adventure depicted here takes place in “the realm of Beef’s Keep,” located in the kingdom of Freshtovia. Ruled over by the good queen Wendy, Freshtovia is locked in an eternal struggle against the wickedness of the United Clown Nations and its Jester king (a thinly-veiled allusion to Ronald McDonald).

In spite of never letting the user forget the Wendy’s angle, the Feast of Legends rulebook is every bit as thoughtful and detailed as many traditional, non-burger-based RPGs. Before tackling the main adventure, the reader can peruse around 25 pages explaining everything from gameplay mechanics to character creation and the various “orders”— think classes in D&D—that a player can elect to join. OK, so maybe the weapons sheet includes sporks and spatulas for your warrior from the esteemed “Order of the Chicken Sandwich” to wield—the fact remains that this RPG seems like it might have some real potential for fun (in addition to the fun of mocking its very existence, that is).

Eager to put this theory to the test, an enterprising group of (614) staff set out on a quest to explore the realm of Freshtovia. Our goal? To put the playability of this bizarre game to the test, and to perhaps uncover why, if for any reason, Wendy’s made the damn thing in the first place.

From the beginning, some members of the party were less than enthused at the prospect of playing a tabletop RPG, let alone one with references to Frostys and spicy nugs jammed in at every turn. By the time the group was confronted with its first puzzle—a riddle scrawled on a statue of the late Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas—all trepidation had subsided. Marketing ploy or not, the players were consumed by the game world.

Playing through an early level of mazes, the absurdity of the French Fry Forest or stumbling upon a golden baked potato was all but moot. By the time the party encountered the game’s first boss—a dreaded monster called “Hunger,” the supplied character sheets had all been personalized with care, complete with detailed portraiture of each player’s imagined warrior. The buy-in was complete. We were actually invested in an imaginary land populated by Wendy’s foodstuffs.

Without question, the minds at Wendy’s marketing department had crafted a game that could hook players and keep them hungry for more. The only nagging question that remained was, why? The intricate rulebook and campaign, complete with countless maps and professional illustrations, was surely the work of hundreds of hours of effort. Would anyone really go to such lengths for a joke with no punchline? Is Wendy’s really that desperate to target the tabletop gaming crowd?

One possible answer comes via the rulebook’s explanation of “buffs” and “debuffs,” or powerups and hindrances that will affect characters during gameplay. According to the rules, eating Wendy’s products in real life will yield various advantages to your in-game character (+1 strength for any cheeseburger item) while consuming competitor’s food produces an undesirable effect.

Whether produced to sell burgers-as-powerups to a select group of fast food and RPG-obsessed basement dwellers, or simply existing as one of the biggest viral marketing flexes of all time, Feast of Legends provides a surprisingly immersive and enjoyable play experience. Will it bring gamers to Wendy’s in droves? Probably not. But if our office’s experience with the game is any indication, it might be enough to hook unlikely RPG players on the tabletop experience—one enchanted burger at a time.

To embark on your own adventure, download the Feast of Legends rulebook at FeastOfLegends.com.

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