Review of the HD Re-Release of FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON

HBO drops the ball on the BluRay release of From Earth to the Moon, the award-winning documentary series. This review includes a word from one of the original effects artists.

by Jesse Pollack (via Facebook)

It pains me to write this because this series is my all-time favorite television production and I’ve been awaiting its arrival on the format since its inception, but the Blu-ray debut of FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON is mind-numbingly bad.

The classic model and original CGI visual effects work – which won an Emmy – has been replaced with cheaply outsourced CGI that looks like something out of a direct-to-video kids movie. The Earth shots look like 2D paintings and the moonscapes resemble PlayStation 1 graphics. The CGI spacecraft have little to no motion blur either, which makes the movement look incredibly hokey.

This was done because the original CGI shots from 1997/1998 were rendered in 480p for standard definition televisions. However, instead of simply upconverting these scenes to a respectable 1080p, they were replaced wholesale. Also, this upconverting would have been 100% possible – the S-IVB shot from Episode 4 was recently upconverted to HD and used in the theatrical trailer for PIXELS and looked great. You can see it on YouTube. What we are now left with are Sharknado-quality graphics. Parachutes look like they’re made of Laffy Taffy, rocket exhaust looks like butane lighters/Christmas light bulbs, launchpad smoke looks like cotton balls, and wires hooked to spacecraft look like spaghetti.

Even stranger, some shots that were created entirely in-camera – such as Armstrong and Aldrin opening the hatch on the LEM after landing – have been replaced by this low-rent CGI, despite already being HD, having been filmed in 35mm.

Certain musical cues are strangely missing, as well – the version of the FIREBALL XL5 theme song that opens Episode 5 has been inexplicably replaced with a cover.

Also, for all the talk HBO gave about using “reference models from NASA” for these new VFX shots, nearly every vehicle shown has a major error. The hatch on the LEM is now comically wide, black stripes are missing from the Saturn IV-B rocket, and the command module is shown missing its boost protection cover – yet retaining the launch escape tower (think the 1/32 scale Revell model kits from 1967) during the Apollo 8 lift-off scene. All of the wonderful, hand-built miniature models and sets – GONE.

In addition, the “restoration” of the 35mm film elements has been handled very poorly. The color correction is over-saturated, with “Mare Tranquillitatis” and “For Miles and Miles” suffering the most. The faces in Mission Control and inside the spacecraft are literally orange or yellow. I tried viewing these scenes under every single color setting my 4K TV has to offer, and none alleviated the issue.

Also knowing that the original FX artists were never told that their shots – which they worked for over a year on and won an Emmy for – were being replaced and their names were being removed from the credits adds an extra element of cynicism for me. This whole thing just screams cheap cash-grab on HBO’s behalf.

The release is also bare-bones, special features-wise. The only two features are an 11-minute video where the restoration team gives themselves a pat on the back for doing a subpar job, and the original 30-minute making-of special from 1998 that has been on every digital release since. No commentaries. None of the original special effects featurettes, nothing on the iconic score created by some of television and cinema’s most respected talents. No retrospective from the cast. No production/promotional photo gallery. Nothing.

They should have just upconverted the original 480p SFX shots and focused on making the other 35mm film elements look their best. Now we have a “Jar Jar” version of TV’s finest miniseries.

Keep your DVDs from 2005 – HBO should have never touched this. Now I see why Tom Hanks has done zero press for this re-release, and the rest of the Imagine Entertainment team behind it have been silent in the months leading up this highly-anticipated release.

I love this series and I wanted to love this Blu-ray release – but it just fails in every aspect for me. If the things I mentioned above aren’t deal-breakers for you, by all means, buy it – but if you want a faithful representation of the series as it aired (minus the aspect ratio change), just buy the 2005 Signature Edition and watch it on a 4K TV with an upconverting player.

That experience should be pretty close to what this release should have been.

Note – we happen to know one of the team that created the original award-winning special effects for this series. Cecilia worked in Hollywood on special effects for years and was justly proud of her contributions. We reached out to her for her thoughts on this.

I don’t want to sound overly dramatic but this feels like a slap in the face.

Those of us who worked on the effects did so with complete dedication. My thought during ALL my work was to duplicate for future generations that feeling of awe that those of us who were lucky enough to witness these events had the honor of living through.

I was attempting to create ART and tell the truth.

Since I find myself “representing” Tony, Frank, and Mike from our shop (since Frank and Tony have both passed-on) and to a certain extent the other shops who worked on this. We all worked very hard on this series.

Frank KNEW this could be an award-winning project and he made that very clear in our shop. “If you slack off no awards will come.” So, even though I never “slacked off” when in my work – because I always had the highest respect for Frank, the atmosphere was always to do one’s VERY best at ALL times.

This was actually the first time I used AfterEffects and Frank was willing to pay me for several days for me to come into the office and just learn the software. I basically figured it out in an afternoon (trust me, I’m no genius. Once you realize the “trick” is that everything is keyframed, it’s easy). We were all just ready to get it done.

I often feel that executives and paper-pusher’s think effects artists are trained monkeys. Or that it doesn’t take much for us to do what we do. Boy, are they wrong.

At least I have the original DVD set from the ’90s when it was first released. To ME that is the real and only version.

– Cecilia

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