Trevor Hogg was over the moon about meeting the production team responsible for First Man at the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival…
Go behind the scenes of the epic biopic First Man as we talk to the production team behind the movie’s impressive visual effects
After chronicling the trials and tribulations of an aspiring Jazz drummer in Whiplash and making the romantic musical La La Land, filmmaker Damien Chazelle embarked on a new frontier with
First Man, a biopic about American astronaut Neil Armstrong who was the first human to walk on the moon. “When I first joined the show, Damien gave me a PDF file which was 300 pages of what the movie was going to be,” recalls visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert (Blade
Runner 2049). “It was like seeing into the mind of one of the top directors in the country. He had made these storyboards cut to the music [scored by composer Justin Hurwitz] that you hear in the film.”
The mandate was to rely on practical effects that would be digitally augmented, which suited the ‘new technology, old techniques’ mantra of production designer Nathan Crowley who worked on Interstellar and
Dunkirk with the like-minded Christopher Nolan. “The films that I’ve made prior to this were incamera, celluloid and immersive; that’s what Damien wanted,” remarks Crowley.
“It’s old-school filmmaking where you use a fullsize cockpit in the foreground, go to miniatures for midground and CG for distant stuff and planets. You use that methodology and hold to it. You always start with something that is built in reality and come out of the edit with it. In-between you use all of the different methodologies to build an immersive experience.”
For editor Tom Cross (Hostiles), the in-camera effects assisted with the editorial process.
“When we had early screenings for the studio or friends and family, the shots were that much further along because a lot of the effects were in progress as opposed to starting with greenscreen and CG that didn’t exist.” Each sequence had different issues.
“When we had interior shots, let’s say of the X-15 or Gemini 8 and Apollo 11 capsules or LM [Lunar Module], we used an LED screen which was 35 feet tall and 60 feet across that had CG background content,” remarks Lambert.
“It gave us all of the interactive light. In the X-15, we even got all of the reflections in the eyes of Neil Armstrong [Ryan Gosling], which would have been tricky to do shooting with greenscreen.” Calculations were made by cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle)
in order to get a realistic depth of field with the LED screen. “I figured a good distance would be 30 feet because that’s close to infinity on a lens, so technically if you rack focus on the screen then the Earth will be out of focus in a realistic way. When you rack focus to the character then the screen naturally falls off out of focus. On top of that we had a sun which was a 5K that travelled around a circular track on a scissor lift.”
Miniatures and bigiatures were constructed of the various spacecraft such as the CSM (Command/service Module) and Saturn V rocket. “The problem is that there are no miniature companies left,” explains Crowley.
“I retrained myself years ago in 3D so that I could speak to DNEG. We had 18 3D printers in the art department which literally ran 24 hours a day for six months so we would burn them out.” Bigrep lent two metre by metre print beds which enabled the printing of an Apollo 11 capsule in one go.
“I hired Ian Hunter of New Deal Studios to do the final finishes and to organise the miniature shoots because he’s an expert at that.” Some digital augmentation was needed.
“With the fullscale LM, which is a huge beast, having the legs there as well was problematic for camera moves,” states Lambert.
“We had the top section filmed in-camera and then we added CG legs.”
In most cases the gantry would have been built on a soundstage with greenscreen. “We built the top gantry, White Room and capsule 150 feet up on a steaming coal plant so you
“18 3D PRINTERS RAN LITERALLY 24 HOURS A DAY FOR SIX MONTHS”
Nathan Crowley, production designer
get this atmosphere and horizon line,” remarks Crowley.
“We had to connect all of these pieces with real locations because that would immerse the audience in the event.”
The elevator scene incorporated a plate shot at Cape Canaveral at dawn and a digital version of the Saturn V rocket.
“That was projected onto this huge LED screen outside the window as a panorama,”
states Sandgren. “The elevator was on a gimbal. We scratched the window and made it dingy. Outside Nathan had beams coming down so we could have the entire journey including opening the doors and having the astronauts step out.”
A practical location outside of Atlanta served as the landing site on the moon. “Nathan Crowley and his crew found this quarry which we dressed to be as close as possible to the original landing site,” explains Lambert.
“With it being a working quarry, the sides had mounds of gravel and different things which we cleaned up in post. Having a set where you do 360-degree moves with an IMAX camera meant that you get to see absolutely everything. We tried our best on the day to clean up the set and sweep different areas, but there was always going to be telltale signs of manmade lines needing to be painted out.
There was also an extension to the horizon. In nearly every shot the astronauts have the sun visors on, which is like having a chrome ball on set so you always see the IMAX camera and the crew. A lot of the work was to create a digital version of the moon and to remove the IMAX camera.”
Avoiding the use of greenscreen and bluescreen on First Man had a particular significance to Lambert. “Ten years ago I invented the Image-based Keyer inside of Nuke which is used in every single movie right now to pull a bluescreen and greenscreen; for me to purposely try to avoid it there’s a certain irony in that! I’ve never been on
a project where the focus was to come up with techniques on the day or in preproduction to make everything as believable as possible. The fact that we came up with methods to shoot in-camera effects helped to make sure that
First Man felt as one cohesive film.” Linus Sandgren was a fan of the Cinéma vérité documentary style adopted for the camera work in the film. “Often times outer space in movies is so surreal and amazing that it’s not as if you experience it yourself. This was about trying to make it feel like you were actually there during the 1960s in this tiny fragile craft.”
Over 90 minutes of content needed to be produced for the LED screen that surrounded the practical builds of the X-15 cockpit and capsules for the Gemini 8 and Apollo 11.
“It did catch us off guard as to how much content we would have to produce for the LED screen,” reveals Paul Lambert. “We relied heavily on Terragen for our environments. For the full CG flying through the clouds in the X-15 it worked wonders and we added to it as well. When Neil Armstrong is coming down through the clouds and is about to land he goes over the ridges into the lakebed. They were helicopter plates which we shot and stitched together. We had to come up with a methodology that [enabled] us to replicate the background content on the screen in post in order to add extensions to it or change stuff.”
Initially the setup was for shotby-shot work based on storyboards, but in the end entire sequences needed to be created. “We started off rendering front and side views knowing that in the storyboards it was either a front or side view,” explains Lambert. “But what became quickly apparent was if we rendered full 360s, like a full spherical image and ran that through the system, we were then able to do interactive moves on the day. For the approach and landing on the moon in the LM [Lunar Module], we rendered 8,000 frames. We would meet two hours before the setup of the shoot with filmmaker Damien Chazelle and everybody involved, play through, figure out exactly where we would turn and cue points, and once we had that worked out Damien would then sit with the actors using that as a basis.”
Managing the resolution of the imagery was a major issue. “To fully resolve that screen properly with the 180 degrees would have required 10K images, so we had to come up with creative ways,” remarks Lambert. “We knew whereabouts the camera was going to be, so we had areas in the screen which were a higher resolution in relation to other areas on the screen. The idea being if the camera saw the screen at that particular view, that would be at the correct resolution with everything around it being a low resolution, but you retained all of the interactive light and reflections. That bit was super important because we were dealing with helmets and visors which are like curves, so you would always catch something off to the side of the screen.”
WE HAVE LIFT-OFF!
Digitally enhanced archival NASA footage was incorporated into the launch of the Apollo 11. Various engineering cameras captured every Apollo launch in case there was an accident or explosion; however, none of the footage was processed as nothing went wrong, with the exception of the fire on the Apollo 1.
“A lot of the footage was on 70mm NASA stock which is no longer made and couldn’t be viewed,” remarks Paul Lambert. “Filmlight had created a sprocketless Beta scanner which was ideal. We sent the footage and they did various tests to try to get all of the colour back in the frame and what came back was fantastic.” Real archival footage was used for the launch of the Apollo 11. “There is one shot that is a wide of the Saturn V rocket just igniting and you see the plumes of smoke on either side. That actual image is the original 70mm footage of the Apollo 14. We scaled it into a more cinematic framing and added CG smoke on either side.”
To THE Moon
The historic and iconic moon landing was shot in a quarry situated in Georgia. “Tranquility Base was 500 feet by 500 feet with a full-size LM [Luna Module], and the greensman put all of the rocks and dug all of the littler craters,” explains Nathan Crowley. “The acreage behind had slowly rising embankments to hide all of the trees so we could get from grey to night-sky black. Paul Lambert then took those berms and put the distant stuff of the moon in.”
“WE USED THE ORIGINAL 70MM FOOTAGE OF THE APOLLO 14”
Paul Lambert, visual effects supervisor
Originally, the plan was to use two stacked 100K Softsuns to represent the sun, but the shadows being cast were not harsh enough. “I asked David Pringle at Luminys, ‘What would it take to make a 200K?’” recalls cinematographer Linus Sandgren. “David built 200K Softsuns which is what we used for the big wide shots.” Unfortunately, both experimental lights blew up doing the principal photography so had to be replaced with two stacked 200K Softsuns. Ensuring continuity became the responsibility of visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert. “What we did in post was sharpen up the shadows so that there wasn’t any discontinuity between the two setups.”
Rockets, lion and elephant roars, musical instruments and astronaut helmets were utilised in the sound design, mixing and dialogue editing with the versatile Adobe Pro Tools.
When Spacex launched the Falcon Heavy on 6 February 2018, the event was recorded by the First
Man production team to be used for the Saturn V rocket. “We placed mics 300 or 400 yards away and at different distances so that way we could capture the ignition of the launch and different parts of it,” states sound designer, re-recording mixer and supervising sound editor Ai-ling Lee (Deadpool). “I repurposed the sonic boom when Falcon Heavy re-enters the atmosphere and used it in the X-15 sequence. We also went to JPL [Jet Propulsion Lab] and recorded in the acoustic chamber – which is powered by nitrogen gas – to create a sonic environment to simulate a launch environment.”
A NASA educational film about going to the moon needed to be made that appears in an astronaut training session scene. “We listened to a lot of voices to find someone who sounded period for all of the newscasters,” remarks supervising sound editor Mildred Iatrou Morgan (The Tree of Life). “We had to edit it a certain way so that it had the same kind of cadence. Jon Taylor [re-recording mixer] added a futz to it and even varied the speed so there was a warbly sound.”
A historic conversation was a proud moment for the veteran dialogue editor. “We’re familiar with Neil Armstrong saying, ‘One small step for man.’ The lines spoken by Neil and Buzz on the moon were performed by Ryan Gosling and Corey Stoll, who listened to the original recordings so that they could use the same cadence and rhythm. I tweaked it even more and someone said to me recently that they thought it was the original. I was happy to hear that!”
Above: Finished composite of the Gemini 8 capsule approaching the Agena. In post the team removed the gimbal, updated the CG background Earth and added a CG extension to the capsule. Additional light was also added to the underside of the capsule to compensate for the physical limits of the LED screen
Above: Every shot using the LED screen generated a ‘metaslate’ output. This included both main cameras’ views, witness cameras’ views and content feeds, all time coded. This was an invaluable reference in post
Top (right): “To create a more cinematic visual we reframed the Apollo 14 footage, cleaned it up and then extended the sides with CG smoke and sky to match,” says Paul Lambert
Top (left): Frame of 70mm NASA archival footage of Apollo 14 launch
Next to it is the final composite of the Gantry and Saturn V. The background was extended using modified helicopter plates of Cape Canaveral
Bottom: Final composite of Neil on the moon. The camera and crew were removed from the visor reflection. Light fall-off was extended to mimic the sunlight on the moon in addition to set extensions
Below: Final composite of Neil standing in front of a crater on the moon. Neil throws his daughter’s bracelet into the crater. The crater was deepened to give the illusion of a black hole
Left: A large-scale lunar module build with CG leg extensions approaching the CG moon