first-hand En­counter

Trevor Hogg was over the moon about meet­ing the pro­duc­tion team re­spon­si­ble for First Man at the 43rd Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val…

3D World - - CONTENTS -

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


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.”


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.”


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

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