‘First Man’ Sound Editors Capture Neil Armstrong’s Journey To The Moon With Authentic, Evocative Palette

After collaborating with Damien Chazelle on La La Land to the tune of three Oscar nominations, sound editors Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Morgan embarked on a transformative odyssey with First Man, which defied their preconceptions of how sound might manifest in a big-budget space drama. Scripted by Josh Singer, Chazelle’s latest would dive into the psychology and potently immersive experiences of Neil Armstrong, the first man to step foot on the moon.

Knowing the degree to which Chazelle and his team respected Armstrong and his legacy—and their desire to faithfully recreate his experiences in space—Lee imagined that the film’s sonic palette should feel “real and authentic” at every moment. Ultimately, while a series of NASA space missions were recreated in meticulous detail, on visual and sonic levels, there was more room for the figurative use of sound than she had imagined. “Damien wanted the sound to convey danger, when the astronauts are being shot up into space. Sometimes, instead of a rocket roar, we would add an animal roar, or a stampede that would burst out of the explosions, or amp up the metal shakes and groans, just to show how fragile these man-made spacecrafts are,” says Lee, who also served as the film’s re-recording mixer. “It was like these men were trying to build up to someplace where no humans are supposed to go, and at moments in some of these scenes, Damien just wanted to take it to the next level, almost playing more on Neil’s emotional feeling than something so literal.”

Supervising First Man’s dialogue and ADR, Morgan too had to rethink certain ideas, though hers had more to do with years of experience on other projects, where dialogue was always honed in a similar way. “As dialogue editors, we’re always trying to make it sound as clean as possible. It’s not just about clarity, but also cleaning out all the extraneous noise, and making it as pristine as possible,” Morgan reflects. “On this film, I was very aware that Damien wanted a documentary-like approach. I had to make sure that the dialogue was clear enough to understand, but leave in a lot of texture, so that it was an audio equivalent of what you see on screen.”

For Lee and Morgan, crafting the film’s sonic palette was a matter of trial and error, finding the right balance between fact and metaphor, interior and exterior perspectives, while toeing the line between clarity and grit.

Apart from the opportunity to reteam with Damien, what was it that excited you about working on First Man?

Ai-Ling Lee: For me, since I focus a bit more on the sound effects part of it, it was the idea that it was such a big achievement to go to the moon, and with sound, it was almost an endless opportunity, [gravitating] between something majestic and visceral, and something quiet, lonely and chilling. Besides reading the script and the books that the script is based on, Damien showed us some of his early animatics that he did during pre-production, which covered some of the main set pieces in the film. That gave us an idea of how it was going to be shot—which was mostly from inside the cockpit, from the perspective of Neil Armstrong—and a rough idea of what sound palette he was looking for, and what we needed to do research on.

Miltred Iatrou Morgan: We were really lucky in this case, in that we found out about it so far in advance, so we had plenty of time to do research, and also to record things. Ai-Ling wanted to record rockets, and kept track of which rocket launches were happening, so she was able to do it way in advance.

Can you flesh out a sense of the research and resources you drew upon, to conjure up a vivid, realistic palette for the film?

Lee: Damien wanted the sound to be immersive, to be tactile, almost with a little bit of a Terrence Malick feel, where everything’s close up, and you feel the closeness of things. I’d read a few other books about the early years of the American space race, and watched a bunch of documentaries, because I was curious to understand the technology that first took us to this other world—and that could then lead us to ideas about how it would sound. I needed to know how it sounded and felt inside the rockets and the capsules, including what the astronauts hear and feel inside the spacesuit.

We were fortunate on this film because it had a lot of NASA and Air Force participation, which gave us access to a lot of materials. At the same time, one of our foley editors’ relatives knew a former astronaut named Jim Lovell, who was part of the Gemini and Apollo missions, so I sent him a bunch of questions, and he very kindly hand-wrote answers back. What stood out to me was his description of the constant roar during the Apollo launch, and once they are suited up inside the spacesuits, how little outside sounds could be heard from inside the spacesuit. It’s mostly just their breathing, and a loud hiss from inside the helmet.

Working in a craft where art and science exist side by side, what was it like to approach a project that was so technical in nature? Where did challenges manifest, in this sense?

Morgan: I knew that we were going to be using authentic comms from the period. A lot of what you hear in the film when they’re in space, especially with Apollo 11—all the futzy dialogue that you hear coming through their headsets—is actual communications from [NASA missions]. But we also had to combine them with things that we were going to record, to move the story forward and make things clearer. We wanted to make sure the audience could follow what was going on, so I had to be really familiar with not just the technical quality of the comms, but also their language and cadence. It was an interesting challenge because even though I was alive when they walked on the moon, I knew almost nothing about Gemini, and knew very little about Apollo 11. The good news was that NASA has this incredible website with archives of all the communications—transcripts of what people said during flights—so there were so many resources to use.

Lee: Because there are so many spacecraft scenes, Damien wanted to get a sound of the Saturn V rocket, which launched the Apollo missions. He wanted to get the sound of it, as close as we could, since the Saturn V is still the world’s most powerful rocket. We looked through some of the NASA archives to see if there were any original recordings from back then, and there were, but it’s difficult to find high-quality, original recordings. They had a very distinct crackle, and he wanted us to capture the fury and insanity of the rocket.

Through research and luck, one of the rockets that we recorded was at SpaceX. They had a new rocket that was launched in February of this year called Falcon Heavy, which is now the biggest rocket in the world that’s functioning, and we were given access to plant many mics on the launch pad, at various distances, so that we could capture the ignition, as well as the entire launch—and even the sonic boom, when the SpaceX rocket re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. We repurposed the sonic boom for the X-15 sequence, and to help feel the low-end rumble of the Saturn V rocket, we went to NASA’s JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory] and visited their acoustic chamber, which is powered by nitrogen gas. Basically, they blast nitrogen gas into this chamber, and the gas [simulates] the acoustics inside a rocket during launch. We recorded the sound of it, and fed the low-end rumble into all the speakers. With all those thrusters throughout the film, we also recorded a whole bunch of other rockets from other companies, including smaller companies that are developing Moon landers.

One of our re-recording mixers, Frank Montaño, is an avid Apollo mission fan, so through his connections, we were able to secure recordings of switches and buttons from the original lunar module, and even mission control logs, the control sticks on the lunar module and the LLTV, all the spacesuit umbilical cords latching on, and the helmet clicks. I think he went and found some of the original spacesuits from back then, and recorded the sounds from them, so that even though they were smaller sounds, they were as authentic as they could be.

When it came to recording rockets, did you need to seek out specialized recording devices that could capture all of the necessary sonic detail, without distortion?

Lee: For the rocket recordings, we had the help of our sound effects recorder, John Fasal. We used a variety of high dynamic microphones, which could withstand a heavy load of sound pressure. Typically, you might want to use a limiter on these digital recorders. During our first recording of the Falcon 9 rocket at the Vandenberg Air Force Base, we used limiters, but we [saw] that the sound of the ignition and the launch didn’t bloom and grow, and wasn’t as aggressive as we’d like. So for all the rest of our rocket recordings, we turned off our limiter, and decided to take the risk.

One of the biggest challenges with this was actually due to the security issue of rocket recordings. They required us to set up timers that could then trigger with a set date and time. The sound recorders would be triggered to be powered on and record, because we could not have access to the launch pad. We had to set up all the right microphones and all the timers, and the recorders and battery packs and everything, and leave all this set up there at least 24 hours in advance, in the launch pad area. It was nerve-wracking to leave all your equipment out there; launching a rocket takes a lot of manpower and all the technology working in a sequence, so oftentimes they do get scrapped. We just had to cross our fingers and hope that they launched at the right time; otherwise, you might have issues [regaining] access to the launch pad to set everything back up.

Music has always been fundamental to Chazelle’s films. With First Man, what was the thinking, in terms of the way in which sound and Justin Hurwitz’s score would intersect?

Lee: It was critical for Damien to blend sound design and music. Sometimes, in quiet areas of the film—like, in the space capsule—we would have a tonal ambience of the spacecraft that would then morph into the incoming music queue. When they are trying to land the lunar module on the moon, Justin would have his driving music playing through the scene, and below it, we would enhance it by adding spacecraft thrusters and vibrations that played along in timing or rhythm with the score. This was helped tremendously by having Justin start so early in pre-production, so that by the time we started on post, we could work along with the music that was close to how it would eventually be scored. Sometimes, his music was also somewhat tonal, so that helped us to pinpoint sounds that could transition into the music.

Could you expand on your approach to the lunar landing sequence? There’s a powerfuldynamic between sound and silence that continues through to the film’s final moments, back on Earth.

Lee: When Neil and Buzz are inside the lunar lander and have suited up, they have a hard time opening up the hatch door to get onto the moon. From our research, we learned that that was because of the air pressure difference between inside the lunar lander and out on the moon. In order to get on the moon, they released some air pressure from inside the lunar module. We took that idea and created an air suction sound, so that by the time they finally open up the hatch door and the camera zooms out to the moon, we hear this sudden crescendo of air rush. It builds up to this really loud sound for a quick second, and then it just immediately drops off into pure sonic silence. The idea was that Damien wanted to surprise the audience and overwhelm them with this massive sensory overload—and then suddenly, we are on the moon, and it’s totally silent.

The contrast in the aural dynamics makes this sound feel kind of deafening. The pure silence let us better take in the image and the reality that we’re finally on the moon, but it also has this weird effect. It makes it peaceful and calming, but at the same time, it creates anticipation. So, to recreate what the astronauts hear, to get us back inside Neil’s head, we started introducing breathing, and the sound of the helmet air he has from his life-support system in his spacesuit. This breathing would lead us into Neil’s famous speech, [for] which Milly did a marvelous job with Ryan Gosling’s voice.

Morgan: One of the first things they had me work on was Ryan Gosling’s performance of that dialogue when he starts speaking on the moon, which includes the famous line, “One small step for man.” When they were filming it, they had the original version so that Ryan could listen to Neil Armstrong saying those words. He only did a couple of takes, and when he performed them, he was listening to what Neil Armstrong said, and tried to get it as close as possible. They then sent it to me, and they wanted me to get it even closer—to make it identical, if possible. So, I did several things. I lined up Ryan’s performance with Neil Armstrong’s words, and then cut it so that it falls in exactly the same rhythm. Then, I took the little static chirps from the recording, and I used those as well. Then, for one final tweak, I used a plugin called Revoice Pro, which matched pitch from one line of dialogue to the other. There were a couple words and syllables that weren’t exactly identical, so I was able to match those and apply them to Ryan Gosling’s performance, and make it almost identical, to the point where people have said to me that they thought I was using Neil Armstrong’s voice there, and not Ryan Gosling’s. That was a really fun challenge. It took a long time, but that, to me, was one of the most satisfying things that I did on the film.

Lee: One of the things that Damien changed in the mix at the very last minute was when Neil is on the moon, and he threw Karen’s bracelet into the crater. We always had music through all of it, and at the last minute, on the final mix, Damien wanted to play around with the idea of bringing it back inside Neil’s head. So, we decided to take out the music for a short moment—when he is standing by the crater, before he throws away the bracelet—and just by adding a hint of helmet air hiss and a little breath from Neil, suddenly, we are back on the moon with him. And as he throws the bracelet into the crater, the music comes back in. It kind of gives it more of a personal feeling. That was changed later into this quiet moment, almost like he’s standing in front of a grave, and letting it go.

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