Supervising Sound Designers Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan, with Mix Team Jon Taylor and Frank Montaño, Detail the Organic Sound Design and Effects That Rocket Viewers to the Moon
The moment astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon was, for the breathless nation that watched, a largely silent one. Damien Chazelle’s new film chronicling Armstrong’s story, First Man, is anything but, meticulously recreating the metal-clanging, centrifugal-swirling near misses and tragic accidents of NASA’s early space program. Bookending those flights into and out of space are some incredible moments of quiet, many of them as Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his wife (Claire Foy) face personal tragedy and the enormous risks that come with the job.
Like many of the film’s crew, including Oscar-winning cinematographer Linus Sandgren, supervising sound editors Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan first worked with Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz on La La Land. Lee (Deadpool, The Maze Runner, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Wild), the film’s sound designer, was also part of the recording mix team with Jon Taylor and Frank Montaño. We spoke to Lee, Morgan, Taylor and Montaño about their roles building the film’s enveloping and interconnected sound effects, dialogue and music tracks, from recording rockets and futzing dialogue to using more surreal effects, and how working with the 33-year-old director pushed them all into rewarding new territory.
StudioDaily: How did Damien Chazelle describe to you what he wanted to do sonically with this film?
Ai-Ling Lee: We just had a quick conversation with Damien during pre-production when he told us he wanted the sound to be immersive, tactile and to have moments where the sound design and the music meet head on. He followed that up by sending us some hand-drawn animatics with sounds that he created with a researcher, Peter Dowd, that are basically some of the set-piece sequences in the movie. It was great to have this from the start because it gave us a good idea how it was going to be shot and what the sound palette was going to be.
Jon Taylor: Damien and editor Tom Cross were out here on the lot at Universal cutting the picture and they would come over here at lunch so we could ask them questions. This was months before we even started on the film. The one word that constantly came up was documentary. But did we do mono on everything? Obviously not. But we did hold things back more than we might have on another picture, so those thrilling moments really stand out. That’s the thing that hit me the quickest about Damien’s taste once we were doing the mix: we had to make sure it was all very dynamic. You really want the Gemini 8, X-15 and Apollo scenes, including the LM (Lunar Module) descending to the moon, to really pay off, so the quieter and [more] finessed the sound, dialogue and music are, the rest of the film makes those scenes feel incredibly big.
Frank Montaño: Analog was another word that hovers over this project. We recorded a lot of original sounds the old-fashioned way. Linus also shot on film, and even the music was mixed on an analog console.
What specific references did he ask you to look at?
ALL: For the claustrophobia of traveling in space, he pointed us to Das Boot. He really liked the fact that they were trapped in this submarine and you can hear all the creaks and groans under stress. For the realism and emotional tone, he pointed us toward Saving Private Ryan [Steven Spielberg is an executive producer of First Man] and Son of Saul. And once they were in space, of course, all the Kubrick films, which mix music and sound design and silence so well. And a few Terrence Malick movies, so we could hear the kind of tactile sounds he admired.
Mildred Iatrou Morgan: In Ai-Ling’s and my role as supervising sound editors, I deal with all the dialogue, production sounds and ADR. Damien made it clear really early on that, for all of that stuff, he was going for much more of a documentary approach — more of a gritty and not-so-pristine and polished dialogue that often movies like this have. He referenced United 93 because he really loved the way the air traffic controller sounded in that film. For the dialogue, the tactileness was more about the movement and the grit as part of the production dialogue.
Did you have to unlearn anything, then, for this project?
MIM: Actually, there really was a little bit of unlearning. I work with this great dialogue editor, Susan Dawes, and sometimes when we would give them a sequence we worked on, if they sent back the next version of the film and incorporated what we did, that meant they liked it. If they didn’t, that meant, ‘Keep trying.’ On the Mission Control sequence, for example, Susan worked really hard on cleaning that up using all the iso [isolated lavalier] mics. They had mic’d every single person in that room, so that’s over 30 different microphones. They liked hearing it in the mix channel, however, so we had to decide, OK, we’ll use mostly the mix channel but in specific areas we would only use the iso mics. But they really wanted to hear all the paper movements in the mix channel, which was kind of counter-intuitive for me.
ALL: We also edited foley to that scene, too. When the camera comes in close to the astronauts we amped it up so you hear every little movement that they make, from the flip of a switch to the movement of their space suits and helmets. We recorded some original sounds from actual NASA artifacts as well.
JT: There were also quite a number of actual NASA communications from these actual launches in 1965, 1967 and 1969 that made it into the movie. I mean, probably 30-40% of the Mission Control communications, as well as newscasters and broadcasts you hear, are the real thing. So in a way, in terms of dialogue, we had to match those, or at least make them feel like they were from that vintage. Even two people talking on different comms in the same era would sound very different. To help with the storytelling, the further they go into space, there’s more of a calm feel and it gets a little more garbled at times. We added more futz the farther they got from earth, and I think that went a long way to help viewers understand just how perilous it was.
Did you incorporate any other original NASA sound effects?
ALL: It was a little bit of both, but we fortunately had the luxury to record a lot of our own sounds. For the the bigger events, like the sound of the Saturn V rocket launch, we looked through the NASA sound archive recordings. They have them, but it was hard to find really good quality originals to use. Luckily, Space X was launching their new rocket, the Falcon Heavy, in February. The Saturn V is still the most powerful rocket in the world, but the Falcon Heavy comes close. We went to Cape Canaveral to record. It was on the same launchpad where the Saturn V had its maiden launch, so we had microphones set up at different distances from about 200–400 yards away. This let us record the different levels and nature of the ignition, the launch itself, and even the sonic boom when the rocket re-enters the earth’s atmosphere. We then repurposed that for the X-15 sequences, since it is a rocket-powered aircraft. We also recorded at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara and with other smaller rocket companies out in the Mojave Desert. As far as using actual NASA artifacts, that’s where Frankie Montaño, who also happens to be an Apollo Mission superfan, comes in. He recorded the original lunar module and Mission Control switches, some of the space suits clicking into place, and the X-15 suit movements, which we were fortunate to be able to mix in with the traditional foley.
JT: Frankie’s a crazy fan of the space program.
FM: It’s all true. On a personal note, it was really amazing to be a part of this film and I’m so proud about the way it came out. We wanted to make sure the sounds were authentic on every level, especially once they are inside the rocket and how the dialogue from those scenes would be processed. We got a high-altitude helmet for the X-15 scenes and Gemini missions and a bubble helmet for the Apollo missions. Some of the engineers and I here put together a 4’ x 4’ x 3’ box with casters and wheels on it that was then wired for microphones and speakers and enclosed and filled with sonic-deadening foam to keep it as non-reflective as possible. The thing we learned was that the bubble helmets all had different characteristics to them, so we brought in some two-way car speakers that had little screw flanges on the edges and mounted them inside the helmet with some more foam to snuggy it up in there. We brought in some small tripods you’d use for your phone and velcroed some microphones to those. That way, when JT was gone between processing each mission, we didn’t have to make a helmet switch. It was definitely a throwback to the way things used to be recorded in the mag stock days, rather than with a digital plug-in.
JT: It’s not such a unique idea and, in fact, I got rid of my own speaker box about five years ago. But the uniqueness of this particular speaker box was the type of granular accuracy with which it was made. We could have brought in a motorcycle helmet and glass bowl to get a similar sound, but Frankie went out and actually talked to people who owned authentic original items or authentic replicas of these helmets.
Where did you source these things, Frankie?
FM: Believe it or not, the high-altitude helmet is actually a Chinese MiG helmet [laughs]. An acquaintance of mine is the foremost replica space suit maker and he had some bubble helmets available, so he lent me one. I told him we were going to have it for about a year, and he said no problem. We actually gave it back to him last Friday!
JT: That box was incredible. When I went to test it, I figured I’d have to maybe move a few things around. But I didn’t have to touch a thing. It was about just getting the right combination between the recorded dialogue or ADR and the amount of atmospheric sounds from that helmet that you’re going to add to it. Sometimes, we could go full helmet and get away with it, because it really has a very close proximity feel. But you always lose a bit of the intelligibility when you do that, so you often have to mix a little dry with a little bit of the helmet to get that effect without sacrificing the line. The more music and rocket you get behind the dialogue, the more intelligibility you need.
Were there any unusual sounds, say organic sounds from an unexpected source, that made it into the mix?
ALL: We used a few things from sound libraries you might not expect. During the various cockpit scenes, it’s all about immersing the audience in the experience of the astronauts who are basically shooting up into the sky in these fragile metal tubes. The camera is always on the astronauts, so sound is vital to increasing the intensity of the scene at various points. That’s when the sound morphs into something a bit more surreal and surprising, like an elephant roar or lion growl, or even an animal stampede that burst out of the explosions or metal drones. When we were working on it, Damien wanted it to be even more visceral, so we decided to just go there.
What did you do or record to create all those wonderful sounds of turbulence?
ALL: We recorded some motion simulator rides, especially when the machine injects low frequencies that heavily shake and vibrate the entire vehicle. Some of the metal creaks and groans were created by our foley walkers, Dan O’Connell and John Cucci. Also, to help the audience feel the low-end rumble of the Saturn V during the Apollo launch, we also recorded NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s acoustic chamber. It’s powered by nitrogen gas so it’s used to test hardware components by simulating the acoustics inside a rocket during launch. So we used the low frequency part of it.
And what about when they land on the moon, when it becomes so quiet?
ALL: When the camera zooms out from the lunar module onto the moon all the sounds drop into pure silence. The silence lets us better take in the image and the reality that we are finally on the moon. We stay in this silence for a much longer time than usual. I found it very peaceful, but silence also creates anticipation. Through our research with other astronauts and watching documentaries we tried to recreate what they heard inside their space suits, so we slowly hear Neil’s breathing and the helmet air hiss from their life-support system. The sounds of his breath lead us into his famous speech. I was also really interested during our research in the technology inside the rockets at the time and what they could hear or how it sounded to them inside their suits. Through one of our foley editors I actually got in touch with former astronaut Jim Lovell, and he hand-wrote some wonderful details for me, like the constant roar during the Apollo launch and how the only sounds they hear are their own breathing and the helmet air hiss. During post we also had some technical notes from other former astronauts and NASA personnel, who identified the unique chirping sound of the type of rockets that launched the Gemini missions. So we created a sound like that and added it during the Gemini launch sequence.
How did technology play a role in the immersive aspect of the soundtrack?
ALL: The film is mixed in Dolby Atmos, and the biggest advantages to that are the full-range surrounds. That allowed us to place many of the full-bodied, bombastic rocket roars and explosions around the audience. It’s not just about the volume of a sound: now they can feel the weight and size of all the launches or explosions. We also did radical panning mix moves to create an audio image of fast movement or spinning, key in that scene in the simulator and later when Apollo 11 was in space. I also used a lot of my usual plug-ins, like (Audio Ease) Altiverb IRs that were recorded inside real acoustic spaces, and Soundtoys Decapitator, a sound distortion plug-in. I used that one to process explosions, animal sounds for the cockpit scenes, and to give it a feeling of intense grittiness in the mix. I also used Decapitator on some musical elements that Justin Hurwitz created, during a sound loop in the Gemini spin sequence, so that the flute and strings elements actually feel like it’s a part of the space capsule.
MIM: One of the things that I used that I’d never really used before but was curious about it was (Synchro Arts) Revoice Pro. This relates back to the real archival comms and recordings of newscasters we used, and we had to recreate some of them as well and have them blend in. So for some of the very familiar lines during the lunar landing I used it just a little bit, but enough that it really helped to match the original archival material. The plug-in helped me tweak it in terms of pitch. For example, for the Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin lines on the moon, because what was uttered was very familiar, they had the actors reference the archival recordings and perform it very much in the same way. But then there were still a couple little tweaks I could do with Revoice Pro on a word or syllable here and there so we were able to match the original almost completely.
What are you most proud of in this film and why?
MIM: For me, one of the most satisfying things was early on in the film, when the nine astronauts start their orientation and they watch a NASA film. That’s an authentic NASA film but we couldn’t use the audio from it. So they gave me the script and I had to create audio that felt like it fit. I really had a lot of fun with that because we voice cast it to match the original as much as possible and I edited it and brought it into the mix. Jon put a nice futz on it and did some speed variation, and when we presented it to Damien for a split second he thought we had managed to find the archival version of the soundtrack. That was an incredibly satisfying moment: fooling Damien, with his amazing ear, even if it was just for a tiny second.
FM: Each scene has such a different signature, so that made this entire project exciting for me, especially as a space fan. The whole thing was extraordinary, in terms of the people we met and the various recordings we made from original sources. But I really enjoyed working on the power descent to the lunar surface, given the fuel issue and being slightly off course.
ALL: The X-15 sequence ranks pretty high for me, with its combination of intensity and quiet. When he’s at the edge of space and earth, I feel like that’s such a great way to introduce the movie and really sets the tone. It was a great chance to be able to use sound to do that. That was actually the first scene I presented to Damien and Tom in my editorial room at Universal, and it was fun seeing their reactions when they listened to the turbulence and the thrusters we had recorded out in the desert. When the X-15 is gliding back to earth without its rocket, the roaring wind, a few well-placed animal sounds and shaking metal gives it the authenticity they were after.
JT: In all honesty, working with Damien was really the most rewarding aspect of all. Watching his process with Tom, and Linus and Justin Hurwitz made me realize what a super-strong team this is. I learned a lot from him on this film. The chances he would take on dynamics, especially with the softer stuff, blew my mind. For example, if, on a music cue, there already was a delicate harp being played, he was so sensitive to whether it was plucking actual notes or chords and swapping out what he wanted. Watching him and Justin, who also conducted the orchestra, was incredible and I was very proud to be a part of that mix. I mean, you should have seen the amount of quarter-dB moves that I made between the violin and the harp, when they peaked at the same time, to get that perfect balance. That point couldn’t sound like two notes clashing; to get that right in a big room on a stage with a horn system takes a lot of finessing. And that level of finessing went into everything, from the music to the dialogue to the background sounds. It was absolutely a blast to be set on that path to achieve our personal bests and all make something as authentic as we could.
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