Mission Critical

Sound Mixes an Emotional Journey for Damien Chazelle’s First Man

by Daron James

On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center carrying three astronauts—Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin, and Michael Collins—their destination; the moon, a mere 240,000 miles away. Four days later at 10:56 PM ET, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface uttering his now famous words to a billion people listening at home. 

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

In First Man, Director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) viscerally explores the story behind the mission to the moon, immersing us in the life of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling)—his marriage to Janet (Claire Foy), being a father of three, and the tribulations leading up to the historic event.

Visually, Chazelle and Cinematographer Linus Sandgren leaned on a dynamic style tapping three different film formats to distinguish story elements. 16mm emphasized Armstrong’s early life and spacecraft interiors. 35mm captured their El Lago, Texas, home, NASA, and shuttle exteriors. When the Apollo 11 door opens up the moon, it shifts from 16mm to 70mm IMAX.

“The film was broken into two halves,” says Production Sound Mixer Mary H. Ellis CAS, known her work on Prisoners and Baby Driver. “The first half was Armstrong’s life on the ground and the second half was the spacecraft work and moon landing.” Along with Ellis were Boom Operator James Peterson, Sound Utility Nikki Dengel and Sound Playback Alexander Lowe and Raegan Wexler.

An early rehearsal before production introduced the shooting style to the sound crew. Chazelle, wanting a realistic portrayal, proposed that all camera movement—except when on the moon—be handheld, cinéma vérité style.

One rehearsed scene intimately placed Armstrong’s two-year-old daughter Karen (Lucy Stafford) in his arms, hugging her as he circled. Only the two actors, director, cinematographer and Peterson were allowed in the room. To record audio, Peterson was given a Sound Devices 788T to place around his neck to track the rehearsal, which ended up in the final version of the film. “We put a lav pretty much on everyone all day every day, but we never wired Lucy. Damien didn’t want her being aware of any of us,” notes Ellis. “The rehearsal helped a lot. It allowed James to get used to Linus’s body language operating the camera as he would spin 180° and widen out the lens often.”

Shot primarily in Atlanta, Georgia, on practical locations and stages, production did travel to Edwards Air Force Base in California to recreate Armstrong’s X-15 flight take-off and landing that opens the film and another day at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The busiest days for sound took place on the mission control set, a vast replica of the Johnson Space Center by Production Designer Nathan Crawley. The complex scene brought us inside the command center as the cosmonauts rocket toward the moon. As many as twenty-three actors needed to be wired at once in order to cover the dialog. Ellis brought in Production Sound Mixer Michael P. Clark (Stranger Things, The Walking Dead) to help head the task.

“I insisted on a rehearsal two days prior to shooting as there would be a limited amount of time on production days,” says Ellis. “We wanted to just slap the mic on the actors and find out how everything was.” It allowed the sound mixer to create a seating chart of the actors where Ellis mixed the top eight and Clark took the other fifteen.

“I knew once Damien got going, he would upgrade non-speaking parts to speaking ones, so I warned everyone about it. We had to be careful when stealing a microphone from someone to be sure they were not going to play in a specific part,” Ellis continues. “All the actors were fitted with a Sanken COS-11D. Each wire had its own ISO track and the mix was kept consistent no matter what happened on the page.”

To record the dialog and for communication between the director and actors, an intricate setup was configured that included off-camera readers. “Alex [Lowe] was fundamental in all of this,” says Ellis. Lowe created three different mix options to route through. Sound also accounted for each actor’s preference in terms of who they wanted to hear and what they wanted for playback. For instance, Ben Owen, who played John Hodge, wanted to hear all twenty-three microphones at once in his earwig to feel the sense of urgency and chaos in the room.

Recording dialog inside each spacecraft was a different technical story. An early concern for sound was the multitude of spacesuits and helmets as wardrobe. The film moves from 1961 through 1969 and details five missions, including the X-15 flight, Gemini V, Gemini VIII, Apollo 1, and Apollo 11. Costumer Mary Zophres researched and duplicated each look, even creating two suits for Apollo 11, one for each actor and the other for their stunt double.

“In prep I spoke with Whit Norris and Mark Weingarten, people who had done helmet movies before to find out what they’ve accomplished, but I learned they didn’t have to worry about the period piece part of it like we did. We didn’t have as many wiring options so we planned different strategies for when we could get our hands on the helmets,” says Ellis. “We ended up buying four new mics and had a quick release made right at their neckline because the minute the actors could, they would take off their helmets.”

The spacecraft modules were built for actual size. They were tiny, and once an actor was inside, it was impossible to adjust the wireless microphone. “Our other concern was about airflow and how loud it was going to be inside the helmet. You have to have enough air for the actors so they don’t pass out but it can lead to condensation,” says Ellis.

“Instead of a regulated system, they had an air compressor pushing air into the helmet. It was all or nothing and very loud,” notes Lowe. “Mary sent me separate feeds that I gated open when they talked or reduced air noise. I sent the actors a feed of their own off-camera reader, the feed of the other actors, but not themselves, and mission control comms to all. When Damien talked, it shut down every feed, including their own so they could hear his direction. I also routed the First ADs voice of god to any one of them if needed. All this was done each day. I had to break it all down every night and set it up again the next day. It took two hours.”

Earwigs were not used inside the helmets because if they went out, 108 dB of white noise would blast into the actor’s ear. Instead, Comteks were hardwired inside a prop earwig and set to the earwig frequency and surveillance systems for sound to have complete control over. “The great thing about this was the batteries lasted all day as the actors could be in the capsules for up to seven hours. Also, I could change a battery without taking off the suit in case one failed, though that never happened,” says Lowe.

Additionally, the original launch day recordings from NASA came into play on set when actors wanted to listen to the delivery. “Ryan was very particular about mimicking Neil’s inflections, specifically when we were on the moon,” notes Lowe. “I fed Ryan a recording of Neil and he would work out his moves with the dialog.”

To find the right mic placement for Gosling, the actor was all about experimenting and finding the right levels. “Ryan doesn’t like to do any ADR, so we needed to find the right balance between the air level and audio level so he wasn’t looping two months of capsule work,” says Ellis. Another point of emphasis was placing plant mics as ISO tracks outside the gimbals as they got creakier for post.

For its moon landing, production took over the Vulcan Rock Quarry, a rock quarry south of Atlanta. The shoot took place outdoors in December and at night. Sound approached the work utilizing wires instead of booms to give the actors solitude. “It was a real internal moment for them so we wanted to give them as much space as possible,” says Ellis.

Reflecting on the show, Ellis admits Sandgren gave them some challenging situations. “He would always come over to say sorry but he didn’t have to. He had an amazing team and we were able to have this really great dance together thanks to the crew I had around me.”

All photos: Daniel McFadden/Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures