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‘First Man’: Shooting the Moon in IMAX to Heighten Neil Armstrong’s Death-Defying Journey

Damien Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren experimented with IMAX for Neil Armstrong's historic moon landing as surreal poetry.

“First Man”

Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures


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The challenge for Damien Chazelle in dramatizing the historic moon landing was taking us where we had never been before — inside Neil Armstrong’s (Ryan Gosling) mind as he walked along the alien surface in a state of serenity. The decision, therefore, to shoot the climactic sequence in IMAX  (see the video below) was a no brainer, since the large-format brand has long been associated with the documentary space movie.

However, the director and his Oscar-winning cinematographer Linus Sandgren (“La La Land”) had a new twist: make it a subjective, ghostly experience so that we’re one with Armstrong on the moon. “Damien wanted to travel to the planet of the dead so he could say goodbye to his daughter,” said Sandgren. “It was an opportunity to reflect on life…a story of the humanity that matters most, and the loss and cost to get there.”

Read More:First Man’: Ryan Gosling Recreated Neil Armstrong’s ‘One Small Step’ Line So Perfectly That Viewers Can’t Tell Difference

First Man

Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

NASA’s mission to the moon in the ’60s is given an authentic, in-camera, doc-like treatment by Chazelle and Sandgren. Viewed through the eyes of the taciturn, grief-stricken Armstrong, it’s like watching a personal home movie, warm or cold-looking, alternating between Kodak 16mm and 35mm film. To convey Armstrong’s troubled state of mind, the dizzying hand-held camera takes on the instability of NASA’s dreaded spinning machine.

But when Armstrong gets on the moon, everything stabilizes and he becomes serene. That’s where IMAX kicks in. They even planned it like “The Wizard of Oz.” As they opened the door from the lunar module to get out, it transitions from 16mm to IMAX with the help of a VFX plate. Production designer Nathan Crowley (“Dunkirk,” “Interstellar”) built a massive set out of the Vulcan gray rock quarry in Atlanta to serve as the lunar surface and Sandgren shot the sequence at night.

“First Man”

Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

“It’s a beautiful format,” Sandgren said of his first IMAX experience. “The moon surface is monochromatic yet you view it on the crispest format. You see colors in the sand, reflections of the crystals. What’s fun for us is that it’s totally surreal. You’re out of this world and the image is much [bigger]. You’re on a crane now and you’re floating. And it’s not Neil, it’s more like you.”

But the biggest challenge was lighting it with a single source, 500 feet away and 150-foot high. Sandgren tested two 100K SoftSun lamps, but the double shadows were a bother and too fuzzy. “I asked the inventor. David Pringle, if he could make a couple of 200K lamps. His company made two bulbs. It made us able to shoot that moon surface in that big, wide environment with these prototypes.”

“First Man”

Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

The other great attribute about IMAX was capturing the 180-degree reflections on Armstgrong’s visor. It was eerie, almost alien-looking and complemented by Justin Hurwitz’s use of the otherworldly theramin in his score. “It looked very lonely. We shot that with all those practical elements there,” Sandgren said. “The crew had to hide.”

The visual poetry of the IMAX moon sequence was the culmination of Armstrong’s personal journey: expanding his horizon to deal with death. “With the metaphors in the film for these kinds of things, it was a huge part of our visual language as well,” said Sandgren.”

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