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Beyond Christopher Nolan: ‘First Man’ Redefines In-Camera VFX

Damien Chazelle's space epic benefited from 90 minutes of rendered footage on a spherical LED screen while shooting in-camera with full-scale practical crafts.

“First Man”

Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures


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With inspiration from Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” Damien Chazelle set out to redefine shooting in camera for “First Man,” dramatizing NASA’s mission to the moon, with Ryan Gosling as astronaut Neil Armstrong. “We had to create a gentle balance using a diverse mixture of visual effects, special effects, archival footage, and scaled models to help create the 1960’s documentary style film that was Damien’s vision,” said production VFX supervisor Paul Lambert of DNEG (this year’s Oscar winner for “Blade Runner 2049”).

The biggest challenge was how to shoot the space and in-flight elements with DNEG’s CG content to fit within the boundaries of a movie being shot 16mm and 35mm (the climactic lunar sequence was shot with IMAX cameras by cinematographer Linus Sandgren for a surreal “Wizard of Oz” effect).

“First Man”

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

“The effects had to be subtle and shot in a particular way to make it feel like footage from the day,” Lambert said. “Anything that felt like heavy VFX would have completely taken you out of the story and be glaring out at you. It was decided that shooting our spacecrafts against an LED screen was the best option to capture as much in camera as possible. With the various crafts in the movie we tried to stick to a simple philosophy. Depending on the size of the craft in frame is when we would design the shot to either use the full-scale practical, miniatures, or the full CG version.”

For the crucial X-15, Gemini 8, and Apollo 11 sequences, they shot full-scale practical crafts from production designer Nathan Crowley (“Dunkirk,” “Interstellar”) and the art department, putting the actors on 6 axis gimbals in front of the curved 60-foot diameter and 35-foot tall LED screen.

“First Man”

“Using 90 minutes of content that was created at DNEG, we were able to create a pseudo full three-dimensional world in-camera,” added Lambert. “We rendered full 360-degree spherical images that gave us the greatest flexibility on the day. The playback system allowed for interactive rotation and color grading as we filmed.”

Read More:‘With ‘First Man,’ Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling Found Big Drama in a Repressed Hero

Additionally, DNEG came across Apollo launch footage shot by NASA on obsolete 70mm military stock that had never been seen before. Some of the visuals for the Apollo 11 launch in the movie had to be recreated with CG, but others were augmented to fit within the 16mm parameters.

“At the core of those scenes, we retained the original material but we reframed it, cleaned it up, and extended them on each side with matte paintings and CG,” Lambert said. “A 58-day shoot using 16mm, 35mm and 70mm IMAX formats culminated in 615 effects shots added in post. In the end, we were able to shoot this movie without using one greenscreen or bluescreen for live-action shots.”

“First Man”

However, Lambert and the DNEG team were unprepared for Chazelle’s unconventional desire for greater and more flexible virtual production capabilities. “Normally, in my world, you work in small segments, like the X-15 coming through a cloud, but what Damien wanted was to see entire sequences,” he said. “So, for example, on the X-15, we combined the helicopter plates and CG as one sequence. This enabled Damien to work with Ryan without being constrained by shots and to select his edit [for the content provided].

“We did the entire X-15 run and the entire launch of the Gemini for when the CG gantry gets pulled away and you see through the window and in the reflection on his visor and in his eyes, and go up into the clouds and into blue and black and first see the earth.  And we rendered thousands of frames of sun rises to sunsets over the earth and the clouds, and on the day we could pick a progression and the playback system allowed us to do interactive moves. We rendered entire 360 VR images and that provided great flexibility for [the] takes Damien wanted during filming.”

“First Man”

For its CG content, DNEG used Terragen, a scenery generator program from Planetside Software. This allowed animation from ground level up into space, creating clouds and traveling through all of the correct paths into the atmosphere. For the lunar sequence, meanwhile, they provided CG sand and footprints, removed the rest of the set built around the Vulcan quarry in Atlanta, set up a calibrated bungee system to emulate 1/6th gravity for the astronauts walking on the surface, and removed unnecessary elements from the visor reflections.

“Because we made the effort from the beginning, we got a lot of subtleties in reflections, but it did turn our world upside down to produce this content,” added Lambert.

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