When Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” fell out of the Best Picture Oscar race, much of its crafts prestige slipped as well. And, after being shut out last weekend from both the MPSE and CAS awards for sound editing and mixing, “First Man’s” stunning sound work has drifted from favorite to underdog. It’s going to be very hard to beat the rock’n’roll force of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which has all the momentum.
But, regardless of what happens on Sunday, the dramatic and complex sound editing and mixing of “First Man” ranks as one of the best achievements in recent years. The way it authentically recreates Neil Armstrong’s (Ryan Gosling) journey to the moon, from teeth-rattling and dangerous supersonic test flights and documentary-like Houston home life to rocket blasts into space, led by the “La La Land” team of Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou achieved a tactile, visceral impact.
Read More: Oscars 2019: Best Sound Editing Predictions
And that’s not all. In keeping with Chazelle’s exploration of the grieving Armstrong’s troubled state of mind, the sound team additionally created an otherworldly vibe inside the capsules. “We wanted to immerse the audience in the experience of the astronauts in these fragile, metal spacecrafts, and build them up into various stages to increase the intensity,” said Lee, who served as sound designer, co-sound editor, and one of the re-recording mixers.
“With the X-15 opening, we stay with Neil Armstrong and increase the intensity, sometimes morphing it into something surreal and surprising. So…we would add an animal roar or a howl that bursts out of the launch explosions or [elsewhere].”
Those distorted and high-pitched animal sounds included elephants, lions, and stampeding horses. One of the best instances occurred during the X-15’s descent when Armstrong re-enters the earth’s atmosphere, enhanced with the shaking and vibrating noises of the aircraft.
On the mixing side, Lee collaborated with Mary Ellis (production sound mixer) and re-recording mixers Jon Taylor and Frank Montano, a space aficionado who already had a recording library of NASA artifacts. Nearly every sound had to be created, finessed and enhanced, from the blast of rockets to the click of buckles to the creak of gloves to the toggle of levers to the muffled speeches and breathing inside helmets.
Score and sound merged seamlessly during the Apollo 11 rocket launch, when the department combined its own frequencies with composer Justin Hurwitz’s processed strings and winds. However, with only adequate recordings of NASA’s powerful Saturn V rocket, the sound team needed to do better for the full IMAX experience.
Fortunately, NASA allowed them to record the Falcon Heavy launch last year, which helped capture “the fury and insanity” of the launch. But during the Gemini sequence, it needed to be even more powerful, as well as subjective, when the capsule spins out of control.
“Damien wanted us to get inside Neil’s head and what his thoughts were,” Lee said. “So we worked out a loop sound for the emotion recording train crashes. But in the end, we used Justin’s sounds. We mocked up a few elements using strings and flutes. That covered the high-end register and we added body and weight to it. That was for the exterior. The interior was more internalized with metal vibrations and changing the pitch.”
Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures
For the Apollo docking sequence, Chazelle wanted a chilling effect to convey the astronauts entering the world of the dead. “We created simple deep haunting tones. morphed into incoming music cues. and played with different eerie tones for the other worldliness,” Lee said.
Meanwhile, during the lunar sequence, Iatrou, the co-supervising sound editor, excelled at making Gosling sound like Armstrong, mixing and matching the actor’s on set recording with original archival recordings. “Tom Cross [the editor] sent me Ryan’s performance and he already sounded like Neil Armstrong, and then he sent me the original words that Armstrong said coming out of the craft and climbing down the ladder, and the ‘One small step for man’ line,” said Iatrou.
Read More: Oscars 2019: Best Sound Mixing Predictions
“We brought them closer together, adding futzes and static and chirp from the original. But 98 percent of it is Ryan and it had to sound like him. And we recorded other sounds from scratch, but Damien kept saying not to clean them up, to keep it [dirty], the way it actually sounded.”