By Jennifer Walden
Historical fiction is not a rigidly factual account, but rather an interpretation. Fact and fiction mix to tell a story in a way that helps people connect with the past. In director Damien Chazelle’s film First Man, audiences experience his vision of how the early days of space exploration may have been for astronaut Neil Armstrong.
Frank A. Montaño
The uncertainty of reaching the outer limits of Earth’s atmosphere, the near disasters and mistakes that led to the loss of several lives and the ultimate success of landing on the moon. These things are presented so viscerally that the audience feels as though they are riding along with Armstrong.
While First Man is not a documentary, there are factual elements in the film, particularly in the sound. “The concept was to try to be true to the astronauts’ sonic experience. What would they hear?” says effects re-recording mixer Frank A. Montaño, who mixed the film alongside re-recording mixer Jon Taylor (on dialogue/music) in the Alfred Hitchcock Theater at Universal Studios in Los Angeles.
Supervising sound editors Ai-Ling Lee (who also did re-recording mixing on the film) and Milly Iatrou were in charge of designing a soundtrack that was both authentic and visceral — a mix of reality and emotionality. When Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and Dave Scott (Christopher Abbott) are being shot into space on a Gemini mission, everything the audience hears may not be completely accurate, but it’s meant to produce the accurate emotional response — i.e., fear, uncertainty, excitement, anxiety. The sound helps the audience to connect with the astronauts strapped into that handcrafted space capsule as it rattles and clatters its way into space.
As for the authentic sounds related to the astronauts’ experience — from the switches and toggles to the air inside the spacesuits — those were collected by several members of the post sound team, including Montaño, who by coincidence is an avid fan of the US space program and full of interesting facts on the subject. Their mission was to find and record era-appropriate NASA equipment and gear.
Starting at ILC Dover in Frederica, Delaware — original manufacturers of spacesuits for the Apollo missions — Montaño and sound effects recordist Alex Knickerbocker recorded a real A7L-B, which, says Montaño, is the second revision of the Apollo suit. It was actually worn by astronaut Paul Weiss, although it wasn’t the one he wore in space. “ILC Dover completely opened up to us, and were excited for this to happen,” says Montaño.
They spent eight hours recording every detail of the suit, like the umbilicals snapping in and out of place, and gloves and helmet (actually John Young’s from Apollo 10) locking into the rings. “In the film, when you see them plug in the umbilical for water or air, that’s the real sound. When they are locking the bubble helmet on to Neil’s suit in the clean room, that’s the real sound,” explains Montaño.
They also captured the internal environment of the spacesuit, which had never been officially documented before. “We could get hours of communications — that was easy — but there was no record of what those astronauts [felt like in those] spacesuits for that many hours, and how those things kept them alive,” says Montaño.
Back at Universal on the Hitchcock stage, Taylor and mix tech Bill Meadows were receiving all the recorded sounds from Montaño and Knickerbocker, who were still at ILC Dover. “We weren’t exactly in the right environment to get these recordings, so JT [Jon Taylor] and Bill let us know if it was a little too live or a little too sharp, and we’d move the microphones or try different microphones or try to get into a quieter area,” says Montaño.
Next, Montaño and Knickerbocker traveled to the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where the Saturn V rocket was developed. “This is where Wernher von Braun (chief architect of the Saturn V rocket) was based out of, so they have a huge Apollo footprint,” says Montaño. There they got to work inside a Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) simulator, which according to Montaño was one of only two that were made for training. “All Apollo astronauts trained in these simulators including Neil and Buzz, so it was under plexiglass as it was only for observation. But, they opened it up to us. We got to go inside the LEM and flip all the switches, dials, and knobs and record them. It was historic. This has never been done before and we were so excited to be there,” says Montaño.
Additionally, they recorded a DSKY (Display and Keypad) flight guidance computer used by the crew to communicate with the LEM computer. This can be seen during the sequence of Buzz (Corey Stoll) and Neil landing on the moon. “It has this big numeric keypad, and when Buzz is hitting those switches it’s the real sound. When they flip all those switch banks, all those sounds are the real deal,” reports Montaño.
Other interesting recording adventures include the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas, where they recorded all the switches and buttons of the original control flight consoles from Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center (JSC). At Edwards Airforce Base in Southern California, they recorded Joe Walker’s X-15 suit, capturing the movement and helmet sounds.
The team also recorded Beta cloth at the Space Station Museum in Novato, California, which is the white-colored, fireproof silica fiber cloth used for the Apollo spacesuits. Gene Cernan’s (Apollo 17) connector cover was used, which reportedly sounds like a plastic bag or hula skirt.
They also recreated sounds based on research. For example, they recorded an approximation of lunar boots on the moon’s surface but from exterior perspective of the boots. What would boots on the lunar surface sound like from inside the spacesuit? First, they did the research to find the right silicone used during that era. Then Frank Cuomo, who is a post supervisor at Universal, created a unique pair of lunar boots based on Montaño’s idea of having ports above the soles, into which they could insert lav mics. “Frank happens to do this as a hobby, so I bounced this idea for the boots off of him and he actually made them for us,” says Montaño.
Next, they researched what the lunar surface was made of. Their path led to NASA’s Ames Research Center where they have an eight-ton sandbox filled with JSC-1A lunar regolith simulant. “It’s the closest thing to the lunar surface that we have on earth,” he explains.
He strapped on the custom-made boots and walked on this “lunar surfasse” while Knickerbocker and sound effects recordist Peter Brown captured it with numerous different mics, including a hydrophone placed on the surface “which gave us a thuddy, non-pitched/non-fidelity-altered sound that was the real deal,” says Montaño. “But what worked best, to get that interior sound, were the lav mics inside those ports on the soles.”
While the boots on the lunar surface sound ultimately didn’t make it into the film, the boots did come in handy for creating a “boots on LEM floor” sound. “We did a facsimile session. JT (Taylor) brought in some aluminum and we rigged it up and got the silicone soles on the aluminum surface for the interior of the LEM,” says Montaño.
Another interesting sound they recreated was the low-fuel alarm sound inside the LEM. According to Montaño, their research uncovered a document that shows the alarm’s specific frequencies, that it was a square wave, and that it was 750 cycles to 2,000 cycles. “The sound got a bit tweaked out just for excitement purposes. You hear it on their powered descent, when they’re coming in for a landing on the moon, and they’re low on fuel and 20 seconds from a mandatory abort.”
Altogether, the recording process was spread over nearly a year, with about 98% of their recorded sounds making it into the final soundtrack, Taylor says, “The locking of the gloves, and the locking and handling of the helmet that belonged to John Young will live forever. It was an honor to work with that material.”
Montaño adds, “It was good to get every angle that we could, for all the sounds. We spent hours and hours trying to come up with these intangible pieces that only a handful of people have ever heard, and they’re in the movie.”
To recreate the comms sound of the transmissions back and forth between NASA and the astronauts, Montaño and Taylor took a practical approach. Instead of relying on plug-ins for futz and reverb, they built a 4-foot-by-3-foot isolated enclosure on wheels, deadened with acoustical foam and featuring custom fit brackets inside to hold either a high-altitude helmet (to replicate dialogue for the X-15 and the Gemini missions) or a bubble helmet (for the Apollo missions).
Each helmet was recorded independently using its own two-way coaxial car speaker and a set of microphones strapped to mini tripods that were set inside each helmet in the enclosure. The dialogue was played through the speaker in the helmet and sent back to the console through the mics. Taylor says, “It would come back really close to being perfectly in sync. So I could do whatever balance was necessary and it wouldn’t flange or sound strange.”
By adjusting the amount of helmet feed in relation to the dry dialogue, Taylor was able to change the amount of “futz.” If a scene was sonically dense, or dialogue clarity wasn’t an issue (such as the tech talk exchanges between Houston and the astronauts), then Taylor could push the futz further. “We were constantly changing the balance depending on what the effects and music were doing. Sometimes we could really feel the helmet and other times we’d have to back off for clarity’s sake. But it was always used, just sometimes more than others.”
Density and Dynamics
The challenge of the mix on First Man was to keep the track dynamic and not let the sound get too loud until it absolutely needed to. This made the launches feel powerful and intense. “If everything were loud up to that point, it just wouldn’t have the same pop,” says Taylor. “The director wanted to make sure that when we hit those rockets they felt huge.
One way to support the dynamics was choosing how to make the track appropriately less dense. For example, during the Gemini launch there are the sounds of the rocket’s different stages as it blasts off and breaks through the atmosphere, and there’s the sound of the space capsule rattling and metal groaning. On top of that, there’s Neil’s voice reading off various specs.
“When it comes to that kind of density sound-wise, you have to decide should we hear the actors? Are we with them? Do we have to understand what they are saying? In some cases, we just blew through that dialogue because ‘RCS Breakers’ doesn’t mean anything to anybody, but the intensity of the rocket does. We wanted to keep that energy alive, so we drove through the dialogue,” says Montaño. “You can feel that Neil’s calm, but you don’t need to understand what he’s saying. So that was a trick in the balance; deciding what should be heard and what we can gloss over.”
Another helpful factor was that the film’s score, by composer Justin Hurwitz, wasn’t bombastic. During the rocket launches, it wasn’t fighting for space in the mix. “The direction of the music is super supportive and it never had to play loud. It just sits in the pocket,” says Taylor. “The Gemini launch didn’t have music, which really allowed us to take advantage of the sonic structure that was built into the layers of sound effects and design for the take off.”
Without competition from the music and dialogue, the effects could really take the lead and tell the story of the Gemini launch. The camera stays close-up on Neil in the cockpit and doesn’t show an exterior perspective (as it does during the Apollo launch sequence). The audiences’ understanding of what’s happening comes from the sound. You hear the “bbbbbwhoop” of the Titan II missile during ignition, and hear the liftoff of the rocket. You hear the point at which they go through maximum dynamic pressure, characterized by the metal rattling and groaning inside the capsule as it’s subjected to extreme buffeting and stress.
Next you hear the first stage cut-off and the initial boosters break away followed by the ignition of the second stage engine as it takes over. Then, finally, it’s just the calmness of space with a few small metal pings and groans as the capsule settles into orbit.
Even though it’s an intense sequence, all the details come through in the mix. “Once we got the final effects tracks, as usual, we started to add more layers and more detail work. That kind of shaping is normal. The Gemini launch builds to that moment when it comes to an abrupt stop sonically. We built it up layer-wise with more groan, more thrust, more explosive/low-end material to give it some rhythm and beats,” says Montaño.
Although the rocket sounds like it’s going to pieces, Neil doesn’t sound like he’s going to pieces. He remains buttoned-up and composed. “The great thing about that scene was hearing the contrast between this intense rocket and the calmness of Neil’s voice. The most important part of the dialogue there was that Neil sounded calm,” says Taylor.
Visually, the Apollo launch was handled differently in the film. There are exterior perspectives, but even though the camera shows the launch from various distances, the sound maintains its perspective — close as hell. “We really filled the room up with it the whole time, so it always sounds large, even when we are seeing it from a distance. You really feel the weight and size of it,” says Montaño.
The rocket that launched the Apollo missions was the most powerful ever created: the Saturn V. Recreating that sound was a big job and came with a bit of added pressure from director Chazelle. “Damien [Chazelle] had spoken with one of the Armstrong sons, Mark, who said he’s never really felt or heard a Saturn V liftoff correctly in a film. So Damien threw it our way. He threw down the gauntlet and challenged us to make the Armstrong family happy,” says Montaño.
Field recordists John Fasal and Skip Longfellow were sent to record the launch of the world’s second largest rocket — SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. They got as close as they could to the rocket, which generated 5.5 million pounds of thrust. They also recorded it at various distances farther away. This was the biggest component of their Apollo launch sound for the film. It’s also bolstered by recordings that Lee captured of various rocket liftoffs at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
But recreating the world’s most powerful rocket required some mega recordings that regular mics just couldn’t produce. So they headed over to the Acoustic Test Chamber at JPL in Pasadena, which is where NASA sonically bombards and acoustically excites hardware before it’s sent into space. “They simulate the conditions of liftoff to see if the hardware fails under that kind of sound pressure,” says Montaño. They do this by “forcing nitrogen gas through this six-inch hose that goes into a diaphragm that turns that gas into some sort of soundwave, like pink noise. There are four loudspeakers bolted to the walls of this hard-shelled room, and the speakers are probably about 4’x4’ feet. It goes up to 153dB in there; that’s max.” (Fun Fact: The sound team wasn’t able to physically be in the room to hear the sound since the gas would have killed them. They could only hear the sound via their recordings.)
The low-end energy of that sound was a key element in their Apollo launch. So how do you capture the most low-end possible from a high-SPL source? Taylor had an interesting solution of using a 10-inch bass speaker as a microphone. “Years ago, while reading a music magazine, I discovered this method of recording low-end using a subwoofer or any bass speaker. If you have a 10-inch speaker as a mic, you’re going to be able to capture much more low-end. You may even be able to get as low as 7Hz,” Taylor says.
Montaño adds, “We were able to capture another octave lower than we’d normally get. The sounds we captured really shook the room, really got your chest cavity going.”
For the rocket sequences — the X-15 flight, the Gemini mission and the Apollo mission —their goal was to craft an experience the audience could feel. It was about energy and intensity, but also clarity.
Taylor concludes, “Damien’s big thing — which I love — is that he is not greedy when it comes to sound. Sometimes you get a movie where everything has to be big. Often, Damien’s notes were for things to be lower, to lower sounds that weren’t rocket affiliated. He was constantly making sure that we did what we could to get those rocket scenes to punch, so that you really felt it.”
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based writer and audio engineer. You can follow her on Twitter at @audiojeney