By Barry Goch
As a child, First Man editor Tom Cross was fascinated with special effects and visual effects in films. So much so that he would take out library books that went behind the scenes on movies and focused on special effects. He had a particular interest in the artists who made miniature spacecraft, which made working on Damien Chazelle’s First Man feel like it was meant to be.
“When I learned that Damien wanted to use miniatures and do in-camera effects on this film, my childhood and adulthood kind of joined hands,” shares Cross, who is now a frequent collaborator of Chazelle’s, having cut Whiplash, La La Land and now First Man.
We recently spoke with Cross about his work on this Universal Pictures film, which stars another Chazelle favorite, Ryan Gosling, and follows the story of Neil Armstrong and the decade leading up to our country’s first mission to the moon.
Which sci-fi films influenced the style of First Man?
I remember seeing the original Star Wars movies as a kid, and they were life changing… seeing those in the theater really transported me. They opened my eyes to other movies and other movie experiences, like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Along the way, I saw and loved The Right Stuff and Apollo 13.
Damien is a big fan of all those movies as well, but he really wanted to try a different stylistic approach. He knew that 2001 owns that particular look and style, where you’re super high resolution, antiseptic and sleek in a futuristic way.
For First Man, Damien decided to go with something more personal and intimate. He watched hours of 16mm NASA archival footage, which was often shot by astronauts. He loved the idea of First Man feeling like we put a documentary cameraman in the space capsules. He also saw that these spacecrafts appeared more machine-age than space-age. All the gauges and rivets looked like they belonged in a tank from World War II. So I think all of that lo-fi, analog feel informed the cinema vérité-style that he chose.
As a creative editor, you have animatics, previz or temp comps in the Avid, how do you determine the pacing? Could you talk about the creative process working on a big visual effects film?
Damien preplans everything down to the letter. He did that on Whiplash and La La Land, and he did that on First Man, especially all of the big action set pieces — the X-15, the Gemini 8 and Apollo 11 scenes. He had storyboards done, and animatics that he cut with some rough sound effects. So I always used those as a starting point.
I rely heavily on sound. I really try to use it to help illustrate what we’re looking at, especially if we’re using placeholder shots. In general, I’m most reliant on the performances to help me time things out. What the actors bring is really the heartbeat of any action scene. If you don’t identify with the character or get into a point of view, then the action scene becomes something else. It might work on some formal level, but it’s less subjective, which is the opposite of what Damien was going for.
Can you talk about him capturing things in-camera?
Damien made the choice with production designer Nathan Crowley, VFX supervisor Paul Lambert and cinematographer Linus Sandgren to try to shoot as many things in-camera as possible. The backgrounds that you see out all the spacecraft windows were projected on LED screens and then captured in-camera. Later, our VFX artists would improve, or sometimes replace, those windows. But the beautiful thing that in-camera gave us were these amazing reflections on the visors, faces and eyes. That sort of organic play of light is very difficult to replicate later. Having the in-camera VFX was invaluable to me when I was editing and great for rough cut screenings.
A big part of the film played with only the point of view of the astronaut and feeling like it’s a VR experience. Could you talk about that?
It came down to what Damien and Ryan Gosling would refer to as “the moon and the kitchen sink.” That meant that the movie would hinge on the balance between the NASA space missions and the personal domestic storylines. For the earthbound scenes with Neil and his family, Damien wanted the audience to feel like a fly on the wall in their home. He wanted it to feel intimate, and that called for a cinema verité documentary approach to the camera and the cutting.
He wanted to continue that documentary style inside the space capsules but then take it even further. He wanted to make those scenes as subjective as possible. He shot these beautiful POV shots of everything that Neil sees — the Gemini 8 seat before he climbs in, the gauges inside, the view out the window — and we intercut those with Ryan’s face and eyes. Damien really encouraged me to lean into a simple but effective cutting pattern that went back and forth between those elements. It all had to feel immersive.
What about the sound in those POV shots?
It was brilliantly created by our sound designer Ai-Ling Lee and then mixed by Ai-Ling, Frank Montano and Jon Taylor. Damien and I sketched out where all those sounds would be in our Avid rough cuts. Then Ai-Ling would use our template and take it to the next level. We played around with sound in a way that we hadn’t done on Whiplash or La La Land. We made room for sound. We would linger on POV shots of the walls of the space capsule so that we’d have room to put creaks and metal groans from Ai-Ling. We really played those moments up and then tried to answer those sounds with a look from Neil or one of the other astronauts. The goal was to make the audience feel like they were experiencing what the astronauts were experiencing. I never knew how close they were to not even making it to the lunar surface.
There was that pressure of the world watching as alarms are going off in this capsule, and was fuel running out. It was very dramatic. Damien always wanted to honor how heroic these astronauts were by showing how difficult their missions were. They risked everything. We tried to illustrate this by creating sequences that were experiential. We tried to do that through subjective cutting patterns, through sound and by using the big screen in certain ways.
Can you talk about working in IMAX?
Damien is a big canvas director. He always thinks about the big screen. On La La Land, he and Linus shoot in Fox’s original Cinemascope aspect ratio, which is 2:55.
On First Man, he again wanted to tell the story on a wide canvas but then, somehow, take it up a notch at the appropriate moment. He wanted to find a cinematic device that would adequately transport the audience to another world. He came up with this kind of Wizard of Oz transition where the camera passes through the hatch door and out onto the moon. The image opens up from 2.40 to full 1.43 IMAX.
The style and the pace changes after that point. It slows down so that the audience can take in the breathtaking detail that IMAX renders. The scene becomes all about the shadows and the texture of the lunar surface. All the while, we linger even longer on the POV shots so that the viewer feels like they are climbing down that ladder.
What editing system did you use?
We edited on the Avid Media Composer using DNxHD 115. I found that resolution really helpful to assess the focus and detail of the image, especially because we shot a lot of 16mm and 35mm 2-perf.
I would love to give a shout out to your team, for your assistants and apprentices and anybody else that helped.
I was pretty blessed with a very strong editorial crew. If it weren’t for those guys we’d still be editing the movie since Damien shot 1.75 million feet of film. I need to give credit to my editing team’s great organizational prowess. I also had two great additional editors who worked closely with me and Damien — Harry Yoon and John To. They’re great storytellers and they inspired me everyday with their work.
Ryan Chavez, our VFX editor, also did a lot of great cutting. At the same time, he kept me on target with everything VFX-related. Because of our tight schedule, he was joined by a second VFX editor Jody Rogers, who I had previously worked with on David O. Russell’s movie Joy. She was fantastic.
Then I had two amazing first assistants: Jennifer Stellema and Derek Drouin. Both of them were often sent on missions to find needles in haystacks. They had to wade through hundreds of hours of NASA radio comms, stock footage, and also a plethora of insert shots of gauges and switches. Somehow they always knew where to find everything. The Avid script was also an indispensable resource and that was set up and maintained by Assistant Editors Eric Kench and Phillip Trujillo.
On the VFX end, we were very lucky to have our VFX producer Kevin Elam down the hall. We also had two incredible postviz artists — John Weckworth and Joe DiValerio — who fed us shots constantly. It was a very challenging schedule, which got more difficult once we got into film festivals.
Fortunately, our great post supervisors from La La Land —Jeff Harlacker and Jason Miller — were onboard. They’re the ones who really kept us all on track and had the big picture in mind. Together, with our trusted post PA Ryan Cunningham, we were covered.
The truly unsung heroes of this project had to be the families and loved ones of our crew. As we worked the long hours to make this movie, they supported us in every way imaginable. Without them, none of this would be possible.
Barry Goch is a finishing artist at The Foundation, a boutique post facility in the heart of Burbank’s Media District. He is also an instructor for post production at UCLA Extension. You can follow him on Twitter @gochya