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How 'First Man' director Damien Chazelle and his visual effects team took moviegoers to the moon

Director Damien Chazelle, star Ryan Gosling and others break down the special effects that went into Hollywood's version of the history-making moment and why they opted not to use a green screen.

With each movie he's made — from his low-budget 2009 directorial debut, "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench," to his 2014 breakthrough "Whiplash" to his 2016 smash musical "La La Land" – director Damien Chazelle has taken a step forward in terms of scale and technical difficulty.

But in tackling the story of Neil Armstrong's mission to the moon with his latest film, "First Man," Chazelle knew he would need to make a giant leap.

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Having never really worked with visual effects in any significant way, Chazelle, 33, wasn't certain at first how he would pull off something as challenging as replicating Armstrong's 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon. (Needless to say, with a reported production budget of $70 million, actually going there was not an option.) But hoping to create a visceral, cinéma vérité experience for the audience, Chazelle knew he wanted to avoid digital effects as much as possible in favor of a more analog approach.

"Some of that has to do with the style of the film, but a lot of it I think is just that I have a particular aversion to very noticeable CG, especially for this subject matter," Chazelle says. "Part of the point of the story we were telling was how much these people were able to accomplish with sort of rudimentary technology by today's standards. It felt like we should be able to tell that story with pretty old-school methods."

Of course, that was easier said than done. In their pursuit of authenticity, Chazelle and his visual effects team ultimately employed a mix of cutting-edge technology and old-fashioned filmmaking techniques that wouldn't have been out of place in Armstrong's day to re-create one of the most famous events in human history.

The standard approach to filming the space-travel sequences in "First Man" would have been to film actor Ryan Gosling, who plays Armstrong, and his costars on a set against a green screen and then digitally add their surroundings — the Earth's atmosphere, stars, the moon, etc. — later in post-production. But before filming began, Chazelle and his team settled on a method that essentially flipped that around.

Along with his team, visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert, who won an Oscar for his work on "Blade Runner 2049," constructed an enormous 35-foot-tall, 65-foot-wide LED screen onto which they could project some 90 minutes' worth of digital imagery they created for the film. A replica of the spacecraft would then be mounted on a gimbal and synchronized to move in sync with the footage on that screen, allowing the astronauts' surroundings to be captured by the camera in real time.

A slate from "First Man" showing how a replica of the Gemini 8 module was filmed against an LED background.
A slate from "First Man" showing how a replica of the Gemini 8 module was filmed against an LED background. (Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures)

"It helped the actors and also the crew to understand what the heck was going on — Ryan is acting to something he can actually see rather than just a green screen," Lambert says. "And because we did a lot of close-ups on the actors' faces in the capsule, every now and then you'll actually see reflections in their eyes and in their visors of the CG content on that screen."

Starting early in the process, Chazelle and his team worked to track down every bit of archival NASA footage they could find to get visual references for the Gemini and Apollo missions depicted in the film. After almost a year of digging, that hunt led to the discovery of about 200 cans of 70-mm footage at the Marshall Space Center in Alabama that had not been seen in decades because the equipment to view it no longer existed.

A frame from archival 70-mm NASA footage from the Marshall Space Center, showing the liftoff of a Saturn rocket.
A frame from archival 70-mm NASA footage from the Marshall Space Center, showing the liftoff of a Saturn rocket. (Universal Pictures / DreamWorks Pictures)
The same image as above, as seen in "First Man" after being cleaned up and digitally augmented by the film's VFX team.
The same image as above, as seen in "First Man" after being cleaned up and digitally augmented by the film's VFX team. (Universal Pictures / DreamWorks Pictures)

"We basically took a magnifying glass on a light box and were looking at the frames and were immediately like, 'Wow, this is extraordinary stuff,' " says visual effects producer Kevin Elam. "We thought, 'If we could make this work for the movie, it would be so much more real.' "

Lambert, Elam and their team digitally processed and cleaned up some of that NASA footage — including shots of engines igniting and a wide shot of the Saturn rocket leaving the launch pad (which actually came from the Apollo 14 mission) — and in the end a number of those shots made their way into the finished film. Other exterior shots involving spacecraft, such as the stages of the Saturn V rocket falling away, were achieved using models built to varying scales depending on the specific needs and then augmented with digital effects.

When it came to the actual Apollo 11 lunar landing that (spoiler alert!) marks the film's climax, Chazelle knew that — as with Armstrong's mission, albeit with less risk to life and limb — there was no room for error.

"It's the most famous part of our movie and it's the most readily accessible in terms of the recordings of it," Chazelle says. "We wanted the whole movie to be accurate and authentic, but with the moon landing in some ways you have an even higher bar because it's so iconic. You really can't muck around with history too much there."

After a long search for a location that could stand in for the moon, Chazelle and his team settled on the Vulcan Rock Quarry just south of Atlanta. There, production designer Nathan Crowley and his crew sculpted some five acres of the landscape to replicate the Sea of Tranquility, where Armstrong and Aldrin first stepped onto the moon. "The surface of the quarry had this kind of gray palette that matched the moon very well," Chazelle says.

A close-up, behind-the-scenes look at how the moon was digitally re-created for the climatic landing scene of the Neil Armstrong biopic "First Man."
This behind-the-scenes clip from "First Man" shows how visual effects artists digitally removed extraneous shadows, mounds of gravel and a wire-rig system to create the illusion that the Apollo 11 astronauts were walking on the lunar surface.

Shooting outside in the quarry rather than on a soundstage involved risks – on the first day, snow fell on the set, requiring the schedule to be pushed back a week. But it was the only way the filmmakers felt they could accurately re-create the vast scale and extreme lighting conditions of the lunar surface.

Shooting at night with IMAX cameras, Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren needed to figure out a way to accurately simulate the effect of sunlight hitting the moon's surface. Normal film lights couldn't cast a strong enough light, so Sandgren had a roughly 15-foot-long, 200,000-watt lamp — double the brightness of the most powerful film lights normally used — specially built and placed some 500 feet above the set.

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"Unfortunately, it exploded after about an hour's work because of the freezing temperatures," says Lambert. (Fortunately, there was a backup.) "It was highly experimental. But when that 200,000-watt bulb was working, I felt myself getting chapped lips. I actually got sunburned because it was so strong."

"We tried to set it up as realistically as possible," says Sandgren, who won the cinematography Oscar for his work with Chazelle on "La La Land." "We positioned the lamp in the same position as the sun was on the real moon landing. We turned the craft so that the ladder was in shadow just like it was in the real moon landing. The whole idea was just to try to get it as authentic as we could."

All told, "First Man" ultimately involved 619 digital effects shots — just a fraction of the nearly 3,000 used in a CG-heavy space film like "Guardians of the Galaxy." But for the entire visual effects team, the emphasis on practical effects over digital razzle-dazzle that Chazelle had insisted on from the beginning proved refreshing.

"It all had to feel real and visceral, and that's really exciting for visual effects people," says Elam, whose credits include "Battleship" and "Interstellar." "We do so many comic-book movies and absurd things that to be able to do something like this is such a breath of fresh air and so thrilling."

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Twitter: @joshrottenberg

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