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'First Man' Created Space Flight Anxiety With Lion And Snake Sounds

Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in First Man. (Daniel McFadden/Universal Pictures)
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For their work on La La Land, sound editors Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan became the first female sound editing duo nominated for an Academy Award. This year, the two are nominated again for First Man (also directed by Damien Chazelle), about the life of the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong.

Sound plays a big part in giving First Man its intimate feel. It provides a window into astronaut Neil Armstrong's family life, plus a visceral sense of the immense dangers of space travel. For Lee (also nominated for sound mixing on First Man) and Morgan, the film gave them unique challenges.


Morgan: One of the things that was very interesting in seeing the early animatics (or animated storyboards) of First Man was that they showed how certain sequences, like the opening scene with the X-15 and the Gemini 8 launch, were from the perspective of the astronauts. You don't really cut outside, so sound had to carry the narrative in those sequences.

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Lee: The sound had to show not just what you see, but what we want you to feel. So we had to build an arc where the sound transitions from using authentic sounds (like rocket launches, turbulence shakes from motion simulator rides, and sounds of things like helmet clicks from actual astronaut suits from the Apollo program) to using abstract sounds like animal vocals (snake hisses, lion roars) that we pitch manipulated to help create this visceral sense of anxiety and danger felt by the characters.


Lee: This film is mostly a quiet, personal intimate film. It almost felt like you were watching someone's 16 millimeter home movie. So to kind of match what we see and the grainy texture, we had to give it sort of an unpolished feel.

Morgan: Normally when we edit dialogue on a film, our mission is to clean it up as much as possible to get rid of any artifacts, so that you just hear the dialogue. In this case, Damien [Chazelle] made it very clear that he wanted the Earth scenes, the intimate scenes amongst the family, the scenes with the astronauts working on Earth -- he wanted it to sound like a documentary. Damien liked to say that this movie covers the moon and the kitchen sink, and the kitchen sink are all those scenes where the family's at home and the kids are arguing and running around and making a mess.


Lee: Early on, during pre-production, one of the things that came up was that Neil Armstrong's sons -- who had actually witnessed the Saturn V/Apollo 11 launch in person -- told Damien that they felt like they had not yet seen the sound of the Saturn V rocket properly recreated on film. So Damien wanted us to try to do that, which was a really tall order for us.

Sound editors Mildred Iatrou Morgan and Ai-Ling Lee attend the "First Man" premiere at the National Air and Space Museum on October 4, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Shannon Finney/Getty Images)

We went through all the NASA archives, and unfortunately because of how long ago it was, the audio that they had wasn't high enough quality for us. So I got in touch with SpaceX and we lucked out that they had scheduled the maiden launch of the the Falcon Heavy, currently the most powerful rocket in the world (although not as powerful as the Saturn V), for February of 2018 at Cape Canaveral. We were fortunate enough to set up a bunch of microphones on the launchpad, as well as quarter mile and three miles away, to try to capture the different characteristics of the sound at various distances.

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In the end, we also mixed in some of the distinct crackle of the Apollo 11 launch from the NASA archives. Hopefully Neil's son's are happy with it. I think they are, because every time I've seen them, they always say how much they like the sound of the film.


Morgan: My biggest challenge on First Man was dealing with Neil Armstrong's famous words on the moon: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Early on in the editing process, Tom Cross, the picture editor, sent me Ryan Gosling's performance of those words. They were very similar to what Neil Armstrong said, but Tom said to me, "Can you get it even closer? Can you get it to the point where it sounds like it could be Neil Armstrong?"

So I spent a lot of time on that, making sure that the rhythm was exactly the same, stealing the static from the original and blending it in. And then at the very end, when I had it close to where I wanted it, I used a plugin to manipulate the pitch of a couple of Ryan Gosling's words and syllables, so it sounded as close as I could possibly get it.

Subsequently, when we show the film, I've had people come up to me and say, "Oh you actually used Neil Armstrong there," and I say, "No we didn't! That's Ryan Gosling!" So that's always incredibly satisfying when I hear that from people.

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it on KPCC's The Frame.

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