During this year’s Academy Award ceremony, the nominees for best sound editing were: ‘First Man’, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘Black Panther’, ‘A Quiet Place’ and ‘Roma’. The award, as we already know, went to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’; however, amongst the other nominees, there are a bunch of sound editing stories worthy of being told. Such is the case of Damien Chazelle’s ‘First Man’ —the story of NASA's mission to land on the moon, focusing on Neil Armstrong and the years 1961-1969.
For their work on Chazelle’s La La Land, sound editors Mildred Morgan and Ai-Ling became the first female sound editing duo nominated for an Academy Award, and for their work on this year’s ‘First Man’ both were nominated again.
The sound played a major role in providing the film with its intimate feel. It delivers a window into Neil Armstrong’s family life, and a no less than an intimate sense of the perils associated with space travel. For both sound editors, the film gave them unique hurdles and challenges.
Telling a Story Through Sound
One of the most interesting things about this film, according to both sound editors, was that the director provided them at the very beginning with several animated sequences showing specific parts of the film so they could have an idea of what he had in mind in regards to sound.
Those sequences included several key scenes from the film such as the opening scene with the X-15 and the Gemini 8 launch, which, if you watched the movie, were from the perspective of the astronauts, ignoring what was outside. Thus, the sound had to show the audience not only what they were watching, but also what they were supposed to feel.
In order to achieve that both Ling and Morgan focused on building an arc where sound goes from using real and authentic sounds such as rocket launches and turbulences (which are recorded directly from simulator rides), to using non-related, even abstract, sounds like animal sounds such as lion roars and snake hisses that were subsequently pitched and manipulated to help develop the sense of danger and anxiety felt by the crew.
Space V.S. Earth
When it came to dialogue, Ai Ling and Mildred Morgan used a different approach for all earth-bound scenes. The film can be described as a quiet, intimate and even personal film. It is like if you were watching a film’s enthusiast first audiovisual project. It was definitely hard to match the texture with what the moving images are showing, giving it a rather unpolished feel.
Normally, when sound editors edit dialogue on an audiovisual project, their initial mission is to clean it up as much as they can so people just hear dialogue lines (and not artifacts or any other sound of some sort). In ‘First Man’, the director clearly wanted the earth scenes and all family scenes to sound like a documentary, which is why you can easily spot the difference.
The Apollo 11 Launch Scene
The sound editing team mentioned in several interviews that during pre-production, one of the things that were matter of discussion was the Apollo 11 launch. In fact, it is said that Neil Armstrong’s sons, who actually witnessed the launch back in the 60s, met several times with director Damien Chazelle and told him that they had not felt nor seen the sound of the rocket properly recreated in previous films, which ended up being a huge task for the sound editing team as they were responsible for coming up with something as close as the original launch.
Ling and Morgan went through all the NASA archives in hope of finding a recording of the launch, but because of how long ago the launch was the audio they came across with wasn’t as good as they expected. The team, then, reached out to SpaceX, and they were lucky enough to attend the launch of the Falcon Heavy. They were allowed to set several microphones directly on the launchpad, a quarter-mile and three miles away, to capture the different layers and characteristics of that sound at different distances.
During the sound editing process, the duo ended up mixing some of the real and actual crackles of the Apollo 11 launch from the NASA archives alongside with their recordings.
The Biggest Challenge: Neil Armstrong and Ryan Gosling
As per one interview, both Morgan and Ling asserted that their biggest challenge of ‘First Man’ was dealing with the astronaut's famous words upon landing on the moon: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The team was presented with Ryan Gosling’s performance of that line, and they were actually really similar to Armstrong’s; however, the film crew wanted them to be next to the point where they sounded like it could be the real Neil Armstrong in 1969.
The team spent hours working on it: making sure Gosling’s rhythm was exactly the same as Armstrong’s, blending in some of the original static, and pitching some of Gosling’s words and syllables so the could sound as close as the director wanted.
*The images used on this post are taken from Pexels.com