In this very in-depth A Sound Effect interview, supervising sound editors Ai-Ling Lee and Milly Iatrou talk about how they used authentic NASA gear to make those flight experiences sound as real as possible - and how they got creative (with elephant roars and horse stampedes!) to make the launches feel overwhelmingly intense + much more:
Written by Jennifer Walden, images courtesy of Universal Studios. Note: Contains spoilers.
I can’t imagine anything scarier than being shot into space inside a hand-made metal can that’s attached to a rocket, with only toggle switches and knobs at my fingertips and a tiny window to look out. You’d have to be equal parts brave and crazy to agree to do that. I can’t imagine what those astronauts in the Gemini and Apollo programs were feeling on those early space missions. But the closest recreation of those experiences just may be in director Damien Chazelle’s film First Man — in theaters now.
The film puts the audience in the cockpit with Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) during his X-15 flight, the Gemini mission in which he and David Scott (Christopher Abbott) dock with the Agena Target Vehicle in orbit around Earth, and the Apollo mission, from lift off to his moon walk. Supervising sound editors Ai-Ling Lee (also re-recording mixer) and Milly Iatrou — working at 20th Century Fox studios — capture those thrilling, scary experiences perfectly through sound. The seat-shaking explosions, the metal creaking and rattling of the space capsule, the breathing and suit movement sounds all work together to put you in the seat with Neil. It’s a cinematic experience that will definitely make your heart race.
Here, Lee and Iatrou talk about how they used sound to make those flight experiences feel as real as possible, and as authentic as possible — from using recordings of actual switches and knobs from NASA space capsules and lunar modules to recreating the sound of the helmets and comms. And they discuss how they were able to get creative — like using elephant roars and horse stampedes— to make the launches feel as intense as possible!
There are so many intense, experiential moments in this film, from replicating the effects of G-force in the multi-axis machine to replicating the experience of being strapped to a rocket and shot into space. How did you prepare for this? Where did you find inspiration for recreating these experiences from a sound standpoint?
Ai-Ling Lee (AL): When I first started reading the script, I had reached out to director Damien Chazelle to see if he had any thoughts on sound for the film. He wanted the sound to feel immersive, tactile (to fit how close-up things will be shot), and also have moments where sound meets music. He started by showing us some animatics he put together during pre-production and those included some of the sounds that he and researcher Peter Dowd had done. That gave us an idea of how some of these set pieces will be shot and also what the sound palette would be for the film.
He also gave us films to reference — Das Boot for the claustrophobic feel of the shuttle traveling to space, and Saving Private Ryan and Son of Saul for realism and immersion.
I did some research on my own too, like reading the book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong
by James Hansen, and also some other Apollo mission books and documentaries on the early space race. Basically, I wanted to find out what the technology was and how it sounded and felt inside the rockets during the various stages of launch, and what the astronauts heard and felt inside their suits.
I was fortunate to be able to ask Jim Lovell (one of the astronauts a part of the Apollo and Gemini missions) some questions via email. He was very kind and sent back some answers. One of the most important things I could glean from them was the constant roar during the Apollo launch and how little outside sounds they hear from inside the spacesuits.
We also captured the sonic booms of the Falcon Heavy re-entering the atmosphere. We were able to repurpose that and use it in the X-15 sequence in the film.
We got to record some other rockets from SpaceX and ULA and other smaller rocket companies in the Mojave Dessert. We used those sounds throughout the film for things like the thrusters, and air releases from the rocket fueling process.
Because the launch sequences were visually shot in such a tight angle, we wanted to have really intense turbulence shakes. They needed to have a tight and close feeling. Sound effects recordist John Fasal, Milly, and I went out to record motion simulator rides, and that worked well especially when they injected low frequency tones to vibrate the entire vehicle. We also had the Foley team — Dan O’Connell and John Cucci at One Step Up — record metal creaks and groans.
During these cockpit scenes, we wanted to immerse the audience in the astronauts’ experience (basically they’re shooting up into the sky in these fragile, metal spacecrafts) because the camera is close-up and focused on them. We wanted to be as authentic as we could and yet sometimes we wanted to play up the emotional punch. So sometimes we would morph into something that was surreal and surprising, like an animal roar or a howl bursting out from the explosions and the metal groans.
Milly Iatrou (MI): My focus was on the voices — the production dialogue, ADR, group ADR, breathing, and things like that. In terms of research, I wanted to be familiar with the comms. Online, you can access all the comms from all the NASA missions. In the movie, we used all the authentic comms from the period but then we also had to supplement those with other comms that we had to record on an ADR stage. We had to get the tone right. We had to get the rhythm of it right. We also had to be familiar with the newscasts from that period because we used Walter Cronkite but we also had to create some newscasts as well.
How did you get the ADR to sound like it was coming from the helmet? How did you create a helmet sound that felt authentic and matched the sound of the archival transmissions?
The ADR lines would come out of the board and go into the speakers in the helmet, and that was recorded by a small mic inside the helmet which was fed back to the board.
MI: One of the re-recording mixers Frank A. Montaño is really into the space program and he knows people involved with it. He had recreations of the bubble helmet from the period and they had those on the dub stage so that the ADR that we recorded could be run through the helmet and that way the reflections would match what we hear on the production dialogue that was recorded with their helmets on. So the ADR lines would come out of the board and go into the speakers in the helmet, and that was recorded by a small mic inside the helmet which was fed back to the board. This gave the ADR the same reflections that the production dialogue had.
AL: There were two different helmets in the film — one was a high-altitude helmet for the X-15 and the Gemini and one was the bubble helmet. Re-recording mixer Jon Taylor, who mixed the dialogue and ADR, could adjust the amount of helmet sound he wanted by blending that sound with the dry ADR.
MI: That was great for me because when I was recording the ADR I wasn’t worried about processing. I knew that they’d have this wonderful, authentic way of creating the helmet reflections.
Let’s look closer at the sound design for some of those intense moments. Starting with Neil’s rocket-powered X-15 flight, what went into the sound design for that scene?
Damien wanted the sound to build into something more visceral and intense … That’s when we started introducing the animal roars and howls, and even the sound of a horse stampede.
AL: The X-15 starts with an intense shake. There’s a visceral and violent feeling on his way up into the Earth’s atmosphere. For that, we had some of those low-frequency turbulence shakes from the motion simulation ride. When the X-15 breaks through the atmosphere, we added some of those sonic booms that we recorded during the SpaceX Falcon Heavy launches. In between, to help make the sound of the rocket, I used some recordings of a water hose when it’s sprayed against a sheet of metal — just so it has this gritty, growling, roaring sound. As Neil is still ascending into the atmosphere, Damien wanted the sound to build into something more visceral and intense, to the point where you can almost not take it. That’s when we started introducing the animal roars and howls, and even the sound of a horse stampede. It’s all building up to that moment where he flips the switch off.
Because it was important to make the scenes feel uneasy and surprising, in the mix I played with using dynamics. We built into extremely loud moments and then immediately dropped into near-silence. On Neil’s way back down in the X-15, he is activating these thrusters to go back down and for that we used some of the thrusters we had recorded from the moon lander in the Mojave Desert. Here again, Damien wanted it to feel very angry, like Neil is fighting with this craft to make it cut back through the atmosphere. We wanted it to feel angry and violent so I added some elephant roars and growls, along with these intense metal/turbulence shakes and some explosions. I added some distortion to these explosions and animal sounds just so they blend in and have this gritty feel — like a documentary, gritty feel.
The X-15 is basically a rocket. You shoot up on a rocket engine and then on the descent, you’re supposed to just glide down without the help of any rocket or engine. So the challenge here was to help sell the danger and speed of the descent by using just shaking and vibrating metal sounds, animal sounds, and pitch-shifting roaring wind. So that was the challenge for me on the X-15.
MI: For me, the challenge in that sequence was the breaths for Neil. While they were editing the film, Damien cut in some breaths that hit all of these specific moments where things change. Ai-Ling used those breaths to cut to and everything was perfectly choreographed to these breaths but they weren’t done by actor Ryan Gosling. So we had to get Ryan to record those and we were constantly trying to make it sound exactly the same as Damien’s breaths. We kept revisiting those until we got it to where we liked it with Ryan’s breaths.
The Gemini launch sequence felt different from the Apollo launch. How did you make those launch sequences feel distinct sonically?
AL: Visually, the Gemini launch is different from the Apollo launch. For the Gemini sequence, we mostly experience that through Neil’s perspective. We are always in the capsule with them, looking at the dials and looking out of the small window. For the Apollo launch, we are seeing the rocket launch from the outside, giving it a majestic feel.
It feels hand-built and dangerous, as if any one of these little metal pieces could fly off and kill them.
For the Gemini, it was tricky from a sound perspective because it goes on for a good while and we had to build intensity by breaking the launch down into various stages. This allowed the sound to ebb and flow. Because we are always on board with them, we needed a lot more intense, low-end shakes and low-end explosions. This is one of those launches where we introduce a subjective/creative take on some of the events that they go through, such as the sharp, shaking metal pieces and nuts and bolts rattling. It feels hand-built and dangerous, as if any one of these little metal pieces could fly off and kill them. As it breaks through the atmosphere and you see all of these fireballs from the window, we added more animal sounds like lion roars and elephant growls on top of the fire and low-end metal hits and explosions. It’s a much more constant build sonically compared to the Apollo launch.
At the beginning of the Gemini launch, we got a tip from one of the NASA consultants (who was involved with training the astronauts back then) that the Titan II rocket that launched the Gemini had a distinctive chirp or whoop sound at ignition. We went through footage from back then of the Titan II rocket launches and we heard that sound and so we tried to replicate that sound for the Gemini launch sequence in the film.
For these cockpit sequences — the Gemini launch and the X-15 — Damien wanted to keep building the intensity and not have a lull in energy. So all throughout sound editorial, even during the mix, every so often Damien would say, “I feel a lull in energy here and there.” So we would try to catch these moments and keep ramping it up by adding some more off-screen explosions or a metal groan. Later on, we added some more low-end in the mains. This low-end sound we got from our recordings at JPL. We recorded sound in their acoustic chamber. Basically, they blast the chamber with nitrogen gas and it’s used to test hardware components by simulating the acoustics inside a rocket during launch. So we recorded that intense low-end sound and added that to the main speakers on the dub stage, just so you can feel the intensity of the Gemini launch sequence. You can really feel the rumble and shakes of it.
It was important to work with the dynamics of the Gemini launch sequence so that you don’t always feel bombarded by it. It comes and goes.
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When they dock with the Agena, David notices that they’ve begun to yaw. Neil undocks from the Agena, and their capsule begins to rotate end over end at a sickening rate. How did you enhance that experience through sound?
Sometimes we like to play deeper into the emotions of Neil’s struggle.
AL: We had quite a lot of fun with this one. We used a combination of different processed sounds, such as engine whining up and whining down, so there’s a crescendo. We used Doppler processing. We had the help of sound designer Shannon Mills on this one. He was on the film and helped to edit for three or four weeks early on in the process. I would give him some notes and guides using markers in Pro Tools, after which he sent his work to me. To help sell the idea that they’re spinning and the spinning is gaining in speed, we used tonal beds that we processed with Doppler. I also made some pitch shifting sounds using metal vibrations. We went into Neil’s perspective by playing up his breathing. Shannon and I made use of ascending and descending machine sounds, like engine sounds or turbine sounds, and explosions to make it feel like it’s out of control, as much as Neil is trying to stabilize the spacecraft. Again, sometimes we like to play deeper into the emotions of Neil’s struggle and we used animal whines, growls and shrieks.
Also, the second part of the Gemini spin, after Neil’s wife Janet (Claire Foy) loses her communications feed, Damien wanted it to sound even more surreal. He wanted a loop of this machine spinning sound. So we created that in sound design using elements like train couplings that we pitch bent and some other low-frequency sounds that I created in Native Instruments Reaktor. But still, he wanted it to sound even weirder. So that’s when we had composer Justin Hurwitz create some loops for it. He used some flute and strings and communication squelches. I took the loop that he created and applied some distortion using Soundtoys Decapitator, just so it felt over modulated and battered, like it’s coming from the spacecraft. It added a gritty quality that this film has. So that was part of that loop that went on for a while. It took us a while to nail that one down.
When Neil activates the thrusters, we used the sound of the real thrusters we had recorded in the Mojave Desert.
For a lot of these moments, Damien wanted to use sound as an effective tool to help tell this story.
Milly, anything on your end to help sell the idea that Neil and David are working in extreme G-force conditions?
MI: When that scene was originally shot, there wasn’t much breathing in between the little bits of dialogue. So we recorded Ryan Gosling and then during the mix, Jon Taylor put the ADR through the helmet and treated it so it blended in with the production dialogue. It was a handoff between the breaths and the other sounds. That sequence was mostly sound effects.
AL: The breathing helps us to get inside the head of Neil and feel close to him, so that we feel like we’re seeing it from his perspective. The mix of the breathing and sound effects was tricky because everything is at 11 and we wanted the audience to feel it but we didn’t want to kill the audience with this.
Later in the film, when Buzz and Neil land on the moon, they’re trying to get the door open and there’s this incredible whoosh before everything goes to total quiet. Can you tell me about your approach to that scene?
Damien wanted to surprise the audience and overwhelm them with this massive sensory overload and then suddenly we’re on the moon and it’s totally silent.
AL: Inside the lunar lander, after Neil and Buzz (Corey Stoll) have suited up, they are having a hard time opening the hatch door. From our research, we learned they had a hard time opening it because of the pressure difference between inside the lunar lander and out on the moon. So they start releasing some of the air pressure. We took that idea and tried to create an air suction sound. By the time they finally open up the hatch door and the camera zooms out to the moon we hear this sudden crescendo of this air suction sound. It builds up really loud for a quick second and then cuts off into pure silence. We used some of the air releases from a submarine torpedo and we played with filter sweeps and panned the sound into the room once the camera zooms out. Damien wanted to surprise the audience and overwhelm them with this massive sensory overload and then suddenly we’re on the moon and it’s totally silent.
On the moon, he wanted it to be totally silent. In the silence, we can take in the image and the reality that we are finally on the moon. We stay in silence for a much longer time than expected. It has this weird effect where it makes it peaceful and calming and you have this anticipation of what’s coming up. Through the silence we slowly start to hear Neil’s breathing. From our research, we wanted to mimic what the astronauts hear inside their spacesuit. That’s why we slowly begin to hear Neil’s breathing and the helmet air hiss from the airflow of the spacesuit’s life-support system. Neil’s breathing is what leads us into his famous speech on the moon. The helmet air element here was a recording of the Bubble Helmet that former Apollo astronaut John Young wore for Apollo 10.
Did the director have a clear idea for that scene from the beginning? Did he know how long he wanted to have pure silence, and what sounds would bring us out of that? Or, was that something you explored on the dub stage?
MI: I think all along it was sketched in that way in the Avid tracks, if I’m correct. It started with silence, and then there was breathing, and then there was movement and then talking. Throughout post production, we received Avid tracks from the picture department and there would be suggestions of where they wanted to go and we’d use those as our starting point.
AL: Damien knows what he wants and they spend time hashing things out in the Avid. So we knew he wanted it to be silent, and then come in with the breathing. But, at one point early on in the process, I did try to add some sounds from inside the suit that we had recorded with contact mics, like the hands grabbing the ladder as he’s climbing down and his footsteps as vibrations through the suit. I did try it that way, just to make sure we aren’t leaving any stones unturned.
I played it that way for Damien, and he still felt like it should be silent and not have any Foley. I agree with him. The movie is so stoic and Neil is such an introverted person that this moment lends itself to silence.
What are you most proud of in terms of sound on First Man?
MI: One of my mandates on the comms and the broadcasts was to recreate a sound that would fit in with the archival material because Damien wanted to take this documentary approach. Everything had to feel perfectly real. I’m really proud of the NASA film — when Neil first gets to NASA they play that ‘trip to the moon’ film. That was an actual vintage film from the period but we had to re-create the track because we couldn’t use the authentic track. So that was really fun to do. I got to cast for it and pick the right voice. I cut it so that it had a certain kind of rhythm and then I brought it into the mix and Jon Taylor added really cool futz and speed changes to it.
When Ryan Gosling performed the line, he referenced the original line that Neil Armstrong said and he performed it as close as he could. Then I took it even further by making the spaces match exactly with Neil’s delivery.
I’m also proud of Neil’s famous line that he delivers on the moon. They had given Ryan Gosling’s line to me early on and asked if I could make it sound as much like Neil Armstrong as possible. So when Ryan Gosling performed the line, he referenced the original line that Neil Armstrong said and he performed it as close as he could. Then I took it even further by making the spaces match exactly with Neil’s delivery. I literally had Neil Armstrong’s track and Ryan Gosling’s track stacked in a Pro Tools session and I was able to make the pacing match and I was able to take the air from Neil Armstrong’s track and add that to what Ryan Gosling did. Then I tweaked a couple of syllables here and there with Revoice Pro (by Synchro Arts) to map out the pitch in certain areas to make it match perfectly.
A few people had asked if I used the actual Neil Armstrong line, but we didn’t. Whenever people think that, it makes me feel really happy.
AL: For me, it’s the X-15 sequence because it sets the tone for the film. Also, it had some tricky moments. The X-15 isn’t a regular jet; it’s actually a rocket. We had to use sound to communicate to the audience that Neil was having difficulty trying to descend back to Earth because he was basically bouncing off the Earth’s atmosphere. It was a combination of the comms and the sound of Neil on the edge of the atmosphere. As he’s trying to descend, you hear the metal creak and stress with some of the air fluttering. Then when he rises up a little, it gets quiet and you hear the constant ticking of the Altimeter. So, I enjoyed the usage of sound in the whole sequence. It’s dynamic, with loud, in-your-face sound and then it drops into really quiet moments with the beautiful music that Justin Hurwitz composed. I feel that was a pretty effective sequence that we did.
Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
AL: Damien wanted the sound to have a tactile quality because we are so close to the astronauts when we’re inside the cockpit. Sometimes we would play up the close-ups sounds, like the glove creaks when they are flipping switches, just to sell the idea that we are so close to them. Besides the Foley, we also had recorded some authentic sounds. Re-recording mixer Montaño is a really avid Apollo mission fan. Through his connections, we were able to get recordings of switches and buttons from the original lunar module and the control sticks on the lander and lunar landing training vehicle. He also managed to get recordings of the actual X-15 suit — like movements and the helmet and cuff lock clicks. Sound-wise, we wanted to give the film as much authenticity as we could. We also wanted to give it an immersive, visceral feeling of danger when they’re going to space. So we did that through different combinations of recordings and sounds that we had created for the film.
I’d like to mention that often times when crafts like sound are used so much in the story telling of a film it is often initiated by the director and picture editor. We were very fortunate to work on First Man with Damien and Tom Cross, who think about the usage of sound throughout the film making process even from the pre-production stage. And our entire sound crew, including Jon Taylor and Frank Montaño, stepped up to the challenge to create the soundtrack of a quiet, intimate film that has some moments of intense and immersive set pieces.
A big thanks to Ai-Ling Lee and Milly Iatrou for giving us a look at the exhilarating sound of First Man – and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!
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