It took nearly 50 years, but we finally have proof that you can fake a moon landing. Just ask director Damien Chazelle and the rest of the team behind one of this awards season’s most acclaimed pictures, First Man. This chronicle of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and the myriad other people who first took humankind to the lunar surface reaches its exhilarating climax when the astronauts of the Apollo 11 mission arrive on the moon. As unbelievable as this may sound, virtually all of the landing sequence was shot in-camera, with practical effects. Stanley Kubrick would’ve been proud.
The commitment to verisimilitude for the sequence went all the way back to the script stage. “All of the Apollo stuff is incredibly well documented,” says screenwriter Josh Singer. “But the problem with the comms between Neil, Buzz, and [the designated communicator with mission control] during the lunar descent is, unless you understand the jargon, you don’t understand how troubling this descent was, how dangerous it was, how close they were to running out of fuel and the fact that these two alarms go off and they have no idea what the two alarms are.”
So he opted to keep things punchy and digestible — but that meant rewriting history. “The first time I tried to write this sequence, I made up a lot of stuff so that I could communicate just how dangerous it was,” Singer recalls. He sent the scripts to various consultants who were directly involved in the space program, including Aldrin, head of NASA training Frank Hughes, and Dave Scott, who flew in a previous mission with Armstrong. “Dave was like, ‘All this stuff about the lunar landing, this is all B.S.!’ Which it was, so I really got pounded by all of these guys.”
Singer went back to square one and listened again to the original recorded communications. “I basically then did a whole new version of the landing where all I did was use the comms and add as little as possible,” he says. However, he added tiny, barely perceptible details to clarify the jargon. “So, like, one example: the call is ‘60 seconds to bingo, 30 seconds to bingo,’ and bingo is the point at which point you have 20 seconds to either land or abort,” Singer explains. “So at the ‘94 seconds to bingo’ call, instead of Buzz saying, ‘94 seconds to bingo,’ which is what he says on the real comms, I just have him say, ‘94 seconds to bingo, 114 seconds to mandatory abort,’ just so the audience knows what bingo is, roughly.” He nervously passed the script around again. “When I sent this version back,” he says, “it got a pass.”
Flash forward to the actual planning of the landing and the walk on the surface. Chazelle and his team wanted to capture the reality of the cramped Gemini lunar-landing module, so they took a field trip to the Kennedy Space Center, where they looked at the original. “You look at this thing and it literally is a tin can,” says visual-effects supervisor Paul Lambert. “It’s like, How on earth did this thing actually get up into the atmosphere? This thing was literally like a metal coffin. Just seeing how it kind of felt like an old car.” As such, when they shot the descent, the camera was on the move. “Damien wanted to emphasize the fact that these things look as if they can’t go into space, so we overplayed all of the shaking,” Lambert recalls.
For the sake of realness and simplicity, the team wanted to minimize the amount of computer-generated imagery they were using for the cramped landing portions. But how can you do that and still have all the necessary visuals outside the windows of the spacecraft. Lambert and cinematographer Linus Sandgren came up with a surprising solution: They made CGI imagery, but instead of putting it in in post, they developed it before shooting, then projected it onto an LED screen outside the windows. “If we have the screen at a certain distance, it still fits within the parameters of the film’s focus and it allows Linus to be free with the camera,” Lambert says. “So it shows the different parts of the capsule while seeing the screen. We did the first test and it worked out really well, so we built this huge screen on a stage in Atlanta, which ended up being about 35 feet tall by 60 feet across.” However, they had to time out all the exteriors just right, which meant meticulous planning. “What we ended up doing was rendering entire sequences, so basically we would turn up on set two hours before everyone else in the morning and we’d work out cue points,” Lambert says. “So it was very much run like a play.”
But all of that was a prelude to the greatest challenge: recreating the surface of the moon. Everyone agreed that, to avoid any Uncanny Valley fakeness, they would shoot without a green screen and with a bare minimum of CGI. Trouble is, they needed the set to look as expansive as, well, the moon. “I kind of knew early on no sound stage was going to be big enough to let the ground run off into the black,” says production designer Nathan Crowley. “I needed a huge space. Sometimes people do things in parking lots, but that would mean sculpting an enormous amount of earth and earthwork.” An idea occurred to him. “I’ve used quarries before, and it was like You know, this makes sense, let’s try and find a gray quarry, which is easier said than done.”
In order to stay within the budget, they had to find their location in the Atlanta area, where most of the film was shot. Miracle of miracles, they were able to locate a perfectly colored quarry there. Shaping it up was a massive undertaking. “We’d have to sculpt the land over five acres, sculpt the background so we could gradually take the landscape up,” Crowley recalls. “They took all their machines out and really helped sculpt the bulk of it, and then we would take the 500-foot area for where the landing’s done. So we pretty much matched it perfectly, crater-by-crater, rock-by-rock, because it was so well documented.”
Why the size? Well, it had to be a big space because they wanted to minimize the amount of computer touch-up needed to blot out trees and other extraneous objects — they’d be shooting at night, but such things might still peek out for a viewer, and too much effects work can detract from the magic of IMAX, which is what Chazelle wanted to shoot the surface portion in. As Crowley puts it, “You need to protect the quality of IMAX, which means you don’t want to have to scan it too much for the effects boys — you don’t want to add too many effects, because then there’s no point in using IMAX.”
Speaking of IMAX, Chazelle himself says he wanted to use it in order to achieve something of a contradiction. “It’s obviously such an iconic piece of scenery that you want to be as accurate as possible, but at the same time, we also wanted to make sure the audience felt, emotionally, what Neil would be feeling at that moment, or could have been feeling at that moment,” the director recalls. “So, whereas most of the movie is pretty quickly cut and handheld and whatnot, the lunar sequence is very much the opposite. It’s long-held shots, and whereas a lot of the movie we shot on 16mm or 2-Perf 35mm, we wanted to shoot the moon in IMAX, basically to give everything a kind of clarity — a waking-dream kind of quality.”
The moon was a crucial part of the sequence, but so, too, was the sun. The team needed it hanging in the sky, blazing down onto the surface. That challenge brought perhaps the most audacious technical achievement of the shooting process. “How do you get the crisp shadows that the sun would give you?” Chazelle recalls asking. “How do you get enough exposure for a wide enough terrain that the sun would give you? We wound up having to basically construct basically the biggest film light ever used, by almost a magnitude of two.”
The time came to actually shoot the moonwalk. Initially, the process was as ill-fated as the actual lunar landing had been fortunate. “The first day of shooting, the light blew out, so we had to shut down about halfway through,” Chazelle says. “The next day of shooting, luckily, we had a backup light, but that light blew out as well. So, we had three tries of figuring out the exact balance of how much juice to be putting into the light, where exactly it should be, and how long we would have before we had to give it a rest, before we were able to really rely on it.” But they weren’t out of the proverbial woods yet, Chazelle says: “As soon as we solved the issue of the simulated sunlight, the weather took a turn and it started snowing. We had to shut down for weather for about a week because it wound up being the biggest snowstorm in Atlanta history. Our entire lunar set became totally snowed in and then iced over, so we had to wait a week to shoot other stuff while it thawed.”
At long last, they were ready to get the surface portion shot. But even when things are going well, IMAX is a difficult hill to climb. “We only had one IMAX camera and one IMAX magazine,” Chazelle recalls, “So we could shoot two minutes and then had to reload for about ten or fifteen minutes, and then shoot again for two minutes.” Nevertheless, they worked around those constraints and were able to nail what they needed to do. The sequence was shot, there was a little bit of tweaking in post, and the finished product looked like nothing ever seen before.
Thinking back on it, Chazelle — who had virtually no previous experience with special effects — says he learned a few lessons. “It was definitely a reminder to me of why doing stuff practically, doing stuff in camera, that sort of more old-school way, without reliance on green screen or CG, why that’s often more difficult, why it’s usually not done,” he says, “but also, why I think it’s so often worth doing.”
Lambert, on the other hand, is no stranger to effects, but even he thinks the reliance on in-camera practicality led to something special. “You’re picking up supersubtle things like reflections in dials or reflections in eyes, and you’d never turn that over to visual-effects work because it’s so complicated to do, but I truly believe that that adds to the whole realism of all of the sequences,” he says. “It was actually kind of refreshing to work in a way that broke the rules.”