“First Man is a production in which we redefine shooting ‘in camera’. Those words generally imply everything is shot practically, which we creatively did. Since this is a movie shot partially in space there is always going to be visuals that have to be created with computer graphics. We had to create a gentle balance using a diverse mixture of visual effects, special effects, archival footage and scaled models to help create the 1960’s documentary style film that was Damien’s vision.”
Paul Lambert is the Visual Effects supervisor on First Man who did something he had never done before for Damien Chazelle’s spectacular film about Neil Armstrong.
Lambert is no stranger to the VFX world, nor is he a stranger to working with directors who want to do away with the green/blue screen effect that can take the audience’s sense of immediacy out of the film. He had just completed working with Denis Villeneuve on Blade Runner 2049, when he was tasked with working on First Man.
“Using 90 minutes of content that was created at DNEG we were able to create a pseudo full three-dimensional world in-camera.” Lambert and I caught up to spill secrets about the VFX that features Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong and explores his personal journey behind the moon landing.
How did you go from Blade Runner to First Man?
I was still finishing up Blade Runner. I had to go down to see a preview and when I was down there, I met Damien who was interviewing various supervisors for First Man. I met him and the producers. We talked about how I actually prefer to shoot it in a way where I have all the elements together rather than break it into separate pieces. He seemed really keen on that idea. Damien wanted to try to avoid using computer graphics or things that would take you out of the movie. We didn’t discuss the various techniques about how I’d try to do that.
Once I had been confirmed, Damien sent me his ideas. We went to Atlanta in the middle of August. I had just finished Blade Runner and I took two weeks off just to get a breather because that was a tough finish. I ended up spending those two weeks watching every single space documentary that was out there. I just filled my head with space completely. I knew that once I got there everyone would be in that space too. Once I got there, we spent three months discussing how the hell we were going to do it and how’d we’d do the VFX in a style that would fit with his documentary style filmmaking for this film.
When he tells you he’s not going to use green screen, what’s the next card you play?
Well, it’s, Oh shit! [laughs]. In a way, Blade Runner was a very similar thing. There was a philosophy and what these filmmakers don’t want to do is put these actors in a green box and magically make things around them. They are completely opposed to that kind of process. You can’t visualize it at the time and it doesn’t help the actors. They’ll always try to get something like a partial set to ground it in believability but it takes a fair amount of time to make it realistic. With budgets, you cut corners. That’s the guiding principle, to get something that is grounded in something believable. Whether you use a plate or something. Damien wanted to avoid using blue or green screen.
So, we started talking about this idea of an LED screen. That’s when we discussed it and it became apparent we’d do that. I did some tests with Linus Sandgren our DP where I provided some content, we put it on the screen. He got the cameras that he was using for the movies and it ended up working out pretty well. These screens are like video screens and they do have limitations. We realized we could use those screens for actual backgrounds. Damien loved that. The fact we could have the content on the screen helped give us light and all the reflections. I used to be a compositor and I’m used to green screens and am used to trying to come up with the composite. I know it takes time. Having done the work prior, so we had done all the VFX for the screen which then lit the actors and we got all the reflections. Because it’s shot through the camera, you automatically get the property focus and the film grain. It goes through the optics and it sits through the camera so it’s actually lighting the characters. It’s almost as if they’re actually there. It’s a far higher believable step than green screen.
All that stuff is usually done in post, but for this, everything was done during the shoot. There would be times when I’d be on set two hours prior to everyone else. I’d meet Damien and we’d be looking at scenes.
In my role, Damien didn’t want to be constrained on set, he had a guide which we were able to follow, but he didn’t want to be constrained by that when we were shooting, so we’d have to produce imagery in one entire sequence which is something we never do.
For the X-15 sequence, we shot something that was over eight minutes long so Damien could then work with Ryan on any aspect of the B-52 drop and have him bouncing. He could take any portion of that. Because the imagery was made in a certain way, we could process that image as we were filming and that was something I had never done before.
You were able to become more and more a part of the filmmaking process interactively. So when the director says “I need this, this and this” it’s going to be the finished visual. To fully get there, it required a hell of a lot of firepower. Our clips, you could turn and do things.
I know other shows are out there progressing and it’s only going to get better and better with the technology as that moves forward.
What was the effects process in the beginning scene?
Just like we had to an entire clip for the X-15, we also had to do an entire one for the approach on landing, the Gemini and Apollo clips too. So when you see Lucas and Ryan in the capsule and they’re getting ready to take off, what you see out of the window, that’s actually computer graphics which is on the screen, which is then being shot through the window, which is then being reflected on their visors. This is where the real subtly of using the screen is, you get to see the reflection in their eyes. When you see certain shots of Lucas, you can see when they’re pulling away.
When the earth is revealed at the end too, you get to see it in his eyes before you see it on the screen. Having done that work before as an artist, that stuff is tricky to pull off. You have to be given the time.
The fire you see was added in afterward because we couldn’t do it in front of the screen because it was too dangerous, but it used the same idea.
Once they’re out trying to find the dock, it was a piece we had on set, we had crew moving that around. That was a combination of having the earth background on the screen lighting everything but then also knowing we were going to add additional graphics to the Lunar Extension Module because it was never going to fit in front of the screen.
We talked about the rollercoaster ride. When they get into trouble and they start spinning. We provided the content where things are spinning really fast and really crazy. Whenever that came up on screen, the entire crew would turn around because if you’re looking at a screen that is 60 foot wide, you’d feel sick. It was as if you were on a rollercoaster. If you’d look at the actors, you’d see a slight shift in skin tone because it was affecting them. Given that we were shaking the heck out of them. To be shook like that the whole day and then watching these visuals, they did pretty well.
There was one guy who did get sick, that was on the multi-axis rotator because he was getting spun around like crazy.
How long did you spend doing the VFX on the film?
I joined mid-August doing the prep. We started shooting in mid-October. The majority of the VFX work was around Christmas. Prior to that, it was all about the VFX for the screen. That work was going on. We finished just before the Venice Film Festival. We had 600 shots in post and a certain number in camera. That was a combo on editorial updates.
Shooting in front of the screen, there were some apparatus that would hold the capsules in frame, so we’d have to clean that up.
When we found out it was going to bow at Venice, we lost two weeks of post-production. Well, actually, we didn’t lose it, everything just gets put into overtime to try to finish it sooner. We did have to do a few Imax tweaks. When he opens the door from capsule, it goes from a 16mm frame to a 1.43. When you’re dealing with Imax frames, it’s a hell of a lot more resolution. The entire move was 4.2k which is 2000 lines. When it’s in Imax it’s 6000 lines, you see a lot more detail, so it was a heck of a lot of time.
That sequence was shot in a quarry outside of Atlanta. The art department did this great job of dressing that quarry. You could see, because it’s a working quarry, sand and so all of that, in post had to be cleaned up. This section didn’t have an LED screen, it was an on-set cleanup. The lighting had to be extended for that sequence. The astronauts wear these gold visors, so every shot you see of that gold visor, there is actually a camera in that visor, or there is an actual crew making sure that nothing was shown.
The moon in post had to be cleaned up too because we had to make sure that “no one had ever been there before.” The astronauts were attached to a bungee system on the moon, so we added some computer generated dust to their feet to make it feel like they were actually on the moon.