The sound of First Man is a character in itself. The film was shot with the sound design in mind. Whether we’re in the space capsule with the astronauts, strapping into the seats, taking off at G-force speed, and feeling every rattle and shake, or whether we’re landing on the moon and we hear earth’s air released on the lunar surface, the sound team have crafted each and every moment with such intricate detail, it makes us fully immersed in the experience, viscerally and audibly. Along with the outstanding screenplay from Josh Singer, the impact of First Man is masterful on so many levels and the care behind every detail made it one of the best films of the year.
Frank A. Montano, part of the nominated mix team, is a space enthusiast and over the years had collected archival sounds from actual missions and interviewed many of the astronauts involved in the Apollo and Gemini missions.
Now, the film outstanding sound has scored an Oscar-nominations for Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. I caught up with the mixing team behind the sound magic, Frank A.Montano and Jon Taylor, to learn more about creating the soundscape of First Man.
You approached Damien to get on board for First Man rather than the other way around. Tell us that story.
Frank: The movie came up on the hot sheet for Universal and we both got really excited about the subject matter of Neil Armstrong and the single greatest historical event in the 21st Century. We were really excited that we got to live it and remember the Apollo program.
Damien was attached to the project and we knew he was a brilliant filmmaker. We had the opportunity to meet him and JT and I brought him down to the Hitchcock theatre and we had a conversation or two and played him a couple of pieces of audio on films that we had worked on.
We got along really well and he left feeling really good about working at Universal as a team because we had editorial, mixing, and color timing were all under one roof.
He’d done some research on us and had some questions about films that we had done in the past and it was just really cool. He’s a great guy and an amazing filmmaker.
Jon: After Damien met us, he said, “You guys seem great. You’re going to have to meet my picture editor Tom Cross.” He was the final say. I had also done The Cutting Edge 14 years ago with Tom and he remembered me from that, I hadn’t. It was a documentary on film editing so it was fun to go back.
For our readers, explain how you divide your work between the two of you.
Jon: The way we divvy up work is for thirty-two years now, I’ve been a dialogue and music mixer. I started in the music industry and went into film since I was 19. I’ve pretty much been in this chair forever.
Frank: That’s why you get saddle sores. [laughs].
Jon: I mix all the DX/ADR/Group and anything that has speaking in it. I also mix all the music so whether it’s sourced music, needle drops, or score.
Frank: Ai-Ling Lee joined Jon and I on the mix team. We handled all the sound effects, atmosphere, and foley.
You did such extensive research to get the details and sounds of NASA. Talk about going to museums and getting access to find your sounds.
Jon: My part was to cover the stage while Frankie chased his dreams. [laughs]
Frank: I’m a little bit of an Apollo enthusiast from an early age. It starts there. JT and I were working on another picture and JT was doing a large musical number which left me with some idle time.
It started with a phone call to the Smithsonian National Air And Space Museum. I talked to the head curator who made one fatal mistake and picked up the phone. I was trying to work my way into the physical capsule of the Columbia because I knew it was off the exhibit floor being cleaned up for the 50 year anniversary tour.
I made some leeway and one thing led to the next. Unfortunately I didn’t get into the capsule. We wanted to record everything we could to capture the sound of everything the astronauts would have interacted with – the switches, the knobs, sticks. I wanted to get the human side of the mission and their environment in which they lived in during those missions.
We made calls to various places around the country with historic 1960’s space program artifacts and one contact led to the next and so on. It got infectious where people were opening the doors to different museums. In one case even taking the plexiglass off of an authentic LEM simulator that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin worked inside of.
Fortunately for us, the original space suit manufacturer was still around, so we got to work with the real A7LB Apollo spacesuit and all of its hardware. We recorded the umbilical cords, gloves and helmet rings. We had the honor to work with John Young’s Apollo 10 flight helmet. He’s no longer with us and to have his helmet sounds in the movie is incredible.
The whole point is to pay homage to the astronauts that are still alive. We got authentic recordings of all sorts. The hope in my heart was that they would sit down and watch the film and it would take them back to those days. It was exactly sonically correct.
For the big stuff, Damien had spoken to Rick and Mark Armstrong. They mentioned during production that they had never heard a Saturn 5 Apollo lift-off done correctly in film or TV. Damien took that to heart and sent a message to Tom Cross, our picture editor
Tom and I conversed and the gauntlet was laid down to Ai-Ling and I to achieve this goal. Tom asked how would we achieve that. I said, “Space X is launching their Falcon Heavy.” It was a little light in the seat powerwise relative to the Saturn 5, but it’s the closest thing to the Saturn 5 as far as power. We needed to get that recording.
There was one delay after another and finally, Ai- Ling was able to send Skip Longfellow and John Fasal to record it. They got access to inside the safety ring. It was augmented with various rockets that Ai-Ling recorded and collected. We also worked inside the acoustical test chamber at JPL.
It’s an interesting space because they take nitrogen gas and force it through a diaphragm that turns it into sound frequencies. They bombard their hardware and stress it sonically with rocket sound pressure level. It was a mix and match of those elements that made the Apollo lift off what it is in the film.
I saw it in Imax and that sound you hear is one of a kind. Was there one sound that was a tough nut to crack?
Frank: I would say one of the toughest in terms of complexity was recreating the most famous sayings ever from Neil Armstrong and replicating that exactly so with Ryan Gosling. I had nothing to do with it.
Jon: I’m going to say one thing: no one has ever experienced that rocket. You can’t get close enough to know what it sounded like. You’re not totally matching something other than being real.
Frank knows the horsepower that Saturn five had.
Frank: It was 7.5 million tons of thrust off the pad.
Jon: How much was the Falcon?
Frank: 5 million.
Jon: He knows what he’s talking about. A lot of work goes into that. As far as the most iconic saying out there.
Iatrou Morgan who did the ADR on the film and was a co-supervisor made sure that Ryan heard Neil’s original line many times. He gave his emphasis as close as he could. He wasn’t trying to change his voice. Millie aligned it perfectly so it’s in sync with Neil’s voice and she took all the original transmission noise and was able to use all of that. It’s really fantastic.
What I had to do was match the original quality/futz with distortion and tone. I used many different tools like Speakerphone, Lo-Fi, eq compression, etc. It’s very close to the original. We could switch to Neil mid line and you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. It took over an hour on the mixing stage to do that.
To me, the most difficult sound – Justin Hurwitz went above and beyond on the music. The lunar landing music was the most scrutinized on the mix stage. There’s a drum that really has to resonate with the LEM as it descends to the lunar surface.
Justin and Damien had a drum-off session and they came with multiple drums to test and find that perfect sound. They ended up going with a Scottish drum. They also used an English horn in that sequence and that too took some time to find.
So, everything is scrutinized.
It’s Damien. [laughs]. He and Josh Singer are so detailed and thorough which makes for greatness in their work.
Jon: [laughs] Some of the other sounds that Frank had collected was as they’re talking through their helmets and using their voice inside the helmet.
Frank: We’ve been around long enough to remember analog days.
Frank: There was natural processing to get that feeling. In this case, we thought we’d build a helmet box. We had a 4×4 box that was sonically isolated. We brought in a high altitude helmet that replicated the Gemini and X-15 missions. A friend of mine loaned us a replica bubble helmet and we put those two pieces together inside the box on little pedestals and we mic’ed them up and Jon was able to work his magic and give it that real feel to those missions. You felt the artifacts of the bubble helmet in the Apollo 11 mission.
You strip away sound. Where did that decision come in?
Jon: We had a long conversation about that. I asked what does the lunar surface sound like because we’re trying to replicate it. The reply was there’s no sound in space.
I think that the structure was conceived by Damien. Where the dynamic ranges from the sound pressure that’s almost deafening to absolute silence, that was worked into the film between Damien and Tom. Ai-Ling structured the sound and the silence was collaborative.
Frank: The sound of the film was based on dynamics and we were aware of that watching it for the first time watching the time. We knew the camera work was done in a documentary style and knew we had to maintain that, while also giving it a newer sound. We were going to be reaching for these dynamics. Keeping the sound slightly in front of us and not in the surrounds all the time and keeping it warm and nice and not letting it get too big. So, when we did hit the big scene, it was just natural and hit naturally. It felt real without having to raise it so much that people weren’t going to enjoy it. When you’re watching it in the theater, it still sounds huge, it sounds big and it doesn’t hurt. That was truly a goal to not go too far with anything.
For music, the pinnacle was when the camera was on the moon and the music comes up. It is unlike anything you’ve ever heard in the film and it’s a final wow moment.