First Man director Damien Chazelle and his design team applied old school techniques to recreate the missions leading up to the lunar landing, and Neil Armstrong’s historic one small step. The result is a film of astonishing verisimilitude, achieved through a combination of NASA archive footage, miniatures and in-camera practical effects.
“There are a lot of effects that we would typically do nowadays in a visual effects environment with CG, but Damien wanted to try and do everything practically in front of camera with the actors,” says special effects supervisor J.D. Schwalm. “From the multi-access trainer to the weightlessness when they go to outer space. We faced that challenge head on.”
An advocate for keeping it real where possible, production designer Nathan Crowley was excited by the prospect of combining old school methods and modern technology to bring authenticity to First Man.
“The minute Damien indicated that he wanted to only do this movie in the camera, I was in,” he says. “I have a love of physical objects and scale and he wanted to get it in the camera. That is actually very difficult but a fun challenge – one we were both willing to take on.”
A miniatures unit was established to recreate elements of the Gemini and Apollo missions, using 3D computer models and BigRep 3D Printers. The parts were then assembled and painted, with particular attention paid to the textures from that era.
According to miniature effects supervisor Ian Hunter, one of the main challenges in using miniature effects for First Man was acknowledging that the film was a drama requiring a high level of realism.
“When you’re working on a fantasy or a science-fiction movie, there is a certain level of disbelief the audience will buy,” he explains. “It was important for us to be able to create these miniatures of the spaceships that looked absolutely realistic and made the audience fully believe that what they were watching was real.”
NASA archival footage of the Gemini and Apollo missions proved invaluable as a reference when recreating the spaceflight sequences, however Hunter notes it could also be a hindrance.
“There is a lot of documentation on these missions and that helped us in terms of detailing and making sure our models are accurate. But everyone in the audience also has access to that same sort of documentation, so they can always check our work. It was important to us to try to strive to create as realistic as possible the depiction of these miniatures that matched the detail of these missions.”
The miniatures unit was also faced with the challenge of matching its props to the larger models, including a full-size lunar lander.
“For the scenes where it’s on the moon, there was a full-size prop built; then we used a miniature version for any scenes of it in the trans-lunar journey,” explains Hunter. “It was important for us to work with the main-unit art director to match our detail and our paintwork. Our graphic designer laid out the graphics for the full-size and miniature.”
Of course, First Man’s commitment to realism also extends to the restaging of Armstrong’s famous first steps on the moon, which Chazelle wanted to be as authentic as possible.
“We’ve tried to get the little things right,” the director says, “the little details that make the original footage so exciting and moving, but we’ve also tried to put a stamp on it that’s unique to the movie. We didn’t want just a recreation, but hopefully fill it with some of the emotion the movie’s built up.”