First Man sound uses rocket launches, animal roars, and silence

The First Man movie sounds include rocket launches, animal roars, and the sound of silence to help create suspense and tell the story of Neil Armstrong in space, said director Damien Chazelle and the film’s sound team at a Sound Show panel on the Universal Studios lot.

Damien Chazelle said that after doing La La Land which focuses on music, lyrics, and singing to tell the story, he was up for the challenge of using mostly sound and images in First Man. Damien won the Best Director Oscar for La La Land.

Whereas La La Land was pretty and polished, Damian wanted First Man to be gritty to show what it was like in the uncertain space shuttle cockpit.

“The impulse was to think outside the box,” Chapelle said, on wanting the film to be more gritty an cinema verite, not cleaned up and serene like most space movies.

He started with animatics, and then worked with the sound team to create sounds that were rough, discordant, harsh, and ticking, to match the feel of the images.

“We wanted to capture sounds that are authentic,” said Ai-Ling Lee, First Man, Sound Designer and Supervising Sound Editor. She said the sound team went to Space X launches and other space companies to record sounds of rockets taking off, even fuel pumping.

In some sequences, the sound team added additional sounds to heighten the suspense and tell the story. The sounds include mechanical sounds, like train brakes screeching, an some synthesizer. The sound team even used animal roars, including elephant, rhino, and lion roars, and snakes hissing, mixed into the mechanical sounds.

To balance out the loud shrieking cockpit shuttle sounds, the film also uses some moments of silence, or just breathing sounds, to create a dynamic range.

Dynamics is key, said the sound editing and mixing team. The quite pauses help make the loud scenes more impactful. For example The opening cockpit shake sequence is meant to be loud and disorienting as Ryan enters the Earth’s atmosphere. Then right before he lands, there is a second of silence, which builds anticipation and contrast for the BOOM when the shuttle hits the ground.

At the end of the movie, as the shuttle lands on the moon, there is a huge whooshing sound when the outside door opens, then complete silence as we see the serene moon landscape in the quiet of space.

Damien said that complete silent pauses are effective for story telling, but sometimes movie-goers aren’t used to it. He said that at an early industry screening of First Man in Los Angeles, there was a little commotion during the complete silence of the moonscape. A woman in the audience shouted something like “Fix the sound please,” and a man shouted back something like “That’s what space sounds like!”

Moving going audiences watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi had a similar experience during the Holdo hyperspace scene which also uses a moment of silence, yelling “Sound!” and complaining to several theatre managers across the country.

First Man is a front runner for Oscar sound design and sound mixing nominations.