Astronaut on the Moon

‘First Man’: 50 years after that first small step onto the surface of the Moon

Image credit: Universal Pictures

That one small step for a man was a tough cinematic project for the makers of ‘First Man’.

Big Screen normally takes a critical look at the latest sci-fi movies, judging whether the fiction is within the realms of science. However, this month we are going back in time to when the Eagle landed – and man first stepped on the Moon. ‘First Man’ takes a look at Neil Armstrong’s figurative and literal journey to the Moon during the sixties, culminating in what some believe is mankind’s greatest achievement – certainly in terms of engineering and technology – stepping out onto the Moon on 20 July 1969.

The combined technology on board Apollo 11 and Eagle (the lunar module) is commonly described as second-best in comparison to a single smartphone. So the technology itself is basic, but that is what makes the achievement so extraordinary. It’s like sequencing the human genome without the use of computers.

What ‘First Man’ aims to do is recreate the pioneering and nerve-racking atmosphere for those three men (Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins) and the huge team behind them, as they essentially journeyed to the Moon “in a tin can,” as David Bowie might say.

I think we tried very hard not to be overconfident, because when you get overconfident, that's when something snaps up and bites you.

Neil Armstrong, Nasa

It was perhaps the equivalent of travelling in a Model T Ford rather than a modern Ford Mondeo, inasmuch as there was plenty of style but debatable if there was enough substance to complete the trip. To try and capture what these astronauts went through, the film makes use of innovative techniques rather than latest technology. That is what Big Screen is looking at this month.

During his research, the star of the film - Ryan Gosling - read James Hansen’s biography of Armstrong and it is on this book that much of the film is based. Gosling says: “On an emotional level, I was surprised to learn just how much loss Neil and his wife Janet experienced before and during those historic missions [particularly the loss of their two-year-old daughter in 1962]. On a practical level, I don’t think I fully appreciated how dangerous those missions were. How claustrophobic and frail those space capsules were: how primitive the technology was by today’s standards.”

Producer Marty Bowen explains how this translates: “We’ve all seen films that are done in space, and when you think of space you think of technology, computers, digital formats and computer graphics. Damien’s [Chazelle – the director] goal was to try to make this as visceral as possible, and in order to do that the film had to feel as analogue as possible. The challenge of this film, and the thing that is so exciting about it, too, is how do we put an audience in that cockpit? How do we make them really feel – not just see, but feel and witness – this incredible accomplishment?”


Apollo 11 astronauts in the Saturn cockpit

Image credit: Universal Pictures


Consequently, everything is done ‘in camera’ – no fancy computer graphics that presumably would ‘sanitise’ the overall effect. It meant that several other cinematic tricks were needed, especially when it came to tackling their biggest challenge – shooting a film on the Moon.

For Chazelle, the search for the perfect moonscape was an exhaustive one. “We had the idea that instead of shooting the Moon on a stage, we would shoot outdoors and at night; that would allow us to create sunlight with a giant film light. So we started looking around for outdoor possibilities in and around Atlanta. We looked at a bunch of quarries that either weren’t big enough or weren’t quite flat for long enough. But we found this one and we were able to sculpt it a bit.”

Lighting up this enormous quarry in Moon-like fashion was not easy, as director of photography Linus Sandgren explained during filming. “It’s much bigger than any other Moon set used in production,” he said.”Because of that, we need to light it all up. To do that, we need a lot of lights, but we didn’t want to have many lamps because you only want to have one source as the sun and one shadow. That gave us a challenge to try to create a very strong light source that is single.”

The only solution was to find the strongest lights on the planet. “We talked to David Pringle, who made the 100K Softsun lights,” notes Sandgren. “We asked him if he could help us develop a 200,000-watt lamp, which he did. This 200,000W light is just enough for us to shoot in this big space.”

That is pretty bright. Lighthouses which have to send their beam 20 or so miles to the horizon generally only use 1000W bulbs. With the help of film lighting company Show Rig, production solved the next major lighting conundrum – a moving Sun. They designed a Sun that could circle on a 360-horizontal plane while attached to an accordion drop mount, which allowed it to go up and down simultaneously in a circle. This is synced with the LED screens, which are used instead of green screens and reproduce original archive film to use as background, to emulate the Sun and its movement.

Actually shooting the Moon landing in the quarry was left until the last few weeks of filming, to try and create the atmosphere on the film set that the landing was the goal, the end of the story. For that reason different film formats are used. Sandgren continues: “We wanted the film to feel much more intimate in certain scenes. On those scenes, we decided to shoot it in 16mm, which is grainier and feels more poetic. As the story progresses – and we get more into that industrial Nasa world –we go into 35mm and a harder contrast.”

Then comes landing itself. “The Apollo 11 is about 10 feet [3m] in diameter; three men were there for over a week,” says executive producer Merims. “It’s incredibly claustrophobic and incredibly tight quarters. Damien wanted to simulate how hard that journey was. When Buzz and Neil landed on the Moon and the Moon is infinite beyond, it’s a big contrast. When the two walk out onto the Moon, we switch to IMAX, 65mm, which is the largest available format in film. That allows audiences to feel it and be there with them.”

There was plenty of other interesting technology involved in the making of this film, including the reverse engineering, from photos alone, of the training rigs that the space crew learned their procedures in. But this is not a film where the viewer will be blown away by the special effects. It’s more the case that technology has been used to faithfully recreate the environment and challenges facing the American space programme, and the individuals within it, half a century ago.

First Man opens in the UK on 12 October 2018

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