How Cinematographer Linus Sandgren Used Format to Change Visual Tone In ‘First Man’
Shooting IMAX to film Neil Armstrong’s moon landing was more than just about scope.
In preparation for First Man, cinematographer Linus Sandgren remarks that director Damien Chazelle “wanted it to feel immersive and realistic like a documentary” adding “his initial proposal was to have it handheld, cinéma vérité style in the era of the 60s and 70s where you’d have an Aaton on your shoulder with a small zoom and shoot.” It was the sort of thing that was appealing to Sandgren and was the complete opposite visually from the work the two did on La La Land.
First Man is the story behind the historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon—something we’re all familiar with—but it’s the humanity and intimacy Chazelle surrounds us with that resonates.
The script was detailed with a dynamic dramatic span from kitchen sink realism to scope-filled action sequences in space. Visually, the cinematographer wanted to separate the emotional journey using different formats and shooting styles based – placing emphasis on Neil Armstrong’s (Ryan Gosling) early life, his life in Houston, the NASA environment, the claustrophobia of space travel and the moon landing.
As it opens, Armstrong is flying the X-15, a supersonic aircraft capable of measuring pinpoint accurate airspeed and flow angle. We’re inside the confined cockpit with Armstrong as he pushes into the sky. It’s a dizzying white-knuckling sequence lasting several minutes well worthy of its own short film. 16mm film stock gave it a raw, gritty feel and a Canon 6.6-66mm T2.7 captured the action.
In fact, for all the interior spacecraft work on the X-15, Gemini, and Apollo missions, 16mm film was tapped to draw the viewers closer. “We tested IMAX and 35mm inside the craft, but 16mm was more real and raw...beautiful. It felt much more authentic,” says Sandgren, who operated every shot.
One theme behind the camera movement was “to be immediate and as intimate as possible but to not be in a perfect position,” says Sandgren. “We thought it was good to not always have the perfect angle of someone because it would create a certain sense of authenticity. In La La Land, shots were about precision. We needed to be on the spot at the exact moment or it would take you of the film. First Man is sloppy in the way that it’s meant to look like a documentary in the grain and focus until we get to the moon.”
The 16mm format also depicted Armstrong’s relationship with his young daughter Karen (Lucy Stafford). One scene in particular has Armstrong rocking her in his arms in an emotional close up that dips in out of focus. It’s the last time we see them embrace. From then on, when the subject of his daughter is brought up to Armstrong, we can see the camera go slightly out of focus. Visually, it’s a subtle theme connecting the underlying story point and mood. It was Chazelle’s appreciation of the out of focus authenticity in documentary filmmaking that allowed it to happen. In all, 16mm Kodak stocks 7203, 7207, 7213, and 7219 were used.
When the story moves toward the NASA industrial world and inside Armstrong’s Houston-area home in El Lago, Texas, the cinematographer went to 35mm and a harder contrast. The NASA environment, plus all the exterior aircraft work, was shot on Kodak 5207 or 5219 push processed. The same film stock captured the home life but pull process. Primes were paired with a Fujinon ZK19-90mm T2.9 while a Kowa cine prime captured some of the sun flares.
Chazelle and Sandgren are proponents of minimizing visual effects preferring to find ways to shoot in camera. First Man touches on several of the missions leading up to the Apollo 11 moon landing. The question became how to weave the NASA archival footage of those missions into the narrative. Instead of placing the existing material into the timeline, everything was re-shot using LED technology to simulate the backgrounds.
Collaborating with production designer Nathan Crowley and visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert, Sandgren says they avoided using any green screen. The setup involved a large LED screen where the NASA archival footage was projected onto the LED screen so that it could be seen through the windows of the spacecraft. The Gemini VIII or Apollo 11 would then be mounted on a motion-based gimbal to simulate flight, controlled by special effects supervisor JD Schwalm and his team.
While filming, the LED plates would be synchronized with the gimbal movement which allowed actors to experience outer space instead of staring at a green wall. “We had to think about everything shot but shot, but doing it this way allowed us to see exactly what would be seen in theaters,” says Sandgren.
The same setup was used for the tranquil horizon lines that drift across Armstrong’s face and the aforementioned X-15 flight. For the latter, different LED plates and footage shot by the VFX team was projected onto a 60-foot diameter LED screen to drive the experience. “When you see the outside world on the X-15, everything is projected on the LED screen. We wanted it large enough so we could get a realistic depth of field, enough to make it look like infinity focus,” says Sandgren. To film the X-15 taking off and landing, production left the studio and shot at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
Sandgren notes that he “loves real sets that you can physically take on,” adding, “as a camera man, when you’re working in a location where you can see how it’s going to look in its final form, it’s easier to create shots, i.e. those poetic moments of Ryan [Gosling] being completely blacked out or when you see those horizon lines across his eyes. Those things would have been really hard to figure out shooting on green screen.”
When Armstrong opens the Apollo 11 door to the moon, it goes from 16mm to 70mm IMAX 1.43:1. “It opens up before your feet,” says Sandgren, “we wanted the moon sequence to be the complete opposite from what you just experienced and to be surreal. Instead of handheld, the camera floats on a crane. Instead of a small negative, we go super crisp. Even the sound becomes more poetic and silent.”
Crowley built an enormous moon set 500+ feet long in an Atlanta quarry. The sequence was shot at night with the biggest obstacle being lighting. Sandgren wanted a single light source, one as the sun and one shadow. He turned to David Pringle at Attitude Specialty Lighting who makes a 100K Softsun. It wasn’t going to be bright enough so Sandgren asked him if he could make a 200K. He delivered two.
Sandgren admits that most of the lighting choices were based on naturalism and the emotion in the story, but they wanted to harness the power of blackness, shadow, contrast, and mood. They would light sets—like the Armstrong home—from outside the windows with fixed lights. Then depending on what they wanted to tell, they would put the camera in the shadows, making them prominent and black in color.
Moving from format to format was an emotional choice too. 16mm connected the raw truthfulness, 35mm drove the pretend good life in Houston, and IMAX created scale and separation. “As a cinematographer, you get to make visual choices that tell the story and we followed the emotions of the human story to make it visceral and real,” says Sandgren, "when we get to go out on the moon, the audience gets to experience it in a way, as you no longer see Armstrong’s face because of the helmet. It gives you time to reflect out in this empty space.”
When asked to share advice, Sandgren says, “It’s important as cinematographers that we don’t lock ourselves into shooting things in a certain way. You still have to apply a judgment and therefore a style on things, but it’s better to base everything on the script. Every single shot should somehow be connected to the script and the vision of the direction. When you agree to the vision, you can then find answers as to why you should be on a wide shot or tight shot.”