Sound: Mixing Universal's <I>First Man</I>
Issue: November 1, 2018

Sound: Mixing Universal's First Man

Universal Pictures’ new feature First Man looks at the early years of the US space program. In the late 1960s, NASA’s first astronauts —Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins — prepared for man’s first trip to the moon, as the world watched on TVs in their living rooms. The new feature, directed by Damien Chazelle ( La La Land, Whiplash), opened in theaters on October 12th and looks at the life of Armstrong (portrayed by Ryan Gosling) and his wife Janet (Claire Foy), as the July 16, 1969 launch date approaches.

The Universal team of Jon Taylor and Frank Montano handled sound mixing for the film, working out of Mix 6 at Universal, and its Alfred Hitchcock Theater.

“[First Man] was on our slate and we both really wanted to work with Damien Chazelle,” recalls Montano, “so we made the inquiry. We interviewed with him and we connected.”

As a mixing team, Taylor and Montano have partnered on numerous features, including Unbroken, Birdman and The Revenant. Dialogue and music duties will get Taylor’s attention, while Montano handles the effects, including Foley and atmospheres. On this film, supervising sound editor and lead effects designer Ai-Ling Lee also joined Taylor and Montano at the mixing console. 

In the case of First Man, the mixers watched a refined edit and then started coming up with ideas as to how they could expand on what was created in the edit room.

“There are a lot of original voices from the original missions back in the ‘60s,” Taylor recalls. “The authenticity we wanted to keep correct but we wanted to show distance by ‘fuzz.’ The distance of how far they were, we would fuzz more. Once they got to the moon there was more of a fuzzy quality to it, or once they got out of the atmosphere. [Damien] was pretty much into anything we wanted to try, which was awesome.”

Approximately 30 to 40 percent of what audiences hear is from the original transmissions. The remaining portions were designed to sound like the recordings from that era.

“That is Ryan Gosling’s voice when he is on the moon,” Taylor explains. “We laid down the original Neil Armstrong fuzz from the cleanest version we could get, and spent a couple of hours matching it with the clicks and the quality. The drop outs and some of the words that were gated, so you wouldn’t hear the beginning…we did the exact same thing with Ryan Gosling’s voice.”

Keeping the film anchored in the late ‘60s was one of the sound department’s biggest challenges.

“When we felt too modern, it just didn’t go with the wardrobe and what the camera was doing,” reveals Taylor. “I kept the music more forward and not as much in the back until the bigger moments, because it gave us much more dynamics. I think it really helped to sort of try to do that ‘60s feel. Not mono, but ‘mono-esque.’”

Taylor adds that in the ‘Apollo-vision’ sequences, “every speaker on the stage is being used in Atmos, and that was fantastic. It gave you that point of dynamics. Generally, the dialogue was center channel, that way when something happens and then you go left, center, right, left side, right side, left surround, right surround, upper left, upper right, you really get that explosion of sound. Not just in the level of the sound, but the spatial immersiveness that a film like this desires.”

Montano says he went through great lengths to recall the history of the NASA program when adding sound effects. 

“We made an effort, even prior to production, to go gather as many authentic artifacts and recordings that we could get our hands on,” he recalls.

“(Sound recordist) Alex Knickerbocker and myself flew around the country and worked with museums in Alabama, Kansas, and out here in California. We worked with JPL and for about a year. We went around and got people excited about the project. They allowed us to come in and work with a lot of the components in the film — switches, dials, suits, helmets, and airflows and the umbilical connections. Those are all authentic. Those were used in the Apollo program. 

“John Young’s Apollo 10 helmet — we recorded internal sounds that only astronauts ever heard,” Montano continues. “Damien was really excited about that concept. It was kinda cool, paying homage to the astronaut that are left. That was the main goal for me and the spirit of it all was to have them sit down and say, ‘Yes, that’s exactly how it was and sounds right.’ It was a lot of fun being part of that.”

The team mixed the film in the Dolby Atmos format, which would then be used to create any of the in-between formats, all the way down to home use.

Photo (L-R): Taylor and Montano

“We have two rooms,” says Montano. “The Hitchcock being the dubbing theater, with 192 seats, and we have Mix 6, which is more of a traditional mixing stage, where the consoles match and electronics match.”

The duo premixes separately. “Within a four- or five-hour period we bring the automations over and merge them together. [Then] we are probably at 90 percent of working out things that aren’t efficient to do while working together. It’s far more efficient, [both] time saving and creatively. We get to dig into our own disciplines and work things out.”

The mix was completed in an accelerated time frame. Both Taylor and Montano agree that they probably put in five weeks of work in just a three-week timeframe.

Damien Chazelle, says Taylor, allowed the mixers to bring their own creativity to the project, while still keeping the director’s vision in mind. 

“Damien has a point of view, always,” says Taylor. “He’s done so much research on every level. A lot of the sounds that are in the movie are sounds that he put in. 

“It’s awesome that he lets us try something that we feel could bring something different to the film,” Taylor continues. “He always has a point of view, which is fantastic, and we love it. Some directors don’t really know, so we take the ball and run with it. Other directors come in and they know pretty close to what they want, right off the bat.”

“I think we actually strung the movie together and watched it as a whole piece eight times?” Montano recalls. “It really gave us an overview, instead of reel-by-reel or 20-minute chunks at a time. It really gave us a different viewpoint of the arc of the storytelling, the dynamics, all that stuff. It was interesting to be able to play the movie back that many times and refine it with each pass.”