Tom Cross Rockets to New Heights Editing “First Man”

The stories of astronauts’ projects are no easy feat to bring to the screen. Whether it’s The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, From the Earth to the Moon, Gravity or The Martian, the pseudo-genre requires a steady filmmaking hand to balance both the technical elements that will make the space missions feel real and dramatic, as well as the emotional elements of story and character to ensure we care.

Director Damien Chazelle’s critically acclaimed First Man has (forgive the pun) all the right stuff to stand beside the best of its astronaut-narrative brethren. It does so by offering a take on NASA and Neil Armstrong that we haven’t seen before—a deeply personal look at the legend who once took one small step for man, and how he got there.

We spoke with Oscar-winning editor Tom Cross about how he contended with the 1.7 million feet of film that his director shot and how he always cut to bring out the technical and emotional authenticity that helped make First Man one of the best films of 2018.

Out of this World Specs

Cross started work on First Man when shooting began in the fall of 2017. Director Damien Chazelle and DP Linus Sandgren shot the project in Super 16 mm, 2-, 3-, and 4-perf 35mm, as well as Vistavision. Everything was in 2.40 aspect ratio, with the exception of an IMAX sequence depicting Neil Armstrong’s famous moon walk, which expands to the full 1.43 IMAX aspect ratio.

Cross usually likes to edit with Avid Media Composer DNx 36 for its compressed resolution media management, but First Man called for DNx115 for two reasons. The first was that Chazelle had shot in 16mm and DNx115 came with advantages for that. “It was helpful in terms of giving us a little more resolution so that we could check focus on the 16mm stuff, and see how the 16mm was matching to the 2-perf 35mm,” Cross explains. The second reason was because Chazelle shot 1.7 million feet of film. “We knew that the systems would be taxed with that amount footage,” the editor says. DNx115 ensured that wouldn’t happen, while providing a balance of file size and quality. “We still wanted to have [footage] be compressed so that we could edit very quickly, so the system wouldn’t get bogged down,” says Cross. “But also [DNx115] still gives you great quality so that we could look at stuff on a big screen and see that it’s in focus and see more closely what it really looked like.”

Coordinating the Editing Team and Inserts

Cross had the largest editorial team he’s ever worked with for First Man. Assistants Phillip Trujillo and Eric Kench were assigned to help with Avid’s ScriptSync while dailies were coming in. “The Avid Script lets me look through written dialog or any action that’s in the script, and I can instantly pull up the footage that is associated with that moment in the script. It’s an amazingly powerful tool,” Cross says.

But beyond dialogue and action, he also asked his assistants to organize based on focal lengths. “I had my assistants do what I call breakdowns,” the editor explains. “They would arrange the footage in these Avid sequences from wide shot to medium shot to close shot.”

During post-production, Cross and his team worked in a one-stop-shop environment out of the Hitchcock building on the Universal Pictures lot where editing, sound, DI color correction, 2K visual effects and more were all on hand. “With the exception of scoring, we did everything pretty much in that building,” Cross says. Digital effects editor Ryan Chavez helped with action sequences, tracking visual effects shots, and overseeing IMAX footage. VFX editor Jodi Rogers stepped in when the workload got bigger.

There were two additional editors in Harry Yoon and John To, as well as first assistants Jennifer Stellema and Derrick Drouin. The latter two, says Cross, were especially important to help keep the editing room managed and organized. That was necessary not just because of the volume of footage, but the nature of a lot of it.

“There was an enormous amount of insert photography,” Cross says. That’s part and parcel for astronaut movies striving for technical accuracy which require gauges, dials, switches, windows, and more to tell their stories. All those inserts required their own bin organization beyond “Put Scene 5 footage in a Scene 5 bin” procedure.

Cross’ assistants placed the inserts in the bins of scenes that they were needed for, but they also organized further. “We had all of those inserts in separate bins that would make it easier for us to find and sift through,” the editor says. “They also duplicated those inserts and put them in another bin and organized it by gauge, or by type.” Organizing them that way made the editing process easier, but also supported a key part of Chazelle’s creative ambition.

Inserting Emotion

Damien wanted to shoot First Man in a cinéma vérité documentary style from the moment he watched historical footage of astronauts filming their missions from within their capsules. “Something that he really liked about the archival footage is that it felt very claustrophobic inside of the capsules, but it also felt very intimate and personal,” Cross says. “He thought, ‘That’s how we can get into this story. We can have a handheld, gritty, more personal feel for it.’”

Creating that feel led cinematographer Linus Sandgren to adopt a fly-on-the-wall aesthetic inspired by documentarians like Frederick Wiseman. “Some of the footage was heavily improvised and unscripted,” says Cross. “With a lot of the footage, no two takes were the same.”

That’s what led, in part, to the 1.7 million feet of film. That shooting approach was designed to make audiences feel visually closer to characters and therefore more immersed—especially in the space sequence in First Man. “Damien really wanted to make the audience feel like they were in those space capsules, and he wanted it to feel very scary and really show you how risky these missions were,” he says.

And that’s where the inserts took on their importance. The vérité style would bring audiences closer to astronauts with the camera, but the inserts would immersively put them in their subjective POVs with editing. “I could rely on a simple, but effective, editing pattern of showing a point of view shot, showing what Neil sees, but then answer that with a closeup of Neil’s face, or a closeup of his eyes,” Cross says.

The inserts would allow for audiences to see rivets creaking or dials spinning, and when coupled with reaction shots, you feel the scenes more deeply. “If you could tell what was generally going on, our feeling was we could reach a much wider audience,” Tom says.

“The sequences could play on an emotional level you could feel just by looking at the faces of the astronauts.” And while inserts of technical equipment were used, they sought to strip out the technical dialogue so common in many astronaut movies in order to boost that emotion. “We really wanted the technical stuff, the audio, the dialog to play almost as sound design,” Cross says. “Our general rule for First Man in terms of the missions was less is more.”

Recreating the Gemini 8

Those techniques were vital for putting the Gemini 8 mission on screen, which Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer treated as a cornerstone of the movie. “I think Damien felt that if that sequence didn’t work, then the movie wouldn’t work,” Cross says.

It wasn’t just that it was a mission many people don’t know about, where a critical system failure endangered Neil Armstrong and David Scott while they were trying to dock with an Agena Target Vehicle. The scene helps set up the stakes and establish how dangerous space missions are. Selling that required the immersive use of inserts, POV, and reaction shots to help make clear what was happening.

The sequence began, in a way, with inserts. “[Chazelle] shot an enormous amount of gauges doing different things because we knew that those were building blocks that we may have to use,” he says. The filmmakers especially relied on a gauge that indicated how fast the capsule was spinning once it malfunctioned. “We leaned heavily into the roll meter needle going up even though the audience doesn’t really know what that means,” he says.

But that’s where the editing came in. Reaction shots don’t just help communicate that information to audiences but also help them feel it. “The hope was that seeing this needle go up and up and up you would get the impression that that’s not what the astronauts want,” Cross says.

The same principle applies to a moment when Armstrong is attempting to fix the out-of-control spin by steering the capsule strategically. “In the sequence with the close up of Neil operating the stick to fire the RCS skids to stop the spinning, our hope was that we could cut that in a way that would suggest that his actions with the stick are what is making that needle go down,” Cross says. “It’s very elemental in a way, it’s very simple, but you really need the pieces in order to do that,” says Cross.

Cutting Emotion

This type of juxtaposition is the bread and butter of any editor’s work. But juxtaposition took on an especially important role in conveying emotion in First Man, sometimes in ways that the stoic Armstrong in the film can’t do directly.

One example is in a press conference intercut with a mission review following the near-disaster of the Gemini-8 mission. During the scene, Armstrong doesn’t say much to convey what he’s feeling. But the way the conference and review are edited speaks for him. “The whole scene is supposed to be almost like an assault on Neil and Dave Scott,” Cross says. “So Damien wanted us to cut it in a way that would feel very choppy, very loud and rough, brutal.”

Cross used snap zooms and pans, along with smash cuts on reporters mid-yell, while finding focus moments in service of the story and the character. The intention was to convey Armstrong’s emotional state: he feels he has failed and is now being grilled. “It’s fun to get to play with the editing in order to enhance that.”

Cross also edited for emotional juxtaposition during a crucial sequence after Armstrong has landed on the moon, and has Wonder Years-like flashbacks of his family and the daughter he lost to cancer. “We have Neil in his spacesuit where the visor’s down and you don’t even see his face. But by juxtaposing it with these almost home movies it becomes clear that he’s in a certain emotional place, and that he’s having an emotional experience thinking about his family,” Cross says. “That goes back to the Russian juxtaposition experiment—the Kuleshov experiment— where they took a closeup of a person’s face with a neutral expression, and then watched their feelings change according to whatever that was juxtaposed with.”

Facilitating that emotion and presenting what Armstrong is feeling is all about story and character. But it’s about more than that for Cross and Chazelle. It’s about the audience’s emotions. “We do this for an audience,” the editor says. “That’s something Damien is always very aware of. He wants to tell the stories he wants to tell in the way he wants to tell them, but not at the expense of losing the audience’s participation and attachment. When we hear that someone was very moved by a certain sequence, it feels really good because that’s a big part of why we’re telling the story. We want to reach people with it and have them be affected by it.”

In that way, First Man is a success. There’s no doubting its technical accomplishment in making space missions feel immersive and raw and real. But what elevates it, and makes it different from many other astronaut movies, is its emotional resonance. And that would have been impossible without Cross’ editing and his collaboration with Damien Chazelle.

Photography by Irina Logra of Logra Studio.

Alexander Huls

Alexander Huls is a freelance writer based in Toronto. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Esquire, and other fine publications.

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