Interview: VFX Supervisor Paul Lambert Describes the Arsenal of Techniques for Creating the Look of ‘First Man’

First Man

Paul Lambert has had quite a varied career in the world of visual effects. His filmography includes “Mission: Impossible II,” a couple of “Harry Potter” entries, the cinematic twins “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima,” and “Oblivion.” Lambert won an Academy Award last year for “Blade Runner 2049,” triumphing over the likes of “Star Wars” and “Planet of the Apes.”

It was while finishing post-production on his Oscar-winning film that Lambert met Damien Chazelle, the Academy Award-winning writer and director of “Whiplash” and “La La Land.” The two discussed Chazelle’s next feature, the story of Neil Armstrong.

Last week, I had the chance to speak with Paul Lambert about his work on “First Man.” He shared some of the secrets to recreating the 1960s, detailing some of the impressive details that took the audience along for the ride to the moon. Please enjoy this discussion with VFX Supervisor Paul Lambert.

Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: I’m very excited to talk to you about your work on “First Man.”

Paul Lambert: Thank you for having me.

KP: So this is your first time working with Damien Chazelle. How did you meet him, and how did you get involved?

PL: All right, so I was actually still finishing “Blade Runner [2049].” I was in post on “Blade Runner” and this project came up. I flew down to LA to meet him and…the producers. Damien had been interviewing various supervisors for awhile. We got talking and he asked me how I like to approach visual effects. Basically I said, “I would much prefer a harder composite to work on rather than trying to break things down into each individual element.”

I used to be an artist on the box myself and, like, I know that I can get a much more believable result if I had all of the elements already mixed together. He seemed to really appreciate that idea, and we got on really well. When I got confirmed on the project he then sent me what we called the Notebook, which was this 300 page PDF file with all of his thoughts of how he wanted the actual movie to be. I had never come across this before. He had sounds marked out, he had visuals which he wanted too…which actually inspired him. Eventually it was detailed in the entire movie. And then he also sent me the animatics, which are basically storyboards cut in time.

But the biggest thing which struck me was the fact that he had those animatics—the actual space scenes and stuff—actually cut to the music. And it’s the music which you hear in the film now. Obviously what you hear now is a much better version, but it was the same tune, the same melody which completely blew me away because seeing these visuals cut to this type of music was really, really inspiring.

KP: One of the things that really stood out to me was the way some of the visuals work with the score and it really is such a rich experience.

PL: It is. It is. And with all of the incredible sound effects, you have a fantastic movie.

KP: I know it isn’t your department, but I’ve never experienced sound quite like that.

PL: Yeah, it’s incredible.

KP: Yeah. And putting it together with the visual effects it really, from a technical standpoint, is such a marvel.

PL: Thank you.

KP: I was reading an interview that Damien had given where he said that there were no green screens or blue screens used. Is that accurate?

PL: That’s right. Yeah. Basically, we spent three months prior to the shoot trying to work out exactly how we were going to do this through this movie. And Damien was insistent that if we were able to find a way to always find a set or come up with a way in which we…we try to get as much in camera as possible. What’s shot in the day is actually what appears in the film.

So we came up with various techniques. One of them was, rather than use a green screen or a blue screen, we actually built this gigantic LED wall. This thing was 35 foot tall, 60 foot in diameter. And the idea was the when you had the crafts, like the capsule or the LEM [Lunar Excursion Module] or the X-15, they would be on the gimbal in front of this huge LED screen. So the idea was that you would then fill the LED screen with all the content you wanted, i.e. the actual fly throughs for the X-15 or going through the clouds up into the air on the approach to the moon, that was all put onto the LED screen. And then, because it was shot with a film camera, either from inside the capsule or it was craft mounted on the side, you were then able to embed the computer graphics which were on the screen directly into the movie. You instantly get the film patina, you get the grain, you get all of the visuals actually going through the camera’s optics, and you get an image which sits a lot better than trying to do it in post.

Another thing which that actually gives you is…all the reflections. It gives you all the interactive light. So if that had been a green screen for example… There was a certain subtlety that we caught by actually doing all of the visual effects during the shoot rather than in post. So when Ryan [Gosling] is in the X-15 and he blasts through the atmosphere and he sees the horizon for the first time, there’s a shot where you see the horizon reflected on his visor. That’s in camera, you know? That’s the actual reflection of the LED wall on his visor. But the real subtlety is that you also see the reflection in his eyeball. You know? In his eyes. I used to be an artist on the box doing the work myself, and if that had been a green screen, it’s actually quite tricky to get that kind of subtlety to actually make it believable. But because we had put the effort in during the shoot and prior to the shoot, we actually got that kind of thing for free, basically.

We were really finding what “in camera” meant. We were still using computer graphics. This was a space ship movie so there was always going to be a portion which used computer graphics, but we did it in a way in which, essentially, we became part of the filmmaking process, rather than in post. And yes, obviously there were updates we needed to do for some technical reasons, but you still were able to retain the reflections and the interactive lights. So that was a big portion of our way of working.

Also, we came up with a pretty simple philosophy. If we ever saw part of our crafts which we built, if they were really close to camera, we were going to try and build a full scale or an 80% scale size of the craft. Whether it be the command module or the [lunar] module, but they were gonna build it and make it as believable as possible, because the camera was going to be placed really close to it. Now if we had designed a shot that would have the craft a little bit more mid-ground, well then we decided to actually use a miniature. Ian Hunter’s team actually made a 1/6th scale miniature of various crafts. He also made a 1/30th of the Saturn V and that thing was about 14 foot tall. So that actually appears in a few shots as well. And also anything that was truly wide, then it was okay to go fully CG.

Now, like, there were times when, because of how a production runs, there were times we would have to drop and change. There was a point where we had the 80% LEM in the studio and the legs were just too big to actually deal with. So we put CG legs on that. There was a bit of dropping and changing.

First ManAnd one other important technique we did use was we actually have some archival footage which we treated and that’s actually in the movie. What we did was, when I first joined the show I knew there would be reference for every aspect of the various missions. Whether it be photography or moving imagery. And I also knew that Damien wasn’t interested in coming up with any brand new camera moves. He didn’t want a camera spinning around the Saturn V as it took off. He wanted to, basically, replicate camera views from the day. So we got access to hours and hours worth of NASA footage. And we were always planning to recreate a lot of the Apollo 11 launch. What became apparent is that we were coming across archival footage which I started to then think, “Perhaps we can use some of this and we can alter it and actually put it in the movie.”

Now, just a little bit of backstory. For every single Apollo launch, there were various cameras always viewing different aspects of each launch. They were basically engineering cameras. So you would get a camera which would be viewing the exhaust, for example. Or a camera which would be viewing one of the clamps holding the rocket. Various different angles. And the idea being that if there had ever been a catastrophe, this footage could be viewed and then used to work out what went wrong.

Now, because nothing ever went wrong—apart from the Apollo 1, but that was a practice, it wasn’t actually a launch. So you don’t really get to see this footage. And we actually found footage down at Marshall [Space Flight Center] down in Alabama. [Kevin Elam, VFX producer] went down there and he took a lightbox and some spools down there and he just started to view this footage. Some of the footage you couldn’t actually play back anymore because it was on a certain military grade stock which wasn’t made anymore and there weren’t any active machines which would play it back. We spent months trying to find a place which would scan this material for us and what we found was absolutely incredible.

So there are a few shots in the launch which use archival footage. But because this footage isn’t very cinematically framed, what we did was clean up the footage to the point where it was so clean. The idea being that we could then degrade it to match the surrounding production footage. We reframed the footage, put it into the frame, but then extended it with computer graphics and matte painters and additional elements. For example, there was a shot of the Saturn V where you see it’s a wide shot where you see it just igniting. And where you see two big plumes of smoke coming from either side. What that is, that’s original 70mm footage of the Apollo 14 taking off which we then added computer generated smoke [on] either side of it to give it more cinematic framing.

We combined various techniques, whether it be archival or CG and there were other shots where we took archival footage and bit by bit put it with computer generated imagery just because the footage was in such a poor state that it wouldn’t hold up. So bit by bit we put in a CG rocket, we put in CG effects and that kind of thing. We built it all up to a point where it actually felt as if it had been shot with the same camera. We used so many different techniques in the movie. The idea being we would want to use the best techniques for whatever aspect of the film.

That was a long monologue, I’m sorry! (laughs)

KP: No, that was great! Thank you! There seem to be a lot of people that think that visual effects just means computer effects now. But I know there was some of that, but there were also a lot of practical effects in “First Man,” too. Can you talk about some of those and how you decided when to use CG and when you decided to use practical effects?

PL: Again, it’s based on the philosophy of what’s best for the particular shot. Anything close, you want to see something real. And anything far away you can kind of use computer graphics. And yes, you can do good computer graphics and make it look real close up. But with Damien, he’s very much a hands on director. The push is to try to do as much practically as possible. But yes, we’ve got sequences which actually didn’t need any visual effects. Well, for example, when they’re in the Multi-Access Rotator, when Ryan is actually sat in that machine and it’s spinning around, the only thing we had to do in visual effects was speed up everything. But J.D. Schwalm, the SFX supervisor, actually built that like a fully working contraption. And then Ryan just acted as if he’d just passed out with his arms flapping around. It’s very effective.

For example, some of the scenes in space where we’re trying to do zero gravity, we did a couple of days of wire work where they were hung from wires and basically those wires being removed digitally. But then we also did very simple tricks where the actors stood on one leg and pretended to float. That also worked. We also added bits of CG hair as if the hair was floating. The idea behind the entire production was to try and get as much of the work on the film set as possible. Hence the want to get the LED screen employed with the visual effects done beforehand.

Also by having a big set of different techniques, you know, J.D. with his team also would put some fire outside the capsule windows as we’re flying through with the LED screen playing in the background. There were times we had talked about also, potentially having smoke be added to the X-15, practically. But because we were up against the LED screen, we couldn’t actually do that. But if the LED screen had been further away, we would have totally done that. But because of practicality, that was added as a CG extension.

It’s more of a philosophy. Rather than just trying to figure out in front of a green screen and just trying to do that all in post, it’s like being part of the filmmaking process. It’s getting the actors to act to visuals which they can see. Again, for that shot with Ryan breaking through the atmosphere, he’s seeing the actual horizon appear. He’s actually acting to that rather than if that had been a green screen, we’d be counting down, “3..2…1..Ryan, there’s the horizon, pretend it’s there.” No, he’s actually seeing it. He’s actually experiencing it because he’s also in the gimbal and he’s been shook like crazy for the entire day. So he’s actually feeling this and he’s seeing it and it just makes it an experience where you get the best performance. It adds to the overall ethos.

KP: Yeah, and you don’t have to worry about making sure people’s eyes are looking in the right direction and—

PL: Exactly! Exactly. We ended up creating about ninety minutes worth of content for that LED screen. Obviously, it’s not ninety minutes of the movie, because we had various takes. But whenever you see the actors talking to each other and they’re not looking out the window, but they’re interacting, and you see a reflection on their visor, it’s because the content is playing outside. It’s just that on that particular angle, you actually pick it up on their visor. There were so many instances like that. And I know that if that reflection hadn’t been there because of restrictions and budgetary requirements, some of those shots would never have been handed over as a visual effect to have a reflection added to it. Or there’s a subtle reflection in a dial, for example, which was caught by accident, but it’s because the content was always playing.

Now, one other huge thing which we weren’t really anticipating… Usually in my world, you work to specific shots and specific shot lengths. You’ve got a five second shot of a plane turning, or whatever it could be. But Damien didn’t want to work that particular way. He wanted to have entire sequences. We rendered six minute sequences for the X-15. We have the entire drop from the B-52 through the clouds up into the atmosphere where it bounces, where it cuts back in and where it lands, all as one particular section. Because that then gave Damien the ability to work with Ryan wherever he wanted. And he would have a huge run up to the breaking of the horizon. We had the entire length of when they’re in the Gemini capsule. And when you see the gantry pulling away, that’s actually a CG gantry on the LED screen…They then go through the clouds through the blue and the black and then when they first see the Earth, that’s all one sequence that Damien could then work with Lukas [Haas] and Ryan wherever he wanted. He didn’t want to be constrained by having to edit the movie there and then. You know what I mean? Basically he could do various takes and stuff….

Same thing for the Apollo launch, for when they’re in the capsule and also their approach to the moon. We had thousands of frames rendered. We actually rendered it for various orbits which then touches down. One other thing we did with this content was we actually started rendering front and side views because the X-15 was going to be the first sequence up. But what we worked out pretty quickly was that if we went the extra step and rendered a full 360… Basically each one of those renders for those sequences was a full kind of VR, 360 world, which, with the playback system for the LED, we were able to rotate interactively. So you can start to see how things made progress with the LED screens. Trying to change things at the time wasn’t really interactive, but we were able to program different moves. Like if we were flying forward and then we wanted to turn slightly, we could program that into the system. We can add color correction and that kind of thing as we’re filming. I can see that progressing to a point where you can start to do interactive changes as we’re shooting. I think that’s going to be a whole other world of stress. But I can totally see that coming.

So each one of our sequences had these, in essence, virtual reality worlds where we could start to animate. And all of that content, we weren’t really expecting to have done so much prior to the shoot, but it was a testament to the guys at DNEG that they were able to do this because it was a massive pull on resources for sure.

KP: I bet. Using the LED instead of green screens. Is that something that’s unique to “First Man?” Or is that something that’s been done on other productions?

PL: See, now this has kind of been building up. There were a couple of movies, for example, “Oblivion” actually used projectors onto screens which was then used for backgrounds. “Interstellar” was starting to do that, as well. And also recently, “Solo” employed some LED screens, but only for interactive light. And also they did some projection work onto silks as well. But, like, the idea was that was always going to be used for interactive light.

The big difference here is we actually tried to have those backgrounds be what you see in the movie. And we were able to retain a bunch of them. We did have some technical updates and then some editorial changes, but the idea was, what you see in the camera is basically what’s going to end up in the movie. Now, obviously, there were times when you saw the gimbal and that had to be painted out. The base color and the base imagery is what we captured on the day.

I’m a huge convert to this. I’ve been an artist for a number of years and just having the interactive light coming from the background, animating, a huge screen, you don’t get any kind of flicker or anything like that. It’s a constant color… You have a complex background you have to put in. You’re always fighting, trying to get a level of believability and if the foreground doesn’t have the actual colors and the light from the background hitting certain angles. You try and fake that. And you can only fake that to a certain point. Whereas, by doing the work beforehand and getting a sign off from the director knowing that’s going to be the background, you then get that all for free as if it’s real. It makes all the difference.

I’m about to start a new project now and there’s going to be a certain portion with an LED screen and I’ve had various calls of other supervisors who are thinking about using it. So, yeah, I think it’s going to become a very much, another tool in the arsenal for visual effects.

One big thing as well, though, is there is a limit to the resolution on the screen. For example, during testing, I actually got an iPhone picture of me up against the screen and you can see the pixels in the screen because it’s a high resolution digital capture. Because “First Man” was shot film, with like 16mm and 35, you kind of blur that line so that with the grain added on top of it, it really helps the fact that you have a certain resolution behind. That’s why we were able to keep a bunch of the screens. If it had been a digital capture and you were looking directly at the screen, I very much assume you would have to replace the content to get it to be a better resolution. But still, even going down that particular route, you’re going to be changing the content like for like. So it’s a lot easier to actually deal with rather than a green screen.

KP: It’s so fascinating. This is one of the reasons I love talking to people like yourself and the production designers and all that because you get so much more detail and depth about a film.

PL: It’s a whole world, right? (laughs)

KP: Yeah! It really is. And it’s not just made by one person!

PL: It isn’t!

KP: I know we have to get wrapped up here, but what has working on “First Man” meant for you personally and professionally?

PL: This wasn’t a typical huge visual effects budget movie. This was working with some really, really talented people. Working with Damien is just… I’ve had a pretty good run, actually, working with Denis [Villeneuve] for “Blade Runner” and then working with Damien for “First Man.” These directors are just on a different level. You talk to them and you hear what they want and how they explain certain things and you just realize, okay, this is why these people are the directors. It’s truly inspiring.

And then you have people like Linus [Sandgren], the DP. You can give him one light and a camera and he’ll make absolutely beautiful imagery. And Nathan [Crowley], the production designer who’s working relentlessly all the time, and what he comes up with is just fantastic. And J.D., the special effects, and Ian Hunter, the miniatures. It’s just working with a group of talented people, and you don’t have a huge budget, but because you have so many talented people things just work. We had crazy long hours, and toward the end of the shoot, the days got longer and longer and longer.

But what was happening in the background was Damien and Tom Cross, his editor, were actually doing a little montage, a little cut of everything we had shot. And we had just wrapped in the desert for the X-15 sequence and we had just wrapped Ryan. And they brought out a screen and they played back this little montage and it was cut to Kennedy talking about the space race. “We choose to go to the moon…” And it was so moving and I could sense tears. It was so moving and inspiring. Then you realize, this is why I’ve worked so hard for this. It’s truly… The actual visuals you can see, even though nothing had gone through post. It was all the raw footage. All just beautifully cut together to this audio that was so inspiring. You knew that you had just finished shooting something extraordinary.

KP: It’s such a marvel and an achievement. Congratulations to you on this film, on the work you did. It’s so beautiful.

PL: Thank you!

Our thanks to Paul Lambert for this discussion of the incredible visual effects in “First Man.”

The film is distributed by Universal Pictures and is in theaters now.

Be sure to check out our Official Oscar Predictions Page to see where “First Man” ranks among the contenders!


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Written by Karen M. Peterson

Karen Peterson is a writer from Southern California. When she is not at the ballpark cheering on her LA Angels, she can usually be found in a movie theater or in front of the television. Karen is obsessed with awards shows, and loves everything from the smallest indie film to the biggest of big budget spectacles. She is also unapologetically in love with Tom Cruise.

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