With Damien Chazelle’s First Man—a radical departure from his work with the director on La La Land, which earned both their first Oscars—cinematographer Linus Sandgren boldly went where no no man has gone before, developing the strongest filmic light source the world has ever known to bring realism to Neil Armstrong’s experience on the moon.
Devised in concert with David Pringle of Luminys Systems Corp.—a manufacturer of high-intensity lighting systems—this 200,000 watt, single-source lamp would stand in for the sun, illuminating the craggy surface of an immense Atlanta rock quarry for Sandgren’s IMAX cameras, to allow for an image of stunning detail, in a sequence that is perhaps the film’s crowning technical achievement. “It was a prototype, but we used it, and now, [Pringle] has modified them so that you can rent them,” the DP says with a laugh. “They went from 100K, which was the strongest lamp in the world, to 200K, which is now the double strongest light in the world.”
For the cinematographer, getting to this climactic point was a matter of overcoming a great number of prior hurdles. Working with a director who had only crafted films set within a specific world—the world of music—Sandgren would go after an entirely new cinematic vocabulary, bringing the world of NASA and the experience of space travel to life in all its wondrous, terrifying detail.
What excited you about taking on First Man?
Damien had a specific idea about this film being based in realism, and trying to make this story feel as authentic as possible, both in terms of the time period, but also just to be emotionally connected with these characters in a realistic way, with the family story. What would be greater than [experiencing] space in that type of documentary style, and not in some sci-fi way? Which it easily could become if you go somewhere you’ve never been. I was excited that Damien was so bold, because I only had the experience from La La Land, and here he shows a completely different type of direction.
I agreed with Damien that this film’s story was very emotional, but also had a lot of visceral, scary, claustrophobic elements in the space travel. But then you also have the moon, and the mystery of the moon, and the epic-ness of space. As we started working on it and it evolved during prep, we found that it could be interesting to actually change formats depending on the emotions of the film. I feel like it’s always interesting to find a language, a way to tell the story visually, and as much as possible, explain the theme without sound.
You could obviously light differently, or find metaphors in the story to work with. I think in this case, the format of the cameras was where we found that. The 16mm is raw and rather poetic, and emotionally intimate, and we felt that that would ideally go throughout the film. But there was also that whole thing where you step away from the humans and see crafts, things that are not human that are powerful, like the rockets. There, we’d go to 35, but as soon as we’re in there with them, inside the crafts, we’re on 16mm again.
Then, it could be an interesting contrast to go on the widest possible format, IMAX, on the moon’s surface, which is completely different from what we’re used to in the film—and get that Wizard of Oz effect, where you go from black and white to color. In this case, we go from a grainy 16mm interior visual scale with space travel, and go outside, and suddenly, it all changes. The image goes super crisp—there’s silence, and the movement is not handheld anymore, but very smooth.
What kind of materials did you turn to in pre-production, to tap into the visceral immediacy of space travel and NASA life?
We watched a lot of 16mm footage from their travel, and also looked at their stills for inspiration. All of it is documentary; not all of it was inspiring, but some of it actually had interesting visuals. It could even be when they’re in the dressing room, getting prepared, when they get the suits on—they look focused, no one is talking, so you get a sense of the pressure they have on them in this moment, when they’re waiting to get into that rocket. When they have breakfast in that super bright room, or the interiors of the craft, there were lots of shots there that were completely in darkness, that you could hardly see.
Certain shots from the space travel, and from the moon’s surface, obviously served as inspiration, but we had to go through and select what we felt was most visual for the story. We were trying to find words for the story that could reflect in the images, like loneliness, or claustrophobia in the craft. Those words would also help us, but we definitely had help from NASA, as well. We got a lot of research about how the crafts work, proper action for how things work that Damien had a great use for, but also our production designer and I, in terms of what cameras they used, and how it actually functioned.
I would say that we looked at the entire film in not only a NASA way, but also in a ’70s filmmaker’s point of view. I was thinking a little more like, how would a filmmaker go about doing a documentary at that time with these people? Gordon Willis, for example, would have gotten not a tripod or a big zoom, but a handheld camera with a zoom, and go do a documentary. How would he think about the lighting? How would he manipulate the reality into an interesting visual story? That also was applied to our look, our way of telling the story. We would rather find the shadows; we tried to approach the characters in their homes in a sensitive way, where we wouldn’t be right in their face and disturb them, but watch them with a little bit of a humble point of view. We thought about it not as if we were the astronauts shooting the film, but rather a filmmaker with limited resources, following these guys around and going to the moon with them.
How did you approach the challenge of shooting within the cramped spaces of a spacecraft? I understand that production designer Nathan Crowley went for absolute naturalism with his sets. He wouldn’t expand them for the sake of getting a shot.
Yeah, the crafts were built to scale. There were no expansions in the set to accommodate us. Instead, we could cut up parts of the crafts so that we could open up from an angle, or take out a seat, things like this. Sometimes we were in the windows, halfway into the craft. The camera was physically inside, but I could stand outside, through the wall, and operate the camera. Then sometimes, I had to be inside; in the X-15, I was inside behind Ryan, right behind his helmet with a camera. Davon [Slininger], my B camera operator, was by the seat, shooting up at him from underneath on one side, and I was underneath the other, in front of him. The three of us together would be inside the craft, sitting in a super awkward position, and the whole craft would then shake on a gimbal, so it’s very, very shaky. Sometimes we had to stop it because it was just a little too violent, but we got pillows and stuff, too.
We couldn’t have just been wherever we wanted. We were limited by the craft’s physical parameters, but I think we had made sure in pre-production to design the crafts so that we could cut them up on one side, below a window—a piece of the side of the craft for profile shots. The profile shots were generally shot through windows, or sometimes, I was actually inside. In the Gemini VIII, I walked into the craft when we had that point of view camera, and I sat down into the craft. That’s me walking in and sitting down in the craft, panning right, looking at [Christopher Abbott], and then the door closes. Boom. But then also, when they’re spinning and stuff, I’m in the craft, as well, with the handheld camera, panning.
Did you think of each of the film’s space missions as a piece unto itself?
Yeah, the themes were different. In the X-15, the first craft, we weren’t supposed to go outside of the ship at all, to see any exterior—except some craft-mounted shots of the back tail of the wing, just to understand what was going on. But really, the sense should be that we’re in fact with him when we start to shoot in there.
We basically waited for Apollo 11 to have any exterior shots of the entire rocket, to stay with the claustrophobic feel, as well. But in Gemini, we also had light differences between different [moments] in that sequence. We divided it so that they had different types of light on and changed the colors, so we would feel there was a difference in the mood of the scene. They light up pretty bright when they’re eating and everything’s okay, and it’s black outside the windows. Then it all goes wrong, and suddenly, those lights die. We wanted them to be lit so they could bend backwards and show the gravity.
But also, all of those sequences, we shot on a stage with projections outside the window that shows what we see. For the actors, it was basically like being in flight simulators—and for us with the cameras, so we could see what was going on. Earth came outside the window, or we went on the dark side of the Earth, and so on.
Could you give a full account of the production of that sequence on the moon, and how it was made possible?
That goes together with the whole idea about trying to make the film feel very authentic and real. To do so, we all felt, let’s try to avoid green screen, to build everything and shoot it in camera as much as we can. We designed those LED screens, for example, in order to actually have interactive lighting, so that whatever the actors see outside of the windows isn’t just a green screen—and for the camera to capture that. We used that in so many different ways, like with the elevator. When they go up along the rocket, there’s actually a projection outside a window, in combination with the physical effect of our art department lowering beams, so that it looks like they’re traveling up along a rocket. We had to think of every single scene, and also every single shot in those scenes, and in some scenes, we had to do so many types of different shots in order to make it look real.
In this case, Nathan and Damien really wanted to build this moon set outdoors in a rock quarry, rather than being on stage. Most moon scenes that have been shot are usually on stage and quite small, and this was going to be 500 by 500 feet, which is an insane area. I tried to be positive, of course. It’s a great challenge to try to light that, and I discussed it with my gaffer. We [felt that] the only way to light that would be with multiple shadows, multiple lights. But maybe not.
I was trying to think of this 100K lamp that exists, this 100,000 watt lamp. But at that point in prep, it was like, “If they think it’s the best idea to just have a just have a single-source lamp, I think that’s the best idea, too.” A single-source lamp is more important than the distance, but the distance is also important because you don’t want it to be too weird, the shadow. So I did some tests with models and small light panels, and it seemed like two 100Ks stuck very close together at a 500 foot distance would be proper. We did a test up in LA with Luminys and David Pringle; we both felt that the exposure was okay at that distance, and the spread of those lights is perfect—it’s actually 500 feet, so it would cover the area. There would just be a little softer double shadow there, with the two 100Ks. So, then I’m asking him, “What would it take to make a 200K? Could you just make a double strong one, so that we don’t need two bulbs?” That’s so beautiful, right? With the business we’re in, it’s like, “Yeah, why not?” He said he’d think about it, and then he calls me back the next day and says, “You know, you kept me awake all night. I think we can do it. I’ve calculated it, and it looks like it’s going to work.”
Luckily, what was genius about Damien’s idea was that we had three months prep, and he wanted to shoot chronologically, for the actors to do everything in order, with the death of the daughter and so on. They would live with the death of the daughter throughout the film; events happen in order, but we skipped all the space stuff. So, we jumped over the actual interior spacecraft stuff, and left that for the end. That way, special effects could prepare all that footage for the screens that we needed for the space travel. Then, David had time to actually build the lamp. He built two of those 200Ks for us, and they brought a few 100Ks as well, in case. But that was really beautiful, that he could.