An expert when it comes to films of epic scale, Nathan Crowley ventured into the unknown with First Man, his first outing with Damien Chazelle, which finally got him to the Moon. Centered on astronaut Neil Armstrong, and the many missions leading up to the historic success of Apollo 11, the pic was a massive technical challenge—a vast puzzle to work out, piece by piece.
Known for his collaborations with Christopher Nolan, Crowley is committed to practical, in-camera filmmaking, and worked tirelessly in that vein with First Man, building ‘60s spaceships of all sizes and sculpting a tree-covered Atlanta quarry for the film’s climactic lunar sequence.
Late last month, Christopher Nolan came forward with a date for his next project, without offering up any further details. And while Crowley can’t yet confirm his involvement, he also admittedly “can’t not work with Chris.”
In the meantime, Crowley can only reflect excitedly on the lessons he learned from First Man and the way this film changed his process, which should significantly impact any project he takes on from here on out. With his past endeavors, the designer often turned to models and miniatures—boons to his practical process—while outsourcing their creation. With First Man, though, Crowley finally tried his hand at crafting them himself, with the film of his art department and 14 3D printers.
“3D printing has changed the game for me, because I can go from concept model to miniature, and then I can use construction to build everything from full-size exteriors through,” says Crowley, who earned his fifth Oscar nomination last month. Discussing a revolutionary way of working, the designer makes an important point—that while the specific methods he’s implementing now are new, the art and practice of model making is as old as cinema itself. “This is old method. We’re just using new technology,” Crowley reflects. “If I had a time machine and went back to the ’60s, I’d probably not get a job because everyone could do it.”
How did you come to First Man? What excited you about taking the film on?
I liked Damien’s films; I think he’s a very talented filmmaker. I’d heard that he was thinking of making a film about the Space Race, and that really excited me, so I sought him out. He was on this press tour for La La Land, and he happened to be in New York, so we decided to just meet and have a chat.
I was super interested in the way he wanted to approach it, because Whiplash was very grounded, but La La Land was more fanciful. So, you never know, [until] you meet someone, and the way he was describing how he wanted to make it—in-camera, practical—was fantastic because that’s the film I was interested in making. It was about how NASA had to reinvent everything to get there, and the danger, and what they managed to achieve, during a time when the country was really changing.
If they wanted to do it digitally, I would’ve had second thoughts, because I don’t feel like we can tell that story without putting the audience into it. I have an enormous amount of experience doing things practically, so I think Damien was interested in, what methodology should we use? We hit it off and then we went for it, and then we realized, Oh god, this is going to be difficult! [Laughs]
How did First Man compare, in level of difficulty, to other epic films you’ve designed?
Here’s the thing: Over the years, I’ve worked on seven films with Chris Nolan, and we’ve progressively found a methodology that really works. We both come from the same love of David Lean, and spectacle, and cinema, and widescreen. I go to the cinema to be taken away, so the films I do with Chris are extremely difficult. We do everything in-camera until we can’t, and they’re challenging—but at the same time, massively rewarding. I feel like we’re taking the audience and putting them in that place, and making them feel something, and really, Damien was asking to do very similar things, [with a] different subject.
Every film’s very different, and you have to rediscover things. So, First Man was equally as difficult as any Chris Nolan film I’ve ever done. They’re these big tasks. I feel like we only get to make so many films in our lifetime, so you have to push the boundaries of methodology and design, and I’m not interested in not doing that.
What were the first steps you took in prepping this film?
I went to NASA; I went to Houston, and I just needed to learn. I needed to go to Edwards Air Force Base, to go see X-15s. I just had to go and see what these things felt like. So, NASA was the big thing; you go in there, and you just start touching. The first trip was about just touching it, and the complexity of it. We were in Mission Control, and it was like, “Oh my god. How does this work?” It was a massive learning [experience]. It’s like, where are all the thrusters? How do you maneuver this thing? How do you get out of orbit? How do you go into a lunar orbit? You have to slow down to land, so you’re going backwards…
So, all these things, you slowly build up. I think Mission Control had pneumatic tubes for information during Gemini. So, the Apollo program’s well documented, but the Gemini program, where they were learning what they needed to make Apollo work, is less documented, and it changed. Every mission, they were trying to figure something out, so that was the hardest thing. Every capsule, everything changed.
The other thing was the neighborhood, just trying to touch the period of the family lives of the astronauts. We went to El Lago, went to Neil’s real house and Ed White’s house, and just sat in the street for a while, trying to imagine what it was like, this residential slice of American life, [where] behind the doors, there’s this enormous job going on that caused a lot of damage in that neighborhood. A lot of people died. It was interesting to go to that neighborhood and walk around, and just think how many tragedies happened, and how many successes happened. It might have looked like one thing, but it wasn’t, so I was really trying to get that part. These weren’t ordinary men going to work. They didn’t have regular jobs, but they lived in [an ordinary] neighborhood.
You consulted with scientific experts throughout your time on the film. What did you gain from firsthand contact with people who knew this world so well?
It was brilliant. To have Al Worden [of] Apollo 15 on set saying, “We built these 11 dashboards’ bells and whistles” was great. Because it was like, “Okay, Al, which buttons? We need the sequences.” The problem is, I had to learn how to fly these things, each ship; I had to know sequentially what you needed to do to maneuver. You needed to talk to Mission Control; to the Pan Am stations, when you were out of range. It was like you start scraping off the surface stuff, and it’s incredibly complex. It was really about being very specific with the knowledge of each flight. Like, “Tell me how to fly an X-15. How do you work with ballistic controls?” It was that kind of thing, and they changed between each model. They said, “Well, we didn’t have those ballistics until Neil tested that.” Gemini changed, and changed, and changed, so those experts were critical. And then they were saying, “Well, maybe I’m mixing up VIII or XII,” so it was sort of like being a detective.
Then, of course, because we wanted to do it all in-camera and practically, everything had to work, so the electronics on our sets were complex. You’ve got moving gimbals, cockpits, all the dashboards—no digital work on those dashboards—all the gauges working, and then you have the LED projections of orbit. So, the complexity of getting that all to sequentially work on the day is tricky.
Could you explain the broad strokes of crafting all the space vessels we see in First Man? I understand that computer modeling and 3D printers were key in figuring all this out.
Straight away, I knew, we’ve got to do miniatures—probably fifth- or sixth-scale miniatures—and the companies in the States that made them aren’t around anymore. They’ve gone out of business. I was in Atlanta, and I’d done some miniatures for The Greatest Showman and Dunkirk, so it was like, “You know what? I’m just going to print the miniatures, because I can do it.”
NASA [also] had a ton of 3D models, so the first thing I said was like, “We’re going to make miniatures, and we need to start now. We’ll hire Ian Hunter, who used to run New Deal [Studios], to shoot them. But we’re going to make them in the art department.” Gemini was small enough that I could build it full-size, but the LEM [Lunar Excursion Model] is enormous. As I started, I thought, I’ll assign part of my art department to just start printing, because it’s going to be slow. With 14 printers, the technology you have, [there’s] like a 20% fail rate. So, it was like, “Okay, we’ll get going on that now. What else do we need?”
We needed full-size cockpit interiors, full-size exteriors; an exterior camera mount, which was critical. It was like, “I need a Gemini, full-size or 80%, and I can put cameras on the outside, and then [we’ll use] a miniature for mid-ground, and LED and visual effects for background.” With that methodology for every ship, I’ve got an exterior Gemini, [and a] full-size interior cockpit—full working, that comes apart in multiple sections, so we can get the camera angles we need. Because they’re tiny.
We didn’t have a miniature on Gemini, but then you’d take that to the Saturn V, and it’s like, “How do we get from the base of Saturn V, up to the White Room, and load in on the gantries, without it all just being digital?” So, I was like, “We can use the real crawler in Florida, in the VA [Vehicle Assembly] building. We film the Saturn V miniature, a 14-foot miniature, on stage, and we comp that in. Then, we use an industrial coal plant, with its elevators, to go up, like you’re going up the tower to the White Room. Then, we build the gantry on the top of a coal station’s 200-foot roof, so we get landscape, going to the White Room, and the top of the Saturn V capsule. Then, [the VFX team] can comp in the rest of the Saturn V, knowing that we’ve shot the miniatures, and we’ve got real photography, and they’ll adjust the background of the coal plant.” So, you’re getting real photography in every shot. My theory is, there is never a complete digital shot, ever, because you have photographic reference for everything.
You’ve got to touch it; you’ve got to feel like it’s real. You apply that to every scene, and the way I do that is, I have a big art room, and we put the film up—scene order, editorial order—and try and break it down.
What was your approach to the film’s climactic lunar sequence? What went into recreating the Moon’s surface, and what were the biggest challenges in doing so?
We did the lunar descent on the LED screens, and then we cut outside on our miniatures, and then we go to land, and go all the way down from the interior ship down to the surface. Then, bang—we’re on location. So, let’s talk about Georgia. It’s a place full of trees! [Laughs] It’s very green, and I was thinking, “Oh sh*t, how are we going to do the moon? Where are we going to do the moon?” I think in every film I do, I always need a cement works or a quarry, for some reason. But I think every quarry I’ve ever seen has been sand-covered. So, I went to the location and went, “I don’t suppose you have a gray quarry out here, do you?” Thinking I might as well ask the question. And he said, “Yeah, we do, actually.”
So, we went down there, and it’s surrounded by trees. I looked around, and there some cracked-out, old concrete conveyor belts and stuff in the middle of it, and then it was like, “We need fine gray powder”—and they said, “Oh, we have this waste product from the gravel yard that is a fine gray powder.” And I was like, “Really? I don’t suppose you want to knock those [nearby] buildings down, do you?” And they were like, “Yeah, we do, actually.” Then I said, “Any chance you could sculpt me 20 or 30 big banks of gray sand in the background, to create a matte line for visual effects to take out?” And they said, “Yeah.” I guess this is the plus of being somewhere like Georgia. Those guys in the quarries were interested in film, and they just thought it was something fun to do.
So, they got their big machines out, and we sculpted a quarry for like five acres. We built the full-size LEM exterior in the shop; that’s a whole nother thing, because you have to support it. It’s built for one-fifth gravity or something, so structurally, it doesn’t live on Earth, with our gravity. Then, for the inner 500 feet of the surface, where most of our filming was going to take place, NASA had tons of maps and photographs of all the rocks. So, my greens department, my 18 guys, just sculpted everything—built craters and rocks, and tried to make it as real as possible.
It snowed on the first night, and we had to dry the quarry. I mean, here’s the thing about our methodology: We get weather everywhere, which usually I like because it adds texture. In old-school filmmaking, you just roll the camera. It doesn’t matter if it’s raining or [there’s] a freaking hurricane coming; it will add something to the film, and that’s part of the unknown. But when you’re on the moon, you don’t want the snow. [Laughs] So, we had to stop, and then we came back. It took a bit of effort, and Damien probably used every inch of film he shot to make that work.