First Man, the moonshot tale of Neil Armstrong in the launchpad years before his historic voyage won the Academy Award for visual effects, topping a field of eclectic competitors that included the superhero epic Avengers: Infinity War, a Star Wars film directed by Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg’s pop-culture collage Ready Player One.
First Man visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert — who also won an Oscar for Blade Runner 2049 –– led an unique effort on First Man, which achieved its evocative recreation of the Apollo 11 mission by melding digital effects, meticulously created miniatures, archival footage, vintage filming techniques and colossal LED screens to re-create the 1969 space mission and the historic ramp-up to it.
The Academy Award honors for First Man went to Lambert, Ian Hunter, Tristan Myles, and J.D. Schwalm. Hunter is a repeat winner, he also won a space-travel Oscar for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in2015.
First Man was launched at the 75th Venice Film Festival. The film was directed by Oscar-winner Damien Chazelle and starred Ryan Gosling in the title role as astronaut Neil Armstrong. Backstage at the Oscars, Lambert spoke about the film’s mission and its approach to it.
“Damien wasn’t really interested in trying to redefine any new camera moves,” Lambert said. “He wanted to update what people had seen from the ‘60s and ‘70s, so we spent a lot of time in pre-production trying to work out how we would do this. We came up with the LED screen, and the idea of using miniatures, special effects and obviously CG. We did various tests and the idea was the type of shot [determined] how we would define the type of approach we would use to keep the effect as realistic as possible.”
Lambert also said his encore victory at the Oscars felt like a trip to the moon and back. “This is so surreal,” Lambert said. “My 15 minutes of fame seems to have carried on for another 15 minutes. This is a fantastic occasion in that we’ve been honored [for] the actual process, which we talked about endlessly. The fact that we’ve been honored by the Academy is truly magnificent.”
The visual effects race at the Oscars was a curious one this year. Avengers: Infinity War won the VES honors, largely due to the CG achievement of Thanos, the grape-colored alien despot portrayed by Josh Brolin and brought to the screen through Digital Domain’s latest state-of-the-art facial capture techniques. But a different Marvel Studios film — Black Panther — won the award at BAFTA before it was oddly left out of the counterpart category when Oscar nominations were announced.
Three out of the five nominees — Avengers: Infinity War, Christopher Robin and Solo: A Star Wars Story — represented Disney. Those three fantastical epics were matched up against The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coen Brothers eccentric anthology of six Old West tales, and First Man, a movie that was positioned as a presumptive contender for major category honors but, somewhere along the way, missed that mark and ended up winning more industry respect than gala trophies.