How Elon Musk Helped 'First Man' Replicate the Sounds of a Space Launch

Rocket sequences in Damien Chazelle's Neil Armstrong biopic are set in the '60s, but they include recordings from SpaceX liftoffs ­­— and a roaring lion or two.
Courtesy of Universal Studios

What better way to create the sound of a rocket launch — as seen in Damien Chazelle's First Man — than to start by recording an actual rocket launch? But how to go about doing that?

In telling the story of Neil Armstrong —the legendary astronaut who commanded the Apollo 11 mission and on July 20, 1969, became the first man to set foot on the moon — Chazelle and his team of filmmakers took great pains to ensure that every image, every sound, every detail in the $59 million production was as authentic as possible — relying on experts from NASA, the Air Force and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and even talking with astronauts including Jim Lovell, who was portrayed by Tom Hanks in 1995's Apollo 13.

So when it came to First Man's rocket liftoffs, the film's sound team — which has been Oscar-nominated for both sound editing and mixing — was elated to learn they had been granted permission to record rocket tests being conducted at Cape Canaveral in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California by Elon Musk's SpaceX and the ULA, or United Launch Alliance.

But with a SpaceX schedule that they didn't control, high-level security restrictions and no chance of a second take, recording these takeoffs — which were used in several scenes in the movie, including the Apollo and Gemini launch sequences — was "nerve-wracking," according to supervising sound editor, designer and rerecording mixer Ai-Ling Lee, who is doubly nominated as part of both the sound editing and mixing teams.

"For security reasons, they only give you a half hour to set up 16 mics — and on a timer. You pray that they launch on time because you have to set up a day earlier and hope the winds don't blow the mics over and the timers would set off correctly and you won't run out of battery power. And of course most launches get scrubbed — that doesn't give you any chance to go back and reset."

Mics were set up at various distances — some 150 to 200 yards from the rocket, some a quarter-mile from the rocket and others as far as 3 miles. "At various distances, the characteristics of the sound change dra­matically," Lee explains.

Those recordings were just the start. The team then incorporated details like a "chirping" sound that was unique to the Titan II rocket that was used for the Gemini capsules.

To replicate the sound of being strapped to a rocket and shot into space from the astronaut's point of view, the sound editors recorded motion-simulated rides and, Lee adds, "to get the low-end rumble at launch we recorded sound at NASA JPL's acoustic chamber — basically they blast the chamber with nitrogen gas and it simulates the acoustics of a rocket during launch."

To further suggest the subjective feeling of liftoff, Lee's team blended in the sounds of metal shaking and rattling "to give the feeling that it's hand-built and dangerous." But not everything the audience hears is strictly "authentic." For in order "to add to the furiousness of the journey," a final element tossed into the mix combined lion roars and elephant growls, even though such beasts are rarely near a rocket launch.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.