You are in charge of sound for a movie about astronauts. Your job is to make a rocket launch – an event viewers have seen on screen hundreds of times – sound as fresh and spine-tinglingly scary as it did for those seeing it in person in 1969.
For Singaporean sound editor Ai-Ling Lee’s team working on First Man (2018), the biopic of astronaut Neil Armstrong, the sonic oomph came from a source that had nothing to do with aerospace engineering.
“We introduced animal vocals – elephant trumpets, lion growls, animal stampedes. They create a visceral sense of anxiety,” says Lee on the telephone with The Straits Times.
The animal noises were blended into real sounds coming from rocket turbines and ignition chambers, so they can be heard, but not on a conscious level.
“But now that I’ve said it, if you re-watch the film, you can probably hear it,” she says with a laugh.
The Los Angeles-based Lee has four Oscar nominations under her belt.
Two years ago (2017), for her work on the musical La La Land, she and Mildred Iatrou Morgan were nominated for Best Sound Editing. She also won a nod in Best Sound Mixing, with Andy Nelson and Steve A. Morrow.
Next week, on Oscar night – which takes place on Monday (Feb 25) morning in Singapore – she will find out if she will pick up her first win for her work on First Man, directed by Damien Chazelle, who also helmed La La Land.
The 40-year-old is again nominated with Morgan for sound editing, and for sound mixing with Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montano and Mary H. Ellis.
First Man has two other nominations, for visual effects and production design.
Audio authenticity is key for the creative team, Lee says.
But where does one get high-quality recordings that capture the majesty of a rocket launch from 1969? The team would have to recreate it from contemporary sources.
“We lucked out,” she says. During the film’s production, at Cape Canaveral, the site of the Apollo launches in the 1960s and 1970s, private aerospace company SpaceX would launch Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket in operation.
The First Man crew came with sound recording gear.
“We set up microphones on the launchpad to get close-up sounds, such as the ignition sounds. We also set up microphones farther away, because the launch sounds different from a distance,” she says.
First Man is a study in contrasts. Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, is in screaming jet planes, then in a quiet domestic setting at home, before the story follows him into his Apollo 11 capsule as he roars into space in 1969, landing on the Moon.
The sound team was brought in early to map out their tasks, she says.
“Damien showed us his animatics, which are an edited sequence of storyboards, and he added sounds in there to give us an idea,” says Lee, who left for Hollywood in 1998 and has racked up credits in action films such as X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014), 300: Rise Of An Empire (2014) and also in dramas and comedies, including the Disney animated feature Tangled (2010) and the Jim Carrey vehicle Yes Man (2008).
One of her tasks is to work out how distant a sound should be from a character. Hearing only what a character hears is part of storytelling, she says.
“How close are we to the sound? In the cockpit sequences, we see only what the astronauts see. We can’t show things that are happening outside. The sound has to support the narrative,” she says.
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