It’s not hard to pick out all the visual effects shots in movies like Avengers: Infinity War or Ready Player One, but First Man was shot more like a documentary, so the extensive visual effects had to be seamless and invisible. To help accomplish this, visual effects studio DNEG built one of the most amazing TVs you’ve ever seen, allowing many flight sequences to be filmed on set with minimal post-production work required afterwards.
Scenes where an actor, who’s never actually flown before, has to pilot an aircraft are often filmed against a gigantic green screen that’s removed in post-production and replaced with footage of clouds whizzing by. But for First Man, Digital Effects Supervisor Tristan Myles reveals to the BBC that director Damien Chazelle wanted to recreate those scenes, such as the flight of the X-15, in camera. So the towering LED screen was built on a sound stage and used to play back animated footage of clouds and space behind a moving gimbal supporting an aircraft mockup and the actors.
Projecting footage behind a performer is actually a trick Hollywood has been using for decades, most often with driving scenes, but it’s been refined to the point where the results in First Man are impossible to distinguish from actual flight footage. The approach also minimises the amount of post-production work needed for a shot, as reflections on windows, or helmet visors, are accurately captured during filming.
During production, DNEG also had access to archival footage of the Apollo programs from NASA, and was able to incorporate actual shots of launches into the movie. But the original footage was shot on film with a square aspect ratio, whereas modern movies are projected with a much wider vista. As a result, artists at DNEG had to digitally extend the original archival footage so it had a wider aspect ratio, using CG simulations of the smoke, steam, and fire generated during a launch. It sounds like a lot of unnecessary work, but adds a bit more authenticity to the film, which helped convince the Academy it deserved the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. [h/t Art of VFX]