Before Hollywood could go to the moon, they first had to come to Frederica
While millions know what it looked like when the men of Apollo walked on the moon, only the astronauts themselves knew what it actually sounded like. Now, that’s about to change, thanks to a collaboration between Hollywood and the Delaware company that made the astronaut’s lunar suits in the 1960s.
Universal Studios’ “First Man,” which centers on the story of Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, breaks new cinematic ground in its efforts to show what it was like to fly to another world. And although “First Man” provides a virtual feast of real and computer-generated visuals of man and machine, many of the sounds in the film are exactly the same as those experienced by the Apollo astronauts.
And those audio bits only could be captured by using real Apollo spacesuits, manufactured in Delaware by ILC Dover.
Universal sound engineers Frank Montaño and Alex Knickerbocker spent eight hours at ILC’s Frederica facility in June 2017 recording the sounds of space suits -- zippers zipping, air flowing and connectors connecting -- to bring a new reality to movie-going audiences.
A red-eye flight
Their unusual assignment began with a call to ILC’s Bill Ayrey.
“I knew a movie was being put together,” Ayrey recalled. “And I was sitting at my desk one day when I get a call from Universal. Frank introduced himself and asked if we had an Apollo suit.”
Of course he did, Ayrey replied. Although now involved in space suit production for the International Space Station and beyond, ILC still had some of the 40-plus-year-old suits in its possession. One, designed for astronaut Paul Weitz, would meet Montaño’s requirements quite nicely, Ayrey decided.
A 30-year film veteran, Montaño is credited with eight Best Picture Academy Award nominations for his sound editing and mixing work. Although he could have pulled what he needed from Universal’s seven-terabyte library of digitally recorded sounds, his passion for the space program demanded he go one step further.
“I’m such an Apollo enthusiast, I went after this movie pretty hard,” Montaño admits.
“Rockets are rockets and we know what they sound like,” he said. “We had no record of what a space suit sounded like from the inside, from an astronaut’s perspective, or what it was like to be an astronaut in the lunar lander or walking on the lunar surface.
“That was the concept that came to mind.”
Ayrey, who as ILC’s manager in charge of suit testing also knows a thing or two about the need for perfection, understood completely.
“Everything about the suits has a distinct sound and Frank knew that,” he said. “When you’re a sound guy in the movie industry, you want to capture all those sounds.”
Assured ILC could support the unusual request, Montaño and Knickerbocker took a red-eye flight from Los Angeles and were at ILC’s doorstep at 8 a.m. the next morning.
Ayrey gathered Weitz’s suit along with gloves made for astronaut Don Lind as well as the familiar bubble helmet worn by John Young when he flew to the moon on Apollo 10 in April 1969.
Ayrey connected the suit to ILC’s testing equipment, still in use from the Apollo days, and let the sound team go to work.
“We ended up being able to capture anything we could possibly get,” Knickerbocker said. “Helmets unlocking and locking and gloves being attached and unattached, boot movements, the sound of the material in the suit moving from an interior and exterior perspective.”
Knickerbocker was surprised at some of the sounds the recorded, particularly the noise of air flowing through the suit helmet.
“I knew there would be air pressure of some sort, but it’s a very refined, almost clinical sound,” he said. “It has a distinctly different timbre from anything else. I’d compare it to a surgical office or ER. We certainly did not expect that.”
Back at Universal, Montaño would take those bits of audio and mix them with dialogue recorded later by stars Ryan Gosling as Armstrong and Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin.
“At first my thought was no one would really know the difference,” Ayrey said. “But Frank said that if Buzz Aldrin himself was watching this movie, he wanted him to say, ‘Yes, it was like that.’”
Husband, father, astronaut
ILC’s involvement didn’t end with Montaño and Knickerbocker’s trip to Delaware. Ayrey dug into his archives and found artifacts from the Apollo days that could be duplicated for the movie. One was the company’s distinctive insignia, prominently shown on the white coats worn by technicians helping the astronauts suit up just before launch.
One thing Gosling and his fellow movie astronauts aren’t wearing, however, are real space suits. Suits surviving from the Apollo days are museum artifacts and too historically valuable to use in a movie. ILC itself is too busy working on the suits’ modern-day equivalent, so what you see in the movie are very accurate, duplicates of the real thing, manufactured by Global Effects, a costume company specializing in real and fictional space gear.
“I visited the plant where they were made and that was fascinating,” Ayrey said. “They looked really good, pretty much spot-on for the sake of the movie.”
Even after visiting ILC, Montaño and Knickerbocker weren’t finished in their quest for authentic sounds.
Montaño’s dream was to get access to the interior of the Apollo 11 command module, the only part of the spacecraft to return to Earth. “Columbia,” as the craft was named, is at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, and he wanted to record sounds of switches being toggled and buttons on the craft’s computer keyboard being pressed.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, but he was able to get the necessary audio clips from Columbia’s sister ship, “Odyssey,” from the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, now on display in the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Museum.
He also recorded the sounds of an astronaut striding the access arm on the Apollo rocket’s launch tower, also at the Cosmosphere, and went to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to get sound clips from the same consoles used during Apollo 11.
Because the space center also has a display of manmade lunar soil that’s almost identical to the real thing, Montaño donned boots made of the same silicon as the Apollo variety and recorded himself walking across the lunar regolith.
“It manifested itself into a yearlong journey that I had the pleasure to go on,” Montaño said. “We went from east to west, and north to south, including Frederica. We just hitched rides and ping-ponged across the country recording everything.”
Ayrey flew to Hollywood Oct. 5 to get an advance screening of the finished product.
“That was quite an honor,” Ayrey said.
But for all the technical expertise that went into making the 1960s world of Apollo come alive for audiences of the 21st century, both Montaño and Knickerbocker consider “First Man” to be a personal tale about the notoriously private Armstrong that examines the costs of his career as an astronaut while still being a husband and father.
The two didn’t always mix well, and that comes out in the movie.
“We’ve lived with this film for quite a while,” Montaño said. “It’s an intimate story but told on a global scale.”
“I agree with Frankie 100 percent,” Knickerbocker added. “It’s a very intimate look at a person we’ve only seen from a public perspective. It’s a deep look into what the experience was like for him.
“It’s an attempt to tell the story and make it as close to what the people experiencing it at the time would have seen and heard, and to put the audience in the same headspace as those people,” he said.
“It was as close to the true story as was possible,” he said. “As for the story itself, it paints a true story of all the adversity not only Neil but all the other astronauts faced during our race to the moon.”