Tom Cross, ACE on Editing First Man and Working with IMAX Footage
The Oscar-winning editor behind Whiplash and La La Land describes cutting First Man like a documentary.
If you’ve seen First Man, you know there are a few scenes that were so unbearably tense and perfectly executed that you’d be thinking about them for weeks. For example, the undocking scene from the Agena is one of the most well-executed, chaotically beautiful moments in film history. So, taking a step back, we should ask what makes a scene like this so good? Is it the sound design, the acting, the cinematography? The answer is yes. All of these art forms collide in one seamless sequence, pieced together by someone who, frankly, rarely gets the credit they deserve. Tom Cross is that someone with First Man.
Cross’s past work already speaks for itself — between winning an Oscar for Whiplash and receiving a second nomination for his collaboration with Damien Chazelle, La La Land, the Los Angeles-based editor is far from slowing down from 2017’s, The Greatest Showman, which pushed him into the stratosphere. Which brings us to 2018’s First Man.
One of the key technical aspects of First Man is the visual aesthetic chosen by Chazelle and Director of Photography Linus Sandgren. Shot (mostly) on handheld 16mm and 35mm, the scenes are just as rough and lived-in as they are polished and detailed. The result is a film that eloquently mirrors the real events of the Apollo 11 mission — and the lives it affected. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Tom Cross about his process for tackling something as daunting as the moon landing, and what led to some of the decisions he made in the cutting room.
Preparing for Launch
Cross’s and Chazelle’s collaborations always involve narratives with driven characters striving for greatness. However, First Man’s distinct style is a combination of creative and stylistic decisions, both during shooting and in the cutting room. I asked Cross how he approached this new project and what discussions he made with Chazelle prior to shooting.
Damien always likes to tell his stories through the editing. On Whiplash, he wanted the musical scenes and the practice scenes to feel brutal like the boxing scenes from Raging Bull. With La La Land, he wanted long takes, and with the camera movement, he wanted it to be slow and romantic. On First Man, he was really inspired by NASA archival footage and the footage that was shot at that time, like the 16mm gritty footage that was shot inside the space capsules. A lot of this footage was shot by the astronauts themselves, so it was claustrophobic, but it was also very personal and intimate — almost like the astronauts were filming their own home movies. This is what inspired Damien to shoot it in a very cinéma vérité fashion; he wanted to do something new and was a big fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, that movie is very clean, minimal, and modernist — and almost omniscient in its point of view. This inspired him to take a gritty, subjective approach. He wanted these scenes to be immersive and visceral, so he leaned heavily on the subjective shots and a cutting style where we would really try to put audiences inside the space capsule so you could feel how dangerous it was.
The structure of First Man is linear for the most part (with the exception of a few important flashbacks, but more on that later). There’s trial-and-error, heartache, and many tense space sequences filled throughout the film’s 141 minute runtime. For the scenes on earth, specifically in the Armstrong household, the scenes are beautiful, Malickian vignettes of family life — all shot in a way that feels like we’re watching an actual family live day to day. This was no accident. Cross details the planning and shooting methods Linus used for these scenes:
With the earthbound stories, he really wanted to lean into the cinéma vérité style, so the audience could feel like a fly on the wall in the Armstrong home. That way his hope was it would feel more personal and intimate, that we’d be showing the audience details that they hadn’t seen before. Our hope was that we could show personal moments between Jan and Neil and their children that you wouldn’t get in a documentary. So they shot in this handheld documentary fashion, and in fact, some of the scenes were very documentary-like, in that a lot of the material was improvised. He got the principal actors together early on to get them comfortable with each other. So he had two weeks of rehearsal before principal photography started and put them in full makeup and hair in the fully dressed sets of the Armstrong home and had them kind of play house. He wanted the actors to get comfortable enough so that they felt like a family. Then he had Linus and Linus’s crew follow them around like a documentary. So this two weeks of footage was all unscripted and a lot of that material made it into the movie. So, in that way, the vérité footage made the editing process very different from our experiences on La La Land and Whiplash.
So First Man was already off to a uniquely collaborative start. Directorial decisions to stage the rehearsal, Linus’s eye for the scenes at play, and Tom with the foresight to see the bigger picture about how these shots would play into the larger narrative. The fact these scenes were shot at the beginning of production gave Tom and company an idea of what type of film First Man would become along the way.
The style of this messy handheld footage also meant that the way I looked at dailies was different than our previous movies. So the style helped us bring out more unique performance moments because the style allowed certain camera imperfections like snap zooms or shots where Linus is trying to find focus or a messy pan or tilt. All those shots were fair game, in other words. We discovered that I was allowed to use those. So that allowed us to use certain performance moments that we might otherwise not be allowed to use in something like La La Land, so it opened up possibilities in terms of performance. We also discovered these camera imperfections and vérité aesthetics could be used to enhance the emotion and excitement while adding visual punctuation to the storytelling.
This visual storytelling going on in First Man is crucial to the time period and the characters. Every department head is essential on a project like this. I asked Cross how he and Sandgren communicated prior to and after shooting.
I always try to communicate with Linus before the shooting starts. Linus and I have done three movies together. We worked on Joy, and La La Land together and then first man. We have a really good relationship. Sometimes we can’t communicate often because he’s so busy on set, but we do try to communicate as much as we can. During pre production on First Man, Damien liked to create a list of reference films — other movies that inspire him — and he creates these lists and shares them with key department heads so that everyone can all get on the same page in terms of references and inspiration.
There were several times when I would get together with Damien and Linus and Production Designer Nathan Crowley and Costume Designer Mary Zophres. We would all get together and sit in the theater and watch a double bill of two movies that Damien thought were important and interesting to look at for First man, so we would kind of have a dialogue about the movies and the creative choices we would make in the shooting and the editing of the movie. We definitely talked about the vérité approach, and we definitely talked about the possibilities. But we didn’t get into too many details right away. I let Linus’s footage tell me how to cut it. I discovered that we could use camera imperfections and certain moments to enhance the storytelling.
I asked Tom if there were any particular scenes that needed this documentary-style cutting.
For example in the press conference scenes and the mission review scenes after the Gemini 8 scenes, it’s meant to be and feel like an attack on Neil. He feels like he failed on these missions and now has to answer to that. There’s a way we felt like we could use the footage, and the roughness of it, the grittiness of it — there’s a way we felt like we could cut it together to try to visually create an experience that feels like an attack. So we cut it, and later Linus came to see a rough cut of the movie and was surprised that we used some of these visual moments. We used some of these messy pans and focus racks and he didn’t expect it in some ways because he did those things as a means to an end while he was shooting.
Cross’s past work includes everything from documentaries to commercials. This range of storytelling means his technical skills are well above most editors. Cutting documentaries and cutting narrative films are different animals, but he finds a balance between the two, crafting an experience that feels like something entirely new. Combined with Linus’s way of shooting, both auteurs found themselves looking at their crafts in new ways.
He did not merely try to replicate cinema vérité style. He did some of these things on purpose — to replicate what a documentary felt like. He just treated it like a true documentary moment. In other words, he was just following action the way a documentary filmmaker would. These little moments were just an end result of that. There’s a way that the performances and the way Damien staged it and designed it for there to be highs and lows where we’re focusing on Neil’s face and then these loud, cacophonous, intense moments where reporters are screaming trying to get Neil’s attention. Damien and I realized we could amplify it by making the scenes cuttier, faster at moments and leaving the organic messiness of the handheld footage all in the final scene.
Damien and screenwriter Josh Singer did extensive research, and all this was shared with me and the department heads through a big binder that became known as “The Notebook.” Basically, it was a book that contained reference materials and a lot of stills and photos related to NASA, Neil Armstrong, the mission, and moments in Neil’s home life. There were reference photos from LIFE Magazine, and you really felt like at times you had a Neil Armstrong family photo album. All of that really helped put you in a certain frame of mind for the edit.
There are a few scenes in the film that involve some pretty significant visual effects, so I wondered how Cross worked with these sequences. Given Damien’s extensive planning and research, were there any pieces of footage or storyboards for him to use as he built the sequences in the edit?
So, he usually creates extensive storyboards for his movies, but with First Man, he knew he’d have to find a lot of the scenes in the editing room, strictly because of the vérité way it was being shot. For the big action scenes, he did plan them out really well and created these animatics with sound effects. In them, he used a combination of storyboard materials and actual NASA archival footage. That was really helpful to me as an editor because it gave me a blueprint for how he wanted the scene to be cut, but it also gave me, the production crew, and the VFX team (led by Paul Lambert and Kevin Elam) a blueprint as well for certain shots that Damien wanted to recreate. In terms of shooting, Damien would insist on almost exact recreations of NASA archival shots, so when I took these animatics and put them into my Avid, I used that as a bed for my sequences. As soon as the dailies would come in and get shot, we would cut them on top of this animatic. Eventually, the idea would be to completely replace everything in the animatic. A lot of the archival footage got replaced by new shots that were exact recreations, except usually done with photography of miniatures.
I asked Cross if any of the actual archival shots ended up in the final cut.
So we loved the feeling of the archival footage, but those real archival shots for the most part got replaced. However during certain sequences like the Apollo 11 launch, there is NASA archival footage in them, in that some of the launch shots are partial archival footage. Our VFX team worked with NASA and found there existed some extremely high-quality 70mm footage of an Apollo launch. It was done in a proprietary military format, so nobody really had any equipment to run the footage. But, they told our VFX team if we found a way to scan it and give them a copy for their archives, we could use it. So our VFX team found a way to scan it and incorporate it into the launch. So what you see in First Man when the Apollo 11 takes off are some shots where the middle part of the frame is 70mm archival footage of Apollo 14 taking off. Paul and the VFX team would use CG to build out the side of the frame to fill the wide cinemascope frame. So there are pieces of actual launch footage in the finished film.
There’s a reason First Man‘s VFX team has been nominated for an Oscar (in addition to the film’s many other well-deserved accolades).
Cutting the IMAX Sequence
A good storyteller knows how to take the audience in any direction they want. If the story takes a turn, everything you’ve done prior has prepared the audience to go with the flow willingly. First Man‘s pivotal moment is the IMAX sequence. Cross told me he’s never cut a film in IMAX before, but like any historically great artist, he thrives on tackling bigger and bolder projects.
I hadn’t cut anything in IMAX before. I’m a big fan of big screens, so I love movies in 70mm and Cinerama and IMAX, so I was really excited when Damien said he was going to shoot the movie in all these ways, including IMAX. Damien shot over 1.7 million feet of film, so he loves telling his stories through motion picture film. The IMAX photography was really interesting to work with because he wanted the lunar sequence to be presented differently than what had come before, so the idea was to have a “Wizard of Oz” moment where the camera would go through the hatch, crossing a threshold, and that’s when we would be transitioning from dark and grainy 16mm (2.40), to the IMAX format (1.43), which is astonishing with resolution and clarity.
The IMAX sequence was shot on 15-perf 65mm IMAX with Kodak 5219 using Hasselblad and Zeiss lenses in a quarry outside of Atlanta. The gravel looked similar to the lunar surface, lit by a 200k Soft Sun light attached to a crane 500 feet in the air. The shift from 16mm to IMAX literally expands the screen to 1.43 — most noticeable if you saw the film in IMAX. Cross explains why and how they pulled off this transition:
That clarity really made us edit the sequence differently than other scenes in the movie. Instead of it being cutty, messy, and rough, the richness of the image invited us to slow the pace down, allowing us to linger on shots so that you could really look at these tiny little details like the richness of the soil and the stitches in the gloves. This shift invites you to stay and hold onto shots longer. It also allowed us to double down on this subjective style that we had set up in other scenes, so it let us linger on these POV shots of the hands going to the ladder, so you really feel like you are in his spacesuit climbing down the ladder, and its you the audience taking the first step on the moon. So the IMAX led us to a different take and rhythm but Damien really wanted the moon sequence to feel like another world.
It worked. The images, the audio, and the familiarity in certain shots puts the viewer in Armstrong’s shoes. Part of Damien, Tom, and Linus’s approach with First Man was subjective, POV shots with Neil scattered throughout the missions. This forethought is another example of how you shoot can tell a story. By the time we get to the moon, we feel as if we are Armstrong himself. We’re in the suit, and the stakes are just as high for us.
Through the other space missions, even starting with the opening sequence, he wanted to set up a very visceral editing style that would put the viewer inside the craft and give them this immersive experience. I think the idea was once we got to the moon to double down on that. The resolution of that invited the audience to participate. The screen opens up if you see it in IMAX. In terms of an IMAX experience, that invites the audience to be enveloped in this new location and in a participatory experience.
Cross’s edit summons emotions through pacing. The contrast between editing styles is so visceral you can’t help but feel a different way once that style switches up. This filmic instinct is proof that a good filmmaker can sway emotions however they want.
Once we’re on the moon, Chazelle and company tug at our heartstrings in a number of different ways. The journey has brought so much pain to our hero, both at work and at home. It’s in these moments that Cross cuts to flashbacks of Neil, Janet, and Karen — before Karen passed. There’s literally no audio except the haunting score from Justin Hurwitz as we see Neil walk, alone, across the surface of the moon. Cross explained why the flashbacks he used were crucial to crossing the finish line with Neil as he looks back at his life across a sea of darkness towards home.
The Karen flashbacks on the moon were not in the script. They were things and moments that Damien and I found in the editing room. He wanted to show the private unseen moments of Neil Armstrong on the moon. He felt that a lot of people would be familiar with Neil as the icon, and he really wanted to take a look behind the curtain and show moments that were more personal and intimate. This led us to moments where we lingered on his face but also lingered on his experiences of looking at Buzz from afar hopping on the moon. We really loved holding on Neil during these private moments. That invited us to try to get into his head to suggest what he might be thinking about. That led us to use some of the improvised rehearsal footage, so these flashbacks were pulled from that footage. Damien really liked it in a formal sense that he was trying to really present the moon as a dead place. He wanted the moon sequence to feel like a black-and-white, silent, horror film, so he played with the shadows and the stark, black sky, and it ended up looking very monochromatic. He knew that we could play with that with juxtaposing the 16mm gritty rehearsal footage, which almost looks like Kodachrome home movies. We knew it would be a very stark juxtaposition that would be very exciting while enhancing the emotional effect.
Those moments in rehearsal came back several times throughout the film, and each appearance hits harder than the one before as we live with these characters as the film progresses. Damien and Tom’s relationship shines with their openness to going off script in service of the story. That openness didn’t just help enhance the moon sequence — it also improved several other moments throughout the film.
The unscripted footage — we’d put scenes together with this footage that we really liked, and those scenes would end up replacing scripted family scenes in some cases of the movie. During the Gemini 8 sequence, we often check back in with Janet listening on the squawk box, but we found some great rehearsal moments that gave us some more unique details and felt more real, in terms of seeing their real life at home. So we would take some of these scenes that we would create in the cutting room and replace the scripted scenes. So with the Gemini 8 sequence, the moment where the son, Rick Armstrong, whips Janet Armstrong with a towel and then she chases him down the hallway, these are all fly-on-the-wall moments that felt vérité; they reminded us of some of the movies we watched in pre-production like something from Frederick Wiseman, Robert Drew movies or something from the Maysel Brothers. But this stark contrast was what Damien felt like would be the power of First Man — the juxtaposition of the space missions and the ordinary mundane earthbound scenes. Damien always said First Man was going to be about the moon and the kitchen sink. So the challenge was to find the balance between the two things.
Hearing Cross say that blew me away. As you’re watching the film, you have little to no time to stop and think about the narrative in this way. The film plays out in a seamless thread from point A to B. It’s only after the film — or even once Neil is looking out over the crater — that you realize what just happened. Between the vérité style, the intentional cutting, and every technical aspect of the film, the First Man team kept the story grounded with a simple message — that these momentous occasions and accomplishments can be taken by anybody, even you.
You Have to Start Somewhere
I asked Cross what advice he had for anybody starting out as a video editor, but his response could apply to anybody at any stage in any aspect of film production.
No matter what you’re doing, if you’re an assistant editor or trying to break into video editing, always try to edit things. It doesn’t matter what it is; you can edit a short film, a documentary, a commercial — I think you should always try to cut something. Sometimes the road is long. It took me many years as an assistant editor to make the jump to editor. Never give up, but always edit. All the experience, no matter the genre, makes your storytelling better. When you become an editor, you bring all of those things to the table. If you’ve worked in documentary, that’s an invaluable experience that can inform your narrative storytelling.
Finally, I asked Cross what type of work he started out on and how that work informed his take on something like First Man.
When I started out, I worked in New York, and I always dreamt of working on feature films, but sometimes you can’t. It’s hard to get those jobs. I experienced that when I worked in New York. They’re not always making movies there, so you end up taking whatever jobs you can get to pay the bills, so I worked on commercials, TV promos, reality TV, documentaries, fashion videos — but all that experience informed my storytelling and work, and all of that comes into play when I work on feature films. So with First Man, my early documentary experience helped prepare me for this vérité approach. So, always be open to learning and working in different styles. When you work in these different genres and different projects, all these people who you connect with, no matter what you’re working on, they might be the ones to give you your great break. So it’s about connecting with people and always nurturing your creativity, no matter the project. You don’t know who the people are who are going to give you your big break. Sometimes [it’s] the people that you don’t expect. The opportunities that you don’t think about will be pivotal, and the ones you often think are going to lead to something big, are not fruitful, so you just never know.
All images via Universal.
For more in-depth conversations with Editors, DP’s and Directors, check out our past interviews: