Editor Tom Cross on Cutting First Man

Editor Tom Cross on the Editing of First Man

This article is all about how Oscar winning editor Tom Cross edited First Man for director Damien Chazelle, the pair’s third collaboration after Whiplash and La La Land (for which he won the Oscar and the BAFTA.)

Here is a short list of what’s ahead:

  • Insights on First Man from The Art and Technique of Film Editing course by Tom Cross
  • Inside Tom Cross’ editing of First Man
  • The making of First Man – production design, score, sound design, visual effects and more!
  • Apollo 11 and the Real Moon Landing

First Man – Blu-ray Special Features

Buy First Man in UHD on Amazon Global Stores

To me the standout special feature on the First Man blu-ray is the feature length commentary with director Damien Chazelle, writer Josh Singer and editor Tom Cross, as you don’t often get the editor on the commentary!

Blu-ray.com has a detailed review of the release here.

  • Deleted Scenes
  • Shooting for the Moon – Chazelle on choosing to direct First Man
  • Preparing to Launch  – On Neil Armstrong
  • Giant Leap in One Small Step  – On Neil Armstrong
  • Mission Gone Wrong – Stunts featurette
  • Putting You in the Seat – making the film visually and aurally immersive.
  • Recreating the Moon Landing – Shooting in IMAX
  • Shooting at NASA 
  • Astronaut Training 
  • Audio Commentary

Buy First Man in UHD on Amazon Global Stores

The Art and Technique of Film Editing – Tom Cross MZED Course Review

I’ve published this post along side an in-depth review of editor Tom Cross’s MZED course, The Art and Technique of Film Editing, which is an eight-hour masterclass on feature film editing with numerous detailed, shot-by-shot breakdowns of his own work.

Tom breaks down several scenes from First Man in the class, and one of the things that he shares is how he and director Damien Chazelle worked hard to establish a clear cutting pattern in the opening scene of the film, (which is incidentally the opening of the trailer above too – if you’ve not seen the film) in which they wanted to get the audience used to a certain style of editing:

“The opening scene uses the visceral cinematic language that would be used in the rest of the movie, giving the audience a cinematic roadmap to other parts of the film.”

Editor Tom Cross

That cinematic language is a very visual cutting pattern, so visually reliant in fact, that they chose to remove scripted lines of dialogue from the opening scene to keep the audience’s focus purely on the screen, whereby there are frequent repetitions of a triad of shots, for example:

  1. Action – Insert shot of a switch being flicked on the dashboard
  2. Reaction – The jet blasts into action
  3. Effect – Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is slammed back in his seat by the force.

This is a very simple but effective technique, one that Tom discusses in greater detail in his class – which I’ve reviewed here. But it’s the kind of subliminal, yet entirely purposeful, editing that you might not understand unless someone – here the editor himself – broke it down for you.

Tom Cross MZED course Review

The TLDR version of my review is that Tom’s class is a rare opportunity to learn a lot from a highly accomplished editor sharing practical insights on both the nitty gritty process of editing a Hollywood feature film, and breaking open the techniques of the craft that go into making a feature film, cut by cut.

Check out my full review here.

Inside the Editing of First Man

In this nice little behind the scenes featurette, director Damien Chazelle share’s his driving philosophy of making First Man an intensely immersive experience, and how Tom Cross wrangled over a million feet of film, shot on a multitude of formats, that had often been filmed in a documentary style, to be cut in a documentary fashion.

It also features sound designer and supervising sound editor Al-ling Lee, who received an Oscar nomination for her work on the film.

Post Perspective also has a nice little interview with Damien, which is worth a quick read, especially given his love for the post process:

I love it, especially the editing. It’s my favourite part of the whole process, and where it all comes together.

Damien Chazelle

Editor Tom Cross is interviewed by Avid in this short film about his experience of working on the film.

Avid’s the Rough Cut podcast interviews Tom in this 35 minute conversation which also covers some of Tom’s journey into the industry:

  • Breaking into the film business via commercial editing
  • The advantages of being unproven and cheap
  • The stolen moments that helped tell the story of First Man

In this short video for Avid’s the Rough Cut, Tom gives us a guided tour of some of his favourite moments in the film and the elements that went into each scene.

It’s similar, in a briefer way, to the kind of conversations that Tom has in the MZED course.

Tom Cross – First Man – Interviews

Tom was interviewed by a whole host of post-production sites about his work on the film and here is a quick run-down of some of the best articles.

If you’re working with an exacting director like Damien, you should always try to first put together how he or she sees their film as best as you can. After you show your director that preliminary cut, you can begin to refine it together, and that’s where your feedback will start to come into the picture.

Sometimes Damien and I will get to a place where the cut is kind of what he envisioned, but very often we’ll get to something different—different, but better.

It’s not better because I’m giving him my take, but because the two of us together are coming up with something that improves upon what we’d each previously envisioned.

Tom Cross

The first port of call should be MovieMaker’s article, written by Tom himself, which covers some interesting topics not written about elsewhere such as co-editing, the importance of watching and cataloguing even rehearsal footage and much more.

The piece ends with these wise words about ensuring long-term success in your editing career:

When you’re starting out, be dedicated to your craft, but also remember that a large part of what we do in our work is relate to people. Have a life!

Be with your friends and family. Though they’re not always easy to maintain, it’s these relationships that will ultimately launch your success. 

Tom Cross

Editor and author Steve Hullfish interviews Tom as part of his excellent on-going Art of The Cut series, which often features a lot of rich (geeky) details about the post-production process.

The first 50 or so of those interviews have been compiled by topic in his brilliant book The Art of The Cut, which I’ve reviewed in detail here, and basically every editor should own!

In this interview Steve and Tom chat about a lot of things – go read it – although here are a couple of my favourite quotes:

On creating new scenes through intercutting in the edit:

The sequence when we meet Pat White and the astronauts are getting a chalkboard lecture were initially two discrete scenes.

On the script page, these scenes were fine but when cut together you became painfully aware of their beginnings, middles and ends. So we ended up folding some of the pieces together and we liked it because it was kind of an illustration of what Damien felt that the movie was about.

He always said that the movie was about “the moon and the kitchen sink.” It was about NASA and the missions juxtaposed with the domestic, seemingly ordinary life at home.

Tom Cross

On editing scenes ‘dry’ (no temp music) or with temp from Composer Justin Hurwitz:

On Damien’s films he’s already worked out cues with Justin and that’s informed how he’s shot the movie and how he’s envisioned the edit. He’ll play the music for himself on set and even play it for the actors before a take.

It wasn’t that different from what we did on Whiplash and La La Land. It doesn’t mean that the picture and music won’t evolve during the cutting. In fact, it always does.

So we had the same setup that we had on La La Land. Justin was in an adjoining room, working alongside us as we cut. This workflow began as soon as we started the Director’s Cut.

Tom Cross

The whole interview is great, go read it here.

Premiumbeat has a really nice interview with Tom by Logan Baker that also features some great behind the scenes photos of Tom in his edit suite, from which you can glean quite a bit, in terms of his edit suite layout, bin layout and more.

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.

Tom Cross

In the article they cover topics such as Damien’s cinematic references, working with storyboards, incorporating NASA archival footage into the VFX and the challenge of cutting the IMAX moon-landing sequence – it’s a great read!

I was pretty blessed with a very strong editorial crew. If it weren’t for those guys we’d still be editing the movie since Damien shot 1.75 million feet of film.

I need to give credit to my editing team’s great organizational prowess. I also had two great additional editors who worked closely with me and Damien — Harry Yoon and John To. They’re great storytellers and they inspired me everyday with their work.

Tom Cross

Post Perspective has an interview with Tom which closes with a detailed thank you to all of his amazing editorial crew. This is worth a read to better understand how a film of this scale, with the amount and type of complex footage as First Man has, actually gets to the finish line – it’s a team sport!

Tom Cross on Editing Hostiles

Because I can’t let a good link go to waste, here are a couple of extra interviews with Tom on editing his previous film, Hostiles for director Scott Cooper.

Art of The Cut with Tom Cross on editing Hostiles

AOTG Podcast – Gordon Burkell interviews Tom Cross on cutting Hostiles

The Making Of First Man

Insider has a fun video with production designer Nathan Crowley (most famous for being Christopher Nolan’s go-to production designer for everything) on the making of First Man and how it compares to other epic space-based film’s such as The Martian, Interstellar and so on.

As an aside – here’s my extensive making of post on The Martian and Interstellar.

The lunar sequences in First Man were filmed with IMAX cameras, which must have made the switch from grainy 16mm to full 65MM quite a leap in the cinema!

In this IMAX featurette you can hear from cinematographer Linus Sandgren, whose credits include American Hustle, Joy, La La Land and most recently the James Bond movie – No Time To Die.

Universal released this short featurette on the creation of the film’s score by composer Justin Hurwitz, another frequent collaborator of director Damien Chazelle’s.

On the Mission Control sequence, for example, Susan worked really hard on cleaning that up using all the iso [isolated lavalier] mics. They had mic’d every single person in that room, so that’s over 30 different microphones.

They liked hearing it in the mix channel, however, so we had to decide, OK, we’ll use mostly the mix channel but in specific areas we would only use the iso mics. But they really wanted to hear all the paper movements in the mix channel, which was kind of counter-intuitive for me.

Mildred Iatrou Morgan, Supervising Sound Designer

Studio Daily has a fantastic interview with the sound design and mixing team on their work on the film, which has some really interesting insights on how they sonically captured Damien’s documentary approach to the film, whilst working hard to make the biggest sequences really feel epic.

Damien Chazelle breaks down an intimate dinner table scene from First Man for the New York Times’ Anatomy of a Scene.

Creating the Visual Effects for First Man

DNEG delivered the visual effects for First Man and in this 5 minute visual effects breakdown reel you can see just how they combined a plethora of ground-breaking and tried and tested techniques to make that happen.

First Man is a production in which we redefine shooting ‘in camera’. Those words generally imply everything is shot practically, which we creatively did.

The team had to create a gentle balance using a diverse mixture of visual effects, special effects, archival footage and scaled models to help create the 1960’s documentary style film that was the director’s vision

FXGuide has a helpful explainer video of some of the visual effects methods and techniques used in the film, in this exclusive post.

Ian Failes (the chap behind BeforesandAfters.com) has written two interesting articles on the VFX of First Man which you can check out here:

Apollo 11 and the Real Moon Landing

You can enjoy the First Man version of the moon landing in this 5 minute clip from the film, or check out the Apollo 11 documentary below for the real deal!

The thoroughly excellent Apollo 11 documentary (2019), which features never-before-seen IMAX footage from the launch, is a great place to start if you want an understanding of the enormity of the endeavour.

I really enjoyed this superb documentary, you have to see it!

Enjoy this 10 minute clip from the opening of the film and then buy Apollo 11 in 4K HDR on Amazon Global Stores.

Film editor Vashi Nedomansky has created this 2 minute film of the Apollo 11 mission’s complete 9-day journey, based on a free 15K image of the mission that NASA has created.

Click through to Vashi’s site for a wealth of post-production insights and if you want to, a link to download the entire 340 page flight plan!

Experience the Apollo 11 mission in real-time!

This website, built by Ben Feist and a team of collaborators will take you through the original mission in real-time, painstakingly re-created from historic video, audio and photographic sources.

You can start at 1 minute before launch or jump around in the timeline to watch and listen in.

This website replays the Apollo 11 mission as it happened, 50 years ago. It consists entirely of historical material, all timed to Ground Elapsed Time — the master mission clock.

Footage of Mission Control, film shot by the astronauts, and television broadcasts transmitted from space and the surface of the Moon, have been painstakingly placed to the very moments they were shot during the mission, as has every photograph taken, and every word spoken.

Hat tip to Kottke.org for the original find!

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