Tom Cross, ACE won an Oscar for Best editing for Whiplash, and was nominated for Oscars and La La Land. He was also nominated for ACE Eddies for Whiplash and Joy and won for La La Land.
In this interview we discuss his latest film, First Man, which was directed by Damien Chazelle, who also directed Whiplash and La La Land.
HULLFISH: Tom, how are you?!
CROSS: Good. I’ve been looking forward to this.
HULLFISH: Me too. So great to get a chance to talk to you again.
My wife and I, and my brother-in-law went to see First Man opening night and we loved it. That is a great experience. When I came out of the movie, I thought, “Wow! I survived being a test pilot and landing on the moon.”
CROSS: So you saw it on the big screen?
HULLFISH: I saw it at the cinema. I did not see it in IMAX.
CROSS: I’m glad that you got to see it projected. What’s great about seeing it in IMAX is that the moon sequence was shot in 15 perf IMAX. We do this transition where the top and bottom of the 2.40 image open up into 1.43 full screen IMAX. But other than that, it’s mainly 16mm and 2 perf 35mm composed for 2.40. Linus (Sandgren, Oscar-winning cinematograher) shot it in a cinéma verité, hand-held style. So when some friends ask me about seeing it in IMAX, I actually encourage them to sit a little back from the IMAX screen. That way, they’ll get the full screen transition but also be able to appreciate Linus’s beautiful verité camerawork.
HULLFISH: Is there anything from your end that you technically had to do with the IMAX stuff when you were editing that you felt had to be different than the rest of the movie? I’ve talked to Lee Smith about the demands of IMAX before on Dunkirk.
CROSS: We definitely cut the IMAX material with a different pace in mind. Damien Chazelle wanted the scenes on the moon to feel different in every way. He always intended to have this striking transition where you’re inside the lunar lander in 2.40 and then the camera moves outside through the hatch into full IMAX. The aspect ratio grows taller, but also the resolution changes and he wanted this great sound moment when the sound gets sucked out. All of a sudden there’s complete silence. So he likened it to the transition in the Wizard of Oz when we go from black and white sepia to Technicolor. He really wanted to throw the audience off their feet and make them feel like they were plopped into another world. The IMAX photography helped this a couple of different ways. The detail in the large negative invites you to hold on the shots longer. That helped us double down on the subjective point of view that we had tried to set up in earlier parts of the film. We lingered on the POV shots climbing down the ladder so the audience would feel like it was their hands on the rungs.
HULLFISH: I have kind of a geeky question, since I’m cutting a movie in Scope right now: Was your Avid project in Scope – now that Avid can do custom aspect ratios? Or was your Avid project in 16:9 and you masked that to Scope?
CROSS: I cut at DNxHD 115 with a 2.40 matte on the 16:9 image. Our VFX editor, Ryan Chavez prepped all the IMAX footage, so we had the cropped 2.40 IMAX footage on one video track and then the 1.43 IMAX footage on a lower video track. Damien and I focused on the 2.40 version first. Once we got a cut of the moon sequence to a good place, we started looking at the 1.43 to see how the transition from 16mm to IMAX would look and if we had to adjust the framing or compositions.
HULLFISH: You mentioned point-of-view earlier and I definitely felt that throughout the movie. Was that something where, when you were looking at dailies, that as soon as you saw POV, you thought, “Damien’s going to want to see this in the cut.” Or, “I want to use this.”
CROSS: I knew that we would be leaning into the subjective feel. Damien always wanted First Man to feel different from other space movies where the style is very clean and omniscient. He wanted to make something that was more first person and visceral.
During preproduction, we reviewed the opening of Saving Private Ryan and also looked at United 93 for inspiration. We also referenced a ton of NASA archival footage, which was often filmed by the astronauts themselves. Damien appreciated how gritty that footage appeared but also loved how intimate and personal it felt. He also wanted me to look at the Robert Drew films Primary and Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment as well as documentaries by Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles. All those films inspired Damien to shoot everything in a cinéma verité style so that the audience would feel like a fly on the wall during Neil’s journey.
HULLFISH: Did that verité approach hold any challenges for you in editing?
CROSS: It did. It wasn’t always clear how the footage was going to be used. A lot of the dailies were actually very documentary-like. Damien filmed two weeks of rehearsals with his main actors. He got Ryan, Claire and the child actors together so that they could all start to feel comfortable as a family. They had fully dressed sets of the Armstrong homes and everyone was in full makeup and hair. Damien just put the actors together and had them play house while they followed them around with cameras. It was all totally improvised and unscripted so Damien knew we’d have to figure it out in the editing room. Sometimes, we replaced scripted family scenes with new scenes that we created out of this rehearsal footage because the rehearsals felt more authentic and unique. The moments of Pat and Janet chatting while Neil cleans the pool and the scenes of Rick whipping Janet with a towel were examples of that.
Focus racks, snap zooms and other camera imperfections were often welcome in this movie. Sometimes, we’d keep those things because they were part of a great performance we wanted. Other times, these moments gave an edge to a cut or served as visual punctuation. All that was very different from the visual style of La La Land and Whiplash. On this film, I had to have a different value system for assessing the dailies. Damien often shot multiple cameras and the second or third cameras were capturing very different things with little or no overlap. So there were no shortcuts in viewing the dailies. I had to watch each camera individually. My Assistants built me KEM rolls or daily rolls of each scene and I would just make a copy of those sequences and start watching and dropping markers to make my selects: white markers for my inpoints and black markers for my outpoints. After that, I have my Assistants arrange my selects into script order.
HULLFISH: How tight do you do that script-order selects sequence? Are the moments super-fine or looser selects?
CROSS: I really try to keep it as tight as possible in terms of what I really want to use. I try to be brutal.
HULLFISH: So you don’t have to do the same thinking and work multiple times.
CROSS: Exactly. Sometimes, I’ll see a whole swath of a take that looks really good – like a great performance run – and I’ll leave that a little looser, but generally if it’s just a little look or a little camera pan, I’ll mark it the way I think I want to cut it.
I always use Avid ScriptSync, but on this show, I also asked my Assistants to create breakdown sequences of the footage, too. We didn’t do it for every scene. I decided which breakdowns were needed on a case-by-case basis. For dialogue scenes, if the coverage was verité and particularly hairy, I’d have my Assistants do line-by-line breakdowns. In those cases, it’s usually not broken down after every line but in specific chunks of dialogue or action. I would take one setup and create a template myself to show how I wanted it broken down. Then my Assistants would add the rest of the footage to that, arranging it wide to tight.
HULLFISH: I’m amazed that you’re doing ScriptSync AND these very detailed breakdowns. That’s a lot of ways to look at the footage — and a lot of work for your assistants.
CROSS: Yeah, a ton of work. You really need an extra Assistant. Usually, you’re lucky to even get one dedicated assistant to do ScriptSync. Eric Kench started our Avid script and that was his primary focus. Eventually, he had to leave for a prior engagement, so Phillip Trujillo joined us and continued the script.
I would also give them the breakdowns to do so their plates were very full. Part of the power of the breakdowns is that you can easily search by image size which can be difficult to do with the script. I know a lot of editors swear by ScriptSync, as I do, and some others use breakdowns instead of ScriptSync. On this project, I was lucky to work closely with two great Additional Editors – Harry Yoon and John To. John was used to the script from his many years of working with me. I can’t remember if Harry had used the script before but he was very well-versed in using breakdowns from his past experiences. Ultimately, on First Man, we did the script and a lot of breakdowns. It was very taxing on the crew but it was useful for all of us.
HULLFISH: Let’s chat about some specifics in what I saw on the screen. Sound design was spectacular. How much of that stuff did you at least try to build in your picture cut? And did the sound team give you a kit of sounds to use?
CROSS: We worked very closely with our sound designer Ai-Ling Lee, who had a room near us on the Universal lot. She gave us a collection of sounds that she curated for us, based on the script. She also gave us sounds that were recorded for the film: the sound of helmet visors closing, air hissing through the helmets, little Foley things related to the suits. She also went to a SpaceX launch and recorded that. So we definitely had a whole library of sounds that we worked with during dailies and beyond. As we approached more complicated scenes, we would hand over rough cuts to Ai-Ling so that she could do a sound pass and then give us back crashdowns.
HULLFISH: Explain what you mean by crash downs.
CROSS: Ai-Ling worked in 7.1 but I monitor sound in three track LCR (left-center-right) in my room. So she’d have to fold down or crash down her 7.1 tracks to the three track format that I use in the Avid. It’s not perfect because it doesn’t always translate. But, in general, it worked for our purposes. We considered cutting in 5.1 with surrounds and the sub but I ultimately voted against it. When I work with Damien, I do a lot of cutting notes and changes with him, in real time. I didn’t want to invite another step – perfecting temp 5.1 sound – to my room and to my process at that time. I knew my hands would be full with picture and that’s why it was so great to have Ai-Ling next door.
HULLFISH: Since she was so close, were you on the same Nexis?
CROSS: No. She was on her own system.
HULLFISH: Talk to me about intercutting. There’s a couple of sequences with Intercutting between an A and a B story or between simultaneous action. For example, I think the astronauts are learning launch physics and that’s intercut with their wives in the neighborhood meeting each other. Or between a meeting at the White House intercut with the simultaneous disaster on the launch pad. Can you describe how any of those may have deviated from the script in intercutting?
CROSS: We changed both of those sequences in the editing room.
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.
The intercut between Neil at the White House and Apollo 1 was created in the editing room, too. Originally, the White House scene with the Senators came first. Then we had White, Grissom and Chaffee going up in the elevator. They stepped off and then got into the capsule and we stayed with them through the fire. There was even a time cut in the middle of the sequence to illustrate that they had been sitting on the launchpad for hours. All the scenes on their own were strong but there was a dynamic missing. So we broke up the Apollo moments and braided them with Neil at the White House. The parallel cutting injected all of it with suspense and momentum.
HULLFISH: There are a lot of close-ups in this movie. Is that a direction that Damien gave, or was it just the coverage?
CROSS: Damien really wanted to favor the close-ups because he wanted it to feel claustrophobic, especially inside the space capsules. He didn’t want anything to feel like a set and didn’t want to put the camera anywhere it wouldn’t be if it was a real location. So they treated every space as if they were all practical locations even when they weren’t. So that meant that the camera was often very close to the actors in these tight spaces.
It’s also about performances and I think that the camera found value in the faces during shooting and then Damien and I found value in the faces during the editing. So the close-ups were a choice. Damian and Linus shot 1.7 million feet of film in 16mm, 35mm, VistaVision and IMAX. So we were not at a loss for pieces of coverage.
HULLFISH: How do you deal with these longer non-dialogue sequences when you’re probably just covering a simple line of description like “They get ready for launch.” Do you approach this kind of montagey thing differently than dialogue?
CROSS: Yes. You follow the eyes rather than the words. On this film, we had a lot of subjective scenes and Damien wanted to play those with POV shots and close ups of faces and eyes. If it’s a non-dialogue scene, like Neil approaching the Gemini capsule, you really try to hang your hat on the character. Whatever Neil’s doing with his face, you use that as your anchor and then everything else kind of falls into place around it.
For the domestic family side of our story, we were able to string together a lot of different, messy, improvised moments – like Neil horsing around and trying to put the kids in the icebox – to create an overall feeling or emotional tone. I feel like the documentary verité style allowed us to do that. If our film had a different formal style, then we wouldn’t have been able to join certain bits together or use time cuts in the same way.
HULLFISH: A lot of the images were messy which you mentioned. You’re looking at a face through reflections. Or you’re looking at a landscape through rivulets of ice. This movie was not about pristine imagery. I don’t know that I really have a question about it so much as an observation and whether that was something you tried to curate in the editing… bringing as many of those messy images to the forefront as possible.
CROSS: Damien and Linus were going for naturalism and a verité look so that often meant that the images felt more real if they were imperfect. I did include certain camera quirks that Linus didn’t expect. When he saw a cut of the film he commented to me about using pieces that he didn’t think would be used. In some scenes – like in mission control – he and his crew were just covering the action the way good documentary camera people would cover it. None of their snap zooms, racks or moves were done for effect or to intentionally mimic messiness. They were just a means to an end for camera but Damien and I felt they looked right for the scenes. They added an energy to the picture that gave our verité approach additional credibility. So in terms of me curating in the editing, I definitely leaned into that aesthetic. Linus had license to shoot that way and I had license to use it. He loved the end result.
HULLFISH: There were a lot of really interesting places where you did not use music. There were places that it was natural to pump them up with score and you didn’t. You relied on sound design.
CROSS: Most of the space scenes felt a little more immediate and more visceral when we just relied on sound design. It helped you feel like you were part of the action. We used sound in this movie in a different way than we used it in La La Land and Whiplash. With First Man, I really had to make room for sound. I had to help create these moments where we hear the ship creaking or groaning and we see close ups of the nuts and bolts that hold it together. Then we had to answer that by showing the faces of the astronauts reacting. Since we played the Gemini 8 launch as a subjective experience – entirely inside the capsule – Apollo 11 had to be different. We built that launch around Justin Hurwitz’s cue and played it mostly with exterior details and monumental wide shots.
HULLFISH: Did you ever use real NASA footage as temp images while you waited for VFX shots? I had a deadly car crash in a movie I cut and I used stuff I pulled off YouTube to construct the sequence until we got the real footage from the VFX team. Geoge Lucas famously used WWII dogfight films to stand-in for X-wing fighters in Star Wars to show the geography and movement he wanted. (See my interview with Star Wars editor, Richard Chew.)
CROSS: We did temp with archival footage for a brief time. Damien — like he did for his other movies — created animatics for the more complicated action scenes. These animatics were a combination of storyboards and archival NASA footage. So when the dailies started coming in, we overcut the new footage on top of the animatics but often kept the archival parts as a placeholder. As the shoot progressed, the archival footage was replaced by new dailies shot by the visual effects team. Sometimes what they created was an exact replica of the archival. The last shot of the Apollo 11 launch – when we’re in space and one of the stage rings falls away – was a miniature and an exact replica of an archival shot.
There is some actual NASA archival footage that we did use in the finished film. It was NASA footage that hadn’t been seen for decades because it was in a special large format and no one had the equipment to run it. The footage was shot in 70mm with special military perforations. NASA told our VFX team that if they found a way to scan it, and we gave them back copies for their archives that we could use it. So there are some shots during the Apollo 11 launch that incorporate actual launch footage. The big wide shot of the Saturn rocket starting to lift off is one of those shots. The center part of that shot is 70mm archival — I think of Apollo 14 taking off — composited with work that our VFX department did to build out the sides of the image to fill the ‘scope frame. So you’re seeing a combination of some digital CG on the sides and high resolution archival of an Apollo rocket taking off.
HULLFISH: Music choices were really interesting. What did you temp with and is that something that you and Damien sat down ahead of time and said I don’t want this to sound like a typical 1969 space movie?
CROSS: Justin and Damien worked on the First Man score during pre-production. They began sketching things out, decided what instruments they would use and began working on major themes and melodies. Damien used these sketches in the animatics. So by the time I got onboard, there was already existing temp music by Justin.
On some of my past projects, I would hold off on temping anything until I got the cuts to a place that felt right. That’s the traditional method: you cut the scene dry and if it plays dry than it’ll definitely play when you add music. You never want to throw music on top to hide anything. I tend to agree with this method. However, 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.
HULLFISH: Do you have a muse for your editing? What inspires you?
CROSS: Movies inspire me. When Damien was in pre-production, he made a list of movies for all of the department heads to watch for inspiration. The Production crew would get DCPs or 35mm prints of some of these movies and we would watch a double bill in a theater. Before they left for the Atlanta shoot, a bunch of us – me, Damien, Justin, Nathan and Linus – got together at Universal and watched these amazing double bills like The French Connection and All the President’s Men or The Wrestler and Red Desert. I can’t think of homework that is more fun to do. Hollywood history inspires me, too, so I was thrilled that we got to cut First Man on the Universal lot. During dailies, my crew and I would stroll through the backlot to walk off our lunch and clear our heads. It was fun.
HULLFISH: There were a bunch of really beautiful emotional moments that were very deliberate. Holds on people reacting or moments. What did you have to do to protect those moments when you’ve got probably a studio breathing down your neck to get the length down or maybe they want that time spent on action sequences.
CROSS: That’s really tough because those moments are definitely the first thing that people tell you to cut. The scene that comes to mind is
(SPOILER ALERT FOR A FEW LINES) the scene when Neil gets the phone call at the White House about Apollo 1. We just hold on Neil’s face until we hear a crack and look down and realize that he didn’t even feel the glass breaking in his hand. The other moments that come to mind are the shots of Neil’s face after he drops the bracelet on the moon, and when we hold on his crying face during Karen’s wake. (END SPOILER ALERTS)
Those moments were extremely important to us because they gave you what you couldn’t get in wider coverage. They suggested what Neil might be thinking or feeling and at the end of the day, that was just as important as his first step on the moon. Those intimate and personal moments are moments that aren’t in any documentary about Neil Armstrong. They are the high value moments that we, as fiction storytellers, can bring to the table. So in that way, those moments were the whole point of the film.
But you pick your battles. When you hold onto certain moments then you have to make up for it in other places. There’s a great shot that we lost that’s actually in some of the trailers. It’s a oner of Neil watching the Apollo 8 launch through a big picture window and we see the liftoff reflected in the glass. It’s a beautiful shot that slowly pushes in on Neil’s face. That shot existed in the cut for a very long time. But the grammar of it – a long push-in on Ryan’s face – felt redundant so we knew we had to lose it.
HULLFISH: Earlier you said that you needed to leave space for the sound effects. So with a scene like some of those launch scenes where the capsule sounds like it’s going to come apart at the seams, were you cutting that stuff MOS? Or were you cutting in sound to help you with rhythm and pacing?
CROSS: On this film, it was a little bit of both. Sometimes I would cut stuff just pictorially and not worry about sound at all. But with a scene like getting into the Gemini capsule, I laid down a bed of ambience and some rumbling. There was also some rough sound in the animatic that I would also grab from. When I was cutting the moments of Neil and Dave Scott looking around the craft, I would lay in some creaking sound effects just as a placeholder. Also, it was very important to add in the radio comms. A lot of them were authentic NASA recordings that 1st Assistant Editors Derek Drouin and Jennifer Stellema sifted through. I found that the radio comms always helped create a rhythm with the picture cuts. Once I had a rough assembly of the picture, then I’d go back and really focus on building more sound and refining it.
HULLFISH: I also noticed a real sharpness to the sounds, like even the kids yelling or splashing or pens writing on paper or paper flipping.
CROSS: A lot of what you’re hearing is actually in the production tracks. Working with mixers Jon Taylor, Frank Montano and Ai-Ling, we found that the spread-out soundscape that you get with Dolby Atmos worked really well for the space capsule set-pieces but sounded too artificial for the more intimate earthbound scenes. There was a raw verisimilitude that got lost and you became more aware of ADR, foley and SFX in general. So we worked with Jon, Frankie and Ai-Ling to strip and fold down the soundfield during certain scenes. Mission control had to feel more like an old optical track from a Frederick Wiseman film rather than a heavily produced Dolby soundtrack. For those scenes, I had 24 tracks of production sound for each take because they mic-ed every guy in mission control. I generally do my first cuts with the combine mix track, because I don’t like to have to choose microphones while I’m making picture editing decisions. Figuring out the picture is hard enough. If there are some lines that I need from an ISO, I have my assistants go back and replace it. But sometimes, with mission control, the ISOs were too clean. Damien and I got used to the messiness of the mix track and liked how natural it felt.
HULLFISH: Tom, I have a few film clips from the studio. Can you tell me anything about these? I understand that they may be cut a little differently than in the movie. The marketing department tends to shorten them.
CROSS: The press conferences contain some of my favorite footage in First Man. Again, Damien would stage everything like one long event and Linus and his crew would cover it like a documentary. The verité footage was beautiful and there were a lot of rich details, many of which we had to lose. There used to be more questions and answers but we cut it down to it’s core. I love this scene because it’s really another stepping stone for Neil character. By the end, the punchline – “If I had a choice, I’d take more fuel” – tells you how single-minded he’s become. The lightness is with Buzz. Neil is as serious as a heart attack.
CROSS: The dailies for the LLTV sequence were really amazing. It’s a combination of a number of techniques. Production Designer Nathan Crowley and his crew built a full-size reproduction of the training vehicle which they hung from a crane with a stuntman “piloting” it. The wide shots with the craft careening and listing were modeled after actual documentary footage of the real accident. Many of the shots over Neil’s head looking down were of the stuntman in the craft, hanging from the crane. Later our VFX dept. erased the wires. They also filmed Ryan Gosling sitting in a partial recreation that was on a gimbel and then Ryan sitting in the craft with backgrounds projected onto LED screens. We knew that the payoff would be the ejection shot. For that, the stuntman was on a cable that pulled him out of the craft, as if he was being ejected and then the crew detonated a practical explosion on the ground down below to simulate the craft crashing. Since we held on that shot and just floated with Neil’s legs, we tried to tee it up by faster and more chaotic cutting right before. Damien wanted the craft to feel like a wild animal out of control. And we accentuated that by cutting in the sound of animal roars that Ai-Ling Lee later improved and added to.
CROSS: The trailer actually contains a couple of scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor. There’s a shot of Rick walking down the street and looking up to the sky. Damien and Linus shot a lot of improvised b-roll of kids playing in the neighborhood and that was a piece of that. There’s also a smoky shot of Janet cradling the kids in her arms at night. That’s from a scene where a fire burns down the Armstrong house. The fire was an amazing sequence that included destroying the Armstrong house that Nathan Crowley built for the film. Even though the fire happened in real life, it was odd to have this scene of intense danger in a domestic setting where we normally have scenes of the mundane and the ordinary. We always wanted to reserve the literal life and death moments for space.
CROSS: We started this scene with quicker cutting and by leaning into the verité camera pans. We wanted to set it up that way to show that Neil wasn’t getting any real traction with the men in the room. For them it’s all perfunctory. It isn’t until Neil starts to answer Deke’s question about the importance of spaceflight that we slow everything down and hold on Ryan as he answers. The hope is that you subtly feel that Neil’s answer is grabbing their attention.
CROSS: This is another great example of getting out of the way of the actors. It’s the first time when Janet’s character breaks and explodes so we tried to be careful with finding the right pieces of her performance. Claire Foy’s eyes are so expressive that you don’t need to show much in order to feel something.
CROSS: Damien covered this scene single camera with Linus panning and whipping back and forth. We cherry picked the best of Claire and Ryan and found places to mix and match the takes, either with cuts or with hiding cuts within the pans.
HULLFISH: Tom thank you so much. That was a masterclass in editing. Many people will really appreciate the things you shared.
CROSS: Thank you, Steve. Great talking with you.
To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish
The first 50 interviews – including with Tom Cross – in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.