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Shooting the sky for AppleTV epic Masters of the Air

14/04/2024

Shooting the sky for AppleTV epic Masters of the Air

Adrian Pennington April 14, 2024

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Producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks required historical accuracy for their definitive account of the American aerial combat against Nazi Germany. With so much of the factual story taking place in the skies over Europe a primary goal was to recreate the missions of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers with authenticity down to recreating the weather conditions and topography the crews would have encountered in 1943.

We started by studying all the diaries of the pilots flying the B-17s in Europe at the time, said Phil Arntz the series' Aerial Director of Photography. We then went through the script and picked the moments that required identifiable scenery in Europe. The brief was to capture high resolution plates that would fit the geographical area of the actual missions and in a way that production could use across the series.

Masters of the Air is Spielberg and Hanks' third World War II based epic TV series after 2001's Band of Brothers and 2010's The Pacific and the first to be produced by Apple Studios, in cooperation with Playtone, and Amblin Television. Austin Butler, Barry Keoghan, and Ncuti Gatwa are among those portraying members of the 100th Bombardment Group, a US Air Force squadron stationed in England and tasked with bombing Nazi-occupied territory.

In virtual production you would normally shoot background plates only after the foreground action is in the can. But the show's tight shooting schedule meant reversing convention. Arntz was tasked with gathering enough material that could be manipulated in post to fit director and DP compositions that would be shot later.

Typically, what you want when shooting background plates is to know what the foreground action is going to be first so you can compose it accordingly, explains VFX Supervisor, Stephen Rosenbaum. For scheduling reasons, we didn't have that benefit so we did previz in advance. We blocked out the action with the director's guidance and I handed that to Phil and his team to try and adhere to the composition in the previz.

As it turned out, the majority of plates Arntz shot were a departure from the previz which is typically the case in something as organic as a live aerial shoot.

Photo Credit: Phil Arntz, Aerial DP

The previz was just a guide for what I was looking for and I encouraged Phil with the freedom to roam to deliver magnificent shots if he saw better ones - which he certainly did.

Aerial plates of this calibre required extreme high-resolution plates. RED has always been camera for that, said Arntz. With 8K resolution and 17 stops of dynamic range per body, RED was the perfect choice to generate as much information as possible for VFX.

Instead of shooting with a six camera array the Masters of the Air team rigged three RED V-RAPTOR cameras in a vertical orientation.

Arntz explained the idea; We used the V-RAPTOR in portrait configuration which enabled production to use the fully stitched output from the array in a 2:1 aspect ratio. This also opened the door for VFX to select different sections of the plate thanks to the high resolution.

Each episode required specific shots and this dictated planning of Arntz's own airborne mission. An episode depicting a bombing raid on U-boat pens in Trondheim, Norway was identified as the furthest location the aerial crew would need to travel to. From that end point they built their own flight plan across Europe.

The team flew by Eurocopter AS350 B3 cureuil across the English Channel to France, continued across to Belgium, and The Netherlands including shooting windmills around Amsterdam and then made their way over Germany, up to Denmark, Sweden and finally to Norway.

Also on board with Arntz and the pilot was DIT Chris Belcher. He devised a workflow to back up the media during transit and stream a version to Rosenbaum in LA.

For example, we would fly from England to France shooting on route, Arntz related. We'd land, take out the cards, reload the cameras. We'd get a suck of gas for the helicopter and get back up in the air due to our tight schedule. Meanwhile, Chris would back-up media to a mobile station whilst we were already shooting the next required plates. This means we were able to turnaround a shoot across eight countries with virtually no downtime.

Onboard, a 1080p proxy file was recorded which would be sent to Rosenbaum on landing for review. This was a full HD preview, not stitched, but it provided a good idea of the elements we'd captured such as Norwegian mountains, inlets and submarine pens. Doing this was really helpful for us to get feedback as we were going. For example, one task was to film approaches into a fjord that is supposed to be of Greenland. We shot it over Norway and VFX would see straight away what we'd captured.

Photo Credit: Phil Arntz, Aerial DP

They shot for a month between May and July 2022, including the six-day Europe trip and a couple of weeks in the skies over England, capturing generic cloudscapes as well as the coastlines of Wales and Norfolk- that could also double as the coastline of Normandy. They were also trying to match plates as closely as possible to historical weather conditions.

We want to do a really good job of making the show historically accurate so we tried to structure the day to nail the time of day we needed, passing through and above cloud layers, and to extend the day to shoot sunrises and sunsets.

They captured to 2TB RED Cfast cards at a compression ratio that give them 90 minutes shooting time. The RED RAW R3D is so efficient that you can shoot at much higher resolution without burning through media. It's a lot more efficient than, say, ARRIRAW. We never got to point where we filled up the cards.

The great thi
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