Eurocopter AS350 B3 Écureuil sits on the tarmac with a partly cloudy sky in the background

Shooting the sky for AppleTV epic Masters of the Air

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 Écureuil 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 thing with V-RAPTOR is that the dynamic range is so large. You get so much detail in the shadows and highlights we are giving VFX the biggest negative possible in RAW so they can push it wherever they want in post.” 

The V-RAPTOR were all fitted with 21mm Zeiss CP3s and rigged in a Shotover K1 6-axis gyro stabilized system in a ‘toe out’ configuration: one pointing right, one left and one straight ahead. The Zeiss CP3s also capture lens data in real time, helping VFX in their post production pipe downstream. The cameras and lenses were controlled from the cabin with RED Control.

“This is a smart way of doing it,” Arntz said. “Previously, you had one camera as the master and the others were slaved to it but the new RED system features an ethernet-based protocol taking all the camera information back to an iPad where I can control each camera individually or as a synchronized array which was important for us.”

Given the 8K fire power of the cameras this configuration delivered the same output as a six 4K camera array while halving the cost of camera rental and streamlining workflow in post production.

“Thanks to RED we’ve gotten to the point where we can deliver a more economical solution for production that delivers the same quality output,” Arntz said. “The three 8K feeds produce a 11K x 8K image when stitched which is comparable to the traditional stitched output of a six-camera array.

“Everything has to be backed up and archived so it’s more than slashing the cost of camera rental going from six to three cameras; you are saving on the amount of data storage and the cost of stitching multiple feeds together. A three RED camera rig gave production the grand scenic vistas that they required in a more economic workflow.”

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The barracks and huts of the camps (dressed for scenes set in Italy, Germany and England) were filmed in Buckinghamshire, UK, and the aerial live action at nearby Symmetry Studios, on two main Volume stages.  The primary Volume was a horseshoe shaped wall 12m high by 30m across complete with LED panel ceiling and a motion base in the middle. A second Volume was arrayed in a shallower crescent shape.

Both were used to shoot scenes in the B-17 which was reconstructed accurately to the inch by production designer Chris Seagers and divided into sections of set for tail, radio room, bomb bay, cockpit, fuselage and nose compartments. Multiple cameras were placed aboard the sets and around the Volume with camera movements synced to both the motion base and the Wall projections of the previz played back through Unreal Engine.

“The plates went straight into postproduction and we used them as background plates and environments,” says Rosenbaum. “With the array rig we had 180-degrees of freedom to allow the directors to compose the shot in the foreground as they wanted knowing that photographically we had enough detail and canvas in the background plates to track with.

“The beauty of the three camera 8K array gave us a panoramic plate and the opportunity to shift things around and line things up perfectly in post.”

Directors and DPs leaned heavily on the video references and selected stills of lighting from the plate photography to light and compose the foreground achieving realistic reflections and highlights through the windows, plexiglass turrets and the metallic shell of the aircraft.

“The plates served as a lighting guide and because the previz was all played back in real time the DP could say, ‘This lighting in Phil’s plate is really great so let’s try to match that in the previz’. They could do so live using Unreal Engine which was driving the Previz on the wall.”

Directors could also request environmental effects like flak explosions or attack sequences of German fighters to be added in Unreal for playback on set. The nine-episode series is directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (No Time to Die), Dee Rees (Mudbound), Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Captain Marvel) with lead cinematography from Adam Arkapaw (The King) and episode blocks directed by Richard Rutkowski (The Americans), Jac Fitzgerald (Freaky Tales) and David Franco (Inventing Anna).

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