Jac Fitzgerald, Richard Rutkowski ASC, Adam Arkapaw, David Franco / Masters of the Air

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Jac Fitzgerald, Richard Rutkowski ASC, Adam Arkapaw, David Franco / Masters of the Air

BY: Adrian Pennington


The new World War II epic from producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg uses cutting-edge virtual production techniques to bring the story of the United States Army Air Forces’ 100th Bomb Group to a new generation. 

Five miles above the ground and behind enemy lines, 11 men inside Flying Fortress bombers battle fleets of German fighters in Apple TV+ series Masters of the Air. Based on the book by WWII expert Donald L. Miller, produced by Tom Hanks (Playtone) and Steven Spielberg (Amblin) with cast including Austin Butler, the nine-episode drama required considerable location and virtual production shoots. 

Masters of the Air marked Jac Fitzgerald’s first experience working in an LED volume (Credit: Courtesy of Apple) 

Block direction and cinematography was by Cary Joji Fukunaga (No Time to Die) working with Adam Arkapaw (The King); Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Captain Marvel) with Jac Fitzgerald (Freaky Tales); Dee Rees (Mudbound) with Richard Rutkowski ASC (The Americans), and Timothy Van Patten (Inventing Anna) with David Franco (Game of Thrones). 

Each DP and directing team shared gaffer, grip and camera team for exteriors and another shared camera team for volume work. DIT Mustafa Tyebkhan was one constant across all nine episodes and he helped each DP follow Arkapaw’s lead in maintaining the show’s visuals and workflow. 

Masters of the Air was shot at locations in the UK and soundstages featuring two large volumes and a smaller volume. At the time of filming in 2021, the technology was just short of being able to produce photo-real volumetric clouds that could run in real-time. The use of VP was to create an immersive environment for the actors, interactive lighting for reflections, historical accuracy with plane formations and a time of day reference. 

Richard Rutkowski ASC’s epsiodes required new visual looks due to their new locations (Credit: Courtesy of Apple) 

The DPs were able to interactively light the set to cast reflections on the bomber during aerial combat scenes using pre-viz sequences designed by The Third Floor in conjunction with stills shot by aerial cinematographer Phil Arntz. Plates that he shot over the UK and Northern Europe by helicopter using a RED V-Raptor array were used by VFX to replace backgrounds in post at DNEG. 

Having worked with Fitzgerald on The King (2019) Arkapaw suggested her to block two directors Boden and Fleck who followed Arkapaw with episodes four and five. Fitzgerald had never worked in a volume before. 

“It was a great learning curve,” she says. “Say, for example, when we’re flying through clouds, we had the ability to undulate the light very easily or change the exposure in beautiful ways. When we were filming scenes of planes descending or coming up through cloud it was really interesting to collaborate on that with my gaffer and also with the computer technicians on the volume to get the best combined lighting result between the LED and physical studio fixtures.” 

Having plenty of prep time in the volume is a key takeaway from the shoot for Richard Rutkowski ASC (Credit: Courtesy of Apple) 

In the clouds  

Weather was a key component to many of the actual battles replicated in the series. Arkapaw and Fukunaga were meticulous in creating shots that were above or below the cloud line, using the volume to help bring that reflective lighting to the inside of the cockpit. 

“We also had to take account of the particular direction the planes were flying in and the time of day so we could move our ‘sun’ [an HMI on a crane] and angle it accordingly,” notes Fitzgerald. 

Episode DPs would sometimes combine practical ‘sun’ light with light from the screen which required coordinated moves between the VAD and gaffer alongside the DP. 

Richard Rutkowski ASC shot episodes seven and eight (Credit: Robert Viglasky/Courtesy of Apple) 

The volume shoot involved working within authentic but cramped 1:1 replicas of the actual plane’s cockpit, fuselage, ball turret and tail. On the main volume stage these were rigged on a gimbal 20ft in the air. 

“It was a trial and error because there wasn’t time to rehearse in the volume and learn first-hand what was possible or not,” Fitzgerald relates. “We had a creative hub of images and mood boards and could view [block one] rushes to see what they were able to achieve while we shot locations.” 

Block one had worked out a “roadmap” for placement of Sony Venice cameras [in Rialto mode fitted with Petzval Primes] in and around set. For example, if the scene required two pilots in the cockpit there were specific places to put cameras. 

Richard Rutkowski ASC shot episodes seven and eight (Credit: Robert Viglasky/Courtesy of Apple) 

“We soon realised that we wanted to do something different,” Fitzgerald says. “Anna, Ryan and I realised that the language from block one was not quite what we wanted. We wanted to be with the actors a lot more. So, we decided to strip away a lot of the rig they had employed and find our own angles to get inside closer to them.” 

She elaborates, “We were just not feeling connected enough to the actors, so we decided to throw out their roadmap and make our own.” 

Because the sets were 20ft above ground, it was physically difficult for actors and crew to get into the space. 

“You are basically crawling and having to twist yourself around and get up into the seats,” Fitzgerald recalls. “In the tail section my shoulders were hitting the set side to side. I couldn’t move in there. Some actors found it claustrophobic.” 

Richard Rutkowski ASC is also a qualified pilot and found that experience useful when shooting his episodes (Credit: Courtesy of Apple) 

The actors were further bulked up with layers of flight suit clothing and got so hot they had to wear cooling suits. 

“Once the actors went into the plane, all communication was via radio, making it really difficult for the directors to tweak anything. If anything went wrong with the camera or make-up needed adjusting, it would have been a big ordeal to stop.” 

In rehearsals they learned that without a digital replica of the wings (and just seeing clouds) talent would become motion sick. Adding digital wings helped make them feel more grounded and to understand which way the plane was turning. 

The series was produced by Tom Hanks and Stephen Spielberg (Credit: Robert Viglasky/Courtesy of Apple) 

Aerial battles 

The show’s narrative arc also necessitated a different editorial approach. Episode five dovetails into the look established in episodes one to four, but Fitzgerald and her directors started to push away from that base as the story evolved. 

“The world was already set up especially in terms of the aerial battles. We have just one main battle sequence in episode five. It was pitched to us as a battle that springboards the characters and the series out into a broader world which is not just on the squadron’s base or in the sky.” 

In episode five, a mission over enemy territory ends disastrously for the 100th after they are intercepted by swarms of fighters. All but one B-17, piloted by Rosenthal (Nate Mann), are shot down while Egan (Callum Turner) parachutes alone into the German countryside. 

“It’s devasting, killing off so many characters,” Fitzgerald says. “Here we’re just getting to understand that they have an impossible task. It is very visceral.” 

Four cinematographers were involved in the lensing of the miniseries (Credit: Robert Viglasky/Courtesy of Apple) 

In episode six the story spends the majority of time on the ground tracking Egan’s progress as a prisoner of war and Crosby’s (Anthony Boyle) visit to Oxford where he meets Westgate (Bel Powley). 

“It was less a radical change of shooting style more a change dictated by new locations and a focus on character emotions. Instead of seeing our characters on their base in military mode we now see them letting down their guard and responding to each other’s state of mind. 

“We were delicate when we need to be and playful when we need to be. For example, when Crosby meets Westgate there’s a connection between them so we can be a bit more open and lighter to their flirtations.”  

When Fitzgerald had shot her block, she went to work with Fukunaga to capture additional material in the volume for block one. 

The shoot’s camera of choice was the Sony Venice (Credit: Robert Viglasky/Courtesy of Apple) 

“Cary had seen our rushes and realised that we can get a lot more physical with the characters, we can get more handheld and just dirty it up a lot. After seeing our rushes, he ended up re-strategising as well. Basically, everyone was trying to figure out what you can do with a tiny space.” 

Rutkowski, who photographed episodes seven and eight, concurs with the challenging shooting experience. “When you hit a roadblock on a volume stage you are frozen,” he says. “Suddenly you are no longer using it and you pivot the whole thing to more CGI and VFX, so having the time to prep well in advance is my big takeaway from the experience. 

“There’s almost a relentless need for real estate too. To sell the realism of daylight in a volume you need height above the stage and space between the camera and the subject.” 

Arkapaw had based the show LUT on 2018 documentary The Cold Blue, which itself was composed of restored 35mm colour footage shot by Hollywood director William Wyler during 1943 aboard B-17 bombers. One of Wyler’s cinematographers, Harold J. Tannenbaum, was killed when the bomber in which he was flying was shot down over France.

Shooting on a volume allowed the crew to use interactive lighting for reflections (Credit: Robert Viglasky/Courtesy of Apple) 

Rees and Rutkowski’s portion of the story, however, required new visual looks for POW camps, and the Italian base of Tuskegee (Red Tails) pilots to be distinctive from the look of the UK Air Force base, even though all three were shot on location near Aylesbury. 

Rutkowski explains, “We wanted scenes with the Red Tails to look warm, an appearance of honey. These were [Black] men who were not allowed access to certain things back home in the US but in the War, they gained a reputation as notoriously efficient and very brave. We wanted to give that feeling of optimism and heroism by having the sun warm their faces.” 

By contrast, the light in the POW camps was dimmed and grey. Rutkowski’s research found that the Germans lit such camps with the lowest wattage light they could produce. A single source of light from a searchlight [HMI] provided illumination for night exteriors.  

Rutkowski is a qualified amateur pilot and found that experience useful on set. “Flying is a constant scanning, followed by immense concentrated focus on the instruments when necessary. I had a sense of that when helping on set for composition and verisimilitude. I knew how light should fall into the cockpit and what contrast should be. It’s a very contrasty environment, unless you’re flying directly into the sun.” 

The use of virtual production technology provided an immersive setting for the actors (Credit: Robert Viglasky/Courtesy of Apple) 

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