Unveiling the Visual Mastery of Apple TV+ Series “Masters of the Air”: A Deeper Look at the Year’s Most Stunning Cinematography

Callum Turner stands with a group of aviators in Masters of the Air.

Twenty-three years ago, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks introduced Band of Brothers, the groundbreaking war series that followed East Company on the Western Front of World War II. Nine years later, The Pacific portrayed the WWII exploits of several Marines in the Pacific Theater. In 2024, the action takes to the skies in Masters of the Air, the Apple TV+ limited series documenting the valiant soldiers in the 100th Bomb Group during World War II.

Masters of the Air is visually striking, supported by remarkable production design and thrilling combat sequences. Throughout the virtual production, Masters of the Air employed state-of-the-art technology and a multitude of visual effects shots to capture the immersive aerial scenes. Two skilled artists involved in Masters of the Air were VFX supervisor Xavier Bernasconi and virtual production executive Steve Jelley.

In an interview with Digital Trends, Bernasconi and Jelley explored the responsibility of narrating an authentic tale, detailed the challenges encountered during virtual production, and contemplated the feasibility of the show without this technology.

Disclaimer: This interview has been shortened for concise presentation.

Digital Trends: When you initially received the task to contribute to Masters of the Air, I believe it must have been quite exhilarating. It’s Spielberg and Hanks. It’s a companion to Band of Brothers and The Pacific. Nevertheless, there might have been a bit of apprehension. You’re thinking, “This could be the most extensive project I’ve ever been part of. I’m about to handle numerous [VFX] shots.” Guide me through the array of emotions you must have experienced at the outset of the project.

Xavier Bernasconi: It’s intriguing because you sense the obligation of narrating a highly significant tale. I’ve been involved in a variety of movies, right? Marvel, Venom, Happy Feet — each with its own set of challenges. They are all fantastic, but when you depict a real story, there is always an element of responsibility toward the individual you are showcasing. In this instance, there was the added aspect that some of my relatives lost their lives during the Second World War, not necessarily on planes, but on the Russian front. You feel a different form of investment.

The supplementary challenge, or responsibility, comes with an audience that is very demanding. I believe that historians and history enthusiasts are some of the most well-prepared spectators out there. They will call you out if you deviate from the facts. The meticulousness that Stephen [Rosenbaum], our VFX supervisor, required was extremely high for these reasons. It was a lot of responsibility. A lot of excitement, but certainly a touch of pressure. [laughs] Let’s label it as such.

An individual sits in a jeep on a runway.

Steve Jelley: I’m British; I studied around Oxfordshire. I’m deeply rooted in the history of this era. It was only when Stephen Rosenbaum prompted me to view The Cold Blue — the sole documentary footage shot in the B-17s, approximately nine minutes in total captured by a pioneering documentary photographer during the war — that I comprehended the challenge we faced in depicting 90 minutes of aerial combat with minimal reference to describe the pilots’ experience. They were soaring in formations alongside 250 planes, enduring extreme cold for up to 10 hours until engaging in the most severe aerial battle imaginable. Subsequently, they had to somehow return home.

It was the realization of that particular storytelling challenge. The entire foundation centered around the internal lives of the characters in the show. This proved to be a substantial storytelling hurdle in terms of rendering the aerial landscapes coherent, establishing the dynamics within the B-17 crew, and their modes of communication. Bringing this to life for viewers was the rationale behind adopting the exhaustive virtual production process, from previsualization (which envisions a scene before materializing it) to the virtual art department, LED walls, motion bases, authentic planes … and the special effects that were accomplished, besides the visual effects.

We had to be absolutely faithful to the history of this well-documented event, ensuring something that had never been witnessed by Stephen [Rosenbaum], the director, and evidently, producers like Tom Hanks and Spielberg, who arguably possess unparalleled knowledge of World War II. That embodies the weight of responsibility associated with undertaking this project.

Masters of the Air had to be precise and visually appealing as well, naturally. That seems self-evident, yet it is much more challenging in practice. Was there an instance where you had to compromise accuracy for aesthetics? A scene might appear breathtaking, but it may deviate from the authentic historical context. I presume you leaned more towards authenticity.

Bernasconi: Indeed. We devised the previsualization in advance for all the airborne sequences. The Third Floor collaborated with Dimension to execute this, which proved to be a remarkable process for everyone on set. We were all simultaneously on set, working on the previsualization that would subsequently underpin the production content. While on set, I believe that everything was meticulously accurate in terms of authenticity, ranging from the velocity of the planes to cinematography, eschewing any ostentatious camera movements.

The lenses remained steadfastly focused on the plane when situated outside the fuselage. Inside the fuselage, the filming was unsteady, much like in The Cold Blue. This somewhat limited the likelihood of unreal moments because the executions aligned with real-life shooting techniques. I reckon this played a significant role in maintaining a realistic ambiance. We needed a narrative tool to render it engrossing and exhilarating while adhering to physical accuracy — a task that the cinematographer, the directors, and Gary [Goetzman, a producer] masterfully tackled.

Austin Butler next to an aircraft in Masters of the Air.

Jelley: Meticulous attention to detail permeated every department, including production design. The B-17s in service at that time encompassed several variations, all of which we digitally replicated in the visual effects phase. While the episodes are essentially missions, we referenced the war logbooks at the project’s inception to visualize the missions regarding the content we could bring to life on the LED walls, the altitude, and the distance from the plane to the ground.

Each mission detail contained in the mission logbooks was reconstructed in our simulations. We would position a virtual camera above 10,000 feet to envision what was visible. By amalgamating all these research elements, we averted future discrepancies. Admittedly, numerous aspects evolved during later stages of editing and visual effects selections concerning storytelling, yet at no point did we lament about realism or precision. [laughs]

An inside view of the volume and soundstage of aircraft.

All the airborne sequences are utterly mesmerizing to behold. Upon conducting some research, I learned about shooting the actors on this gimbal, with the planes visible on the LED walls. This setup elicited authentic responses [from the actors]. Was this always the predetermined procedure? How was the integration of the LED walls phased in?

Jelley: Indeed. It was always the intended procedure. We knew that the Volume would be predominantly used to furnish interactive lighting on the actors, enabling them to witness the ongoing action. Moreover, it operated in real-time, facilitating unforeseen developments. For instance, when [director] Cary Fukunaga wished for a flak burst to materialize, the motion base would induce vibrations, and the flak would materialize on the wall. These actions were meticulously synchronized, permitting the actors to genuinely react to unexpected occurrences.

This signified the core reason for adopting virtual production. We harbored pragmatic motives for doing so. Essentially, the lighting appeared more natural. We aspired to capture that sentiment of coldness, despite the apparent warmth experienced inside those flight suits at times. [laughs] Cary envisioned a naturalistic enactment, necessitating provision of a setting which the actors could genuinely respond to. This served as a more immersive backdrop compared to the standard blue screen.

When was the decision made to remove the plane windows during virtual production? Reading about the extensive labor involved in reconstructing those windows in post-production seemed laborious. 

Bernasconi [laughs] Well, it is often simpler to incorporate as opposed to subtract. Certainly, there was a logistical aspect to mounting multiple cameras on the cockpit to afford directors the flexibility of selecting specific angles to elucidate their narrative. For the sake of efficiency, rather than using a single camera, we opted for three encircling the cockpit. This provided ample options for the director. At that juncture, it was judicious to eliminate the windows and meticulously extract each window through rotoscoping.

Three individuals within an aircraft in a scene from Masters of the Air on Apple TV+.

Naturally, we lost the actors’ reflections in the windows. Consequently, we had to trace every performance in 3D to reproduce the actors’ reflections in the windows. For instance, if the co-pilot was absent from the shot, it did not absolve us from animating and incorporating his reflection to match the antecedent and succeeding actions of his performance. Numerous unseen visual effects components contributed to cultivating realism.

Do you know what is exceptionally challenging? I often assert that crafting car compositions represents one of the most intricate composite shots. Given that most individuals frequently travel by car, we can promptly pinpoint any inconsistencies or flaws, right? It’s a familiar realm to us.

Jelley: [while turning the camera to unveil a car on the set] *Today, I am indeed engrossed in car compositions. [laughs]

*Steve Jelley conducted this interview while on set for another project.

Bernasconi: [laughs] Precisely.

That’s impeccable.

Bernasconi: People are accustomed to traveling by plane. They discern immediately when gazing outside, and instinctually respond like, “Oh, that appears incorrect. Oh, something feels off.” Certainly, it was marginally intricate since it’s a domain we are accustomed to. We might envisage it differently than reality. It’s intriguing. Although we should abstain from it, I did plunge into the rabbit hole [of internet reactions to the show], where individuals opined, “Those planes were moving too swiftly,” and I mused, “Um, they were indeed moving at the appropriate speed.” [laughs]

Significant technological advancements contributed to this show. A semblance of this show could have existed a decade ago. However, this revamped version evidently could not have materialized, correct? 

Bernasconi: To be candid, I keep contemplating on this. Could we have tackled it indiscriminately? Might we have shot it differently? If we rewind 30-40 years, more B-17s might have been available. Nevertheless, when one evaluates the practicalities, we virtually had around 300 to 400 planes (B-17s) in some scenes, flying within 25 meters of one another. At a certain juncture, I believe we confronted roughly 300 to 400 German fighters attacking. How could we feasibly execute that? It was implausible.

I genuinely apprehend the inclination to embrace practicality to the maximum extent, and I think we indeed employed practical measures to a great extent in this [Masters]. We meticulously replicated B-17 cockpits utilizing an astonishing motion base. Visualize this. There was one motion base that embraced the entire fuselage, not solely the cockpit. That is staggering.

An aircraft cruising above the clouds in Masters of the Air.

That’s surreal.

Bernasconi: Subsequently, the entire fuselage was embedded with pins for myriad explosion charges. Each activation simulated the detonation of the flak and the ensuing breezes. We strove to uphold the utmost plausible practical approach.

Jelley: Leveraging the motion bases indeed accentuated the remarkable craftsmanship of the model makers who meticulously replicated several planes depicted in the show, all with unwavering fidelity, harmoniously complementing the virtual production facet. The adoption of virtual production essentially empowered us to imbue the project with further practicality compared to a scenario ten years ago, where a sizeable portion of these endeavors would have been relegated to computer-generated imagery. A substantial reliance on green screens would have ensued, and copious background elements would have needed supplementation.

The array of technology deployed here is decidedly pragmatic. Crucially, it facilitated seamless integration of an extensive team operating across three distinct venues. Since the outset, we harbored a concrete notion of the aerial settings and the practical photography visuals we desired to utilize.

The undertaking remained monumental throughout the entire duration. A tangible connection with reality and practical photography was maintained in a project like this, a feat made achievable solely by today’s tools. It’s a fascinating realm. The longer I delve into virtual production, the more it feels akin to reverting to the filmmaking era of the 1940s, where diverse skill sets congregated on the soundstage. The distinguishing factor now is that we can achieve a realism we were not privy to back then.

Bernasconi: Truthfully, the scale of the project was rather intimidating. Stephen [Rosenbaum] oversaw approximately 4,000 shots. It’s truly remarkable. It’s gargantuan. I often characterize it as Stephen virtually supervising four movies concurrently. [laughs] He was an indefatigable force in that regard, laboring intensely … It was an immense endeavor. People comment, “Oh, it’s massive.” Nonetheless, when you ponder it, it’s akin to nearly four Top Guns.

A gunner in an aircraft firing at another plane.

Nine hours of relentless effort.

Bernasconi: [laughs] Nine hours of toil. It entailed an arduous labor.

Jelley: Additionally, Masters of the Air was shot during the COVID pandemic! I reckon we are all grateful for the opportunity to engage in such an environment. It made a significant impact. A sense of collective purpose pervaded the show, which truly allayed any apprehensions stemming from executing a World War II drama. [laughs]

The two realities seamlessly melded until a juncture where I believe we all began embodying the experience. Whether off the set, on the set, or upon arriving at one of the expansive physical production locations on the airbase, you were transported back six decades. I trust this resonance will be evident in the final outcome.

You can stream all episodes of Masters of the Air on Apple TV+.

Valentina Rogers

Valentina is a tech-savvy wordsmith, blending her expertise in digital trends with a talent for crafting compelling stories that resonate with readers of all backgrounds.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button