How this team got those 'Masters of the Air' flyboys soaring into battle

Lee Morrison was in Greece staging car chases for the James Bond movie “No Time to Die” when director Cary Fukunaga asked him to handle stunts for the limited series “Masters of the Air.” “My initial reaction was, ‘Oh, s—, I don’t know if I want to do that,’” says the British stunt coordinator. “I knew the ‘Masters of the Air’ book [by Donald L. Miller] and wondered, ‘How are we going to shoot this? Are there any B-17s still flying? Are we going to jump out of them?’”

Morrison helped figure out the answers when he signed on to oversee the action for Apple TV+’s fact-based series about “The Bloody 100th” Bomb Group’s raids over Nazi Germany during World War II led by Maj. John “Bucky” Egan (Callum Turner) and Maj. Gale “Buck” Cleven (Austin Butler).

Cinematographer Jac Fitzgerald, who’d earlier worked on “The King” with “Masters’” primary director of photography, Adam Arkapaw, came on board for Episodes 5 and 6 alongside directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. It was a humbling experience, Morrison recalls. “Sometimes Jac and I would get to set early to prep, and we’d just stand there in silence, looking at the aircraft on these gimbals and realizing: ‘We have to do justice to these very brave men.’”

Morrison and Fitzgerald spoke via Zoom about collaborating with visual effects supervisor Stephen Rosenbaum‘s team to simulate the airmen’s harrowing missions 25,000 feet over Germany without actually leaving Earth.

B-17 bombers play a starring role in this series. What did you have to work with?

Jac Fitzgerald: When I came on, the whole machine was well underway. For the airfield sequences, two tow-built planes had been built one-on-one scale, which could be moved but not at speed and certainly not in the air. On the volume stage [in Aston Clinton, England], a third B-17 was broken into sections. The nose and the cockpit were placed on top of a gimbal. The fuselage was another space with a long body. And the ball turret was a standalone piece so we could get underneath or down into it.

Can you explain how the LED “volume” works? Images are projected onto it?

Fitzgerald: The volume screen [surrounding the actors] is meant to be photoreal so the actors in the plane can look outside the window and see other planes, explosions, clouds, bodies flying through the air. However, the VFX team didn’t have time to build all those shots, so we used proxy images. The actors could watch “tracer bullets” whiz past and see explosions in midair and the eyelines would all be correct.

Lee Morrison: The volume stage enabled me to ground the actors, excuse the pun, in the fuselage with the aircraft and the action happening around them. That’s why it feels so visceral in Episode 5 when the flak is happening. Even though the images weren’t picture-ready, they gave the actors something to react to. When you shake the fuselage [on the tilting gimbal], it almost feels like you’ve got a handheld “Band of Brothers” in there.

Jac, how did you shoot those chaotic cockpit sequences for Episode 5’s Munster Raid?

Fitzgerald: Framing-wise, Cary and Adam had broken things down into a kind of road map: “These are good ways to shoot when they’re in the cockpit.” We tried that for a while but decided to do a lot more handheld so we could get in closer and film the characters’ reactions to each other and to what was going on outside the plane.

There wasn’t any actual aerial photography?

Morrison: They did do some aerial shots later on that were used in Episodes 5 and 6.

Fitzgerald: And after principal photography, they shot plates and did various captures of environments.

When the B-17 gets hit by Nazi flak and crew members are forced to bail, it looks terrifying. How did you set up the jump-from-the-plane scenes?

Morrison: We had the actors jump out of the bomb bay on stunt lines, and we hit ’em with a load of wind and basically scared the life out of them. Imagine being hung outside of an aircraft right next to the propeller!

Where does that “load of wind” come from?

Morrison: Our special effects supervisor, Neil Corbould, set up huge V8 engines with big propellers surrounded by a cage and locked down to the ground. We ran the engines just out of frame, pushing air to motivate the [actor’s] body like it would be if he were traveling outside a plane going 200 miles an hour.

Fitzgerald: And every time a window got smashed, we’d use those wind machines to blow the actors around inside the plane. To make it feel even more dangerous, we had the gimbal shaking the plane.

One B-17 survives Luftwaffe attacks and crash-lands in Northern Africa. How did that sequence come together?

Fitzgerald: One of the planes was taken apart on [the airfield] location, put on a truck, driven to the [Lux Machina] volume stage and reassembled, so we had an entire plane sitting there in front of this big volume wall, which would be Africa. There were two or three super-wide shots filmed on location. Then the ground and everything was built to match that background environment.

“Masters of the Air” has loads of intense action. Lee, what was the most challenging stunt you pulled off for this show?

Morrison: When we shot our stuntmen at 2,000 feet using round parachutes similar to what the guys in the 100th would have done for real. “Rounds” came before modern canopy parachutes, which give you some control [to steer] left or right, but with rounds, most of the time it’s straight down and quite quickly. [During the war], many of the boys, when they hit the ground, would break a leg or injure a knee or suffer back compressions or, in the series, break a neck.

So your stunt guys were jumping for real with the same type of rudimentary parachutes used during World War II?

Morrison: And they were keen to do it. My advisor was Gen. Simon Edwards, who has the most halo jumps in the [Royal Air Force] and tests all the parachutes for Special Forces. On one of the jumps, if you watch closely, you’ll see his body fold in half backwards. [Edwards was not injured in the jump.] We were pushing boundaries, but it looked great in the series. For us, it was a huge honor.

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