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April 10
2024

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

IN THE COCKPIT OF A FLYING FORTRESS AT WAR FOR MASTERS OF THE AIR

By OLIVER WEBB

Images courtesy of DNEG and AppleTV+.

DNG had to remove all of the windows from the virtual production shoot because there might be a camera behind them or a reflection. VFX needed to roto out everything that needed to be removed, then re-render those shots for the reflection.

Masters of the Air follows the 100th Bomb Group, a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber unit, as they risk their lives on dangerous missions and aerial battles. Two real B-17s used for a sequence were recreated in CG. The prop team created accurate replicas of the B-17 that were 3D scanned.

DNG had to remove all of the windows from the virtual production shoot because there might be a camera behind them or a reflection. VFX needed to roto out everything that needed to be removed, then re-render those shots for the reflection.

Created by John Shiban and John Orloff for Apple TV+, Masters of the Air is a World War II miniseries based on Donald L. Miller’s 2007 book Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany. Produced by Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Gary Goetzman – the same team behind Band of Brothers and The Pacific – Masters of the Air follows the 100th Bomb Group, a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber unit, as they risk their lives on dangerous missions and aerial battles.

Xavier Bernasconi served as DNEG VFX Supervisor on the show. “I’ve been at DNEG for a long time. They knew I like historical pieces, and Matt Plummer, the executive in charge of the episodic part of DNEG at the time, knew of my love of Band of Brothers,” Bernasconi begins. “I also have experience with larger projects, and this was going to be a very large project for us, with almost 2,000 shots. I’m also fairly technical, and with the virtual production side of things, the company felt that I would be the best option to propose for the client. I had a good conversation with Production VFX Supervisor Stephen Rosenbaum. We got along very well from the start, and it went from there.”

Masters of the Air follows the 100th Bomb Group, a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber unit, as they risk their lives on dangerous missions and aerial battles. Two real B-17s used for a sequence were recreated in CG. The prop team created accurate replicas of the B-17 that were 3D scanned.

Masters of the Air follows the 100th Bomb Group, a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber unit, as they risk their lives on dangerous missions and aerial battles. Two real B-17s used for a sequence were recreated in CG. The prop team created accurate replicas of the B-17 that were 3D scanned.

“Our main source of inspiration was the documentary The Cold Blue, shot by William Wyler during the war. The shooting style was very rigid with not many acrobatic cameras at all. We are not in the cockpit of a fighter plane. We are in the cockpit of this huge fuselage of metal, and the planes are flying very close to each other for their size.”

—Xavier Bernasconi, VFX Supervisor, DNEG

A main source of inspiration for DNEG was the documentary The Cold Blue, shot by William Wyler during the war. The producers of the show were the same high-profile team behind Band of Brothers and The Pacific.

A main source of inspiration for DNEG was the documentary The Cold Blue, shot by William Wyler during the war. The producers of the show were the same high-profile team behind Band of Brothers and The Pacific.

When it came to discussions about the look of the show, an important element was making sure it was grounded in realism. “Trying to be as realistic as possible was the mandate,” Bernasconi says. “Our main source of inspiration was the documentary The Cold Blue, shot by William Wyler during the war. The shooting style was very rigid with not many acrobatic cameras at all. We are not in the cockpit of a fighter plane. We are in the cockpit of this huge fuselage of metal, and the planes are flying very close to each other for their size.”

“[I]t was very much trying to be true to the historical data that we had. The prop team created amazing replicas of the B-17 because there are not many left, only three or four. So, they made these amazing replicas that were 3D scanned, and they passed us all these beautiful scans of them that we recreated into our 3D packages.”

—Xavier Bernasconi, VFX Supervisor, DNEG

Another incredibly complex element of the environments were the cloudscapes. The sheer size of the landscapes that had to be covered didn't allow for a matte painting approach, so VFX developed a system that created a variety of cloud options.

Another incredibly complex element of the environments were the cloudscapes. The sheer size of the landscapes that had to be covered didn’t allow for a matte painting approach, so VFX developed a system that created a variety of cloud options.

Bernasconi and his team wanted to emulate that same style for Masters of the Air. “We tried to replicate that with cameras, as if you were a cinematographer during that time,” he explains. “They would have mounted a camera on the fuselage if it was outside, or they would have had a handheld inside the fuselage when they were inside the plane. They wouldn’t mount a tripod in the middle of an air battle. They would be there with them moving around. That’s what we tried to follow as rules essentially for the camera. For everything else, it was very much trying to be true to the historical data that we had. The prop team created amazing replicas of the B-17 because there are not many left, only three or four. So, they made these amazing replicas that were 3D scanned, and they passed us all these beautiful scans of them that we recreated into our 3D packages.”

“Sometimes visual effects can take center stage, but for this show we were there to help tell an important story and have the effects be as invisible as possible.”

—Xavier Bernasconi, VFX Supervisor, DNEG

DNEG was the main VFX partner on the show and was responsible for almost all of the aerial battles. Rigged parts were created for bullets and explosions.

DNEG was the main VFX partner on the show and was responsible for almost all of the aerial battles. Rigged parts were created for bullets and explosions.

DNEG was the main VFX partner on the show and was responsible for almost all of the aerial battles. Rigged parts were created for bullets and explosions.

Bernasconi looked at additional footage from the War. “The footage was obviously all black and white and very short, but it gave us a good idea of the feeling and of the speed of the planes, and you really get a sense of how little time they had to react. We had a lot of historical data, and from a visual point of view, we used photographs taken during that time. A particularly interesting type of film was used at the time, Kodachrome, and that became a source of inspiration for our look and feel. A lot of it was really archival footage that the production team researched. In the series, it’s shown how at the end of every mission the crew had an ‘interrogation’ where they would go through everything that happened during the flight. Those logs served as the main source of information for all the historical details, and the missions in each episode were modeled on them.”

Replicating the look and feel of a flying fortress required some outside-the-box thinking. Even if the VFX team had a real flying B-17 available, it would have been too dangerous to try and shoot.

Replicating the look and feel of a flying fortress required some outside-the-box thinking. Even if the VFX team had a real flying B-17 available, it would have been too dangerous to try and shoot.

Replicating the look and feel of a flying fortress required some outside-the-box thinking. Even if the VFX team had a real flying B-17 available, it would have been too dangerous to try and shoot.

DNEG was the main VFX partner on the show and was responsible for almost all of the aerial battles. Wētā FX, Whiskey Tree, Crafty Apes and Rodeo FX were some of the other vendors involved. “DNEG is a global company,” Bernasconi observes. “That allows you to pick the best person for the job and not be confined by your studio location. Leveraging our global teams for past projects has always been incredibly beneficial.”

DNEG created nearly 2.000 shots in total for the show. “Everything was modular. We created a lot of rigged parts for bullets, explosions, etc. Then they could all be placed in all planes without having 200 planes with 200 variations;  you could mix and match. We shared all of our assets and setups across vendors, which was really interesting. Stephen was the orchestra director of all of it, trying to get everything working. The amount of work he did was incredible. He’s very experienced and was really able to guide us throughout the show and advise on what was important for the storytelling. Sometimes visual effects can take center stage, but for this show we were there to help tell an important story and have the effects be as invisible as possible,” Bernasconi explains.

DNEG used contrails to correctly show flight paths and where the planes were coming from. The contrails are physically accurate in the way they spin around because of the propellers. DNEG added a spline that would allow them to bend the contrails to how they wanted them to tell the story.

DNEG used contrails to correctly show flight paths and where the planes were coming from. The contrails are physically accurate in the way they spin around because of the propellers. DNEG added a spline that would allow them to bend the contrails to how they wanted them to tell the story.

The sheer amount of work and complexity that went into the show proved to be challenging. “Replicating the look and feel of a flying fortress required some thinking outside the box,” Bernasconi remarks. “The sensation of travel when augmenting cockpit shots was a particularly difficult problem to solve. One of the pieces of the puzzle was to simulate laminar flows of air going past the planes. By using various layers of this simulated airflow to perturb the air and the image behind it in the background, you get the sensation that something is happening around the plane but without it being in your face. Of course, we had a fair share of full CG shots. We couldn’t get aerial footage of real B-17s due to the extremely limited number of them that are airworthy, so we used all the references that we had to try to make our CG model as close as possible to the real deal. Some shots, even if we had a B-17 available, would have been too dangerous to try and shoot, so full CG from scratch was necessary.”

It was important to have the effects be as invisible as possible. DNEG painstakingly removed every highway, modern building and factory that wasn’t from the era.

It was important to have the effects be as invisible as possible. DNEG painstakingly removed every highway, modern building and factory that wasn’t from the era.

DNEG’s Environment Supervisors used satellite images of the entirety of Europe. “The problem was that the images had modern buildings in them,” Bernasconi adds. “So, once we planned out the flight path that was all based on historical data, we painstakingly removed every single highway, every modern building and factory that wasn’t from the time. We repainted in fields, dirt roads and then, for example, when we got to bombing objectives, we would have to perfectly recreate the landscape that was bombed during the raid. Another incredibly complex element of the environments were the cloudscapes. We didn’t want to go for a matte painting approach due to the sheer size of the landscape that we had to cover, so we decided to develop a system that allowed us to create a variety of cloud systems. We had macro clusters of clouds, but each of the clusters consisted of smaller clouds. Realistic clouds are extremely complicated because of the nonlinear nature of their profiles, with at times extremely chaotic patterns. I did a selection of clouds I really liked, and the team created rough 3D shapes based on their profiles. Our effects team then proceeded to simulate the way air moves inside those shapes and freeze it in time. We did that for hundreds of clouds which was a huge amount of work.”

DNEG referenced film footage and photographs taken during the war to ensure historical accuracy. Getting the minute details precise was an important task for DNEG.

DNEG referenced film footage and photographs taken during the war to ensure historical accuracy. Getting the minute details precise was an important task for DNEG.

A lot of work also went into the detail of the contrails. “They are physically accurate in the way that they spin around because of the propellers,” Bernasconi details. “Because of the time of day and weather conditions, your position on Earth based on longitude and latitude will give you different colors on your horizon line. We built in various layers of haze. There were so many additional layers of things. We were using contrails to correctly show the flight path and where the planes were coming from. Sometimes, the contrails might not be doing the things you want them to do because of the camera angle, for example. We added a spline that would allow us to bend the contrails how we wanted them to tell the story.”

For every cockpit shot, DNEG did a body track of every pilot, co-pilot and anyone else that was in the nose of the plane. The sensation of travel when augmenting cockpit shots was a particularly difficult problem to solve.

For every cockpit shot, DNEG did a body track of every pilot, co-pilot and anyone else that was in the nose of the plane. The sensation of travel when augmenting cockpit shots was a particularly difficult problem to solve.

Getting the minute details precise was an important task due to historical accuracy. Bernasconi notes, “There are lots of people out there who are dissecting the show. I was terrified about being caught cheating or taking shortcuts, but we didn’t. In Episode 1 or 2, they go to Norway to bomb Trondheim. The Germans used a smokescreen, this huge smoke to cover where the city was. We made sure we had the right time of day and that the wind at that moment in Trondheim was going in the right direction. There was actually someone online mentioning that what we did was historically correct and that we got the right direction of the wind. Some people go to that extent of minute details, so it was terrifying to know we’d be scrutinized in that way.”

VFX was tasked with perfectly recreating the landscape that was bombed during the raid. DNEG’s Environment Supervisors used satellite images of Europe to map the terrain.

VFX was tasked with perfectly recreating the landscape that was bombed during the raid. DNEG’s Environment Supervisors used satellite images of Europe to map the terrain.

“[W]e had a fair share of full CG shots. We couldn’t get aerial footage of real B-17s due to the extremely limited number of them that are airworthy, so we used all the references that we had to try to make our CG model as close as possible to the real deal. Some shots, even if we had a B-17 available, would have been too dangerous to try and shoot, so full CG from scratch was necessary.”

—Xavier Bernasconi, VFX Supervisor, DNEG

When it came to the look of the show, the mandate was to make sure it was grounded in realism and as real as possible. To replicate that reality, cameras were positioned on the plane where a cinematographer would have placed them during that time.

DNEG created nearly 2,000 VFX shots for the show. The sheer amount of work and complexity that went into the show proved to be a challenge for the VFX team. Wētā FX, Whiskey Tree, Crafty Apes and Rodeo FX were some of the other vendors.

DNEG created nearly 2,000 VFX shots for the show. The sheer amount of work and complexity that went into the show proved to be a challenge for the VFX team. Wētā FX, Whiskey Tree, Crafty Apes and Rodeo FX were some of the other vendors.

“Also, for every cockpit shot we did the body track of every single pilot, co-pilot and anyone in the nose of the plane,” Bernasconi continues. “We had to remove all of the windows from the virtual production shoot because there would maybe be a camera behind them or a reflection, so we needed to roto out everything and then re-render all those shots for the reflection. That was the level of commitment that we went through. If there was a shot where we only see the pilot, but the camera was positioned in such a way that we see the reflection of the co-pilot, we would also have the co-pilot in the CG plane animated so it would match the shot before and after in the right action and then render it for the reflection.”

When it came to the look of the show, the mandate was to make sure it was grounded in realism and as real as possible. To replicate that reality, cameras were positioned on the plane where a cinematographer would have placed them during that time.

When it came to the look of the show, the mandate was to make sure it was grounded in realism and as real as possible. To replicate that reality, cameras were positioned on the plane where a cinematographer would have placed them during that time.

“Working on this kind of show was an incredible opportunity, and I was so fortunate to be part of such a hugely talented team. Everyone felt that it was a special show because of the heritage of Band of Brothers and The Pacific. We knew that we were very fortunate to be part of something that’s one of a kind,” Bernasconi concludes.



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