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Masters of the Air: Battle Plans

Production designer Chris Seagers details his strategy to stage the show’s epic World War II bomber action.

Jeff Bond

Unit photography by Robert Viglasky, SMPSP. All images courtesy of Apple

Almost 13,000 of the famed B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers were produced during World War II, but today, only 45 complete examples of the four-engine U.S. aircraft still exist, and only four of them are flyable. Thanks to the Playtone/Amblin production of Masters of the Air, there are now two more.

The Apple+ series follows the air crews of the American 100th Bomb Group flying raids into Germany from bases in the U.K. And to help create that illusion for the screen, British production designer Chris Seagers supervised the construction of two complete replica B-17s capable of taxiing down the runways of a vintage airfield in Hertfordshire. But with the nine-part series’ harrowing scenes of the bombers flying through a storm of German anti-aircraft artillery fire, fending off Nazi fighter planes and sometimes executing gear-up landings or outright crash landings in fields, Seagers and his crew had to construct Fortress exteriors and interiors in exacting detail, and in multiple iterations.

“It wasn't a cheap exercise,” Seagers says. “But for Playtone and Amblin, it was all about the B-17. So they had to have it, it had to work, and it had to be convincing. [Executive producer] Steven Spielberg very early on was saying that this story was something he's always wanted to do, but we'd never had the technology to do it.”

Spielberg — also an executive producer on the previous World War II companion series Band of Brothers and The Pacific — wasn’t the only one applying pressure for authenticity. “We were working with the 100th Bomb Group Foundation; they were very involved in putting this together,” Seager points out. “We were asking them very much, ‘How would we do this? How would we do that?’ And I don’t mean to show any disrespect, but it's a very nerdy world, and you don't want to get it wrong.”

The production had access to three surviving B-17s for study purposes, but there was no question of using them to execute any shots for the series. “We've been doing this long enough to know that you probably wouldn't be able to put an antique plane through what we wanted to do with it,” Seagers says. Even with digital effects recreating dozens of B-17s in flight and augmenting Seagers’ work, the production designer had to literally get down to the nuts and bolts of building two full-sized bombers the old-fashioned way. “We started off by creating the infrastructure and then wrapping it with a skin. We used a special effects company who did a lot of the work on that in the end, and we ended up going back and finding the old Boeing design drawings — a lot of them are available online — and we just built it like a proper plane.”

The landing-gear wheels of the replica bombers were fitted with Tesla motors so the faux aircraft could “taxi” under remote control on the runways at a WWII-era airfield outside of Oxford. In the series, they also appear to have moving propellers, but Seagers explains that this is movie magic at work. “It's quite dangerous to put spinning propellers on those planes. We ended up having propellers in place when we were stationary, and then we took them off once the planes were going, so we did have to CG them all back in again.”

Masters of the Air is one of several visual effects-heavy television productions to employ the volume — a curved LED screen background that displays completed visual effects to form perspective-changing backgrounds for actors. Seagers and his crew dismantled one of their B-17s to be used in sequences of the pilots and flight crew reacting to and interacting with action outside their aircraft. “It's about a 120-foot semi-circle,” Seagers says of the LED screen. “It wasn't the usual round or the horseshoe shape. And there we ended up taking the plane and then compartmentalizing it into the nose, the cockpit, the gunners and all the various pieces all the way down. I think it ended up being eight sections. Neil Corbould built this pretty huge, giant gimbal plate, and then they just put all these pieces on depending on which piece they needed, because we were shooting with multiple cameras so you could shoot multiple sequences at the same time. Obviously, it worked very well with the pilots because it gave them their eye lines,” Seagers notes. “Our biggest problem was getting all of their eyelines following the same thing, and at least that enabled that to happen.”

The volume also created backdrops for ground scenes, to show a bomber crew in front of a landed B-17 in Africa, and for an early scene of the U.K. airfield shrouded in fog. “You just cannot hold that fog for that length of time, and when you're in an airfield, it's always windy,” Seagers says. “Also, we had weather, because you're in England so you can have a beautiful summer's day and all of a sudden it starts raining, so we ended up doing a lot of that onstage. To be honest, I think that's where the volume works best, when you're not shooting directly onto it, and when you're putting some material or some scenery or a smoke layer in front of it just takes the edge off it; otherwise it can be a little bit too glare-y.”

For some sequences where actors had to interact with the exterior of the B-17s while in flight, one of the full-size replicas was suspended 40 feet in the air on a 300-ton crane. “To get the bombs to drop out, to get the guys to come out, all the hanging on the side of the planes, all those kinds of stunt stuff was all done on a hanging plane,” Seager explains. “The trouble was we had to be so careful in the wind, because if the wind picked up, they were so aerodynamic, they would start to lift.”

With the series’ multiple bombing missions, the aircraft had to show off bullet and flak damage and torn metal unique to each sortie — damage that had to be created practically because the show’s visual effects team was so overloaded creating the aerial sequences. “We tried to keep one plane that was clean all the time to start everybody off,” Seager says. “The damage is pretty severe on some of them, and because we shot in episodic order we had to shoot the damage and then rearrange it for the next episode.”

The green-and-grey camouflage look of the B-17s also changes to bare metal silver toward the end of the series, just as the real bombers changed their look in the actual war. “Originally, we weren't going to do the silver ones,” Seagers says, “Because they didn't happen till quite later on, and there was a number of reasons why they were silver. But it became evident that there was no point in having any camouflage, because it was making no difference. They discovered when they were flying them over unpainted, that they were flying faster, and they were lighter. They also look cooler.”

You’ll find our complete story on shooting Masters of the Air in our April issue, and our web-exclusive article with costume designer Colleen Atwood here.

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