Can You Hear the Fear? How Sound Shapes the Daring Missions of “Masters of the Air”

Masters of the Air, Apple TV+’s new World War II epic showcasing the heroics and travails of a fleet of young U.S. pilots in Europe, has been lauded for its classical filmmaking and realistic approach to mid-century flight. Focusing on sober, earnest Buck (Austin Butler) and Bucky (Callum Turner), a battle-ready scamp, the show toggles between dogfights in the air and quiet moments on the ground, on airfields in the English countryside and in medical wards where some of the crew suffer from as-yet undiagnosed PTSD.

To recreate the airmen’s world, the sound team was tasked with being “authentic and heroic,” said Michael Minkler, one of the re-recording mixers. “So every original authentic recording, of which there were tens of thousands that we made over weeks and weeks with a recording team, theyre all enhanced in some way to give them more life, more personality, more passion.” Minkler, along with fellow re-recording mixer Duncan McRae and supervising sound editor Jack Whittaker, went up in a B-17 airplane to experience what it was like being on board. “We had to bring that lived experience to the screen. The plane was unimaginably loud, really hot, and very cramped. But to think about how those guys had to serve and do their jobs in that environment is very intense. I think we all took that on board,” Whittaker said.


To get their sounds, the team worked with a plane museum in Arizona to record some of the last 45 or so working B-17s still left. “We microphoned all those positions — the engines, inside the wings, inside the cockpit, at the tail, where the rear wheel comes up. We just tried to capture as much of the experience as we could of being on this plane, inside and out,” Whittaker said. Having microphoned about 60 different positions, they also ran the plane on the ground at the RPM it would have hit in flight to get the frequency and pitch of the engines right.

Thousands of loop-lines then made it possible for the sound team to convey the drama of the dialogue over the noise of the engines. Rerecording dialogue turned into a world-building exercise, spread across nine or ten language and 300 speaking parts, but particularly for the scenes up in the air, it was a necessary exercise. “The actors had so many other things to think about on the set that they wanted to the opportunity to redo lines, and put that fear in the voices of these characters,” Minkler said. “We wanted to be inside with them and all the terror that goes on. We said it was hot for us. For them, they were flying at 25,000 feet, where it could be 50 below zero.”


On the ground, the team leaned into the storytelling afforded by quieter moments. “That was really useful, at times, to show positive life and the camaraderie on base,” McRae said. “A lot of the cast went through boot camp to build that connection we see on screen.” In scenes that touch on the pilots’ experience of PTSD before that diagnosis existed, the sound team stripped away noise to almost nothing, adding back in subliminal sounds to convey emotion while remaining authentic. “We were not leaning into very subjective spaces of sound design,” Whittaker pointed out. As Bucky struggles to talk about a failure of a day while drinking on an airfield, a bird tweets in the distance, realistic but somehow adding to Bucky’s emotional storm. “We went through a dozen different things to see what was a sad bird—but hopeful,” said Whittaker.

The goal was always to support the writers’ intent, to showcase the intertwined fear and heroism of a crew of boys who know their next twelve hours up in the air may be their last.  “We never went completely silent because thats kind of a gimmick,” Minkler said. “But you can see it in their eyes, that theyre momentarily stunned, and we tried to give them those little moments without being obvious.”


The finale of season one of Masters of the Air arrives on Apple+ TV on March 15.

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“Monarch: Legacy of Monsters” Creators Matt Fraction and Chris Black on What Made Season One Roar

Featured image: Callum Turner and Austin Butler in “Masters of the Air,” now streaming on Apple TV+.


Susannah Edelbaum

Susannah Edelbaum's work has appeared on NPR Berlin, Fast Company, Motherboard, and the Cut, among others. She lives in Berlin, Germany.

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