How the Latest VFX Techniques Immersed the “Masters of the Air” Actors in Battle

Masters of the Air, starring Austin Butler and Barry Keoghan, is the latest celebrated WWII epic from Band of Brothers and The Pacific executive producers Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, and Gary Goetzman. The intense drama inspired by the 100th Bomb Group is the most detailed on-screen depiction of B-17 planes ever. The visual effects teams from DNEG studios, led by VVFX Supervisor Xavier Bernasconi and VFX Producer Abigal Everard were provided with thousands of hours of research materials about the aircrafts and battles they flew from the Production Designer Chris Seagers and his show researcher Jessica Bradbury.

“The Production Art and VFX departments provided us with mission books that each pilot flew,” Virtual Production Executive Steve Jelley explained. “The actual altitudes and the logbooks. They plotted everything to be consistent with the actual historical records. There’s very little material.”

Barry Keoghan in “Masters of the Air,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

Every detail they uncovered was utilized to increase the series’ accuracy. An early episode depicts the bombing of the Norwegian city of Trondheim. On that day, German forces employed a smokescreen technique to occlude their location from the air. VFX artists duplicated the exact way the smoke hung in the air.

“We went as far as to research the wind direction of that time and that day in that particular geographical location that was annotated in the log files,” Bernasconi revealed. “There’s still notes about that. We found it, and we actually simulated our smoke in the visual effects to match the wind direction of that day and that time exactly.”

Creating realistic VFX requires a keen observation of the world. In addition to historical accuracy, the team had to consider physics and meteorology. Aerodynamics, cloud formations, and weather patterns all played heavily into their designs.


“We had to simulate all of these missions and make sure that the clouds were the same clouds that you would encounter at 10,000 feet vs 30,000 feet,” Jelley noted. “Xavier had to build a cloud atlas twice. Once for [3D graphics software] Unreal Engine with us. Another one in [3D animation software] Houdini with true weather simulation for the visual effects process. I don’t think you necessarily want to see another cloud again.”

“It’s funny because then I went on to do Furiosa, so I went from clouds to dry desert,” Bernasconi laughed.

Nearly every episode of the nine-hour series features an aerial battle. The complex flight patterns, plane formations, and combat were all created or enhanced by the VFX teams. They offer several visual clues to help the audience keep up with the fast-paced action across the flight units and strive to keep the shots steady.


“The mandate from [visual effects supervisor] Stephen [Rosenbaum] was very much, ‘Keep all the cameras grounded to a plane,’” Bernasconi said. “Adding a challenge to it because suddenly you can’t go from this plane to the other plane. You need to find cinematography choices that allow you to hand over to a different plane but within the rules of the lenses and the camera moves we established. If there was a camera outside a plane, we were thinking of it as if it was locked on a witness plane that would travel together with the rest of the group.”

For decades, the green screen was king among visual effects. New worlds, monsters, dangerous heights, or crashing waves could be painted digitally after a performance had been recorded. Anywhere characters found themselves that crews couldn’t feasibly go relied on the technology. Actors, however, are left performing to a blank space with only a rudimentary eyeline to interact with. Virtual Production LED walls, like those used on Masters of the Air, are changing how VFX scenes are filmed by immersing the performers in simulated environments.

“The crucial thing about the on-set process is that it allowed us to prioritize the actors, the performances, and the shot-making,” Jelley explained. “And to make sure that there were digital proxies and realistic lighting to allow the visual effects process to complete the shot later. So, we call it a full end-to-end production.”


Anyone who has ever gripped the armrests during a bout of turbulence knows that flying can feel perilous even in the safest conditions. These young pilots were speeding across Nazi-occupied airspace at the risk of being gunned down. BIG Supplies Stuart Heath and FX Supervisor Neil Corbould built life-size animatronic cockpits for the actors to perform in, allowing them to see nearby planes projected on LED walls outside their windows.


“They were 18 years old, 19 years old, 20 years old, that never flew before, and suddenly they were 20,000 feet in the air surrounded by a fuselage that was as thick as a can of Coca-Cola with literal shrapnel exploding around them and piercing the fuselage,” Bernasconi reflected. “There is a difference between being on a static seat in front of a green screen and then having a full B-17 motion-based cockpit that would react to explosions that you visually see in front of you or German fighters blasting past them. So, they really feel like their performances were enhanced because of this technology.”

Acting in a more visceral space translates on screen. The performances are more authentic in channeling the emotions of the young, inexperienced soldiers who faced death each time they flew.

“Virtual Production Supervisor Phil Galler could trigger the flash at the director’s call,” Jelley detailed. “That would rock the motion base, which would create the force of the explosion. Then, in many cases, the amazing special effects department would do things like shatter glass, and then, of course, the lighting is affecting the glass, which is affecting the action, which is affecting the performance, and that’s kind of what you’re looking for. That brought that realism that I think you really feel in the show.”


The scenes were tightly choreographed and coordinated in advance by the previz team The Third Floor, led by Matt Smart. Most of what was created for filming was for the actors’ benefit. If something could be captured in camera, all the better, but the majority went through a process after filming of increasing the resolution and replacing temporary images. One of the most involved elements was mapping Europe and eliminating any modern landmarks.

“We literally remodeled the entirety of Europe. That’s how we did it,” Bernasconi said. “Each grid had the texture of the ground with some low resolution, broad stroke elevation models, so we would have some hills and stuff. Then, the logbooks would tell us exactly the flight path. We overlayed this flight path on our broad-stroke representation of Europe, extracted the grids, and modeled them at high resolution. Not only that, but the fact is that any satellite image that we have now obviously includes modern features. Highways and modern buildings. So, we have to go in there and remove all of those throughout thousands of kilometers and recreate the look of Berlin during the 1940s and so on.”

The series ended with detailed, cutting-edge technology, but Jelley and Bernasconi laughed recalling that they also used rudimentary tools in preparation phases.

“It was a massive piece of planning right from the very start by VFX Supervisor Stephen Rosenbaum and his team,” Jelley recalled. “There were those little models on sticks in the production office. There was a big chart on a big table of us positioning various things. We thought that this was a bit of fun, but it actually became totally necessary because it’s a really complex bit of action to figure out.”

Over the course of the two-and-a-half-year production, the DNEG team members working on Masters of the Air numbered in the hundreds. Bernasconi emphasized that the show was truly a group effort.

“Of course, a big shoutout to the team,” he praised. “All of the team was huge. Some of the technologies, especially on the DP side with Steve’s team and motion capture that was going at the same time as the virtual production for capturing the movement of the B-17, it was incredible.”

Masters of the Air is now streaming on Apple TV+.

Featured image: Nate Mann and Josh Bolt in “Masters of the Air,” now streaming on Apple TV+.


Kelle Long

Kelle has written about film and TV for The Credits since 2016. Follow her on Twitter @molaitdc for interviews with really cool film and TV artists and only occasional outbursts about Broadway, tennis, and country music. Please no talking or texting during the movie. Unless it is a musical, then sing along loudly.