<I>The Aeronauts</I>: Inside the production & post
Issue: July/August 2019

The Aeronauts: Inside the production & post

Amazon Prime Video will release The Aeronauts on December 6th. Directed by Tom Harper, the film stars Felicity Jones as a daredevil balloon pilot and Eddie Redmayne as a pioneering meteorologist who partner to advance human knowledge of the weather by flying higher than anyone ever has in the 1860s.

Members of the filmmaking crew shared their experience working on the theatrical feature, which will also stream online.

“Well they couldn’t actually send Jones and Redmayne up in a 19th century balloon, but they did try to accomplish as much in-camera as they could,” says Louis Morin, VFX supervisor on the film. Some of Morin’s previous credits include Arrival and Beauty and the Beast, and his team was instrumental in augmenting the duo’s flight with all manner of wind and  weather. 

There’s a scene where the balloon starts to ice over and Jones’ Wren character has to climb the rigging to break open a stuck valve - seamless integration that is in equal measure exhilarating and terrifying to watch. Morin turned sound stages full of blue screen into the heavens and had to also contend with a special lighting rig cinematographer George Steel’s crew created. No matter how hard Steel tried to avoid seeing it through his lens, it occasionally ended up in shot. Enter VFX!

Cinematographer George Steel is a longtime collaborator with director Tom Harper, having shot Wild Rose, the War & Peace miniseries, and Peaky Blinders. Aside from the inextricable collaboration with the (mostly in-camera) VFX, for the more terrestrial scenes, Steel leaned on smooth, steady, almost ethereal camera movement to maintain the elevated look of the picture, including a lot of the balloon scenes, shot by helicopter at 2,000 feet. Practical light was also a must, where possible, serving as a counterweight – many a sconce and window kept the proceedings cast in sun or candle light.  

Steel and Harper favored wide encompassing shots, often 360 degree views, and lighting was key – the earthly illumination softer, more grainy whereas the light nearer the sun was harsher, more mercurial.  Steel worked with his team to invent and build a vast lighting rig positioned at the top of the stage, using super bright HMI lights – Tungsten was not strong enough – and a box full of gas that could be colored in different ways to mimic the particular atmospheric illumination. 

Even on stage, the proceedings were airborne, the camera swooping about on a 90 foot crane. Steel chose the Red camera for its small size. He was right in that tiny balloon basket with Jones and Redmayne. Andthe Red camera also had the ability to capture the desired skin tones and color and texture, as well as changes in hues from terra firma to the heavens.

Supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Lee Walpole and re-recording mixer Stuart Hilliker, have collaborated on a number of projects, including War & Peace, The Crown and Taboo. While the experience of going up in a balloon to study weather is a noisy affair, there also gets to be a point, at the very edge of space, where the soundscape falls away into something, literally, unearthly. The team created the multi-dimentional soundscape.

Mark Eckersley was the editor on the project and had the challenge of balance a film with two equally compelling leads. A regular collaborator with director Harper, he first has to bring these two disparate stories together, with Wren’s told in part through flashbacks as viewers see the source of her conflicted feelings about climbing back into the balloon. Once they are airborne, he had to convey the  fury of being trapped thousands of feet above the Earth, as well as marry those VFX with Steel’s cinematography.
Steven Price, the Oscar-winning composer on Gravity, handled the score. Price goes big, with titanic horns and bassy percussion meant to overwhelm the viewer’s sense of wonder as duo’s plans come together, take off and go awry.