<I>Masters of the Air</I>: VFX supervisor Stephen Rosenbaum
Issue: March/April 2024

Masters of the Air: VFX supervisor Stephen Rosenbaum

Apple TV+’s Masters of the Air is based on Donald L. Miller’s book of the same name, and follows the men of the 100th Bomb Group (a.k.a. “Bloody Hundredth”) as they conduct dozens of bombing raids over Nazi Germany. The nine-episode series looks at the struggles the crews face at 25,000 feet, including freezing temperatures and lack of oxygen, along with the psychological and emotional tolls that wear on the young men as they help to destroy Hitler’s Third Reich.

The series was executive produced by Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, and was split up among a team of directors that included Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Cary Joji Fukunaga, Dee Rees and Tim Van Patten.

Austin Butler and Callum Turner star in the series, which also includes Anthony Boyle, Nate Mann, Barry Keoghan, Rafferty Law, Edward Ashley, Jonas Moore, Elliot Warren, Matt Gavan, Branden Cook, Josiah Cross and Ncuti Gatwa.

Stephen Rosenbaum (www.stephenrosenbaum.net) served as the show’s visual effects supervisor, coordinating work among a number of studios, including The Third Floor, Dneg, Whiskeytree, Rodeo FX and Weta Digital. Here, he reflects on the VFX needs of the show and its challenges.

Hi Stephen! Tell us about your background.

"I’ve been an independent supe for years. I will occasionally associate with a specific VFX vendor, but most of the time, I’m freelance, hired by the studios.”

How did you get involved in Masters of the Air?

“I got a call from somebody who was working on the show. Early on, they were deciding what direction to go — both creatively and technically. They were looking around and saw my credentials, and they called me up.”

You’ve worked on big features, such as Avatar and Kong: Skull Island. How does this streaming series compare?

“It was like doing three movies, back-to-back. Sometimes not even back-to-back — sometimes on top of each other. Most visual effects movies are about a half to a third the size. In terms of scope and complexity, this was definitely a beast. And it grew exponentially as we were prepping and then shooting.”

Can you talk about the different contributors and their responsibilities?

“(The) Third Floor, I hired to do previs. So they were on from the early days of development and then into prep. They helped me build out the concepts of mostly the mission sequences — the battles. Sometimes they would help me visualize sequences that were not battles — sort of somewhat abstract in nature and in terms of the narrative, and we needed to visualize what that would be before we got into shooting. So they were my vendor for previs. And then the other primary vendors were — aside from Dneg — a company called Whiskeytree, Weta Digital and Rodeo FX. I had some secondary vendors as well. One of note was The Distillery. But the principal four vendors in post production were Dneg, Whiskeytree, Weta Digital and Rodeo FX.”

Did they focus on specific episodes or scenes, or across the entire series?

“They worked pretty much across the board. Weta was the outlier in that respect. They only worked on Episode 9. But the other three principal vendors worked across all the episodes. And we cast them into certain roles. For example, Rodeo FX principally did environment extension work. But, they also did some in-air battle sequences. The same with Whiskeytree for that matter. They did some plane sequences and then also did some environment extensions, where as Dneg principally just stuck to air-battle sequences.”

You’ve embraced virtual production in your feature film workflows in the past. What was the extent of using LED volumes in this case? 

“The virtual production work we had done specifically in this case was building LED walls. We had three-and-a-half volumes. I’d say 90 to 95 percent of that work was plane work. It was mostly interior plane shooting. For example, our primary volume was a large, horseshoe-shaped configuration. It stood about nine meters high by about 15 meters wide. And at the opening of the horseshoe, we had inserted a large motion base on which we rested plane set pieces. Primarily, we had the nose and the cockpit set piece, interior set piece. The actors would be inside of these sets, and we would have cameras inside and sometimes strapped to the outside of the sets, shooting the actors. If you want to break it down, anything that was facing inward, looking at the actors or interior, looking out over the actors was a set, usually shot up on the volume. Anything wider than that was computer generated. We would intercut with interior shots of the actors reacting, and then reverse cameras over their shoulders looking out at the action. And in that case, they were able to respond to the content that we play back on the walls. And that content was previs. When people are doing LED wall work, they’re trying to play back what we call ‘final-pixel’ content. In this case, the schedule didn’t warrant us preparing the final-pixel quality. It was just too much content. It was nearly five-and-a-half hours of content…So I made the decision to just playback previs content, which was the right decision in the sense that it gave the actors an idea of what the action was out the windows. Their eye lines were accurate. The lighting was accurate. You could get interactive explosions, flak blasts and so forth. The camera knew how to respond as well. So as the plane flew by, they could whip pan with a German fighter as it flew past the windows. There was a total understanding with just enough playback from the previs. From that, then we had to replace most of the content that was out the windows using rotoscoping techniques.”

How many visual effect shot are there across the nine episodes?

“It ended up growing, basically double in size. We ended up completing around 3,400 visual effects shots. Originally it was about half that.”

There are some great shots, but one that stands out appears at the beginning of Episode 9.

“The Berlin mission at the top of Episode 9! I would agree with that. That’s going to go down as one of the great openings of TV streaming history - if there is a history in TV streaming (laughs). There was so much sophistication in terms of the choreography, the action and the performances in that scene. We go from 20,000-feet in the midst of one of the largest air armadas…When [we] were reading this from the original script, it was, 'OK, how do we play this out in the five-minute sequence?’ It’s so complex and so sophisticated. It was with the help of just plugging through it — first with some storyboards and then with some previs to choreograph the action and then try to uphold the intensity. You have the cinematic qualities of the action. I think we succeeded. I’m very proud of that sequence. We probably had about 800 planes — computer generated planes — in the sky, plus all the clouds, plus all the flak. And that included B-17s and P-51s, so it was quite a feat.” 

What was the timeframe for this to all come together?

"I started in January of 2021 — right at the height of COVID, I might add — and moved to England for a year, where there was no vaccine. We managed to shoot, which was amazing. It was quite a journey — quite intensive COVID protocols. But that was January 2021, and then I wrapped in October of 2023. It was about 33 months.”

Where did they have the LED volumes set up?

“We converted a warehouse space, north of London. They took a lease on big, multiple warehouses and essentially converted them to stage space.”

What are your thoughts on the state of virtual production?

“(We) introduced virtual production on Avatar, and I started on Avatar in 2007, and it came out in 2009, so it has been ten-plus years, so this really is maturing in terms of its use. People are figuring out how to leverage it effectively and efficiently in production. I think, up until up until a few years ago, it was kind of a nice to have or a novelty experience. A lot of directors were uncertain about it. They were curious and uncertain about how to best use it. Now, I think there’s a better understanding, particularly like on a show like this, where the directors didn’t have to necessarily commit to the content that was being played back on the walls.

"I would go through and block out the action with Third Floor via the directors’ storyboards. Then I would take it to the director and they would give me notes, and then we would address those notes with The Third Floor, so when we got into shooting, it was effectively content that the directors had contributed to and were satisfied with as a proxy to the action that they ultimately wanted to see in post.”

Are you on to your next job at this point?

“Not yet. There’s a few things that are percolating out there, but nothing yet."