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DP Richard Rutkowski ASC and his moving work on Masters Of The Air

Mar 14, 2024

American DP Richard Rutkowski ASC kindly wrote-in with details about his work on Masters Of The Air, the new and highly-acclaimed series, now showing on Apple TV+. Rutkowski is well-known for his credits on FX Network’s The Americans, the first three seasons of Amazon’s Jack Ryan, and WWII period drama Manhattan.

“In 2021, Dee Rees, a director I admired, but had only worked with briefly before on her film Mudbound, wrote to me about a new installment in the Band Of Brothers franchise – a story of the WW II B-17 Army Air Force bomber crews titled Masters Of The Air.

Based on a marvellous book, this show aimed at making the bravery and sacrifices of these all-volunteer young pilots and crews into an epic, rivetting story. Following their successes with Band Of Brothers and The Pacific, this new show is also produced by Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Playtone’s Gary Goetzman, with four directors responsible for nine episodes. 

Dee and I would be shooting the third block, and filming was entirely in the UK, often at former RAF bases near London where US Air squadrons had been assigned during the war. In its content, stylistic ambition, technical challenge, commitment to historical accuracy, and sheer scope, this project was beyond anything I’d seen before. After reading Donald Miller’s book detailing the heroics of the flyers we were to depict and many more, I felt a tremendous obligation to bring this story impeccably to the screen.

“In its sheer scope… this project was beyond anything I’d seen before”

Dee’s talents are many; particularly, her diligent homework and planning were so valuable on this show. Our block would have key differences from the earlier episodes. In our scripts, the main characters are re-united as POWs in Stalag-Luft III, a camp run by the Luftwaffe and holding specifically Allied aircrews. We’d introduce a storyline devoted to the famous Tuskegee Airmen, legendary African-American fighter pilots who flew out of the Ramitelli Air Base in Italy. These flyers were regarded as skilled and deadly in their P-40s and later P-51 Mustang assaults and air support missions over Europe. When several Tuskegees are also captured, our show movingly observes their arrival at the POW camp and the integration of these previously racially-segregated airmen from the same fighting force.

Developing new looks
With the POW Camp being in Silesia, now southern Poland, there needed to be a shift in the visual to reflect the new, grey and leaden environment. Earlier storylines included London hotels and flights to Tunisia. Here, we had to emphasise the claustrophobic and grimly-monotonous pace of life for the POWs. The visualisation of the camp had a terrific head start in the drawings made by one of our story’s lead Tuskegee airmen, Lt Col. Alexander Jefferson. While a prisoner, he’d made drawings closely observing the conditions and their way of life. Dee’s research and his illustrations were up on our walls in prep, becoming a source for not only production design, but also specific angles we lensed inside the barracks.

Working during testing days on the POW camp set as it was still finishing the build and dress, I tried to reduce warmth and create a new camera LUT that would lend the location unique, somber textures. Skin tones would still need to feel present, but the men would be undeniably much less healthy-looking than their previous images in the show. The lighting style also had to change to accurately reflect the very low-wattage bulbs and candlelight in which they lived their captive lives. Searchlights from the German guard towers, actually 5K MoleBeams set into 2K receiver plates that allowed for swivel and tilt, were the strongest light source by far at night.

Interiors were bare bulbs and rigged Astera or Helios tubes in combination with simple Chinese Lanterns. Sets of dimmed lightbulbs on short wooden battens were enclosed in a rectangular housing with diffusion at the open end and dubbed by our wry gaffer, the fantastic John ‘Biggles’ Higgins, ‘letter-box-lights’. 

“I felt a tremendous obligation to bring this story impeccably to the screen”

Airman Jefferson also wrote about his experience flying the famous Red Tail P-51 fighters, and these descriptions guided the Ramitelli Air Base sequences. These were shot literally ‘across the runway’ from our principal airfield location, yet they had to look like Italy at first glance. Again, test days helped create a separate look in camera and dailies. I adjusted the existing show-LUT while adding a light Antique Suede glass filter to render the Italian air base and the Red Tail missions. We took opportunities to keep movement and dynamic blocking in our Ramitellli scenes, knowing it would contrast with the more static scenes in the camp.

The very imagined beside the very real
As only a small amount of footage involved real vintage aircraft being filmed in flight, and even these shots were relegated to being a source for CGI modelling of the planes in the resulting sequences, our world of the pilots and crews aloft in B-17s is truly a complete cinema creation. The aircraft sections were themselves works of art, the result of thousands of drawings from the period of B-17 construction. In each detail, they’re as exactly like the originals as possible, keeping with Playtone’s dedication to authenticity and accuracy, which I found uniquely appealing as a history nut and as a flyer myself.

The actors would be brought into the cockpit after we rigged multiple lenses in the Rialto mode of the Sony Venice II cameras, fixed to the aircraft frames and fuselage. From that moment, the enormous LED Volume screens surrounding the aircraft sections and the LED roof above would go into action, creating most of the lighting for the scene while also giving the actors points in their line of sight to react to, along with an ability to queue back up to specific moments of a sequence. The gimbal stands on which our sections were mounted in the volume articulated in forceful cues, giving the actors natural feelings of shake and tilt to help with the performances of flying and fighting at the cold, high altitudes. This is a fundamental part of how the show created such stirring sequences. This astounding creation, alongside the perfectly recreated aircraft, is the show in both micro and macro respects.”


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