It’s been 40 years since the movies had a go at World War I aerial combat in The Blue Max, and about 80 years since films like Wings, Hell’s Angels and The Dawn Patrol presented a cycle of pictures about the aces of the air who piloted their canvas-covered wood-frame crates over no man’s land in the “war to end all wars.” For the MTV generation, World War I is as remote as the age of innocence, and Hollywood has steered clear of air-borne “dogfights” unless they were transported into the future à la Star Wars.
Flyboys resurrects this long-dormant genre, and it should come as no surprise that the film was an independent production. In fact, the $60 million dollar picture was financed and completed without any distribution deal in place. It was picked up for U.S. theatrical release by MGM, which released the film last month.
Flyboys is about a group of young American adventurers who become pilots with the Lafayette Esquadrille in 1915, two years before the United States entered the First World War. “Whether you consider the film fact or fiction is a matter of how you look at it,” says the film’s director, Tony Bill. “A lot of things that went on with these flyers during World War I were so preposterous you’d think we made it up. For example, the pilots had a pet lion — two, in fact. And a pilot did have his wings shot off and managed to get back to earth without getting killed. Despite these facts, we didn’t want to get into a history lesson.”
Once it was determined that Flyboys would be shot in the United Kingdom, Henry Braham, BSC (Nanny McPhee, Bright Young Things) was brought aboard as cinematographer. “Tony and [producer] Dean Devlin liked my work, especially on the TV movie Shackleton ,” says Braham. “They also liked the fact that I had a lot of experience as an aerial photographer, which I gained assisting Peter Allwork. But mostly what cinched the deal was what always makes these things come together: we got on.” Bill adds, “I’d seen some of Henry’s work, but the truth is I met him and fell in love with him. It was the personal connection that made me hire him, my sense of trust in his ability.”
In their search for a visual style, the filmmakers were keen to keep their period tale accessible for contemporary audiences. “On many period films, cinematographers and directors tend to create a veil and forget that it’s hard for an audience to connect with the actors [that way],” says Braham. “We were conscious of creating an image that would be accessible for the audience, and we thought it would be interesting to use today’s technology to help tell the story.
“World War I was probably the most significant period of technological advancement in the 20th century,” continues the cinematographer. “It was a time of phenomenal change, with revolutionary developments in aviation, medicine, and even in the social order. I thought we had a brilliant parallel on our hands with digital cinematography, which represents a pretty serious revolution in filmmaking. My interest in digital imaging for Flyboys came out of a philosophical idea rather than a practical one, and it just so happened the technology was bloody good.”
Braham had worked with high-definition (HD) video on several projects and “was well aware of its limitations,” he says. “I’d experimented with it on commercials, and I’d shot a ballet performance with it where I wanted a sort of ethereal, overexposed look — it was not difficult to get. However, everything one knows about HD is almost totally irrelevant in terms of Panavision’s Genesis. I’d say working with HD is like using a quill pen, working with film is like using a typewriter, and working with the Genesis is like moving on to a fabulous word processor.”
Panavision had just introduced its new digital-cinematography system, and Braham brought one to England to make some tests. (Flyboys actually wrapped while Superman Returns, the first U.S. feature to shoot with the Genesis, was in production.) “As with any technological innovation, whenever a new filmmaking technology is introduced, people tend to be a bit reverential toward it,” he notes. “Then they give it to people who make movies, and we do our best to break it. We had very little time to make up our minds about using the Genesis, so I set out to ‘break’ it.”
Using a Genesis and a 35mm film camera, Braham shot comparison tests of airplanes silhouetted against the sun, some landscapes, and some low-light material. “After grading the Genesis footage, we transferred it to film and took it and the film tests to the Odeon Theatre at Leicester Square in London, one of the largest screens in Europe, to look at the differences,” he recalls. “I was amazed by the Genesis’ dynamic range, which is massive. Whereas the typical range of latitude on the film negative is seven stops, we were seeing a range of close to 10 stops with the Genesis. Suddenly a whole lot of new possibilities opened up, and the prospect of shooting digitally became exciting.
“Skies are very important in Flyboys, and not just when the characters are in the air,” he continues. “Even when the guys are on the ground, they’re dreaming about flying. The Genesis gave me complete control over the skies. I didn’t use any filtration, not even grads; I knew I’d be able to bring the skies down later. Shooting skies was just a matter of careful exposure. Because the Genesis is so much more sensitive than the naked eye, you can shoot skies that appear to be hot and white, but when you start grading, it’s as though the heavens open up with detail. The camera captures all the data, and you can do with that whatever you want.”
The production carried three Genesis cameras all the time, and action scenes were shot with as many as 10; all were equipped with Primo lenses. “Our crews were totally unfamiliar with the camera but took to using it very, very quickly,” says Braham. “[Genesis inventor] John Galt and a Panavision engineer spent a week with them before we started shooting and then stayed on for the first week of the shoot. That was it in terms of training.”
Braham notes that he makes lighting judgments by eye; he did not use the camera’s electronic viewfinder, but he occasionally “popped back to look at the monitor if I thought we were doing something risky.” He adds, “The crew liked the electronic viewfinder quite a bit. They could see focus very well, particularly in very low-light situations, and the viewfinder could be removed if we were trying to get a difficult shot.”
Braham usually rated the Genesis at 640 ASA. “That setting seemed to offer the most flexibility,” he says. “With more time to test and experiment, I might try a higher rating in the future.”
The cinematographer says he used “very little film lighting” on Flyboys, and as the filmmakers became accustomed to the Genesis’ ability to see into the dark, the number of low-light scenes in the picture grew. “On candlelit interiors, I used little if any fill,” notes Braham. “When you’re shooting a low-light scene on film and your actor moves into a dark corner of the set, you’ve got to add an extra bit of light in that corner. That’s always the toughest bit, because that kind of finessing takes a lot of time, and it makes the scene suddenly look more theatrical than real. We had absolute confidence the Genesis was seeing into the dark and therefore didn’t need to do that kind of fine-tuning. It inspires you to push the extremes as much as possible.”
A number of scenes at the airfield are set at dawn, and Braham achieved these with “classic day-for-night cinematography,” he says. “Dean [Devlin] expressed some concern at first and wondered if we should wait for dawn, but there was so much action going on in those scenes that we couldn’t do them in changing light.”
According to Bill, one of the biggest challenges on Flyboys was “how to viscerally capture the pilot’s experience and put the audience in his seat. I found the longer the take, the better I could get that across, so shooting digitally helped in that respect. Also, as much as possible, I wanted to have the planes in dynamic angles; I didn’t want to show them in a horizontal configuration.” Braham adds, “It’s always a challenge getting movement in aerial work. If you shoot plane to plane against a cloudless sky, it can look like the plane is standing still. Basically there are two ways to achieve a sense of movement onscreen: having clouds in the sky to play against, or doing low-level work where the movement of the ground provides the sense of speed. The Genesis’ ability to record up to 50 minutes of material was an advantage in the air — trying to get six or seven flying planes exactly where you need them takes time.”
For the practical aerial work, Braham mounted the Genesis on a Gyron Film System/Stab-C mount for helicopter work, and had a special mount devised for use on a biplane. “Each of the actors did two hours of aerobatic work in the back of a vintage Thirties Bücker Jungmann two-seater biplane whose back end was painted to look like the aircraft they were flying in the film,” says Braham. “We built rigs that were approved by the civil aviation authority in Britain to mount the camera behind the pilot, looking back at the actor in the rear. We split the Genesis for these shots; the taking mechanism was on the mount and the [onboard SR] recording deck was in the plane’s baggage compartment.”
Bill wanted to do as much of the aerial work in the sky as possible, but inevitably, CGI played a large role in the final picture, to the tune of about 800 shots. Braham recalls, “Peter Chiang, our visual-effects supervisor at Double Negative, was pressed for time on this project, and initially he wasn’t comfortable with our shooting digitally. He was concerned his team would have to rewrite their software to accommodate the new technology. So we shot some greenscreen tests for him, and then we didn’t hear from him for several weeks. Finally we called him, and he was enthusiastic. They’d already rewritten the software, and the lack of grain in the digital images made for better matte keys.” (Cinematographer Peter Taylor led the picture’s greenscreen unit.)
Braham spent about five weeks grading Flyboys at Framestore-CFC in London, and that work actually encompassed two different grades. “Dean was concerned that audiences might be biased against a digital feature that didn’t look like film,” recalls Braham, “so he asked us to make the image look as much like film as possible. We came up with something we all agreed was a perfect match, but then we remembered some of the [dailies] we’d seen while we were filming, and we all realized we’d really missed a step. So we did another grade that didn’t try to mimic film at all. That’s the one we went with.”
Overseas release prints were made at Technicolor London, and U.S. release prints were made at Deluxe Laboratories in Hollywood. Prints were made on Fuji Eterna-CP 3513DI, a choice Braham says he was aware of at the outset of production. “When developing my approach to a film, I always try to determine how it will finally be seen and work backward from there,” he says.
“At Technicolor, we spent quite a lot of time ensuring the digital-projection version and the 35mm release prints would match, and they do,” he adds.
Although Braham had a positive experience with digital cinematography on Flyboys, his next feature, The Golden Compass, will be shot on film. “Digital cinematography will ultimately speak for itself,” he says. “The important thing in moviemaking is ideas, and the medium is how you achieve those ideas. In the end, we use a given tool because it’s right, not because it’s new.”