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April 13, 2024

Inside the making of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg’s “Masters of the Air”

Inside the making of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg’s “Masters of the Air”

“Masters of the Air,” Apple TV+’s World War II miniseries, has been a labor of love in every conceivable way.

Even backed by Hollywood heavyweights Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Gary Goetzman, who previously worked on HBO’s World War II miniseries “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific,” the scale of the project proved to be the biggest challenge — particularly how to bring the air war to life in a convincing way. And it took more than a decade and a change in network backing to get this project onto TV screens.

Edward Ashley, Matt Gavan, Callum Turner and Anthony Boyle in “Masters of the Air,” now streaming on Apple TV+.Robert Viglasky / Courtesy of Apple

“Ten years ago, the technology wasn’t there,” Goetzman said in a recent interview with NBC News. “And we really needed the technology to be there for us to simulate all of these planes in the air doing these very dramatic sequences.”

The show, which stars Austin Butler, Callum Turner, Nate Mann, Anthony Boyle and Barry Keoghan, tells the real-life stories of the men who served in the 8th Air Force’s 100th Bomb Group over Nazi-occupied Europe from 1943 to 1945. The group eventually earned the nickname “The Bloody Hundredth” for the grave losses it suffered.

The show’s predecessors “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific” tell the stories of the Army and Marines respectively.

Austin Butler and Callum Turner in “Masters of the Air,” now streaming on Apple TV+.Robert Viglasky / Courtesy of Apple

“Masters of the Air” focuses on the dramatized but real-life stories of Maj. John Egan (Turner), Maj. Gale Cleven (Butler), Maj. Harry Crosby (Boyle) and Maj. Robert Rosenthal (Mann). Capt. Frank Murphy (Jonas Moore) who is also featured in the series, was my grandfather.

The limited series is at its midway point, its fifth episode released on Friday. So far, the series has received mostly positive reviews, with an 87% critics score and a 70% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.

One of the big takeaways for critics has been the show’s cutting-edge visual effects, brought to life on the screen by Stephen Rosenbaum, a two-time Academy Award-winning visual effects artist who is known for his work on films like “Avatar,” “Jurassic Park” and “Kong: Skull Island.”

“Over the last 60 years, we have used blue screens and green screens. And now using AI, we are able to automatically generate the [images] without the need of a green or blue screen,” Rosenbaum told NBC News. “It’s known as AI rotoscoping, and it’s all come about in the last two years.”

Rosenbaum, who had a crew of over 1,000 and worked on the project for three years, said that they built complex stages on set that allowed the actors to have an authentic experience while filming.

“We built these giant LED walls. … One was a horseshoe-shaped wall and we played back the previz [pre-visualization] we had created, so when the actors were looking out the windows they can see planes flying by, flak exploding, [and] it allowed them to actually respond and know where to look.”

While the technology of the future played a huge role in bringing “Masters of the Air” to the screen, it’s a story rooted in the past. Spielberg’s own father, who piloted a B-25 over Burma during the war, inspired the project.

“When he saw ‘Band of Brothers,’ he said, ‘Gee, Steve, I really like this series. When are you going to do the Air Force?’ And I said, ‘I’m not sure, Dad. But we’ve got another one cooking.’ So about five years later we went off and did the story of the Pacific war … and I showed it to my dad and my dad loved it as much as he loved ‘Band of Brothers’ and he said, ‘Steve, when are you going to do the Air Force?’” Spielberg told the audience at the Los Angeles premiere last month.

“I went to Tom, and I said, ‘What about it, Tom? Should we do one more?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely.’”

The entire 8th Air Force had 26,000 men killed, more than the entire Marine Corps suffered during World War II.

For the producers, getting the story historically accurate was priority No. 1.

“These events are so dramatic in and of itself that you don’t need to embellish what happened at Regensburg or behind barbed wire at Stalag Luft III,” co-producer Kirk Saduski told NBC News. Saduski is an executive at Playtone, the production company co-founded by Hanks and Goetzman.

“Making compromises for dramatic convenience is just lazy storytelling, and that’s been the philosophy at Playtone since the beginning. Fidelity to the history as much as it can be just makes for better drama.”

Nate Mann in “Masters of the Air,” now streaming on Apple TV+.
Courtesy of Apple

Unlike its predecessors, this show faced a unique challenge. All of the men whose stories it planned to tell had died. But what it did have was the 2007 bestselling book of the same name by historian Donald L. Miller, who had interviewed them all.

“When Gary told me, ‘You’re the only guy here that met all these guys, nobody else met them,’ … that helped [the show] a lot,” Miller said.

As for why he was intrigued to tell the story of the 8th Air Force, he says it came down to the psychological effects of warfare.

“I’m interested in how much people can take, when is the breaking point? And if you cross it, how do you cross back over it? And I don’t think there’s a more stressful situation in combat than flying in a B-17 or B-24,” Miller said. “It [would be] quiet for a long time, absolute silence, and all of a sudden … you’re in the back of the plane, you look up front and the pilot’s just got his head blown off … you need somebody else to help fly the plane. … You couldn’t yell ‘medic.’ You didn’t have any cover. There were no foxholes. Everything just happening wide open like that, and people had to make these decisions and fight the fighters and help the guys save the plane.”

From ideation to the screen, it was a behemoth of an undertaking. Screenwriter John Orloff spent thousands of hours over the course of a decade toiling on the script.

But first, Orloff spent an entire year creating a show outline with Hanks, which came to be known as the show’s “Bible,” a 250-page book with 500 footnotes.

From there, it took four years for Orloff to write the first seven episodes.

“These shows were written more like a movie is written rather than how a TV show is written,” Orloff said. “I wrote the first seven episodes before the show was greenlit, which is a very unusual situation.”

Behind the scenes of “Masters of the Air.”Michael Becker / Courtesy of Apple

When asked what it feels like to finally see the show come to fruition, Orloff chuckled and said, “It was such an amazing experience, but it was a tough one. … There are over 400 drafts of scripts I have written for this show.” He added, “Yes, I know every single line.”

Originally, the show was planned for HBO, but in 2019 the network announced it would not move forward with the project. Simultaneously, Hanks’ and Spielberg’s production companies, Playtone and Amblin, announced “Masters of the Air” had landed at Apple TV+.

“After careful consideration, HBO decided not to move forward with Masters of the Air. We look forward to our next collaboration with Playtone and Amblin,” HBO previously said in a statement.

The news came as a surprise, considering “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific” had garnered critical acclaim for HBO and a combined 15 Emmy Awards.

As for why HBO passed, Goetzman says it simply came down to money.

“We got to a point where it was so much money to do what we figured budgetarily … and at a point they just said, ‘Hey, do what you want to do, we can’t do this for that number.’”

Apple TV+ would not comment on the show’s price tag, but Goetzman said it’s definitely not the most expensive show ever made.

After years of countless script revisions and finding a new distributor, filming commenced in 2021 in the English countryside. Hanks, Spielberg and Goetzman quite literally brought the war back to life by re-creating the Thorpe Abbotts air force base, prison camps, and even B-17s they built from scratch.

The sets were massive: The four primary locations were the size of a small municipal airport. The series featured over 300 actors with speaking parts and 2,200 individuals, from technical directors to craft services, on set at any given time.

Costume designer Colleen Atwood said her work began nearly one year before shooting began.

“This was the largest and most complex project I have ever worked on. The scope was huge,” Atwood, who won Oscars for her work on movies such as “Chicago” and “Alice in Wonderland,” told NBC News in an email. “It was strategically phenomenal.”

Behind the scenes of “Masters of the Air.” Robert Viglasky / Courtesy of Apple

She also noted that her team had over 3,000 costume fittings: “I had a team that ranged from 20 people in the early days to 70-80 on days when we were shooting multiple episodes.”

But Covid-19 brought unforeseen challenges during filming.

“It was really debilitating,” Goetzman said. “It was horrible. Every morning at 5:30, I’m like, OK, who’s down today?’ A couple of days we lost the entire grip department. That’s pretty crazy.”

The main priority was always to convey to the audience just how dangerous these daylight bombing missions were, said Orloff.

“We wanted to get them as historically accurate as we could,” he said. “And the thing that viewers need to know is when we show a plane going down, it’s not just a random plane to the right of one of our main characters. No. We know what really happened to that plane to the right, and I researched it and it’s in the script.”

Men who fought in the 8th Air Force were required to complete a total of 25 missions before returning home. But the odds were stacked against them: On average these 10-man crews only completed 25% of their tours in 1943.

To make it feel like you were actually there, there had to be a dynamic combination of unparalleled special effects, great writing and the right actors who could bring the words to life.

“We all had that sense of dedication starting from how Tom and Steven have made all of these shows,” Goetzman said.

For the families behind the series, it’s an emotional moment, years in the making.

“It is incredibly surreal. That’s the best word I can use not only for me but for my whole family,” Sam Rosenthal, the grandson of “Rosie,” who has a minor role in the series, told NBC News by phone. “To actually see it all in live action and to witness Nate Mann’s performance portraying my grandpa after 10 years hearing about this series is a dream come true.”

“Masters of the Air” is streaming on Apple TV+.

CORRECTION (Feb. 18, 2024, 8:14 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misquoted Rosenbaum describing stages on set. He referred to “previz,” short for “pre-visualization,” not “preview.”

Chloe Melas

Chloe Melas is an entertainment correspondent for NBC News. 

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