Months before the release of Tom Harper’s old-fashioned adventure drama The Aeronauts, the conversation in the film had more to do with the release strategy than the actual content. Amazon Studios, which financed the film, initially planned an exclusive IMAX rollout before a major movie release. But at least in America, this plan was discarded in time for the holidays in favor of a smaller rollout and publication on Amazon Prime Video.
This is an unfortunate fate for a film that clearly runs best on big screens. The story of the aeronauts, which is about two pioneering 19th-century balloonists played by Eddie Redmayne and Felicia Jones (and based on a variety of real-life discoverers), has been expressly taped to work wonders from far and wide Scooping heaven. It is a lush, beautiful film with strong acting and breathless action. The film is currently in theaters – it will open in 70mm format on December 20 and on Amazon in some American markets, while the UK is getting a wider release – but its action will also be interesting for families at home watch the holidays.
Before the theatrical release, Polygon spoke to Harper about some of the film’s stunts and effects, the difficulty in finding great clouds, and the film’s rocky release.
Polygon: What was behind the reduced theatrical release of the film?
Tom Harper: I think only time changes. I know that as a parent of two boys it is difficult to get to the cinema. I watch a lot of movies and television through streaming services and also through traditional television. Aeronauts was designed for a cinematic experience, and I hope people choose to see it on the big screen. At the same time, I know that this is not always possible and expensive and that people have a lot to do. So the most important thing is that the audience sees it no matter what it looks like.
There are a lot of ways you can see it, even in the cinemas. In a normal cinema, we have a 70 mm print of it in IMAX. These are all slightly different experiences. That is the day and age we live in. We all have these options and ultimately I think that’s a good thing. But if I could do it, I would control exactly how everyone sees everything. Even if they watch TV, I go to their house and set their TV settings exactly as I want them to. (Laughs) But at some point you have to give up some of that control and accept that people will make their own decisions.
Yes, that looks funny. Photo: Amazon Studios
I interviewed people who made Netflix films and are fair excited about the international reach of the platform, Some people feel like they are taking their film to a hundred countries at once is better than a cinema experience, How do you personally balance this choice?
This is a very difficult question to answer. I think that’s also related to the film. Amazon made it possible for us to make this film, and I don’t think it would have been possible to fund it through a traditional studio, as this is not based on an IP, but is not a superhero film. It was a fairly original, ambitious, and expensive film. If I’m really honest, I’m just happy and pleased that I was allowed to make this film and that it will be seen by so many people. It didn’t exactly follow the path I would have chosen, but it never does. Everyone will be able to see it worldwide. Over 800 million people will have access to it at Christmas, and that’s a wonderful thing.
Will there still be a much broader release in the UK?
It is. There will be a full movie release there. I think it was actually a contract – I think Britain bought it first, so they were able to keep it in theaters. Are there differences in the target group? I guess so. Obviously there are differences in the target group in the United States, let alone in the United Kingdom. However, when we have tested films in the UK and USA, they come surprisingly close. I think our feelings are more similar than I would have imagined. Films like Downton Abbey, which you think are very British, do incredible business in the United States. So I think our taste is similar.
Was the film shot with IMAX cameras?
We didn’t shoot in IMAX. We shot with 65mm cameras in double aspect ratio. There were various artistic reasons for this, but it was a creative decision to instigate and not a business decision. We wanted it to feel like history opened when you went to heaven. This also applies to the Amazon Prime version, as televisions are now mostly built for the 16: 9 aspect ratio. Everything we shot on the floor is 2.39: 1, and when you blow up, it opens to 1.85: 1. So that actually transposes very nicely on Amazon Prime. And if you see it on IMAX like you can in some places in the US, UK and China, it will replicate there. And the 70mm print has a slightly different aspect ratio. So there are a number of different formats that you can choose from.
The sharpness and color of the film are particularly striking. What was important to you when designing the film?
We were looking for the immediacy of what it would be like to be in the atmosphere and how it must have felt the first time around. In all of our decisions, we have tried to make the feeling as real as possible. So we really shot a lot of the film with the actors in a balloon. We tried to use as much real footage as possible. For example, we shot all the background plates in helicopters in South Africa and New Orleans to get the best cloud landscapes. Even if they go through the storm, we obviously couldn’t put Eddie and Felicity in a balloon in the middle of a thunderstorm. But we poured huge amounts of water on them and tossed the balloon around. And we put the cameras in clouds. Where that was not possible, we tried to replicate the events as accurately as possible.
What is connected with the location after clouds?
The most ridiculous amount of planning and stress. Although the film is about scientifically predicting the weather, we’re still not that good at predicting the weather. This is not an exact science, especially not a long-term weather forecast. And if you want a big storm, it’s really difficult. We took all of this with a so-called array camera. You shoot 360 degrees in a helicopter. They are very specialized cameras. To get so many of these cameras in one place and get the right helicopter and equipment, they need to be shipped from all over the world. You need to know where and when to take photos weeks in advance. So you’re looking at the long-term forecast and saying, “Okay, there is a place in South Africa that is very well suited to channeling moisture from the sea to a mountain at a particular time of year, and we made these massive towers out of cumulonimbus clouds , “We used a lot of experts.
What else gave you a headache with this film? What was the most difficult to get down?
Flying the balloon with the actors was the hardest thing to orchestrate. When you get into a balloon, these are usually just the pilot, the balloon, and the passengers. You check the weather a few days in advance and record it and off you go. But there are so many other variables with filming. They need the cameras and catering, the stunt people, and the health and safety staff and the insurance that are sorted. This is a huge amount of planning and mobilization if you don’t know what the weather will be like. It presented us with great challenges. But we did it and I think the film benefits from it. If we hadn’t filmed real balloons, it probably wouldn’t be the same.
Real balloon, real climb, really creepy. Photo: Amazon Studios
Who do you travel to today to build a giant 19th century weather balloon?
There are not many people! You need six months to build a balloon. And because of the way films are funded, getting all the money so far in advance is pretty difficult. We went to Per Lindstrand, an aeronautical engineer who flew with Richard Branson. They flew around the world together. We went to him and he built us a historic gas balloon, I think the first net gas balloon that has been built in 50 years or something like that. It was just wonderful to see, inflate and take off for the first time. It was amazing.
Was there only one balloon?
Yes, only one.
Movies are used to having props redundancy in case something goes wrong. Was it as nerve-wracking as it sounds?
We were confident of what we were trying to do, as was logistically challenging. It’s all proven technology, and we worked with real experts who knew what they were doing. And the equipment is incredibly resilient. They know that until today they use wicker baskets for balloons because they are simply the best. They absorb the shocks best and bend and shift. We had a balloon, but we had three baskets and duplicates of different pieces of equipment. But it’s also not like a helicopter where you have thousands of work parts to make things go wrong. It’s literally a big balloon, and if you have a hole in it, sew it up. This is not rocket science. The science is sincere: “Fill it with gas, throw sand to rise, release gas to come down.”
For the sequence in which Felicity’s character Amelia climbs up the side of the balloon, I understood that you used a stunt person and shot that sequence in the air, actually making the climb. What was it like to shoot this sequence?
Really funny. (Laughs) The stunt woman’s name is Helen Bailey and she is fearless. I had seen a picture of someone standing on a balloon, so I knew it was possible. I didn’t know if it was possible for us and if we could insure it. I think the last time someone did was they had a parachute. We did it with belts. She did it three times with me in a helicopter and it was incredible.
How much time did you spend on helicopters for this film?
Too much. You give me the heebie-jeebies. Again, they have thousands of moving parts. You have a pilot, and if he has a heart attack or something goes wrong with your equipment, you’re dead. People crash in helicopters all the time. If my pilot had a heart attack in a balloon, I would be damn good at landing it, you know? You let out some gas, you throw out some sand. I think I could do that! I’m not saying I would do it well, but I could get myself down! While in a helicopter, that’s it! So yes, I try not to fly in helicopters wherever possible.
The figures here are amalgams of various historical figures, and the balloon flight is an amalgam of several balloon flights. What was important to you to keep the historical records?
The essence of the escape miracle and what it meant for these characters to get into the balloon. What inspired me most when reading these characters was the real desire to see the world differently and to expand people’s knowledge of the world. In return, they took extraordinary risks. I find that very inspiring. There are so many remarkable things we can do as human beings when we work together, and sometimes that is forgotten. We face major challenges, but it is also important to celebrate the great things we do to make everyone’s life better. I know it’s a bit high.
Eddie Redmayne has played many determined but fragile nerds, and Felicity Jones has played many tough but vulnerable women. Were there certain roles in which you had seen them that made you have them for this film?
Yes and no. The reason why you call someone for a role is that there are aspects of their work or personality that you think will be transferred to your character. Most directors and companies, almost all, can see a pattern in their work. I think that applies to Eddie and Felicity. But I think there are things in this film that have driven them forward. Some of it is based on characters – two actors in a fairly large action film, which is basically limited to an area of 3 by 3 meters, is an immense challenge and relies on the chemistry between them. I think they really enjoyed working with each other, daring each other, taking risks and pushing each other. And I think you really get that in the movie. Can you maintain the focus of an audience in such a small space and convince them over 90 minutes? Not many people could do such a great job.
The ice on the balloon during the ascent is one of the most striking effects in the film. How did you get this look?
You want me to tell you how we did a magic trick! It’s actually mostly wax. There is a company called Snow Business that specializes in ice and snow. You are very successful. They do it for all films. We had very special needs, so we experimented with different levels of ice and shine.
As with so many film scenes, it begins to grasp reality and analyze what it looks like. We took their clothes, dampened them and froze them to see how ice crystals would form on them. Then it says, “Let’s take these pictures of it. How can we recreate it in a sustainable way that is consistent? How can we do it with resins and waxes?” Felicity had 19 different versions of her costume at different stages and we would never be able to freeze these costumes the same way every time. So we had to be able to maintain consistency with artificial ice. It was the same with the balloon – we started with pictures of real balloons and what high-flying flights do with different materials, then we analyzed them and tried to emulate these effects.