The Aeronauts is a biographical adventure film about a weather scientist and pilot who try to break the world record for highest flight in a hot air balloon and using the gathered data to advance the field of meteorology.
Reuniting Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones from The Theory of Everything, the film mixes the leads’ charm and chemistry with grand high-flying action sequences, shot 10,000 ft in the air in a hot air balloon. At the AFI Festival red carpet, I had the opportunity to talk with director Tom Harper, production designer Christian Huband, special effects supervisor Louis Morin, and producer David Hoberman about the challenges that went into creating this film. I also spoke with actor Richard Ching, from The Man in the High Castle about the benefits of films like The Aeronauts being available on streaming platforms.
Tom Harper (Director)
The Knockturnal: What aspects of this story attracted you as a director?
Harper: There were two things that really appealed to me. One was the possibility of creating a white-knuckle, rollercoaster ride in the sky with the visual opportunities that presents. Second, was to show the extreme lengths people will go to expand our knowledge of our world. The story provides a character study of the individuals and personalities confined in the small space of a basket.
The Knockturnal: Can you go into the challenges that you experienced having to direct and shoot your actors in a hot air balloon?
Harper: One of the real challenges was that, unlike a regular film, we couldn’t just say cut and walk over there, because I was in a helicopter and they were in a hot air balloon. So, we had to rehearse a lot of the drama on the ground, then they’d go up and perform the scene. Since there was no ability to contact each other, we had to schedule everything very carefully.
Christian Huband (Production Designer)
The Knockturnal: So from a production design standpoint what were some challenges you experienced having to work with a confined space like the hot air balloon.
Huband: The biggest challenge was creating a flying machine that could take two cast members and crew up in the sky. Not many people shoot a movie on a flying machine set that operates 10,000 feet in the air. That was my biggest challenge of all. You mentioned the size of the basket?
The Knockturnal: Yes.
Huband: That also created constraints. In reality, a basket might be really small, actually we made ours a lot bigger, so James Glacier (Eddie Redmayne) could have space to do his measurements and readings, and Emilia (Felicity Jones), could have space for her equipment. I wanted her to feel populated, like a ‘round the world type woman, someone who knew their craft and knew it really well. That was our aim.
The Knockturnal: Can you go into more detail on how you were able to capture the size and epicness of the hot air balloon, as well as working with the IMAX format?
Huband: The tried to maximize the size of the balloon in order to carry the most gear. Literally, as a film crew, we wanted to carry as much gear as we could. It ended up being over 18 ft high. We also knew that would sit well within the IMAX and skyscapes. The bigger the better, it is called the mammoth after all.
The Knockturnal: Can you also go a bit more into your thought process regarding capturing the period detail for the sets and costumes?
Huband: Filming in London always offers the opportunity to capture the period because some of the locations are as old as the 12th century. You still have to be discerning. In fact, we use to play a game with our producer where he’d say, “How old is that building” and would try and guess it as near as possible. Through experience and research, you do become reasonably expert for what will work for the 1860’s and for telling the story.
Louis Morin (Special Effects Supervisor)
The Knockturnal: From a special effects standpoint, can you go into detail regarding the techniques you used to capture the size and scope of the hot air balloon and get the audience in the place of the characters?
Morin: We did a lot of research and development to get the clouds to look realistic. We had two companies work on the clouds. There was a second part where we had fewer beauty shots and more action sequences. The rendering process was extremely challenging.
The Knockturnal: Some reviewers have compared the film to Gravity or Free Solo in regards to its effects and cinematography, were those or any other films influences for you?
Morin: In the beginning, my friend Stuart (Penn) did a great portion of visual effects in the movie, he also did Gravity. The methodology of his effects was inspirational. For example, we created fifteen 360-degree skies that we could view through an iPad on set. The skies were displayed on a bluescreen where we could look up and down. We used this technology to guide our way through the special effects process on set.
David Hoberman (Producer)
The Knockturnal: What about this project motivated you to see it through development?
Hoberman: I always wanted to tell a story that was epic while still in a confined space. It doesn’t get more confining than a basket on a gas balloon. We thought if we could pull it off it’d be an extraordinary film. It was also great to work with Tom Harper, who we loved from War & Peace, and Jack Thorne, who we worked with on Wonder. We also thought the story was incredible.
The Knockturnal: What aspect of the story do you think will resonate with a modern audience?
Hoberman: I think it is about perseverance and letting nothing stand in the way. Both characters are running away from something in the sky. I think on a more mundane level, particularly kids today, I think everyone is looking down, and this is a film where you look up. For women, this is an opportunity to see the heroism in Felicity and her character. I hope it will be inspirational.
Richard Ching (The Man in the High Castle, Mr. Eto)
The Knockturnal: Are you excited about the film?
Ching: Yes! I’m excited that it’s an Amazon production. Given my work on The Man in the High Castle, supporting a film that’s in the Amazon family is the least I could do.
The Knockturnal: What would you say is the benefit of having these films run through streaming platforms like Amazon Prime, especially as they’re slowly growing in our industry?
Ching: I love a true story. I know this film isn’t completely true, it’s based on true events, and that’s really cool. I am a history buff at heart, so anything that’s period, historic, accurate, and real; I’m in. The fact that the streaming platform has taken off, I think is cool. You have the opportunity to premier at a theater like this, but then you can stream it at the comfort of your home, is such as bonus. I don’t know how other people are, but sometimes, I find it difficult to go out of the house.
The Knockturnal: I totally understand. You said you’re a history buff, how do you think a film like this would resonate with a modern audience?
Ching: Number one, it’s that whole irony of, do I want to go to class or do I want to watch a movie. Everyone is streaming in the millennial era, so this film is accessible. You will see a film that is historic but not a traditional set production. It does take place thousands of feet in the air. There is a hot air balloon, there is action, there are storms, and people are falling. No matter what age you are, you have to appreciate that amount of detail and realness that is on screen.
The Knockturnal: Is there anything on Amazon that you’re watching right now that you really liked?
Ching: I just binged our last season of The Man in the High Castle. Ironically, when we are filming, there are so many micro-stories going on in our show, that I don’t get to see half the stuff. So, this is actually the first time, this past weekend, that I could actually see the full production.
The Knockturnal: And you get to appreciate it like any other audience member would
The Aeronauts will be released to theaters on December 6th