Cinematographer George Steel overcame an extreme fear of heights to shoot one of the most gorgeous visual treats of the year with Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.
The most infamous line from the oft-quoted Aeronauts trailer begs the question: Do women “belong in balloons?” The answer is a resounding “no,” because no human — man, woman, or child — should be dangling several thousand feet above the ground with only a wicker basket separating them from certain death. At least that’s probably what someone with a fear of heights, like George Steel — acclaimed cinematographer whose Oscar-worthy contribution to the Felicity Jones/Eddie Redmayne thriller is some of the best camerawork of the year — would have told you before boarding the project. But, Steel says commanding a crew of helicopter pilots and camera operators into the skies (in addition to placing himself atop a 200-foot crane) to shoot Jones and Redmayne as they rode atop real gas aircraft helped him overcome his deepest anxieties to tell a gripping visual story that places audiences smack in the center of a high-flying spectacle.
The Aeronauts is now playing in limited release before hitting Amazon Prime Video on Dec. 20. Read on for EW’s full Q&A with Steel, during which he discusses the logistical challenges of shooting a movie 3,000 feet off the ground, why he wanted to film purposeful “mistakes” to achieve realistic lighting, and how Radiohead (sort of) played a small role in locating the perfect spot to shoot the project’s indoor scenes.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Eddie and Felicity have been so open about not having a fear of heights on this movie, but I understand you do?
GEORGE STEEL: That’s true! I sort of ended up being cured of it. Of all the things we did — we went up in hot air balloons and helicopters — the scariest thing was going up on a big crane [200 feet off the ground] attached to the basket. But, Felicity was leaping around up there, so I couldn’t exactly be too much of a chicken!
If you’re afraid of heights, why the hell would you agree to shoot a balloon movie!?
[Laughs] I’ve worked with Tom before, and it’s great to be challenged. Weirdly, having a camera on your shoulder and looking through an eyepiece focuses the mind. The first time we went up in the [crane to film the] balloon, I kept looking down the side of the basket, which was quite a surreal experience because you can see through the wicker. Certainly, my legs went a bit wobbly, and I clutched onto the middle partition in the balloon! But, you sort of resign yourself to the fact that you hope it doesn’t go wrong. Once you do that, you kind of enjoy it, right?
I guess so! I have an intense fear of flying so I’ll take your word for it! It’s incredible that, despite being afraid, how masterfully you contrasted the feeling of claustrophobia in the basket with the vastness of the sky around them. Upon joining the film, what were your mutual goals with Tom in how you wanted the camera to play a role in this story?
You have all sorts of fanciful ideas to start with, and what Tom is very good at is he set out a set of rules that we weren’t to break. He was adamant that this was not to be an action-superhero film, and that applied to the camera. So, the camera couldn’t just do anything. He wanted to keep it in the realm of reality, so the camera could do [realistic] things. He wanted us to be only in positions that could be achieved on a real balloon, so that’s a good start, because it gives you a set of languages. That also [opens it up to] the lenses, because you have to be wide enough to see the action that’s going on.
One of the things I’m most proud of is the way the visual effects and lighting combine to create a believable [look]. So, we did a lot of “mistakes” you wouldn’t normally do.
The light changes throughout the film. It even looks overexposed as they get closer to the sun. How did you achieve that lighting with such constraints on the camerawork?
We were on a stage at that point. We worked on the principle that we knew we were ending up in a more space-like environment near the end as the sun gets harder and crisper. There’s less pollution, it gets colder because you’re getting closer to leaving the atmosphere. It’s the idea of looking out of a plane window, that crystallized clarity you get. We changed the source of light — we ended up using a hard, clear-lensed mirror reflector — to a very hard and purse source. We also stripped away the diffusion from the camera the higher we got. We never wanted it to look digital, but we stripped away our tricks for a digital camera to make it look more intense.
So, you constructed a lighting rig, too?
We had a big 100-by-100 blue-screen stage, and we had different fixtures of light in the corners that we used at different times for effect as the balloon goes higher. We came across the problem of not being able to dim the lights like you can a lot of others. There’s a bit where they go into the cloud, so we needed to figure out how to create that effect. The winning thing we came up with was a four-by-four box that we filled with smoke and experimented with different colors and densities to create this diffusion as they go into the cloud and the lighting changes.
That’s all inside the studio, but, logistically, what’s involved in shooting that high up in the air?
Eddie and Felicity had a bit of a bumpy landing up in the gas balloon, and we had a bit of a hair-raising time [with that]. There was a helicopter unit who’ve done hundreds if not thousands [of these shoots]. There’s a rig on the front of the helicopter and there’s an experienced cameraman and pilot who work together a lot, creating the shots together. It was incredible how close they actually did go to the balloon. They ended up within 100 yards of the thing, and that was a real gas balloon. The pilot was hidden and there was a stunt rigger also hidden, and then Eddie and Felicity, and that’s it!
There’s one shot in the film where we reveal London [below] and that’s all real. Felicity is sitting up on the hoop at 3,000 feet, and they’re floating out, swooping around…. Obviously, visual effects put some things in afterward, but the shot itself is real.
For the stuff on the ground, you obviously had to find a space that was big enough to fit in this mammoth balloon that was constructed. I hear that Radiohead was there at the beginning when you were looking for places to film the indoor sections?
We went to look for studio spaces, and they all didn’t have enough height. The basket was 30 or 40 feet high, so we needed the right space. There was a place where bands rehearse and we went along to [scout] and there was a band playing, and it was Radiohead! So, we had an impromptu Radiohead gig at a very auspicious stage off a motorway in West London. It was very strange, but that’s where we did the film!