Months ahead of the release of Tom Harper’s old-school adventure-drama The Aeronauts, the conversation swirling around the film had more to do with release strategy than actual content. Amazon Studios, which funded the film, initially planned for an exclusive IMAX rollout ahead of a wide theatrical release. But in America, at least, that plan was scrapped in favor of a smaller rollout, and a release to Amazon Prime Video in time for the holidays.
That’s an unfortunate fate for a film that clearly plays best on big screens. The Aeronauts’ story, about a pair of pioneering 19th-century balloonists played by Eddie Redmayne and Felicia Jones (and based on a variety of real-life explorers), is expressly shot to draw wonder from the scale of the wide-open sky. It’s a lush, gorgeous film with strong acting and breathless action. The film’s currently playing in theaters — in some American markets, it opens in 70mm on Dec. 20, as well as on Amazon, while Britain is getting a wider-scale release — but its action will also play well for families watching at home over the holidays.
Ahead of the theatrical run, Polygon spoke to Harper about some of the film’s stunts and effects, the difficulties of location scouting for terrific clouds, and about the film’s rocky release.
Polygon: What was behind the scaled-down theatrical release for the film?
Tom Harper: I think it’s just changing times. I certainly know, as a parent of two young boys, it’s hard to get to the cinema. I watch a lot of films and TV through streaming services, and through traditional TV as well. Aeronauts is designed for a big-screen experience, and I hope people choose to see it on the big screen. At the same time, I know that’s not always possible, and it’s expensive, and people are busy. So the most important thing is, I want audiences to see it, however they choose to see it.
There’s a variety of ways you can choose to see it, even in the theaters — in a normal cinema, in IMAX, we’ve got a 70mm print of it. They’re all slightly different experiences. That’s the day and age in which we live. We have all these choices, and ultimately, I think that’s a good thing. But still, if I got my way, I would control exactly how everybody sees everything. Even if they’re watching on TV, I’d go around to their house and put their TV settings exactly how I want them to see it. [Laughs] But you have to give away some of that control at some point, and accept that people are going to make their own choices.
I’ve interviewed people who’ve made Netflix films and are just excited about the platform’s international reach. Some people feel getting their film to a hundred countries at once is better than a big-screen experience. How do you personally balance that choice?
That’s a very hard question to answer. I think it’s pinned, frankly, on the film as well. Amazon enabled us to make this film, and I don’t think it would have been possible to have it financed by a conventional studio, because this is not based on an IP, it’s not a superhero movie. It was quite an original, ambitious, expensive movie to make. So if I’m really honest about it, I’m just happy and delighted that I got to make this film, and that it’s going to be seen by so many people. It didn’t follow the exact path I would have chosen, but it never does. Everyone’s going to get to watch it worldwide. More than 800 million people will have access to it for Christmas, and that’s a wonderful thing.
Is it still getting a much broader release in Britain?
It is. It’s getting a full theatrical release there. I think that actually came down to a contractual — I think the UK bought it first, and that’s why they were able to retain it in theaters. Are there differences in the audiences? I do think there are. Clearly there are differences in audiences all around the United States, let alone the UK. But when we’ve tested movies in the UK and the US, they come out surprisingly close. I think our sensibilities are more similar than I would have imagined. Films like that you think are extensively very British, like Downton Abbey, for example, are doing incredible business in the US. So I think our tastes are similar.
Was the film shot on IMAX cameras?
We didn’t actually shoot in IMAX. We shot in dual aspect ratio, on 65mm cameras. There were various artistic reasons for doing that, but it came down to a creative decision as an instigator, rather than a business decision. We wanted it to feel like the story was opening up when you got into the sky. That will be consistent on the Amazon Prime release, because TVs are mostly built for the 16:9 aspect ratio nowadays. Everything we shot on the ground is is 2.39:1, and then when you go up into the air, it opens up to 1.85:1. So that actually transposes to Amazon Prime very nicely. And if you see it on IMAX, as you can in a few places in the US, the UK, and in China, it’ll be replicated there. And the 70mm print is a slightly different aspect ratio. So again, there’s a whole variety of different formats you can choose.
The film’s crispness and color are particularly striking. What was important to you in creating the film’s look?
We were looking for the immediacy of what it would be like to be up in the atmosphere, and what it must have felt like to them that first time. All our choices came down to trying to make it feel as real as possible. So we did shoot a lot of the film for real, 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, trying to get the best cloudscapes. Even when they’re going through the storm — we obviously couldn’t put Eddie and Felicity in the middle of a thunderstorm in a balloon. But we did pour enormous amounts of water on them, and throw the balloon around. And we did put the cameras into clouds. Where we couldn’t do it for real, we tried to replicate events as closely as we possibly could.
What’s involved in location scouting for clouds?
The most ridiculous amount of planning and stress. Even though the film is about learning to scientifically predict the weather, we’re still not that good at predicting the weather. It’s not an exact science, particularly long-term weather forecasting. And if what you want is a great big storm, that’s a really hard thing to do. We shot all that stuff on what’s called an array camera. You shoot 360 degrees in a helicopter. They’re very specialist cameras. To get that many of those cameras into one place, and get the right helicopter and gear, those have to be shipped from all over the world. You have to know where and when you’re shooting weeks in advance. So you’re looking at the long-term forecast, and you go, “Okay, there’s this place in South Africa that’s very good at a certain time of the year for taking the moisture from the sea, funneling it up a mountain, and producing these great billowing towers of cumulonimbus clouds.” We used a lot of experts.
What else gave you headaches on this film? What was the hardest part to get down?
Flying the balloon with the actors was the hardest thing to to orchestrate. Usually, when you get in a balloon, it’s just the pilot, the balloon, and the passengers. You check the weather a couple of days in advance, and you pick it up and you go. But with filming, there are so many more variables. You need the cameras and the catering, the stunt people and the health and safety people and insurance getting sorted. That’s a huge amount of planning and mobilization when you don’t know what the weather will be like. It presented huge challenges. But we did it, and I think the film really benefits as a result. If we hadn’t filmed real balloons, I don’t think it would be the same experience.