Lancaster: The Aerial Unit
The focus of “Spitfire” and its follow up, “Lancaster,” is the specially shot and deeply engaging interviews with the veterans about their experiences during WW II. Also unique to both these films is the air-to-air material that helps to illustrate the veterans’ experiences with preserved examples of the machines they flew. It was a bold choice by the directors and producers of “Spitfire” to shoot air-to-air, but public response to all aspects of the film endorsed their vision, so Lancaster follows the same path.
The aerial unit answers the brief of David and Ant, the film’s directors, and takes its cues from the interviews. With 30 years of experience photographing and filming aircraft in the air, I was asked to undertake the same role as I had in “Spitfire.” I had to identify the assets required and pull a team together under the producer, Gareth Dodds, and make it all happen—and on a budget!
We were extremely fortunate that one of the few upsides to a pandemic lockdown was the fact that there were barely any airshows in the UK in 2020, and that meant that there was flight time available on the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Lancaster B.1, PA474. Any other year, its commitment to serving as a flying memorial may have precluded working with it.
As soon as I had a brief from the directors of what they would like to achieve, I then set about working with the BBMF and Will Banks of GB Helicopters to bring my version of the directors’ vision to film. I worked with Mark “Disco” Discombe, the CO of the BBMF, to find a window where the Lancaster would be undertaking crew currency training and wouldn’t mind a well-briefed and approved camera ship being woven into the program.
As you can see from the accompanying imagery, we used GB Helicopters’ B-3 Squirrel, with a Shotover gyro-stabilized mount on the nose. I devised a set of shots to complement the interviews, knowing we’d be in a B-3 beating the air mercilessly to death with a Lanc cruising just nicely above “engineout safety speed.” My storyboards carved out the workflow before us.
With Dodds and Hannah Rees organizing everything from the ground up, James Lovett and Will Banks organizing everything that hung under the rotor disc, and Tim Ellison and me checking weather, safety briefing, and shot protocols, we set about chasing a Lancaster around the UK countryside.
Working as aerial director is being a bit like conducting a symphony you wrote yourself: you need to orchestrate the maneuvers, guide the expert camera work of Jim Swanson, and coordinate both aircraft. When it works, it’s beautiful, and that’s the goal each time, every time.
In late September 2020, the sweet sound of four Rolls Royce Merlin engines heralded the BBMF Lancaster rising from the runway on a glorious day over RAF Coningsby, its home base. Beside the Lanc was the aerial film unit in the GB Helicopters’ Squirrel.
With careful planning and skillful flying by the Lancaster crew, we were witness to events that had not happened since 1945: a Lancaster climbing it the sky after sundown for example, and through the magic of cinema we are able to take millions of viewers with us on such sorties and bring to life the incredible trials and experiences of the brave crews that took the Lancaster to war.