12 months since engaging with Warner Bros to deliver the aerial scenes for the movie Dunkirk, it is satisfying to see the superb reception of the film by critics and film goers alike. Spirit in the Sky worked solidly on the project identifying aircraft, pilots, base airfields, implementing paint schemes, seeking permits and providing technical input to the filmmakers across several locations in Europe.
“Our main point of contact on this project was Tom Struthers, stunt co-ordinator on numerous Chris Nolan projects” noted Steven Moth, aerial logistics manager on the project. ” We started looking at aircraft and potential operational bases at the tail end of 2015, ramping up efforts in Feb 2016 to source various aircraft. The big challenge was finding Spitfire’s that matched the period May 1940. That put us firmly in MKI territory, and at the time there were only 3 accessible examples. As luck would have it all three were at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford”. Two of the aircraft belonged to Dan Friedkin, a passionate collector of WWII aircraft who also shares a passion for film production. “Dan gave us open access to his aeroplanes, and flew the aircraft along with Ed Shipley and Steve Hinton. All three fly together regularly on the display circuit as the Bremont Horsemen. We were fortunate to secure this level of expertise.”
Dan’s passion and willingness to get stuck in and help the aerial team on this project were invaluable. He flew the lead Spitfire role that culminated in landing a MKI Spitfire on the beach. This required supreme piloting skill. There has been talk that this was CGI’d. This is false rumour. The French authorities would only allow aircraft in France to land at an airport. So with huge input from French producer John Bernard, we designated the beach an airport for two days. “It was a heart stopping moment when those wheels touched down. The aircraft had to be shut down due to overheating and it subsequently got stuck in the sand. Tom Struthers stunt team immediately ran to assist and pushed the aircraft out of the sand before the tide came in. We celebrated in the hangar that evening!”
Spitfire box ticked, thoughts then turned to Messerschmits. At that time there was only one airworthy ME109E in the world. Peter Monk’s team at Biggin Hill were working to get their aircraft back in the air, though delays in the US with the engine rebuild went against us. The EADS 109 was not available and plans to use the Planes of Fame Buchon with 109 nose conversion fell by the wayside due to time pressure. It was at this point that we made contact with John Romain at Aircraft Restoration Company to use his Buchon. John also provided the beautiful Blenheim which performs a fly by in the film. Again John brought a high level of professionalism to the table.
By April 2016 all teams were full steam ahead to ensure aerial assets were in Dunkirk ready to commence shooting on the 24 May.
From the outset it was a made clear by Chris Nolan and his team that CGI would take a back seat on Dunkirk. Everything to be shot in IMAX for real. Anyone who has experience with IMAX will know that the camera hardware is large and cumbersome. So the big challenge was accommodating IMAX hardware in and around the aircraft to put the viewer in the aerial battles. The Spitfire cockpit is too small, and for external cameras, the mount structure too damaging to an original Spitfire to contemplate. The decision was made to purchase a YAK 52TW and convert some elements to look like a Spit. A MKI canopy was added, exhausts and carbon fibre wingtips. The team at Planes of Fame undertook all the analysis required to ensure that the aircraft was airworthy with cameras fitted on the wings etc.
“We arrived in France with the YAK and the DGAC (French equivalent of the CAA) were scratching their heads and looking very perplexed. Pascal Joubert their Airworthiness Standards guy asked many questions, poked, prodded and after 24 hrs cleared us to operate temporarily in their airspace. The Dutch however had recently experienced a fatal incident involving a YAK 52 and had grounded all examples in country. We had to leave our aircraft in France pending further negotiation with the Dutch authorities.” notes Steven Moth. “Pressure to get the Yak cleared for filming in Holland was huge. The majority of marine based shots were undertaken on the Ijsselmeer in Holland and the Yak was critical in capturing some of the air to air shots overhead the marine vessels below.” Several meetings later and a 20 page report in hand the Dutch authorities gave the exemption required to bring the Yak into their airspace. This was a critical moment for the Dunkirk aerial team.
This project was an immense undertaking for the team at Spirit in the Sky. With a good proportion of the film devoted to aerial work, there was huge pressure to get it right. “To have been a part of the team on a Chris Nolan project was a huge privilege for us. In addition to be raising awareness of these critical times in British history is something that is key to what we do. Lest we never forget”.