“The Memphis Belle: Her Final Mission” – Two Nights in the Museum
Before the premiere of our original documentary The Memphis Belle: Her Final Mission on Thursday, October 29, at 9pm on ThinkTV16 and CET, get a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film with this blog written by lead producer Richard Wonderling…
The three of us stood there in silence. We were there to do a job, but it could wait a few minutes. After all, this was the Memphis Belle. The Museum of the United States Air Force was empty. We had it to ourselves. It would be a long night of shooting, so we felt okay indulging in a little personal time with one of our favorite American icons.
After a slow walk around the plane, admiring the brilliant work of the restoration team, we got down to business. We came with a plan. The Belle, of course, was a static display. Our objective was to create visual energy and drama. Since the plane couldn’t move, our camera would – constantly. In the two nights we shot at the museum, we didn’t use a single static shot where the camera was locked down on a tripod.
But there was more to the plan. We had professional actors read selected excerpts from the crew’s combat diaries. In our film, it was only when the museum closed for the day, when the lights dimmed and the living souls left the building, that the voices of the past told their stories and our moving camera gave wings to their words.
But a plan is only as good as its execution and there were no worries there. I was fortunate to have Zach Kramer and Julie Davis as crewmates. Zach, our shooter, brought a camera dolly with him – basically a camera platform on wheels to provide a smooth tracking shot. He also brought a Ronin – a handheld stabilizer that attaches to the camera and is designed to smooth out most bumps and other offensive gremlins.
We planned each shot – the speed and direction of the dolly move, the framing and movement of the camera. One practice run, and then… show time. No exaggeration, it was amazing to watch. Zach stepped onto the dolly platform. Knees bent, feet shoulder width apart, as he was doing his best Tony Hawke. Julie drove the dolly like it was something she did every day (which it isn’t). Then, as the dolly was in motion, Zach would turn and twist as he zeroed in on the target.
What was surprising was how many shots they nailed on the first run, considering the complexity. Even so, I often said, “Let’s do it once more.” Because, well, that is what we producers do.
We returned to the museum for a second night, with a new objective. It was time to get airborne. Kirk F. Thompson arrived with his 45-foot bucket lift and the fun began. Kirk helped Zach into his safety harness and we talked about the shots we needed. Some required the lift to be hard against the plane. I prefaced some of my requests to Kirk with, “If you can…” Kirk just nodded. It obviously wasn’t his first rodeo. He maneuvered the lift to mere inches from plane. The first time it was a little scary. I googled 24 hour emergency dent service on my phone. But no worries – Kirk was an absolute champ and the shots Zach got were awesome.
We had fun those nights with the Belle. But there was a feeling you just couldn’t shrug off. The restoration team spent 13 years restoring this plane for a reason. The air war over Europe was brutal and despite that, the Memphis Belle and her crew survived. They completed 25 missions, which in turn earned them a trip back to the States. To American families with young men in harm’s way, the Memphis Belle represented hope. The sad truth was, at that time in the campaign, the odds of a heavy bomber crew surviving a six-month combat tour was only 28 percent. The restoration of the Belle wasn’t just a celebration of survival – it was a remembrance of those who didn’t come home.
In making our documentaries we sometimes chase perfection for selfish reasons. But sometimes we get the opportunity to do our best, for reasons that actually matter. The Belle was definitely the latter.
Learn more about the film at https://thinktv.org/memphis-belle-the-final-mission/.