At the Movies: Take Two

World War I airplanes star in a feature film about the Lafayette Escadrille.

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Visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang headed up a team of London-based designers that modeled the Nieuport and Fokker airplanes. Thereafter, a scene of the two real Nieuports in flight could be morphed into a flight of four or six. The models could also be tweaked so that they would appear to do things impossible for the real aircraft—snap rolls or vertical climbs, for example.

For many of the aerial sequences, the directors, without the aircraft in the picture, created background scenery shots (or "plates") that could be used if the filmmakers decided to insert computer-generated aircraft or real ones.

"Like any movie, we use many different tricks," Bill says. In addition to computer graphics, the filmmakers used studio shots of airplanes on gimbals and blue screen (where shots of the actors in cockpits are superimposed over background scenery). In one particular sequence, nearly everything—a German zeppelin and its fighter escorts, the Nieuports sent to thwart it, Paris under siege circa-1917—is computer-generated.

The real trick will be stitching the real and digital together so the whole thing appears seamless. "I’ve seen the tests," Bill says, who admits he was skeptical at first of how realistic the computer-generated aircraft would appear. "They are remarkable. I don’t think anyone will notice the difference."

To those who say such effects smack of fakery, Bill counters, "No one ever filmed aerial combat in World War I. It was technologically impossible. Now it’s technologically possible to film many things from the past, from dinosaurs to [Fokker] DR I’s. I’ll give you an example of something in Flyboys that no one has ever seen: In World War I, the aviators used tracers a lot, usually every third round or so, to see where their bullets were going. I read an account of an aerial battle that described the sky looking like ‘a cobweb.’ Now, you’ve never seen this effect on screen or in photographs, [but] with CGI we could do it. We could make you see them.

"I can guarantee you this," he continues. "No one, no matter how expert, will be able to pick the real from the CGI planes much of the time. Even I can no longer tell in some of our more populous shots which aircraft are real and which are not.... I really had but one goal: to make the audience feel what it must have been like to fly mortal, sudden-death, hand-to-hand combat in the air almost 100 years ago.

"We had at our disposal a fleet of airplanes that might not be possible to duplicate ever again, and a group of pilots with skills that might not exist a decade or two hence."

And by then, even the actors may be computer-generated.

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