Veteran planes, replicas and CGI

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Staff Sergeant
We all like war movies, right? And air combat movies are even better for many of us. Like good flight sims, there have only been a few good movies with air combat involving the proper era aircraft.

World War Two ended sixty years ago. There have been some decent cinema productions depicting the air war since then. Those made relatively soon after the war enjoyed the use of the actual planes involved of which many were still around from the Allied side at least. Those made during and after the war had the real aircraft flying with disguised enemy planes made by cosmetic modifications to Allied ones. An AT-6 trainer substituted for the Zero often. Close up shots were done with studio-constructed mock-ups. Other times air battles were recreated using models and whatever special effects were possible at the time.

The post-war Fighter Squadron in 1948 used real live Thunderbolts and as I recall a couple of Spitfires. The German planes depicting Bf 109s were actually the Bf 108 Taifun private planes in many post-war movies. They were quite distinctive from 109s as such with their side-by-side seating and wide canopies. All us knowledgeable folks spotted them right away. The 1951 John Wayne saga Flying Leathernecks featured F6F Hellcats of which there were many still around active in Air Guard units. Rock Hudson in Battle Hymn a few years later found real P-51s co-starring.

Later in the 1960s came the epic Battle of Britain and in 1970, Tora! Tora! Tora! BoB used actual He 111s still flying with the Spanish Air Force re-engined with Hispano power plants. The Bf 109s were Spanish-built 109s, called the HA-1112, and are duplicates save for the bulging cowl beneath the engine. There were many Spitfires and Hurricanes still around.

Tora! Tora! Tora! had a greater problem since no Japanese aircraft in flying condition existed. But sheet metal modifications to AT-6s and some BT-13s produced, Zeros, Vals and Kates. Today an AT-6 would be restored as an AT-6 since even they are getting rare.

Jets combat in the movies have been fewer in number. The flick about Joseph McConnell, top Korean War ace used real, contemporary F-86s but there were no MiG 15s around. F-84s were painted up to stand in for them. In 1954 The Bridges of Toko-Ri used real F9F Panthers and the F-84 "MiGs." But even much later movies have faired little better with enemy planes easily distinguishable as "something else" by knowledgeable fans. 1986's Top Gun had Northrop F-5s portraying Soviet-made fighters. Mythical movie scenarios with foes from countries with bogus names have used all sorts of aerial hardware. That almost "flies" since it's possible that the fantasy land of Zuntaar may field Swedish surplus J 35 Drakens or Mirages.

The Confederate Air Force began obtaining WW II planes in 1957 and several private individuals restored returned many more to flying condition. Their first plane was a P-51 that cost $500! In recent decades they have acquired B-17s, one B-24 and one B-29, all returned to flying condition, but at costs astronomically higher that the first Mustang. A single Lancaster still flies in Europe.

In the 1970s and early 80s there were still things like P-38s, P-51s, P-47s and such languishing in Central and South American hangers after use by various air forces until switching over to affordable jets. Individuals and groups made treks to disassemble them and ship them home. Over the years many of these planes found their way to movie sets as authentic examples used in filming. It is highly doubtful that any more serviceable old planes await us hidden somewhere. They've pretty much all been found.

Air racer Paul Mantz once owned over 500 surplus WW II planes including bombers like the B-17 and B-24. Many were used in movies and ultimately went to other homes. Mantz and partner Frank Tallman did a lot to bring authentic planes into films. Most were sold off and over the years crashes claimed them to history along with some of their pilots. Mantz lost his life in the filming of the original 1965 Flight of the Phoenix.

A scant few wrecks found in the Pacific jungles have come back to life, fortunately a flying Mitsubishi Zero and a Nakajima Ki 43 "Oscar" are two of them. A few years ago an expedition to Greenland to search for the lost squadron of B-17s and P-38s that put down there in WW II was found. The P-38 ultimately retrieved was raised from 200 feet below the ice and it was not in the factory new condition that it was in 1943. Its rebuild has consumed several million dollars. But these have been costly revivals. It all depends on how much money a group is willing to sink into a long-term project like restoring a Kawasaki Ki 61 that may await us in a jungle somewhere.

Some time ago a group decided to build five replica Me 262 2-seat trainers using modern J-85 turbine power. Yeehaa! The cost each is $2.5 million each with out the engines. Messerschmitt has even given the authentic "Werks" numbers beginning where the last 262's left off in 1945, and some monetary assistance. Outwardly they are indistinguishable form the real thing but under the skins they are different from the sub-systems to the modern radios and instruments to the materials used.

These craft are pricey, yes, but it proves that perfect replicas can be made for relatively reasonable costs. With a $2 million plus price for a real good original P-51 in flying condition the 262s are a bargain. And remember, there are more Mustangs around than just about any other WW II plane. The other, more rare flying veterans would go for more.

WW I replicas have been around a long time. There are Fokker tri-planes and Sopwith Camels. They're seen at air shows doing mock combat all over. The Air Force even built a Sopwith Camel from the original plans for their museum many years ago. After WW I there were so many surplus J-4 Jenny trainers and all sorts of wanna-be pilots bought them cheap and the barnstorming era was born. By 1966 George Peppard in The Blue Max used WW I replica planes.

Replicas are the way to go.

Now early jets like the once plentiful P-80 and F-86 are fewer and farther between. After a long time ban on private ex-military jets the government relented several years ago so the craft are now flying at air shows after costly restorations. Air racer Darryl Greenameyer set some speed records in his own F-104 Starfighter. Even some MiG 15s and 17s reside with private owners!

As we fast-forward our movie-making from 1970 to today we still see some veteran aircraft included for authenticity, though the P-51 in Saving Private Ryan would most likely been rocket-firing Typhoons, which are scarce if any still fly. What we do see now is much-improved CGI- computer generated images. Models are still used at times as are mock-ups but they have improved too. The 1987 Empire of the Sun used real P-51s and excellent scale, radio controlled models in a few brief scenes at the climax. When one sees something such as Stukas overhead in a movie now they are CGI as no Ju 87 has flown since the war. The only ones left are in museums. Of course, all the cinematic crashes we've ever seen were models.

In 1970 it was still possible to round up a squadron-strength of real B-25s for Catch-22. Many more were to be found all over. How many, or rather how few, still fly today? If Catch-22 was to be filmed for the first time in 2004 It could still be done in a convincing manner with one or two real ships and heavy CGI.

Special effects wizards can take one or two real planes filmed in flight and render a squadron from them. This is an old technique but far advanced with the aid of computers today. It would be very interesting to see a film in the style of Fighter Squadron or 1942's John Wayne epic Flying Tigers done today. It was done in the 1982 film Firefox with Clint Eastwood where the fantasy Soviet super-plane was purely fictitious in design. The ground-based shots showed how good the mock-ups were. The flow of the on-screen flight sequences was not as "real" as it could be today but it generally worked. Indian Jones and the Last Crusade had convincing CGI Bf 109s and mockups. They were even accurate to the fact that they were pre-war "B' of "C" models with 2-blade props. These films were packed with combat scenes and the schmoochy romance dialogue was kept to a minimum. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow shows us a virtual P-40 that "flies" convincingly enough for me.

Considering finances, making a CGI saturated movie today could be cost effective if studios don't pay so-called stars $20 million. In fact let's leave out humans altogether. The first all CGI movies have been done and there will be more, no doubt. They are not animated cartoons. They look 95% true to life and that is good enough for me if would mean seeing some cool, large-scale air battles.

Look, we've seen space movies for decades become better and better with special effects people working with no "real" anything. The original Enterprise on TV's 1968 Star Trek looks just plain bad compared to late 1990s Voyager fighting Borg Cubes. And when cinema productions are planned the budget is much larger than television shows allowing a far greater range of do-able visuals.
It's extremely unlikely that we'll see any of what I've wished for here. Even with the state of the art CGI rendering possible we're likely to see a single Hellcat over fly a scene as in the recent Windtalkers than we are to see accurately depicted, a squadron of them, as in Flying Leathernecks. The movies are more and more simply vehicles for actors rather than depictions of a historical era or event like Battle of Britain or Tora! Tora! Tora! Only the relatively recent Pearl Harbor has carried the torch of CGI and live action to any extent. It's a step in the right direction. As good PC combat flight simulations are few and far between so it had been with motion pictures. We will probably only be teased with fleeting glimpses of WW II planes in the cinema of the future for the most part. Certainly the art of creating something from nothing will improve and get less expensive as have all things computer-based.

The movie about Howard Hughes' planes saw huge radio-controlled models take to the air. We're talking 30-foot wingspans for the H-1 racer. Of course using a stable of models as these would be very expensive and endless editing would be needed to give the viewer the idea that combat was actually taking place. CGI combat planes are the best way to go.

The pilots of WW II are fast leaving us. Their planes will last longer but at what cost? A classic auto can be filmed sitting still or cruising by at 25 MPH and still lend realism to a movie with no risk of destruction. Real classic planes "fly" for goodness sake. And they can crash. The "cast of thousands" term often used in previews to depict sagas or epic motion pictures has been replaced by CGI "extras" quite convincingly. Is it time that the genuine, veteran air warriors are too?
Interesting, but some of the facts in that write up seem a bit off. The AT-6 is far from rare these days, with over 1,000 still flying. Likewise, there are 2 Lancasters, one in England and the other in Canada (which, BTW, the Canadian Lancaster flew at OshKosh this year!) B-25s are actually quite numerous thanks to companies like Aero-Trader. I have personally seen at least 6 different B-25s in the last year alone. Having at least one flying example for filming and filling in with additional CGI seems the way to go so that they can see the actual flight characteristics of the original aircraft.

The CAF Zero that was at Camarillo for a couple of years and is now in Arizona on temporary assignment has been featured in many movies in the US and other countries. The CAF fortunately gets some good funds from movie appearances and is part of what keeps them flying.
I agree with Eric. I believe to have a realistic movie you need an actual aircraft for the close up shots (air to air) and CGI planes filling in the back ground. I don't know about anyone else, but I find CGI effects stick out like dog balls. For example I wasn't convinced one bit in the scene from the latest King Kong movie where the biplanes were attacking him. To me they just didn't look right, anyone else agree with this?
There are actually more flying Hurricanes and Spitfires around these days than there were 30 years ago because their value has increased and so there is more reason for people to restore them.

Dark Blue Sky also used a mix of old BoB footage, new Spitfire footage and CGI convincingly enough.

The future of WW2 in Computer Animation probably lies with enthusiasts with hitech computer games though. Look at stuff like this made with what is now a very old computer game


or this properly rendered animation by a 'backyarder'

This allows 3D modelling to be done for a fraction of the cost and much more easily by anyone with a decent home PC, why wait for a studio to come up with something when you can make your own.

The main problem with current CGI aircraft is that most 3D animators don't have much of a clue how an aircraft actually moves or reacts, which is why it looks so fake most of the time, in fact CGI is usually better quality of picture than film which is also why it stands out sometimes. Good CGI done properly is very hard to pick, and if the whole scene is rendered in CGI then there is no real footage to be distracted by and it's even more convincing.
There are actually more flying Hurricanes and Spitfires around these days than there were 30 years ago because their value has increased and so there is more reason for people to restore them.

it's actually mostly down to the filming of the Battle of Britain film, for which many planes were restored to airworthyness, including the BBMF's Mk.IIA, but your point about them being worth more now is a valid one, especially as post war they were baisically being given away...........
Evanglider- I look at the realtive number of flying machines today versus 1965 or so. 1,000 AT-6s is a lot but not compared to what it was. While the most numerous fighters still flying are the Mustangs, back in the late 60s 500 were around. They easily put together a whole real squadron of B-25s for Catch 22 in 1970. So the few today along with a couple Lancs, B-17s and couple of B-24s and 1 B-29 are a sobering illustration of rarity cosidering how many there once were.

And some of these "restorations" are in reality replications. When I see a small center section of the fuselage as the only airworthy original part and the fore and aft sections, engine, wings, tail and all instruments are replicated with modern materials I don't call it an original warbird. It's like the Me 262 project planes- replacated. That's not all bad since we at least get to see some close to the original flying.

I guess I'm just getting old since I can remember how many original warbirds there were in the 60s described in aviation periodicals and sitting on airfields of the era compared to now.

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