Great Eye Candy, But the Flight Models Suck

Beautiful visuals, highly-detailed aircraft models with huge poly counts, great lighting effects, self shadowing, complex animations … that just don’t fly like real airplanes.

I’m speaking, of course, of the movie Fly Boys, released on DVD tomorrow, which I had the chance to see in very good company at its premiere last July at EAA’s AirVenture.

As popcorn movies go, it’s certainly palatable if A) the popcorn is very, very good, and 2) there are no pilots, history experts, or French prostitutes watching with you to point out the inaccuracies. Like so many films of the vaguely-historical-fiction genre, Fly Boys conjures images of a committee of writers sitting around a table saying something like "Okay … we’ve got a group of volunteers from all kinds of diverse backgrounds who head off to France to risk their lives, fighting in the first widespread aerial battles the world has ever seen … what can we do make this interesting?"  Thankfully, this film doesn’t take nearly as many liberties with history as Pearl Harbor, but, like that film, the CGI non-real flying scenes look almost unbearably … non-real.

Airplanes twist, turn, and skid with absurd power and energy, control surfaces move with terrible exaggeration, and, like seemingly every other computer-generated flying machine we’ve seen on the silver screen, they drift around at impossible angles of attack. We saw this in Pearl Harbor, in King Kong (where ailerons moved backwards at times) – even the pteranadons in Jurassic Park III were guilty. Fly Boys feels worse, somehow, because the director Tony Bill is a pilot and history buff, and a number of notable pilots were involved in the production. Even at least two of the actors, James Franco and David Ellison, already were or became pilots during production. (For a good laugh, check out the flash movie on the official website – watch a Nieuport 17 float around with full left rudder shoot up … another Nieuport 17, also with full left rudder, since it’s a copy of itself … just go look.)

Bill was quoted in an article in Air & Space magazine as saying "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." I wish that were true. But it isn’t, not even close.

With so much expertise around, why does the animated flying look so completely unbelievable? Why didn’t they just ask me to look it over first? I know a thing or two about complaining about simulated flying, after all …

Perhaps a better question to raise is this: If the storyline is weak and predictable, and the the effects so unpalatable … why am I buying it tomorrow?

Well, first of all, I have a problem. I’m a compulsive DVD purchaser. Thankfully, this is the only vice I have, the single flaw that keeps me from blinding the world with utterly boring perfection.

More importantly, I’m buying the movie because of the all-too-scarce real flying. What there is is beautifully done. Breathtaking, at times. There are Nieuport 17 replicas (even the underpowered ultralight versions with the wrong wings are pretty), two Fokker DR1 replicas, a Bristol F.2, Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5, and even a 1908 Bleriot monoplane. Ken Kellett of Kermit Weeks’ "Fantasy of Flight" (and a gracious host during a week long research trip for Flight Simulator 2004) did a lot of the flying, and the aerial coordination was handled by the sadly late, great Ray Hanna. (For a clip of Ray Hanna doing what he did better than just about anyone – flying a Spitfire low and fast – click here.  If you’re offended by the language at the end of the clip remember that the speaker is British, and that word isn’t the same there as it is in the US, and then ask yourself what you’d say instead.)

So, I suppose the fact that I’m so easily seduced by a few pretty shots of real airplanes that I’ll plunk down my hard(ly)earned shekels for the 2-disc special edition (as I did for Pearl Harbor, and just about any other movie one might describe as fly-y) makes me part of the problem. I’ll try to compensate by watching The Blue Max or Hell’s Angels again. Or maybe I’ll even jump ahead one war, and throw in the one movie whose use of CGI airplanes almost entirely failed to offend me – Tmavomodrý svet (Dark Blue World).

Or, more likely, I’ll buy the best popcorn you can get on a modest Flight Simulator Community Evangelist’s salary, and watch Fly Boys with my wife and cats, none of whom are French prostitutes. And they’re all used to me complaining.

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7 Responses to Great Eye Candy, But the Flight Models Suck

  1. Owen says:

    A co-worker of mine just asked me about Fly Boys since I am the resident "aviation expert" (at least, in their eyes).  I wasn\’t lucky enough to catch the movie while at Oshkosh (I didn\’t get up there until later), nor was I able to talk my wife into getting out to a theatre to watch it.  I told my co-worker that it seemed to be much like Pearl Harbor, where a lot of CGI was utilized for the flight scenes, just as you pointed out.  I didn\’t realize that it looked "that bad" though – it is funny how they just don\’t factor in real physics of aircraft moving through air.  I suppose most of the processing power goes into the rendering, and not how the aircraft are really moving.Now, if you want to see some really great CGI work for aircraft, Dogfights on the History Channel does a really good job, IMHO.  I\’m not able to catch all episodes as they premier, but I am able to catch them on replays.Best,Owen

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