note to military: we have CGI now



Yesterday morning, New York and New Jersey residents had the felgercarb scared out of them when F16 fighter jets and a 747 painted up like Air Force One buzzed lower Manhattan and New Jersey’s Goldman Sachs Tower (the state’s tallest building).  The planes flew at low altitude, rattling windows, stopping traffic and panicking thousands who spontaneously began evacuating their homes, offices and bowels.   Was it another terrorist attack?  No, thank god.  A plane in distress?  Nope.  A training exercise intended to safeguard American soil?  Wrong again!  The reason for the flyover that struck fear into the heart of a city still on edge was a photo op.  That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, the armed forces sailed these planes dangerously close to occupied buildings – without issuing an advance warning – so they could snap a couple of cool publicity pictures.  Not only was this stunt thoughtless and cruel, it was totally unnecessary – haven’t the US government heard of CGI yet?

If you wanted pictures of Air Force One and some F16s flying over NY, why not just pick up the phone and call Hollywood?  I hear the governor has a few ties with people who make special effects movies.  I’m sure they would have helped you out.  When most people want images of something impossible, or just too expensive to do for real, they turn to the magic of visual effects.  You guys didn’t think a movie like Independence Day  used real UFOs, did you?

id4-1See this picture on the left?  Sure, that’s a real-live picture of NYC, but the giant UFO is a model.  It’s fake.  Yes, I know, it’s casting a shadow over the city, I’m sure that confuses you – but trust me, those FX guys have a whole slew of tricks up their sleeves to make you believe what you’re looking at is the real deal.  For example: that shadow is just painted over the top of the picture!  Yes, I’m serious.  The artist even curved the shadow so it looks like it’s been cast by a curved object, just like the UFO.  Yeah, crazy, I know.

No, it doesn’t have to be something outlandish like spaceships if you’re thinking of giving the FX people a call.  I mean think about it – if they can put a giant UFO over New York, just imagine how easy it would have been to fake a few planes cruising over the city?  They can do planes like nobody’s business.  And just in case you don’t believe me, here’s another picture from a movie – a movie called Air Force One:



Yes, I swear to god that’s not a picture of the real Air Force One, it’s a special effect shot from a movie starring Harrison Ford.  Yes, I know you spent a whole lot of time painting a 747 to look like the real Air Force One, but how could you have known that all you needed to do was paint a model airplane and used special effects?  Hey, come on, stop kicking yourself; Washington is a million miles away from Hollywood.

What’s that?  Well, actually, no, it’s not cheaper to use real planes.  Yes, some of those special effects movies do cost a few hundred million dollars, but trust me, that’s not because of the eye candy; that money is all wrapped up in the stars’ salaries and a lot of first-class tickets to Canada.  Especially now, with computers, you can do FX really cheap!  That’s right, the same computers you use to erase people’s identities and put your old math teacher on the no-fly list can be used to create UFOs and airplanes and anything else you can dream up.  In fact, I used one to create this picture:


Yup, that’s Sachs Tower in the background, the same building you flew past yesterday!  I know, that’s not Air Force One, but it is Colonial One, from the TV series Battlestar Galactica (I hear your commander-in-chief really likes that show).  I figured if I showed you a computer-generated 747 flying in front of the building, you’d think I was trying to fool you with a snapshot from Monday morning so I thought I’d give you something a little snazzier – you know, something a little more special-effectsy  to make the point.

And guess what?  I whipped that image up in just about an hour.  See?  I bet for less than the cost of the fuel you spent on that little stunt yesterday I could have computer-generated all the pictures you needed – all without a single Hail Mary or evacuated building.  Hell, for a few extra bucks I would have even thrown in some HD video.

I hear that after the way New York reacted to your photo shoot you might have to cancel your plans to do the same thing in Washington.  Hey, if you need some pictures of passenger jets diving at the Capital, dude, call me.



37 Responses to “note to military: we have CGI now”

  1. April 28, 2009 at 5:18 am

    Wow, you are fast on the ball with this story. Great ideas and great post!

  2. 2 Tim
    April 28, 2009 at 5:23 am

    Hi there Mojo,

    While I did enjoy this article – as I have many on your blog over the last few months since I stumbled upon it – and understand it was written with tongue firmly planted in cheek, I just wanted to point our that the DoD didn’t actually “spent a whole lot of time painting a 747 to look like the real Air Force One”. There are two VC-25’s (the “militarised” version of the 747) that fly as “Air Force One” – so that one is always ready to fly POTUS where ever he might need to go. The aircraft that featured in this poorly planned “incident” was one of those two aircraft.

    Also, as much of a huge VFX fan as I am, I must say that doing a “photo” of a CG Air Force One plus fighter escorts is just plain cheating. ;) I have absolutely no doubt that a proficient VFX artist could do a photo-realistic render that would fool almost anyone, it’s still not the same. Funny – My own argument here is reminding me of one I had with a professional photographer a few years back that staunchly believed that using digital SLRs over traditional film cameras was “cheating”. Call me a backwards conservative traditionalist. :D

    Take care,

  3. 3 doubleofive
    April 28, 2009 at 6:00 am

    Why/how could anyone do that kind of work for a photo? How does one get permission to fly over NYC in this day and age, especially for a photo? And I love the shot of Colonial One over NYC. Like Roslyn’s dream come true…

  4. April 28, 2009 at 6:19 am

    I’ve always thought that a fun idea for a movie would be to have a secret VFX Unit of the government… who were in charge of faking the moon landings, etc… being brought on to create “Scare Films” to show to invading aliens… to deter them from attacking earth. Kinda like “FX” meets “The Corbomite Maneuver”…

  5. April 28, 2009 at 6:52 am

    I think we need a wallpaper res version of the Colonial One shot. :)

  6. April 28, 2009 at 7:00 am

    I can’t figure out why they decided they needed a photo of AF1 and NYC badly enough to do *either* a flyover or CGI.

  7. 7 MikeZ
    April 28, 2009 at 8:12 am

    “… We have the technology. …”
    Sorry, couldn´t resist. ;)

    Government and common sense? Did you ever file for a tax return? :D

  8. April 28, 2009 at 8:13 am

    That Colonial One flyby is awesome, maybe sometime we can see some Viper’s buzzing Las Vegas? I’d love to have a wallpaper of that. :p

  9. April 28, 2009 at 8:25 am

    Can I get that TWA pic in 16:9 for my laptop background?


  10. 10 Greg
    April 28, 2009 at 8:42 am


  11. 11 Boris
    April 28, 2009 at 8:48 am

    While the incident is inexcusable, I don’t think the military would’ve been satisfied with CG photo manipulation (after all, such a photo will likely have a caption saying “Air Force One Flying Over New York”, in order to make the viewer go “Wow, that’s so inspiring!”). What about Christopher Nolan and his flipping over a real truck in “Dark Knight”, or trying to stage a real Batman jump off a building? Making those CG wouldn’t have had the same promotional effect in the Making Of.

    There is this mistaken perception that making it actually real is somehow more valuable than trying to tell a good story with the image — after all, the public can’t usually tell the difference between CG and real these days, but they _can_ tell the difference between good and bad art. However, I don’t think the military was going for art in this case.

  12. 12 tommyc
    April 28, 2009 at 9:19 am

    Well said Mojo, well said!

    As a native New Yorker, it’s appreciated. To look on the bright side, At least I got a cool Colonial One image out of the deal!

  13. 13 zoniduck
    April 28, 2009 at 9:30 am

    This is funny because it’s true.

    In other news, I tried the Root Beer FTL on two root beer float connoisseurs (my 6 year old niece and her dad) on Sunday, and it was a big hit. I wanted Boot Rear, but the BevMo only had Root Beer 101, so that’s what we used. Apparently you’re right about the dulce de leche. :)

  14. April 28, 2009 at 10:07 am

    Win. But then again, I’ve seen a lot of people doing ill-advised things. And maybe it was some kind of twisted idea of economic stimulus package, boosting the sanitary and pharmaceutical branches of the economy (due to increased sales of new and bigger toilets holding the giant felgercarbs caused by that flyby, plus bowel-calming pills).


  15. April 28, 2009 at 10:10 am

    haha, like your ironic way to see those things.. and maybe your are completely right! causing pain and shocking people isn’t really something a government should do… just because the us military needs some pictures of their planes and war machinery… it’s absolutely weird!
    on the other hand if you use CGI others military freaks (im not!) might think the government can’t be taken serious as they arent able to fly as low as pictured… i know its not really an argument but some people like arguing with no arguments :)

    anyway: i like your picture of colonial one. it fits into the environment, good shadows and good lightning (or however the correct term is there for)!


  16. 16 ety3
    April 28, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    Well said and agreed.

    I mean, really. At the very least: inform the public!

    For Daren Doc., I can’t help but ask if he’s seen “Wag the Dog.” Not exactly verbatim for his concept, but still damn near.

  17. April 28, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    Uh wow is all I can say…

  18. April 28, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    I’m sure they’ll call you when time comes to fake the Mars Landing, Mojo.

    What a great shot. I envy your cgi expertise.

  19. 19 centurion005
    April 28, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    Its 9/11/Fall of the colonies/Terminator3 ending all over again!Its all happened before and it will happen again. Is the Sachs Tower CG?I can definitely tell the rest of the city isnt. I actually cant tell about the tower since you blended colonial one in so good.Mabey obama the Cylon could hire you instead of wasting billions of tax payer dollars to scare the fraking shit out of everyone.

  20. 20 Jax_MX5
    April 28, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    I second the request for a wallpaper sized pic of Colonial One.

  21. 21 centurion005
    April 28, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    Of course the sachs tower is real. I see the reflection of the other builings. Silly silly me.

  22. 22 Colonial Warrior
    April 28, 2009 at 8:42 pm

    Love the images. Your point is more than right on target. It would have been more cost effective in this day and age to use the CGI to get the desired result. Though I wouldn’t have a clue as to what the charge for such a job would be. I can almost see the conversation..

    Picture a phone ringing..

    Mojo: Hello?

    Military PR Guy: ( MPRG) Hi I’m Lt.Dan and I need an image created.

    Mojo: Ok, what do you want it to be?

    MPRG: We need a really cool image of Air Force One doing a Flyover of NYC.

    Mojo: Ok I can do that, how authentic does it have to look?

    MPRG: We need this to look indistinguishable from the real deal.

    Mojo: Ok I can handle that, Do you want this to be a daytime or nighttime flyover?

    MPRG: Oh by all means daylight.

    Mojo: sure no problem, I’ll just tweak this setting here.

    MPRG: One other thing we need to have this done A.S.A.P.

    Mojo: The basic elements are already in place, I should have this ready in less than an hour.

    MPRG: Excellent! oh and one other tiny thing we need this done for under $1,000,000.00.

    Mojo: I think I can swing a good deal for you.

  23. 23 darthmojo
    April 28, 2009 at 11:39 pm

    WARRIOR: The sad thing is the real conversation wouldn’t be all that different. The only thing you’re leaving out is the inevitable committee meeting in which everyone will have a different idea about how the image should look – make the plane bigger, make it smaller, brighter, darker, next to the building, over the building, under the building, etc. And it’s true, they would have NO idea how much to pay. But given the economy these days, I’d settle for even half a million.

    BORIS/TIM: While I agree that some things are better done “practical” (what we in showbiz call doing something for real, i.e. not CGI), those cases are becoming fewer and further between; it all depends on what we’re talking about. A truck flipping over and exploding involves a lot of random, real-world physics and dynamics that are very difficult to nail perfectly in CG. One small wrong piece of animation, even if it’s just of a piece of flying debris, and “FAKE” will register in the audience’s mind. But something like a 747 flying over the NYC skyline – especially if they really just wanted a still image – is elementary for CGI. There is simply no good argument for NOT “faking it.” Well, there is the snooty, pretentious argument of “it should be real, *I’ll* know it’s fake” but that’s for idiots. Or people who can’t find good CG artists!

    CENTURION: Everything is real in the picture except for Colonial One and the Vipers. I just found a good picture of the Sachs Tower online (apologies to whomever took the original for stealing it) and spent some time in Lightwave to match the angle, lighting, etc. One think that made it slightly easier was the “metadata” attached to the digital picture. This “metadata” is something most cameras attach to the image – it contains information such as date and time, model of camera, F-stop, shutter speed, focal length and a few other tidbits that helped me match Lightwave’s camera to the camera used to take the picture (most photo programs will display this data for you, just hunt around).

    The toughest part was trying to “degrade” the layer of the ships to match the background. In the days of film, all I’d have to do is add some film grain to help match things up, but in this case, I needed to simulate JPEG compression and other bits of electronic degredation; something that isn’t so easy. In fact, it was a downright pain in the ass, so if anyone out there knows of any good Photoshop plugins that simulate digital artifacts, please let me know!

  24. 24 darthmojo
    April 28, 2009 at 11:42 pm

    Oh, and for those of you who wanted a wallpaper size image, here ya go… but shhhh!

  25. 25 centurion005
    April 29, 2009 at 5:33 am

    Darthmojo I never heard of metadata until now. Like you said its incredible useful for matching the camera conditions of the photo with the CG elements in lightwave.The work you spent on it definitely paid of by the way. Are you going to be part of the team doing Caprica? And are these the kind of shots we’ll see in Caprica?If it is then I cant wait.

  26. April 29, 2009 at 9:43 am

    Thanks, Mojo. That pic is so cool, it might need to replace “The Beast” image currently on my desktop. Sorry, Pegasus.

    While I understand that this “mission” was also used to satisfy training requirements (hey, they had to fly the plane anyway!) it was just dumb not to tell anyone. The real flyby could have been a very cool opportunity for a little US pride and public relations.

  27. 27 Jarno
    April 29, 2009 at 8:27 pm

    Although there is no technical reason why it couldn’t have been done with CGI, I think there is a good reason not to do so: PR.

    If some political leader or group with major anti-American sentiments were to find out that the picture is fake, they would shout it from the rooftops that America fakes everything and can’t be trusted.

    Sometimes something not only has to appear real, it really has to be real.

  28. 28 adallahq
    April 29, 2009 at 10:45 pm

    That is so true Mojo, and what a FANTASTIC comp you got there of the Colonial One and Vipers!

    Honestly, I LOVE these images you put up!

    You rock!


  29. April 30, 2009 at 6:09 am

    Shouldn’t there be some reflection of Colonial One in the Sachs Tower?

  30. May 1, 2009 at 11:34 am

    Lee, I thought that when I first saw the image, but actually I think the angle of the building is just perfect because you probably wouldn’t see any reflection of the ship there (except maybe on the corners?). Bit of a time saver.

  31. May 1, 2009 at 4:55 pm


    I think the real screw-up was not just letting all NYC press know a week in advance or such that it was happenning. It is more expensive to fly the bird, yes, but the US Government has taken a real credibility beating these last eight years.

    Air Force One should be a symbol of our freedoms, and the pride we have in being American. The real mistake here is that AF1 flying over New York could have been a thumb in the eye of the wankers who killed the WTC. It could have been a defining moment in reclaiming the skies over New York from fear. That’s the real tragedy.

    Stupid, stupid, stupid. Must have been a Government jov.

  32. 32 Kronosei
    May 5, 2009 at 2:51 am

    Sorry to spoil the party, but the military had nothing to do with the boneheaded flyby. The Pentagon doesn’t have any control of the “Special Courier” aircraft; it is the WH that has complete control & autonomy. While assigned to the detail, USAF personnel (and Marines in the case of HMX-1) are DoD in terms of paycheck only. The DoD is required to provide CAP, but cannot influence the mission in any way.

    Semper Fi

    – Awesome Colonial One render by the way!

  33. 33 Hugh Mann
    May 5, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    You can’t even tell that’s supposed to be Air Force One, even. What a waste of time and money.

  34. May 5, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    This is what they were trying to get, only with the Statue of Liberty instead of Mt. Rushmore in the background:

    There’s also a bit of irony, given that the F-16 is nicknamed “Viper” by its pilots:


  35. 36 Tripper
    May 11, 2009 at 9:57 am

    And now the circle is complete: It’s a Photoshop contest at Fark.com


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April 2009

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