Star-Bulletin Features

Sunday, June 10, 2001


Shigero Koike's painting of two Nakajima Ko-4 fighters
makes sense from the perspective of the physics of flying.

History of aviation
in movies, art journeys
through highs, lows


Burl Burlingame

ARE WE SICK of "Pearl Harbor" yet? The movie has been discussed and dissed to death, but one aspect has been overlooked -- is it successful as an aviation movie?

The big screen would seem to be a natural place to experience the soaring, dreamy feeling of flight, a place of no horizons and boundaries, where the physical rules of up and down and left and right are banished.

But it isn't that easy to film in the air. Early movie cameras were cumbersome, and any footage captured at all was generally used, and was often recycled, from movie to movie. The 1938 "Dawn Patrol" used the same aerial footage as the 1930 "Dawn Patrol," even though the rationale to remake the movie were advances in filmmaking technology. Although Technicolor made the skies vivid in titles like "Dive Bomber," the '40s and '50s were an era of models on strings. The only interesting aviation films were made by Howard Hughes, himself an aviator, in titles like "The Hunters" and "Jet Pilot."

Then, at roughly the same time, both CinemaScope and pod-mounted movie cameras were invented, allowing a tremendous amount of aerial detail to be photographed, and unshackling the camera from the host aircraft. The camera was free to fly.

AS A RESULT, aviation movies blossomed during the 1960s. The British were particularly good at it. "The Blue Max," "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines," "633 Squadron," "Von Richthofen and Brown," "The Great Waldo Pepper," "Tora Tora Tora" and "The Battle of Britain" are among the best aviation movies ever made.

And they have yet to be topped. To this day, the single best filmed, edited and scored aerial sequence is the "Battle in the Air" movement from "The Battle of Britain." A montage set piece devoted to examining the fierce aerial debacle of August 1940 over London, it's cut on the beat entirely to Sir William Walton's music, with no dialogue, except from a WREN anxiously asking, into her microphone, "Come in, Blue Leader..." Except that Blue Leader has his hands full. The sequence predates music videos by at least a decade or more, and inspired George Lucas when he was dreaming up "Star Wars."

Brilliant filmmaking, and wondrous on the big screen. Timeless films like these should be restored for re-release.

EVEN THOUGH "Pearl Harbor" contains striking images and a kind of computerized thrill-ride effect, the filmmakers simply don't understand the magic nor the physics of aviation. You can't just grab good angles and edit them together rapid-fire. Aviation images have to be choreographed with an intuitive sense of momentum and narrative. Otherwise it's like shooting still images of a ballet and pasting them in a flip book.

Steven Spielberg treats aviation seriously in films, and Spielberg protégé Carroll Ballard made the best aviation movie of the last decade, "Fly Away Home," which featured flying geese and not a single exploding, hurtling, thundering special-effect in sight.

As difficult as filming flying is, committing it to paper or canvas is even tougher. Properly depicting an aircraft in its element is extremely difficult. It's not just a matter of getting the shape right against a pretty cloud background. Aircraft move through the air -- not in front of it -- and the physical effects matter: The torque of the prop, the strain against the rivets, the lift of the flying surfaces, the countering push of the control surfaces, the glare-y, wash-out of colors at altitude, the haze of heavy air and the crystal of thin air, the blur of movement, the vivid snapshot of memory, the sense that the machine is under control by the pilot and not simply being ridden.

The world is full of bad aviation artists. Many work in the comic-book industry. Some are good at depicting flying, others are good at depicting accurate aircraft. Interestingly, when DC did a two-part return of "Enemy Ace" recently, the first volume was drawn by Chris Weston with great fidelity to detail, but the planes were leaden, while the second part was hack work by Russ Heath, but great hack work, because Heath thinks in three dimensions.

IT'S PROBABLY NOT a coincidence that the really good aviation artists are either pilots themselves or spend every available minute in the air. We're talking about artists such as Craig Kodera, Jack Fellows, Keith Ferris, William Phillips, Nixon Galloway and others. Ferris' theories and studies about our visual relationship to color at altitude are so highly thought of that the Air Force actually commissioned him at one point to design a new camouflage scheme for our fighters.

Toiling away in near-obscurity, however, mostly in the salt mines of Japanese model-kit manufacturers, is artist Shigero Koike. His work is brilliant, not only in the historical-accuracy and fidelity-to-detail department, but in his use of color and movement and atmospherics. He has never painted an airplane that was uninteresting, and often it's not the subject, but his approach that makes it arresting. He's a fine, fine artist with the soul of a poet-aviator, and it shows.

Koike isn't mired in any one era, and will paint anything that moves through the air, and adjusts his tonal palette accordingly. Look at the painting we're showing here, of a couple of Nakajima Ko-4 (Nieuport-Delange 29) fighters stunting about in a gloaming sky, sometime in the early '30s. The aircraft are accurate. Their relationship to each other makes sense from the perspective of the physics of flying. The chiaroscuro lighting is delicate and atmospheric, and the painting style renders texture without being too photographic. Color balance and composition are brilliant.

But more than that -- these airplanes look like they're really flying. All the money poured into "Pearl Harbor" never came close to achieving that dream.

More of Koike's work is visible at

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