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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Human Bird-Man: I have the answer!

Update: It turns out that this really is the work of an animator, working at the very top of his game. See my post here. Nevertheless, I'm leaving this piece advocating the "balloon theory" in place, for an obvious reason: The idea tickled me when I was young, and before I die, I'd like to see someone try the experiment. For real. No CG.

Many of you have seen this video of a man named Jarno Smeets, allegedly flying like a bird -- just like a bird -- using wings he concocted himself. Here's his website. There's a lot of footage on the internet of the team building the wings. Everyone is asking: Fact or fake?

I think I know how he did it. This video both is and is not deceptive.

Smeets, I believe, has put into practice an idea I had back in the 1980s -- an idea which may have made my fortune, if ever I had done anything practical to get it off the ground (so to speak). Which I never did.

Stop snickering and let me explain.

No, I'm not claiming that Jarno got the idea from me; we've never met. The same idea can pop into separate noggins. (How many people invented the steam engine...?)

Your first big clue as to what's really going on here may be found on his website: "Building a semi human powered flying device."


Yes. There's a big, big secret located just outside the frame in the above video. That same "secret" was whispered into my noggin by none other than Jack Palance.

Many of you will recall the original 1980s-era incarnation of the show Ripley's Believe It Or Not, in which Palance -- doing his usual borderline-insane shtick -- traveled the world investigating strange and eccentric things.

In one episode, there was a very brief squib that electrified my imagination. It was one of those things they flashed before your eyeballs just before going to commercial. The gist was this: Early in the 20th century (claimed Palance), a British newspaper had printed a story about a man who had affixed a lighter-than-air balloon to his back.

The balloon canceled much, but not all, of his body weight, allowing him to take massive man-on-the-moon leaps.

I loved this idea. Dangerous? No doubt. But who wouldn't want to give it a try? I wanted to market an updated version of this concept under the label Personal Ballooning.

Naturally, my thoughts turned to coming up with a way to control the thing. Propeller beanies? Rocketeer-like jet packs? The problem with the jet pack seen in Thunderball is that that device carried just enough fuel to keep James Bond in the air for only about half a minute. You would need much, much less fuel if nearly all of the pilot's weight were countered by a balloon. Problem: You would be placing a flame near the gas holding the balloon aloft.

Finally, an idea hit me: Why not do it the way birds do it? If you could reduce a man's weight to (say) five or ten pounds, would it not be possible for that man to fly by flapping artificial wings?

I talked about all this with a friend who worked at a major bank. (Yes, I was middle class -- once.) His eyes lit up. He thought we could get seed money for this project -- enough cash to have a prototype built -- if we could verify that the original story was true. For all we could prove, the producers of the show had made it up. We needed proof of concept. We needed that old newspaper clipping.

So I spent a lot of time in the libraries at CSUN and UCLA, looking for some mention of the article referenced by the Believe It Or Not crew. Nothing.

Letters to the production company went unanswered. Jack Palance would not even humor me with a footnote.

Eventually, my banker friend and I went on to other distractions.

But in the back of my cranium, I've always felt that Personal Ballooning was an idea that could work. Jarno has proved the point.

So, is the above video a fake? It depends on how you classify the word "fake." In my estimation, this isn't After Effects at work. (It would be best, though, to ask the opinion of someone like Andrew Kramer. If anyone could fake it in AE, he could.) If any AE was involved in this production, it was used to erase the tether lines.

No, I think that the "trick" in this video is quite simple: The cameraman does not show the balloon located above the flier, attached by a thin line to his body-brace. The balloon counters most, though not all, of his weight.

In a sense, he really is flying, exactly as a bird flies. In another sense, it's a hoax. Everything depends on your perspective.

Birds do it. Bees do it. Even Jarno Smeets does it.

Perhaps you can too, in the near future.
Steam engine: Savery, Newcomen, Watt-- all preceded by the original design by Archimede's student, Hero.
So, I saw this story on this mornings Fox News and they spoke of the guys at Industrial Light and Magic pointing out flaws and a huge smoking gun documented here:
My first thought was CG, obviously, but some of the arguments by these guys at ILM seem awfully strained. I mean, consider the final update, where the CG artist claims that the people were filmed separately and the shadows were composited onto the wings. Well, I simply don't see any errors, and I can usually spot misplaced shadows, even on very good CG work -- even on some ILM product, I might add.

The comment about the helmet cam is silly. Why don't we see the head go side to side? Because we don't see the entire shot. The head is hardly stationary -- it bobs up and down persuasively.

Or take this...

"In the stabilized shot, look how there is motion blur on the three actors and the wings when there is none on the background. This is due to the fact that a "2D" motion blur plugin was used. The computer calculates the change in pixels from frame to frame and blurs the pixels the more the pixels change. The problem is, these actors already had motion blur on them when they were first shot. When you composite them into the footage, motion blur gets added AGAIN. This is why they go very blurry when the rest of the shot doesn't."

I dunno. You think maybe there's motion blur on the people because...y'know...they are IN MOTION?

K.I.S.S., as they say.

Mind you, I do think this is a fake -- of sorts. But it's a lower-tech fake than the one posited by the ILM guys.

If my theory is wrong, then why does the website speak of "semi human" powered flight? If this were a simple CG hoax, the word "semi" would not be in there. I presume that once the public's appetite has been whetted, Janos will reveal the balloon trick.

And maybe try to market it. That's the tough part.
Sadly, your idea was much better than the CG it actually is.

The guys have admitted it was a Hoax and he is a film maker & animator looking for some attention. You have to turn on the Captions on youtube to read English translation. It is curious how you will hear a zillion words and then only a few pop up as a caption.
As an engineer, I have a problem with your "balloon assist."

While a balloon may support some of your weight, trying to drag it along while you attempt forward motion is going to be the problem.

No way the birdman in the video could have flown with or without balloon support.
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