Moon/Space Hoaxes and Visual FX

Recently, on a space exploration discussion list, a poster argued that the Mars Rovers are a hoax and all the imagery is being faked. Despite the obvious denial of the many scientists and engineers who’ve worked for years on these amazing robot explorers, there’s a huge problem with this claim and other space hoax claims.

It all started with the lunar hoax claims which basically depend on Hollywood and the supposed “magic” of special visual FX. “They can do anything”. Obviously, these people have never seen a Ed Wood, Jr. film…

Curiously, you never hear about a visual FX artist claiming this stuff is a hoax. There’s a pretty simple reason for this. If you work with visual FXs, you are aware that even your very best work does not hold up well to careful scrutiny. Sure, in a dark theater, with a great story, actors, great music and sound design, it looks pretty amazing.

But subject to careful frame by frame analysis? Maybe you could make a few still images stand up to some scrutiny, but thousands or tens of thousands and hours of video, film, that’s nearly impossible.

But let’s say, despite this, you wanted to try anyway. Hire the best visual FX artists in the world combined with scientific supercomputer simulations and make it happen. As you might guess, this gets very expensive very quickly.

To fake the Apollo moon imagery (ignoring the launch, astronaunts, mission control, the non-visual data), would require a massive visual FX budget well beyond the scope of major blockbuster which typically has 250 to 500 visual FX shots.

It simply could not be done, even with 5 times the number of visual FX artists that existed in the late 60’s. It would have taken longer, required more people and might have actually cost nearly as much money. Just visit IMDB.com and look at the visual FX crew for a major film, multiply that by 2 for all the subcontractors not listed, then multiple that by 5 or 10 (or more) for all the shots needed to fake a space mission (probably more like multiple of 100 for Apollo).

It’s unlikely the faking a mission would save time or money or be any easier than the actual mission, especially trying to keep thousands of visual FX artists quiet about the best work of their lives. And remember, it’s still going to look fake under scrutiny at best, more likely it would look fake even to casual audiences.

Which brings us to the beautiful images from Saturn brought by Cassini. I’m creating the film using only real photographs because they look better than any visual FX that can be done for less than tens of millions of dollars.  I’ve had a number of 3D artists contact me arguing otherwise, but the few that tried to model Saturn, especially the rings and ring shadows ran very quickly into serious problems.

Which brings us to the final irony of all these hoaxes. One of the basic tools of any visual FX artist is something call “reference”. It’s the first, mandantory step before creating any visual FX. You’ve got to see how it looks in reality before you attempt to recreate it. I just went through this with some visual FX for a fellow filmmaker. The only reason 3D artists can attempt to model Saturn well is because Cassini is already there…

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