12/6/2019 - Scale Aviation is a visual bimonthly magazine for scale aircraft modelers. Volume 127, released in May 2019, features interviews centered around the virtual reality mode of Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown and details concerning the creation of its vehicle models. Those interviewed by Scale Aviation are Shōji Kawamori (anime creator, mecha designer, producer, screenwriter and visual artist), Masato Kanno (Ace Combat 7 art director) and Masanori Ninomiya (Ace Combat 7 lead mechanic artist).
Scale Aviation vol. 127
If you strain your neck and look towards the rear, an enemy aircraft can be seen closing in on the other side of the canopy. A monumental achievement in the flight shooter genre, the VR mode in Ace Combat 7 Skies Unknown (ACE7) brings the unprecedented experience of aerial battles that use one’s entire field of view to the household. What kind of “evolution” will the impact from this experience stimulate in modelers?
Ace Combat 7 Skies Unknown: Understanding the Secret Methods Developed to Make the Aircraft Look Appealing
Original interview by kalapattar of Scale Aviation with Shoji Kawamori, Masato Kanno, and Masanori Ninomiya
The sense of freedom that “people who fly fighter jets” feel: something you’ll understand if you experience it.
Winter of 2008. Shoji Kawamori was starting work on creating Macross Frontier the Movie: The False Songstress after the TV series Macross Frontier finished airing. In the opening pages of the February ‘09 special edition issue of Model Graphics, he talked a great amount about how difficult drawing aircraft for animation is. A genuine fan of airplanes, Mr. Kawamori has several flight experiences including mock fights, and predicted “in order for others to understand the relationship between aerodynamics and dogfights correctly, the spread and availability of VR technology is indispensable.” For this interview, we had Mr. Kawamori play the VR mode of ACE7 and had him talk about the paradigm shift that this will likely cause among plane lovers.
---Strangely, it has been 10 years since you talked about how it would be possible for anyone to sort of experience “a real dogfight” if VR devices have circulated enough.
Kawamori: 10 years, that’s so shocking. Finally, the era of VR has arrived.
---Before sortieing, you kind of got excited and raised your voice after seeing some people in the back of the hangar walking.
Kawamori: In TV anime, you have the problem of cost, so though you can have detailed acting for the protagonist and the mechanics, it’s hard to make scenes where “those not involved in the story walk by.” That’s why having “people just walking in the back” reaffirmed how simple things like this can make something feel that much more realistic. It also becomes an indicator to understand the size of the aircraft, and I think it’s great that it shows that this isn’t a special scene, but a normal one that a pilot sees daily.
---Indeed, it’s hard to grasp how large the airplanes are in real life if you’re just looking at model kits.
Kawamori: Fighter jets have the image of being thin and small, but it’s a weapon that has considerably more surface area and height than a tank. In this VR experience, I felt it came close to the feel of seeing a real airplane. I think it’s pretty difficult to feel the “height of your viewpoint” from the cockpit on a 2-dimensional screen.
---What did you feel about the scenes of the carrier deck?
Kawamori: When you rise to the deck on the elevator, you look at the bridge or your allies’ planes not from the height of a regular person, but from the point of view of the airplane’s cockpit. This is a sight that regular people do not get to see in their lifetime. I’ve studied carrier takeoffs from the catwalk of the USS Independence before, but being on the side of the pilot and taking off from the deck is a completely different experience.
---The second stage began by taxiing on an airfield.
Kawamori: The vastness and height of the field of view was very realistic, and memories of when I actually controlled an airplane came back instantly. There’s plenty of time to look around the cockpit before reaching the runway, but it was impressive in that the amount of information and realism was not much different from when I sat in different kinds of jet fighters.
---In most aircraft model kits, the instruction manual has you assemble the cockpit in the beginning, but it demands fine workmanship and since it’s a part not directly connected to the entire exterior of the airplane, I feel there are many people who think they’re not up to the task.
Kawamori: The cockpit is an important place that links the human and the airplane. The human is the brain, and controls the body that is the airplane. It’s a cramped space, but through this experience (VR mode), I think you can easily recognize how you can see the bottom of the aircraft by moving your head slightly, or the importance of the shape of the canopy and seat height for WVR (within visual range) dogfighting. Depending on the aircraft, the seat and console positions are quite different, and you might feel that your body is burrowing under the console or that your head is at a high vantage point. You can also understand instantly that the headrest needs to be narrow in order to see behind you by wearing the VR headset and look back. If there are few modelers that pay attention to these aspects currently, I think they’re missing out in terms of their presentation.
---In that case, putting a pilot in would have a bigger significance.
Kawamori: If you put in effort there, the charm of aircraft modeling should go up considerably. The cockpit area is made based on ergonomics rather than aerodynamics, so even in anime production, high levels of realism is demanded. Those who draw illustrations of aircraft put lots of effort when drawing the pilot and cockpit. Humans are beings that naturally look for other humans, so [the pilot] catches their eye. If the pilot and the various devices he/she are touching are made well, it creates the illusion that the entire thing is made well.
---I can clearly see your statement that “planes are not something that chases directly from behind” which you have said in various interviews before.
Kawamori: If there was an airplane in front of me, chasing it head on is unbelievable in real life. You’ll see that kind of thing in works of entertainment, but in reality, aerial dogfights involve looking up and to the sides to search for the enemy plane while continuously moving in three dimensions to get on their tail. ACE7 was the first time in a while where I was able to experience that. If you fight on a two-dimensional screen, enemies off-screen are shown with an arrow, and you don’t get that sense of immersion. In VR, where your field of view changes as you move your head, you can simulate the actual experience of aerial fights where you use potential and kinetic energy to create advantageous situations. Even in the Macross series, we implement this kind of screenplay in critical moments, but it requires immense effort and if it’s not done well, it becomes hard to tell what’s going on. Since anyone can understand this in VR, I think it’s a revolutionary thing.
---You only have the cockpit view for your aircraft, but what did you feel about the way enemy aircraft were presented?
Kawamori: When trying to determine the enemy’s positioning and relative momentum, I felt there were major issues with the [graphical] resolution. The aircraft I flew in when I did mock dogfights in the US was an Aermacchi SF-260, but it looked docile and not powerful on the ground. However when we exited the top of the clouds and saw the enemy’s aircraft next to us, it shined brightly and looked fiercely beautiful. Even when we separated, fine details could be seen easily. There was plenty of light, constricting our pupils and making our eyesight better, and we also had the benefit of polarized glass, but the sense of nervousness that “my life is hanging in the balance” also had a huge effect in enhancing the senses. Even when I watched a Tomcat perform a supersonic pass from the deck of the carrier like I mentioned before, I could see the countersunk rivets with just my eyes, even though it was flying reasonably far away. It might be hard to believe, but a human has the capability to focus and change the image resolution by that much. If the headset resolution increases, this kind of “brain activity” could be simulated. However, VR experiences [like this] have a large volume of information, especially with all the scenery around you, so I thought it was cool that after I was done chasing enemy aircraft in the game, I felt a similar sense of fatigue from a real flight.
---Even if a little bit of that “feeling that only people who have flown” becomes available to modelers via this VR experience, what kind of changes do you think will this have on them?
Kawamori: Since you can’t obtain an actual fighter jet as an individual, it just becomes an object, and the sense that “it’s something that isn’t intrinsically related to me” prevails. That’s why “getting a feel of flying” in VR greatly changes one’s perception. The fighter jet becomes “one’s personal experience,” and at the same time, the brain is stimulated due to the spatial awareness and becomes more observant. If you compare similarly sized birds and mammals, the birds seem to take smarter actions. Since one’s previously grainy resolution is being increased to something much clearer, the craftsmanship on their models will most definitely increase, no joke.
---It’s kind of a spiritual thing isn’t it?...
Kawamori: You can obtain the mindset of a pilot through the VR experience, and the dream of “making an aircraft which I have flown before” comes true. On the other hand, there are those who make models with the mindset of a mechanic. To pilots, their fighters are means of accomplishing objectives, but mechanics are attached to specific aircraft and their objective is to make them run flawlessly. Perhaps there are differences in perception like this among modelers.
---I feel there are more people who fuss over “reference materials” among modelers, rather than have the mindset you talked about.
Kawamori: Creating it faithfully to references and reproducing the actual thing are different. It’s certain that the real thing exists before references, but whether you can recreate something is influenced by “the ability to access the real thing through references.” Even if you compare a blueprint to a reference photo, the mind of the engineer and the eyewitness are different to begin with. In that sense, there wouldn’t have been much models made with the mindset of a pilot, but with the ability to access that experience through the VR mode, I think the winds of change will come to the world of modeling.
---Are you suggesting that maybe people will use this as an opportunity to change how models are portrayed?
Kawamori: Through this simulated experience, modelers will get a taste of aerial combat, and I think it’s good to have more people who express “the appearance of a fighter with regards to the sky.” Even if you consider just one color, a fighter looks like it has a different color in the sky than on the ground. To exaggerate, it feels like it has an aura and is radiating light.
---From the point of view of modelers that just have to use references for things like FS and RLM numbers, it might be hard to accept.
Kawamori: The hue of something looks vague the farther away it is, but at point-blank range, you can perceive it sharply. Naturally, the color is clearly different below the blue sky and above the rainy deck of a ship. VR is an experience where you can intuitively understand this.
---I think “Turning aerial combat into a model” is a very difficult thing. Do you have any hints?
Kawamori: Perhaps it is to express your own feeling of tension [of the dogfight]. Not a thing, but an emotional experience accompanying the situation. What is being displayed on the instrument panel and the movement of the pedals and stick? If you then match these with the aircraft’s orientation and movement of control surfaces, maybe it’ll be a step forward in model presentation. The cockpit is not an independent room, but a place where the entire condition of the aircraft is displayed. If the pilot is looking to his/her right in the sky, it’s natural for the stick to be leaning to the right side, so shouldn’t the rudder and ailerons be moving accordingly?
---But pilot figures are mostly ones where they face straight to the front.
Kawamori: Oh, that’s right! (Slams fist on the table multiple times) Why didn’t I realize this before? I’m in big shock right now. Even in Macross-related plastic models, I supervised the details of the pilot suit and was satisfied, but I always wondered how amazing it would look, if for example, there was an Isamu figure that could pose so it can turn its entire upper body to chase Guld’s aircraft. If we were able to match the pilot in the cockpit, the vectored nozzles, and even the movement of the control surfaces, I think it would be possible to have a new way of presenting models where you can show “the significance of a human flying an airplane.”
A formidable tenacity and an enormous workload: the place where the keys to make the fighter jets look more real are located.
In order to more clearly understand the remarks of Shoji Kawamori, who has long endeavored to “present airplanes beautifully,” I would like to unravel 2 aspects that would most likely fall under this. In ACE7, these are “the numerous aircraft that have a vivid feel to them so that anyone would think that they are real” and “the tactile spectacles that were accomplished by working in harmony with the gorgeous scenery.” I had the game’s art director, Masato Kanno and the lead mechanic artist, Masanori Ninomiya appear since they are part of the development team that has continued to put their energy towards “presenting airplanes beautifully” by harmonizing the game’s exhilarating and realistic elements. How do these airplanes that they create and the scenery that these are in look so real, yet so appealing? There must be countless hints on how to display model aircraft embedded [in their work].
---We’ll be going straight into detailed discussion, but I felt the degree of perfection of the cockpit felt strange. I think there are especially few people who have seen the consoles of Russian aircraft with this much detail.
Kanno: Since the cockpit would be the main point of view for users in this VR mode, we put extra effort on this aspect in order for them to get that sense of immersion. To put it simply, we used to sketch in colors, glossiness, and other information (texture data) over the 3D model mapping once that was completed. However in this game, we introduced the “substance painter,” which is a virtual paintbrush that allowed us to directly color in things, so we were able to sketch things more intuitively. Things look more real as nicks, remains of splattered liquids, and peeling of paint are added, but trying to not make it too dirty was extremely important.
---Hearing this, I feel like it’s very similar to the process modelers use, but I think this requires an observant eye and “a patience to recreate something.” What is the first step in trying to recreate something?
Ninomiya: We almost never get references from the aircraft makers immediately, so we make them based on references we collected ourselves. We usually start with gathering images from the internet, and also consult the “Famous Airplanes of the World” series and illustrations from western books.
---Dimensions, detailed notations, and even things that haven’t been officially announced have been recreated.
Ninomiya: There are instances where the number of inches of the multi-function displays embedded in the console are publicly available, so if we use that metric to deduce the size of the things surrounding it, we can determine the dimensions of the whole thing. We try to decipher and recreate even the words written on the instrument panel as much as possible. We also research how each indicator operates, and have them move based on the aircraft’s orientation and maneuvers.
Kanno: For the cockpit of a single aircraft that appears in VR mode, it takes one month to make the model, half a month to make the textures, and if we include the time it takes to polish it, the whole process takes two months. We adjust things based on the supervision of the aircraft makers themselves, but the players of the games are the biggest critics. They often point out minute details from the actual aircraft to us.
---The degree of perfection of the third person model was also astonishing. There are instances where the accurate externals and details look like they have the feel of a photo of the real aircraft.
Kanno: Creating the third person model takes one month, and putting in the textures take another month. If we include the cockpit and adjustments on the entire plane, it takes about six months to create one whole fighter jet. Newer stealth aircraft are shaped smartly so the workload is smaller, but it has just as many parts as older, more complex aircraft, resulting in relatively larger surface area and an increased workload.
---Right, since the weathering conditions of the aircraft surface and the cockpit are different. What are things you watch out for when trying to show both of these realistically?
Kanno: A lot of the stains on the aircraft surface are from things like oil leaks and marks after touch ups, where you could see it and understand what caused/resulted in them, but references for the cockpit are scarce. In this case, the most important thing is the power of imagination. Often, knowledge of the places touched by pilots/mechanics and what things are given maintenance priority are first gained by not just looking at photos and footage, but by reading books. For example, the area around the base of the HUD is close to where the player is constantly looking, so high realism is demanded there. It’s also an area frequently touched by the pilot in real life, so we put in bare edges and subtle gleams from the glossy finish since it requires a graininess that is different from the skin of the aircraft.
---So the reasons for looking at references and the resolution you want to recreate it at are different from modelers.
Ninomiya: With a scale model, it’s hard to crawl into the cockpit. It might be difficult to recreate to this degree [of detail], but the cockpit is a very dense place and draws attention.
---The presentation of the canopy was also excellent, and I could sense the scratches, water droplets, and slight refractions of light rays.
Ninomiya: Since you’re constantly looking through the canopy in the VR mode, scratches and background reflections actually become an eyesore if they’re realistic. We took this into consideration so that players could “feel the presence of the canopy without getting in the way of gameplay.” Instead of coloring in surface scratches, we changed their reflectivity a tiny bit and made them look like scratches. Also, things like the amount of scratches and color of the canopy changes with the aircraft’s material and age. We adjusted the colors of the canopies of third person models in all modes, not just the VR mode aircraft, so this is a major feature.
Kanno: Even for aircraft modeling, if you add just a little bit of color to the canopy, it should look much more appealing. It holds true for light dimming, reflection prevention, and stealth coatings, and all of these changes based on the aircraft’s production period, block number, squadron, and the place they operate out of. On top of covering the cockpit, the canopy is the “face of the aircraft” and it’s clear that it has a different feel than the rest of the plane. That’s why if you pay more attention to this, it might elevate your model compared to someone else’s.
---The VR hangar (a mode where you can view the aircraft inside the hangar) is not directly related to the main point of the game to engage in aerial battles, but I felt there was quite a lot of effort put into how things were portrayed.
Kanno: We created the VR hangar as the first place where the person and airplane come into contact with each other. Instead of starting the game from the position of sitting in the seat and flying through the sky, having the experience of confronting your aircraft in the hangar that has other people in it is crucial in the VR mode, which requires a high sense of immersion. To prevent “VR sickness,” the viewpoints are limited to 8 directions: the front, rear, sides, and diagonally 45 degrees, but we adjusted the distance based on the size of the aircraft and height of the wings, and paid attention to positions that would make them look impressive and imposing as well as make the player conscious of the lighting. In terms of “gazing at aircraft from angles that considers human viewpoints instead of gazing at them from above,” I arbitrarily empathize with photos of example models published in Scale Aviation, since they’re probably based on this thinking.
---Whether it’s under the clear sky or inside the hangar, the aircraft colors feel real. How do you choose the hue of these colors?
Ninomiya: We’ve accumulated information about colors within the ACE series development team over the years, but things like the presentation of textures and lighting are affected by improvements in hardware capability, so we adjust them little by little. There are instances where relying only on collected data of the real thing and color charts ends up in unsatisfactory results. So instead of searching for FS [color] numbers that are faithful to the real aircraft, we compare photos with different lighting conditions and simulate these within the game’s virtual space, and choose the color from there. Since the entire team reviews the look of the aircraft in the end, it sometimes results in “the way it shines is a bit off, so redo it!”
---The bumpiness of the aircraft’s surface is delicately presented and is separate from the panel lines and rivets, but do you model these individually?
Kanno: The surface of the 3D model itself is flat. Minute bumps are created using normal maps (information that controls the light’s reflection direction and when applied to the 3D model, it grants the model a more three-dimensional feel).
---The highlights running across the aircraft also look real, and the stains added over them in all areas look incredibly realistic.
Ninomiya: If we draw soot or rust aimlessly, the aircraft would look dirty and the realism would go down. It was like this early on in development. This time around, in order to organize the information of stains, we have added “roughness” information that expresses the bumpiness (various values of reflectiveness) separate from the color and normal map. Trying to draw in dust and limescale with the color information left something to be desired, so we express them by increasing/decreasing the glossiness of different sections. Since less glossy areas appear darker in accordance with lighting conditions, we are able to “draw” stains without adjusting the colors. By controlling the glossiness of the surface, you should be able to express things other than the material properties, even for models.
---The feel of the metallic parts has gotten much more real compared to previous works.
Kanno: We applied something called metallic data, which is different to the roughness. Since it contains information about whether it can reflect the surroundings in addition to the reflectiveness data, it can be used to express a wide range of material feels, from metals to even matte rubbers. In particular, the engine nozzles are movable, so some are modeled very finely and were made to match the material feel, and are eye catchers. Additionally, the lights on the ends of the wings were either drawn into the texture or modeled as if real clear parts were used. Since the structure between the aircraft types are different, these are things that bring out their uniqueness.
---As I ask these questions, it seems like when many modelers say “this is bothersome” or “they’re not good at it,” that in and of itself takes time and effort.
Kanno: Though I’m biased, I think ACE7’s VR hangar would be a very good reference for modelers. We verified the huge amount of references the development team has accumulated over the years and properly added the beautiful aspects of the aircraft, so there should be discoveries even by just gazing at them. Additionally, instead of just modeling the aircraft, we added the hangar, which serves as the background and made it so that it looks like one piece of art. Of course, setting the model by itself on a table, viewing it from above, and being absorbed in its own world has its fun, but if the airplane is in a diorama, it becomes one scene with the backdrop. By creating the surrounding environment, you generate drama. This then increases the charm of the airplane many times over. These are things we realized as we have created the ACE series.
---Are you saying by creating a surrounding environment, the airplane’s appearance changes?
Kanno: (While controlling the console on a PC dedicated to development work) If I mess with the settings a little bit and show you a circumstance where people other than yourself and tractors are removed, I think you’ll see how the composition of the world greatly changes how things appear. When the ACE7 VR mode group met, the first thing they did was to “have people walk inside the hangar.” The idea of “there are other people besides me” can be flipped, leading to the awareness that “I am here” and has a huge effect in increasing the sense of immersion. It’s the same with dioramas and model trains, and by having other people present, the mechanical parts lying on their sides dramatically change from “just an object” to “a human’s tool.” In the VR hangar, the drop tanks are not slung on the aircraft, and we deliberately placed them on carts on the floor. Fighter jets are weapons by nature, and is one component that makes up mechanisms and systems. Of course the aircraft itself has a heroic and mechanical charm to it, but a weapon is a mass-produced system and is just one member of an enormous mechanism enclosed by drop tanks and carts. When we thought about “how to make aircraft look appealing,” we found out that by presenting it as “the aircraft and us” instead of “the aircraft and me,” the depth [of the experience] increased drastically. For example, by placing the drop tanks on the floor instead of on the aircraft, you can show the organization of weapons. If you experience this VR mode, you should be able to understand this intuitively.
Ninomiya: The fact that carrier aircraft fold their wings is not because “it looks cool,” but because it’s a function that reduces the area it takes when it’s parked, and makes operation more efficient. I think the appeal that comes from displaying it to match the carrier deck can be felt because it implicitly tells you about these things.
---Making dioramas is an immense task.
Kanno: If you make the entire hangar, it takes up space and if you make the roof, the crucial airplane can’t be seen. But for example, if you only make the ground and the cart, it would serve as the background and will function sufficiently. With just that, I think an aircraft model that you’ll be satisfied by looking at it for 30 seconds will be transformed into a piece that you could spend hours gazing at.
---I was astonished by how expressive the fighter jets looked even in scenes where they were just flying through the sky.
Ninomiya: In this game, we made it so the aircraft gets wet when entering clouds and dynamically change the surface shine. I think it’ll take some courage to recreate this for models, but if you show off the metallic and wet areas, or in other words “places where the shininess is different,” it’ll improve the appearance of the model. Even for a single aircraft, if the situation changes, the way it appears changes.
Kanno: Thinking about “which aircraft to make” is fine, but when you think about “how to display it,” model presentation will undoubtedly become more expressive, and I think ACE7 has a ton of hints like these. It’s a hassle if you decide to go see a real fighter jet fly. But with VR goggles, even your friends can easily wear them. Being able to easily experience your favorite things, your favorite situations, and your favorite things doing cool things are the good things about VR. Even when making models, there will be discoveries like “I didn’t know you could do that with this method!” so we want people to experience ACE7’s VR mode by all means.
 Since this article came from a magazine for scale aircraft modelers, it talks about some things pertaining to them.
 Federal Standard (FS) is a color system that uses 5 digit codes with each number identifying the general color, glossiness, etc. RLM refers to the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (German Air Ministry during WWII) and the numeric system identified a design's aircraft type.
 A series of long magazines published in Japan. Each issue focuses on a specific aircraft type/family and has detailed development histories, illustrations, technical data etc. for each aircraft.