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The stealth fighter that almost torpedoed a weasel

f117 nighthawk

The research and engineering company I work for really didn’t need Xtreme image processing technology to do boring old science. Computers that could do graphics cost gigantic bucks in the ’80s and, really, the ink-and-vellum we’d used for a hundred and twiddly-two years would do what needed doing just fine. The purpose of all that expensive computer graphics tech was marketing. It was worth a few hundred thousand corporate bucks for pie charts that made prospective clients go, “holy farging shift, what consummate geeks!”

So Weasel got excellent toys to play with.

We started with a turnkey business graphics system. Then, in 1987, when Photoshop was just a gleam in Thomas Knoll‘s eye, they bought me (me! Mine! Mine, I tell you!) a digital image processing system. Um, a thingie that did Photoshoppy stuff.

I had worked with photos for years before that, but even I have trouble remembering now what life was like before Photoshop. It was hard, slow and expensive to alter a photo in any way, and even the most skillful job usually looked like shit. People took for granted the accuracy of photos, because that was the correct thing to do.

All that changed with digital image processing, and I had a blast giving people their first taste of it. My workstation was a standard stop on the company tour. Typically, I would take a snapshot of the man standing in front of me and merrily erase his mustache, give him a third eye and make his ears the size of dinnerplates, in real time. Oh, to see the sweet innocence fade from a middle-aged businessman’s eye!

Another cool thing we could do, because we did all our film processing in-house, was create nifty graphics and produce slides (remember slides?) while a meeting was still in progress. My favorite was the time we captured a picture of the client’s corporate offices from the back page of his annual report, and I used my P’shoppical skills to set the building on fire. I’m told several old guys in rumpled suits leapt up and dashed for the phones when that slide came up. w00t!

So this one time, shortly after we bought the image processor, we were in talks with Lockheed and the salesdude wanted me to make him a nice title slide beforehand. I was given a photo of a plane that was just crap. TOTALLY blurry and out of focus. I couldn’t believe it; it was the shittiest photo I’d ever been given to work with.

Scandalized, I set about cleaning it up. I mean, it was pretty easy to make out what the thing looked like under the blur, if you were a highly trained professional artard like what I am. And so, using my mad illustration skillz, I basically did a light, semi-transparent drawing on top of the photo. It was coming along pretty good, too — downright photorealistic-looking — when my boss walked in and shrieked like he was a little girl and I just dropped a frog down her blouse.

Yeah, see, the F-117 Nighthawk was still highly classified in 1987, and that blurry, deliberately fucked-up photo was the only one that had been officially released — and then only to Lockheed’s technical partners. Who knew? Not this weasel, for sheasel.

So, back in the days when photos never lied, what were my chances of explaining to the nice men from the FBI or the CIA or the Secret Service or whoever how I came by a nice, clean photo of their sooper-secret stealth dingus?

July 1, 2008 — 11:28 am
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