The accident that destroyed Zeppelin LZ-4 on the ground at Echterdingen on 5 August 1908 killed no one, but was a huge blow to the pride of a people following progress of the world leader in airship technology. Recovery found great enthusiasm and universal sense of purpose gripping the people of Germany, giving birth to a national aviation fund which grew to over 6 million donors. Forever remembered by all those who experienced it at the time, it was especially memorable to the masses of folks whose small contributions created the financial basis for further development and the proper establishment of the Zeppelin airship construction company. Of course the retired German Army officer envisioned his creation to be a great weapon for use by his small, young country that was surrounded by powerful enemies. However, it was this voluntary contribution campaign by individual donors, not redistribution of monies collected by taxes, that firmly established the rigid airship technology.
So as this history shows, the idea of “crowd funding” is not new to the rigid airship. Arguably, the rigid airship owes its very existence to a sort of public subscription. And today, caring people help fund historic preservation of historic hardware.
Contributors support historic steam locomotives, Le Rhône rotary-engine airplanes and square-rigged tall ships. These and other “obsolete” technologies are preserved by loving folks who don’t just dust off museum displays, they perform live demonstrations. The caring CAF folks who maintain the flying SBD in this calendar photo also help pay for its operations by offering gunner-seat rides.
With little hardware from the historic airships preserved even for museums, restoring even the smallest to flight status is quite impractical. (Photo: R-100 crew’s bunk, now part of a private collection.) Recreating the Graf Zeppelin might be within reach of a billionaire, but be aware LTA is especially overloaded with dreamers and schemers. For every visionary Count Zeppelin, there are at least half a dozen or more Louis Pearlmans. Third world hackers have already solicited cash from those enamored with the romance of the airship, while presenting far less technical expertise than that nice looking if impossible Grey Goose Vodka TV-spot airship. If one has the resources to construct a flying airship today, one would not use historic materials. A new airship would be a product of this century. As such, it would not inspire much thought about what might have been.
Our team has produced a five-part DVD history of the airship. ( Click here to download a quick summary of the series. ) We created the series the old fashioned way, that is, soliciting contributions for converting archival film to tape, while volunteering research, writing, editing, scoring, etc., prior to widespread use of the internet. Some feel this approach is enough. Since there are no easily-spotted “talking heads” therein, we’ve already noticed not-so-selected cuts from our series appearing on the internet. However, even if someone steals and posts the entire DVD series, it is a proudly accurate history of what really was. The series was never intended to aggressively inspire thinking about what might have been.
We also published a non-fiction book listing all known airship motion picture footage of the 20th Century. Reading “A Century of Airships” paints certain images in the mind’s eye, a different take on the history of LTA. Much of it owned by stock footage suppliers, their royalty fees insure it will never reach the general public. However, even if all were digitized and posted for downloading without watermarks, these films would not offer direction as to what might have been accomplished.
So where does that leave those of us who have read the histories, and have concluded all the lives lost, and the huge investments made, could – for the want of a few less hateful politicians, or perhaps just slightly more agreeable weather – very well have had greater payoffs?
For those folks, we have Rowan Partridge’s novel creation, ZRS. Rowan’s vision is more than just a good story, and a carefully reasoned historical fiction. As reviewer Marc de Piolenc put it, Rowan envisioned that “…the demise of rigid airships was due largely to bad luck compounded by hubris.” Rowan didn’t get mad, he got even… by giving that universe a dividend from its rigid airship investment. Publishing Rowan’s novel was our team’s first contribution to that thought-provoking journey into the imagination. Reading ZRS engages the reader with suspension of disbelief unreachable by other means.
Can any media besides the printed word achieve the novel’s suspension of disbelief (or as critics might call it, escapism with the mind’s eye)? Shortly after publishing the book, the producer was contacting friends employed in Hollywood about the size and nature of the miniatures that would have to be made. Dwarfing the AMT kits once offered, several interesting Akron and Macon large models had been built; the one shown here was in the now-defunct Wings and Wheels Museum in Orlando, Florida, and appeared to have been built on the scale of this tiny Sparrowhawk kit bagged and sold in the UK years ago. A magnificent cut-away model of one of the ZRS ships was part of the original NASM in its Balloons and Airship gallery, also home to their restored F9C-2 Sparrowhawk which hung by its hook. We can hope that model is still in storage – perhaps gathering dust with their Maybach engine at Silver Hill.
Back then, the producer was not sure it could be done well (remembering the airship movies Hollywood had done to that date). “Hell’s Angles” was the most expensive movie made in its day; its Zeppelin models were overseen by Dr. Karl Arnstein himself, and they were even filmed in a blimp hangar! The model seen here, of the imaginary rigid “Luxembourg,” was on view at the Disney-MGM studios for a time. It may have been used in “The Rocketeer” but of course its tail swastikas were retouched for display. The major LZ-129 model built for the film bearing its name is on display at NASM, reflecting its rumored lack of accurate plans used in its construction. Sadly, these models, though they had been the state of the art, would be unacceptable – even laughable – on 3D and IMAX big-screens today.
With the emergence of two aspects of digital technology, everything changed. First revolution we note is Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) which allowed what was impractical to fabricate in a shop to nonetheless appear on a screen. As the price of CGI came down, we have seen it even in modest made-for-TV programs (like this German TV effort). With ever-improving software, not just the USS Long Island, but also her hook-on airplanes, could be computer-generated.
Second revolution was the emergence of the internet for communication and entertainment. Anyone can be a producer or director, and the distribution is virtually unlimited. Of course a largely CGI movie could be created and posted on the internet. However, we feel the small-screen technology will never inspire deep consideration about what might have been as applied to large rigid airships. In our view, ZRS the movie simply must be on the 3-D big screen and IMAX – or not at all.
So, if we are going to give the public a glimpse of the rigids that coulda/shoulda happened, we must also start a crowd-sourcing campaign. However, it cannot be like the “Miracle of Echterdingen” more than 100 years ago. The highway to Hollywood, perhaps like Hell itself, is paved with good intentions. (The place above has a stairway… gives one an idea of the expected traffic.) So, we will have no part of taking someone’s donation with nothing to show but promises. Such a course would be on questionable moral, if not legal, grounds.
We think we have a better idea.
The producer can guarantee nothing of course, especially a big-screen movie costing tens of millions. However, we can point to our more than 20 years’ effort to bring accurate airship history to the public: just visit our website, www.airshiphistory.com. Our team has completed the production of videos and publishing books that otherwise would never have seen the light of day. (The mainstream usually just wants to blow up the Hindenburg because it surely happened because it was filled with dangerous, volatile, flammable, explosive, UnAmerican, Nazi hydrogen gas.)
People familiar with the amount of work involved, and investment level necessary for such a DVD series or book effort, are in a position to judge our degree of stick-ability for themselves. However, getting to Hollywood is not going to be as easy just building an airplane.
While we’re not ruling out a Kickstarter or GoFundMe or similar fundraiser assembling at least some the resources needed, perhaps like some other films have been produced. Even if completed in this way, the distribution system does not welcome outsiders into the nation’s theater chains. So, we have come to hope that the internet’s communications reach can make the journey to CinemaScope / Panavision / IMAX a reality in a different way.
We’re going to borrow a page from Hollywood’s own playbook: generate pre-production funds by “pre-selling” the movie, or should we say, the movie merchandise.
Instead of promising huge returns to multi-million-dollar investors, we hope to gain support from more everyday folk who, for several powers of ten less money, will purchase a book, poster or video to support the pre-vis. Not unlike the poor but proud German ‘volks’ who donated their hard-earned Pfennigs to continue the Count’s rigid airship work, a large number of everyday airship fans spending a few of their hard-earned dollars could tip the scales toward making something that’s positive – even dazzling – about the rigid airship, for a change. We think this website can work to illustrate the concept to Hollywood via suggestive pieces of animation of great visual interest. (Some circles suggest the movie has to actually be made before the concept can be sold, but we’re working the sneak preview instead. )
Raising the funds for the movie’s “pre-vis” animation is why we created this website, although we have tried to set the history straight in the general effort towards understanding how mild a revision of history this movie would actually portray. With key elements of the technological platform shown in animation on this website, even the least imaginative potential studio can follow along. If we do this right, we’ll help a potential production company understand that ZRS can be profitable—while we retain control of its technological accuracy. Besides, the more materials we have camera-ready, the less likely a studio would be tempted to cut corners, i.e. substitute a Grumman Goose painted with red spots for the “Emily,” or worse, screw up the technology by animating jet fighters along the gasbag.
They have a saying in Hollywood, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Make no mistake, ZRS isn’t a history lesson. The frame shown here is not going to be a scene in the movie. ZRS is a rousing science fiction adventure, just set in the past, rather than the future. No preaching; it will be edge-of-your-seat entertainment in pull-back-on-the-stick!! 3D. If anyone walks out of the theater muttering to themselves, “Ya know, I wonder why they didn’t do that?” all the better.
Again: Let there be no false hopes. While we have every intention to see “ZRS” hit big 3-D screens worldwide, Hollywood streets are paved with broken dreams. Our team has already suffered the loss of airship technical consultant Norman Mayer. (Norm had just turned 99 and the last time he talked to the producer, he asked, “When are we going to make the Long Island?”) Providence forbid, other key members of the team might pass on before completion, and their expertise might not be easily replaced. If the movie never hits a screen, supporters will at least have a book, DVD or artwork they purchased to support the pre-vis.
How can we offer a guarantee that proceeds from movie merchandise will successfully pave the USS Long Island’s path to the big screen? Of course we can not. However, we can assure everyone that our decades of airship study, book publishing and video production on the LTA subject will continue into the creation of ZRS the motion picture if it is humanly possible. Captain Ivor Briars and his Susan will be portrayed believably. And their “stage,” the USS Long Island, will launch and recover her hook-on airplanes across the big screen just as they were expected to do when the ZRCV was designed in 1936. Informed speculation and great entertainment can co-exist.
Most everyone who reads ZRS the novel could envision the story as a motion picture. The internet makes it possible to reach a huge number of potential airship fans, and the studios should know these folks purchase tickets. Trips to air shows with our “P-77” will generate interest, and these people would fill theater seats. Perhaps we can even use social media to spread the idea. The hardest part might actually be knowing when to say “no,” recognizing otherwise well-meaning teams who would not possess the wherewithal to see the movie to quality term. We’d need some assurance any team would not purchase, then shelve the project, which is also not unknown in Hollywood. Worst of all, a signed studio might promise to make the picture with the utmost care, respecting the technology and the given WWII time frame, only to have screen tests lead it to decide audiences could not accept the ZRS mildly revisionist technology. It’s a fight we hope we don’t have to engage in, but potential investors must accept as a possibility. It’s not uncommon for a first draft to bear little resemblance to a final product.
If you are aware of the dangers, you accept that your investment may get you nothing but a poster, a lobby card, a DVD and/or a book. The producer is not getting any younger – and he might get hit by a propeller or fall out of an airship. Remember Murphy’s last phase of a project, after “Brilliance,” “Confusion,” “Search for the Guilty,” “Punishment of the Innocent:” it is “Distinction for the Uninvolved.”
If you’re still ready to help make it happen in spite of the admittedly slim chances ZRS will ever hit the big screen, please scroll down and click on the poster, book or DVD for more information on the offering. The art prints are shipped in a mailing tube, while the books and DVDs are packed in boxes. (Please note that while orders including both types are usually shipped at the same time, the different shaped parcels may be delivered by the Post Office on different days.)
Just like the “Miracle at Echterdingen,” together, we can make it happen!