Hollywood’s War Time Illusions

These days Hollywood has a bad reputation for being filled with some of the most unpatriotic people in America, but back in World War II, things were a lot different. In fact, between their celebrity-filled war bond rallies and moral-boosting films, Hollywood played a huge role in driving support for the war effort.

But while those efforts were pretty well known, the studios also played a much more covert role in keeping America safe -by disguising some of the nation’s largest aircraft plants to look like residential neighborhoods. The images featured here are all from The Lockheed-Vega aircraft plant in Burbank (seen at left before the camouflage was applied and below afterwards), although these techniques were used on multiple military locations.

It all started when Colonel  John F Ohmer, a leader in camouflage technology, suggested that the U.S. create a protective cover on a major air base outside of Pearl Harbor. His superior officers ignored his idea, but when the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941, his camouflage concept suddenly seemed like a really great idea.

Of course, one man with a great plan couldn’t handle this type of task on his own, but the plan was made possible when Hollywood studios, including Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Disney Studios, 20th Century Fox, Paramount and Universal Pictures all volunteered their services.

Scenic designers, painters, art directors, landscape artists, animators, carpenters, lighting experts and prop men were suddenly using their unique talents not to create movie sets, but whole imaginary towns on top of existing military installations.

Entire suburbs were painted on canvas and adorned with rubber cars and feather trees to provide a more realistic look. Factory air ducts that stuck out of the canvas were disguised to look like fire hydrants.

Of course, a real suburb would never stay still all the time, so to add even more realism to the scene, workers would climb along support beams and move the cars up and down the imaginary streets. They would take laundry off of the clothes lines and then put them back up later.

If these installations were put up anywhere aside from Southern California, they would not only suffer without the skill of the Hollywood effects teams that helped create them, but they would likely also fall victim to the weather. Southern California, known for its moderate climate, provided an environment free from snow and heavy-rain, that would have otherwise destroyed these clever camo designs.

Unbeknownst to the U.S. at the time though, by the time these elaborate designs were completed in October 1942, Japan was already too weak to launch an attack against mainland America, so in the end, these elaborate ruses served little purpose in the actual war effort. Even so, they are an amazing part of military history, showing just how convincing camouflage can be in the right hands.

Of course, these techniques wouldn’t serve much purpose these days with all of our modern detection devices. But at the time, clever illusions were able to play an important role in the protection of the Allied forces. Be sure to follow the mentioned link for more military-used optical illusion tactics.

19 Replies to “Hollywood’s War Time Illusions”

  1. Excellent Article!!
    A website about Illusions don’t need to mean just for our eyes here and now, but items where illusions were needed on a much global settings.
    I was in the Air Force and the Air National Guards, and a major buff of Hollywood moves, and I still never knew about Hollywood’s OFF camera involvement towards the war effort.
    Thank you and keep up a GREAT website.

  2. There were similar pans to this in the UK too, when they were planning the D-Day landings in Normandy, France. The british mocked up whole units of fake tanks and airplanes near Dover, to trick the Germans into thinking we were going to try and land in near Calais instead, a completely different area of France!

    The tricks worked too, German troops were pulled away from Normandy and put into Calais, even after we landed the germans refused to send renforcements to Normandy, they were so convinced it was a fake attack and we were going to launch a bigger attack Calais shortly afterwards!

  3. I looked it up on Google Maps, in satellite view. It’s a ship dock.

    The trick in the above pic is not to show you it’s a dock, so that it looks like a highway, in which case cars parked like that make no sense.

  4. I don’t think Hollywood is at all unpatriotic. “My country, right or wrong is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying My mother, drunk or sober.” – GK Chesterton. It’s not unpatriotic to point out when your country is wrong.

  5. I love the camoflage information. But completely disagree with this incendiary statement: “These days Hollywood has a bad reputation for being filled with some of the most unpatriotic people in America.”

    Yes, there are a lot of liberals in Hollywood (in fact, many everywhere). But do NOT conflate liberalism with lack of patriotism. Two totally different concepts.

  6. Doesn’t the US call it a war crime for other countries to place military facilities in residential communities? How different is this?

  7. I agree with the other posters who say those in Hollywood AREN’T unpatriotic. It’s VERY patriotic to say things like…”I hate the USA, it’s a facist state and NEEDS to be destroyed.” Only someone who LOVES his or her country would say……”The terrorists are right and WE are wrong!!…DEATH TO AMERICA!!”

    BTW, I’m being sarcastic. Thanx MOI for pointing out the obvious about Hollywood.

  8. “Hollywood has a bad reputation for being filled with some of the most unpatriotic people in America”… right on. Anyone catch “Superman Returns” and notice that there was “truth” and “justice” but no longer “the American way”?

  9. This wasn’t limited to southern california. They did the same thing near Seattle, WA at the Boeing plant there.

  10. Too bad this camo didnt do a damn thing for infrared images. cant hide the heat signature of a jet engine with paper thin camo.

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