AI Episodes No.1 - Imagination At The Airport

on March 14, 2024

A personal investigation of artificial intelligence imaging.

You can never be sure what’s inside a land mine until you pry the top off with a screwdriver. This principle guided me when I noticed that Adobe was giving away a free month’s use of their new Firefly AI app. It would seem to have been the classic nickel-bag approach to marketing, but I was curious at the right time.

I had an idea, you see, to shoot many of my little aircraft models in realistic dioramas and make up a personal brag book. I’d done similar images for years using physical props and I was keen to see if the new whizz-bang could add anything good to the mixture.


The deal was that for a month you could experiment with their program for free - and afterwards pay a nominal fee for each additional month. Adobe probably figured people would try if for a few days and get tired - or simply add it to their suite of aftermarket choices. There were legalistic warnings about using the results for commercial purposes, but my private books were likely to be fine.


I planned out the caper - I wrote down descriptions of two dozen airfields, airports, and scenarios that would suit my purpose. As I am a writer, I could make them detailed…though I did not know if this would make much difference to what Adobe’s computers would do.


I must say the introduction off the screen was simple enough to follow:


  1. Type in my description.
  2. Select a style of rendering.
  3. Press the “ go “ button.
  4. Assess four samples that popped up.


The four samples were in square format but I could re-request the next four in landscape style.

Whenever I got something I liked, it could be downloaded to the desktop and squirrelled away.

If you want to now whether someone is capable of telling the truth, ask them a question to which you already know the answer.


This is the principle of a lot of what your parents ask you…and I applied it to the Adobe Firefly program. I asked for scenes that I know very well - Western and Northern Canada and the Australian outback. The results would show whether the whole exercise was going to be realistic, and therefore profitable.


I asked for the coast of British Columbia to act as the backdrop for a seaplane base. Also Northern Alberta in the snow. In both cases the results returned are superb - they capture the look of the scenery very well indeed - colour, composition, and contrast were more than adequate. The scenes had enough imagination without becoming cartoons.


They were not perfect, by any means. Close examination showed some dodgy looking pine tree limbs and fence lines that were sadly misplaced. And sometimes an order was ignored; I asked for no aircraft, birds, or people in the scenes, but distorted creatures sometimes turned up.


None of the flaws was a killer, however, and simple photoshopping removed birds and inappropriate airplanes from otherwise perfect skies.


And the best thing was that a simple gaussian blur of 3 pixels smoothed away any inadvertences and rendered the backdrop terrifically realistic. It was my job to make the foreground aircraft and landing field look good, but Firefly gave me skies and mountains and seas that I could neither have constructed not painted for myself.


Were there any other problems with the colour? No - you could ask for renditions in photo-realism, artwork, or many different graphic styles. I went for photo-realism as I figured any artistic footling about could be done later in the Photoshop compilation.




But there was one surprising problem…

What sort of troubles could you get ourself into with a free month on an AI interface? You’d be surprised.


My basic plan of harvesting airfield backdrops from Firefly to put in a model airplane book was going very well. I was getting results that were going to be useful, and far more attractive than anything I could paint or construct myself. I was no longer going to have to search amongst my old images to find something vaguely applicable and accept it.


I knew that it would be no good asking the program to deliver an image of the Prime Minister and the Archbishop engaged in a punch-up - even if I wanted this as a frontispiece the rules of polite fakery would not allow it. I did not ask for this sort of thing.

I was also warned that I could not ask for tanks and bombs and shell explosions over the Western Front. Any air battles I wanted to stage would have to be done by other means.


I did inveigle the program to deliver a pretty good Western Front complete with trenches, mud holes, and barbed wire, but I could only do it with roundabout words. Weather and atmosphere were no problem and I could ask for the light in any strength or colour from a number of directions. It would be up to me to match this with tabletop illumination later.


But I did run foul of what I can only ascribe to political correctness gone mad.


I wanted an airfield in Northern Hokkaido with snow on the runways, distant bare hills with little trees, and a hangar or two. I typed in a detailed description and got back a cartoon monkey with a horrified expression telling me I had contravened their standards. Bad boy, bad boy…

I was puzzled, and retried it by modifying the description word by word. It turned out that the trigger word was “ Japanese airfield “. Someone in the Adobe programming department thinks it offensive. Whether they have personal issues or not is unclear, but I have no wish to share them.


In the end, I got the field I wanted by substituting the expression “ airfield in Japan “. Oddly enough other airfield descriptions could use the words “ Swiss “, “ British “, “ Australian “, or “ American “ without a hitch.


Note that if you want signs in your scene, do not ask Firefly to write them. It cannot think or spell like that. You are best to just ask for a bare signboard and add the lettering yourself.


Likewise, limit the fences or barriers to simple things. And be prepared to avoid a lot of structures that involve framework - like gantries or cranes. You’ll just be re-doing them in real life or discarding them.   



Text and images by Richard Stein