On May 9, 2021, Russia celebrated the anniversary of the victory in WWII. As usual, a massive parade has been organized, with thousands of military personnel and hundreds of vehicles.
The latest gadgets of Russian Aerospace Forces were showcased, including the MiG-31 interceptor armed with the hypersonic Kh-47M2 Kinzhal missile and the country’s newest jet, the 5th generation stealth fighter Sukhoi Su-57.
The show was impressive. In fact, some would say – a bit too impressive. The climax of the parade – at least for aviation enthusiasts worldwide – happened approximately an hour and seventeen minutes in, when the livestream showed a close-up of a cockpit of the Su-57, before zooming out and whirling around a formation of jets in a particularly cinematic manner.
“So beautiful,” a number of commenters on multiple streams remarked simultaneously.
“Impressive CGI animation,” other commenters followed.
“No, I think it is a live video,” military expert Vasily Kashin interrupted a presenter who was making a similar remark on Russian oppositional TV channel Dozhd.
The same footage of fighter jets was used by every Russian media channel and in comment sections of many of them a question of authenticity was raised.
Is such a conspiracy theory warranted? Has Russian TV really presented computer generated images (CGI) instead of a real footage of the newest fighter jet?
Yes. And it is not that difficult to prove.
A cloudy problem
A sequence of screenshots from the Victory parade footage (Image: RBK)
On the one hand, the movement of the camera is not particularly smooth and there is a significant amount of texture and wear on the jets themselves. If those are computer-generated models, the quality of CGI is impressive indeed.
On the other hand, the camera gets incredibly close to the aircraft. Particularly notable is the fact that a fisheye lens is used: it is not a case of a powerful zoom, the aircraft from which the footage is filmed really had to come particularly close to the fighter jet.
In itself, such a feat does not seem impossible. Any performance of any aerobatics team at any airshow usually features aircraft flying no more than a couple of meters (several feet) from each other. Could the camera be mounted on another airplane participating in the show?
In fact, just several seconds later we see the formation filmed from the ground: jets fly alone, just four of them, and the space in front of them – the only spot from which the footage could have been filmed – is empty.
The same formation of four Su-57s filmed from the ground. (Image: RBK)
While we are here, another peculiarity should be noted. May 9 was a rainy day in Moscow. The whole sky was uniformly covered by clouds. Here is a wide shot of Kinzhal-armed MiG-31s over the Kremlin, just to get the feel of the weather we are talking about.
The clouds look strikingly different from the ones in the aerial footage with Su-57s. In fact, all the aerial footage of the parade is a bit weird in this regard. Here is a shot of a Su-30 belonging to an aerobatic demonstration team Russian Knights, which flew just seconds after Su-57s:
And here are more Sukhois in formation with a Tupolev Tu-160. They overflew Moscow a couple of minutes earlier:
Two features have to be noted. First, there is some kind of haze at the top of the footage, present in all aerial shots except for those that feature Su-57s. Second, patches of sunlight can be seen on the ground in both screenshots, as well as all the other aerial footage.
Could it be that aerial shots were simply filmed on another day and spliced in with the footage of the parade? It would appear so. That explains the clouds and the haze at the top is simply a way to mask the clear sky, to make the weather look a bit more similar to the one in genuine May 9 footage.
In fact, there is some good indication that those shots were filmed on May 5, during the rehearsal of the parade. The sky was a lot clearer, with some patches of clouds, and the Red Square bathed in some quite intensive sunlight. Here is some raw footage filmed by a bystander during the rehearsal:
But this theory has some problems too. First of all, this clip shows almost the entire flight of Su-57s over the parade. There is no fifth plane from which the closeup could have been filmed.
Su-57s during the rehearsal on May 5 (Image: Nikolay Lukin)
So, although other aerial shots were quite definitely filmed on May 5 – including the ones with the Su-30 and the Tu-160 – the money shot with the Su-57 did not happen that day. That fact can be corroborated yet another closer look at the clouds. In those first screenshots, the sky is neither as clear as on May 5, nor as cloudy as on May 9.
Looking at that amateur footage reveals yet another problematic aspect. Aircraft in the formation are different from the ones we see in the closeup. Note the light color of the underside of the leading aircraft, and the fact that it has four armament pylons under its wings. It is particularly obvious if we zoom in a bit and increase the contrast of the picture:
The two leading Su-57s (Image: Nikolay Lukin)
And here is the formation in the supposed May 9 footage. The underside of the leading jet has the same coloring and pattern as the rest of the flight:
This, together with clouds, proves that the footage was not filmed during the rehearsal on May 5. Still, it does not prove that the aircraft in the footage are CGI – only that it might have been a different date altogether, and in the livestream, footage from three separate filming sessions may have been spliced, with different Su-57s flying on different occasions.
But there is one problem with that explanation too.
The whole premise behind the participation of the Su-57 in the latest Victory parade was to showcase the latest step in the development of this airplane. In December 2020, the Russian Air Force received the first jet of this model, and the second one to be serially produced. The first one crashed in 2019 before reaching the military.
This latest airplane received the fuselage number 01. All the previous jets – except for the crashed one – were prototypes, with their fuselage numbers between 051 and 056, as well as 509 and 511.
Here is some footage of the 01 during one of its first flights. There are no pylons yet, but note the lighter color of the digital camouflage on its underside:
But the underside of the aircraft featured in the May 9 footage is dark. All the aircraft in that footage have the same camouflage, meaning that the 01 could not be one of them.
Nevertheless, fuselage numbers of the two leading aircraft are clearly seen in the footage. One of them is the 058 and the other one is… the 01.
So, here is the catch. Not only the 01 has a different color scheme than depicted in the supposed May 9 footage, but the 058 as well. It is the seventh flyable prototype of the aircraft, which flew for the first time in November 2016. It was the same aircraft that attracted attention in 2020, after footage showing it flying with no canopy surfaced.
(Image: Russian Defence ministry)
So, in a very short timeframe the Air Force – which recently introduced both the serial aircraft and the prototypes into its service – had to repaint two of its aircraft.
Did Russians do that? No. Here is a tweet by the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), showing Su-57s taking off for the rehearsal on May 5.
Репетиция Парада Победы, взлеты и посадки истребителей Су-57 pic.twitter.com/PluFp2uqMk
— United Aircraft Corp (@UAC_Russia) May 5, 2021
And here are more shots of Su-57s on that same day. Both 058 and 01 retain their original schemes.
Not the first time
So, the footage shown during the livestream on May 9 did not feature real aircraft: the weather does not match, and the paint schemes of the aircraft shown were different in the photos taken at the airport, even with the same fuselage numbers. The Su-57s quite definitely flew during the parade – familiar shapes of the four aircraft can be seen in the footage filmed from the ground. But the impressive shot with the close-up of an aircraft was just a bit of computer-generated footage, spliced in between the real shots.
Counting clouds and looking at numbers is not the only way to prove that. At the very start of the shot, a bulb of an infrared search and track (IRST) system can be seen on the nose of the Su-57. The nose cone of the aircraft is reflected in it. But there is no camera, and no aircraft from which the footage could have been filmed.
In fact, this is not the first time the Victory day parade features the use of computer-generated aircraft. In 2020, an even more impressive shot was taken. The camera dove straight through a flaming jet engine of the Su-30:
As can be seen in these screenshots, models of the aircraft do not look particularly detailed, and it is blatantly obvious that the footage is fake.
In comparison with it, the shot taken in 2021 is much better, and much more convincing. The artists who created it even went to the lengths of including real fuselage numbers of aircraft that flew at the parade – they only mixed up the paint schemes.
And forgot to add the reflection of the camera. And mixed up the weather. But other than that, the result of their work was impressive enough to fool some experienced experts.