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Angel Flights


By Michael Stone

Published Oct 1, 2011 12:00 AM


(Above left) Spence shot this sparse Orange County spot in 1954.
(Above right) A year later, it's been magically transformed into a kingdom called Disneyland. Photos courtesy of the Spence Air Photos.

Imagine: Los Angeles after the Second World War. A place of unlimited possibilities and opportunities. This sizzling environment is meticulously re-created in L.A. Noire, the new, blockbuster video game from Rockstar Games, which brings players into an extremely faithful reenactment of 1940s Los Angeles.

Thanks to painstaking research by Team Bondi in Sydney, Australia, L.A. Noire provides an unparalleled, three-dimensional level of detail of Los Angeles circa 1947 — showcasing landmarks and infamous streets as they were in the postwar era, all of which serve as backdrops for realistic crime-fighting segments.

For authenticity, the game makers turned to UCLA's Benjamin and Gladys '65, M.A. '68 Thomas Air Photo Archives. Benjamin was the chair of the Geography Department, where the collections are housed, in 1971-1974 and 1977-1978.

City Slick

Check out the City of Angels when the trolleys rolled and the neon streets held a million secrets. Visit the L.A. Noire website at

There are two collections — the Spence Air Photos, Inc., and the Fairchild Aerial Surveys. The L.A. Noire production team found the photos in the Spence collection in particular "an invaluable resource," says Simon Wood, L.A. Noire production designer. "We could see new housing developments as well as the density of traffic. We could also see the trolley car routes, as well as the various kinds of roofing, down to details like whether or not people had air conditioning."

This collection contains more than 130,000 black-and-white aerial images taken between the years 1918-1971 from a variety of latitudes, angles and directions. Robert Earl Spence, a barnstorming photographer of his time (he was not a pilot), shot while hanging out of an open airplane with a 46-pound camera in hand.

Visiting the Photo Archives

Interested in seeing more from the The Benjamin and Gladys Thomas Air Photo Archives? Visit the UCLA Department of Geography's website to see how.

"We were all amazed by the effort of this guy," says Ben Brudenell, lead artist for Team Bondi, about Spence. "We used the photos as our main source of reference to where buildings were located in the city. We could see buildings that had been demolished and from the photos we could then re-create the design, shape and the architectural details of these buildings."

Airports, refineries, factories, schools, hospitals, country clubs, motion-picture studios and historic buildings — or the lack thereof today — are all documented in the collection, even though they often were not actually the subjects being photographed. At the same time, combing through the archive photos, one can see the birth of some of Southern California's iconic landmarks taking shape: places like Union Station, Century City, the Sunset Strip, Dodger Stadium, Disneyland, the freeway system — even UCLA.

Today, the archive is visited by more than 200 researchers a year — UCLA faculty and students plus architects, historians, realtors, preservationists, environmentalists, lawyers and writers. An important next step is to make the archive collections even more accessible. The goal is to work with the UCLA Library to create an online database of the images so that, in time, all the photos can be easily viewed.

"It's such a unique collection that I want people from all over the world to be able to utilize these photos to better understand our past," concludes Kasi McMurray, the geography department's management services officer, who oversees the archive.


An image from L.A. Noire, which used the Spence collection for research. Photo courtesy of Rockstar Games.