Out of this world
08 April 2014
Tanya Weaver chats to DEVELOP3D Live’s keynote speaker Daniel Simon about how he goes about creating and visualising vehicles for worlds past, present, future and imagined
As far as job titles go, Daniel Simon has to have one of the coolest: Hollywood concept designer and automotive futurist.
His vehicle designs have featured in films such as Tron: Legacy, Captain America: The First Avenger, Prometheus and Oblivion. But is working in Hollywood as glamorous as it’s cracked up to be?
“It’s not glamorous at all,” laughs Simon, who despite being a native German has a definite American twang having lived in Los Angeles for the past six years.
“It’s way less glamorous than car design where many wear suits and nice shoes and work in studios that could grace the pages of architecture magazines.
Hollywood doesn’t even have design studios – you often get thrown into cheap rented spaces and you have to bring your own equipment. Also, unlike the car design industry, there is no set workflow. Basically, it’s a very high profile chaos.”
But how did he land in Hollywood and get bestowed the title of ‘one of the most in demand concept designers in the world today’?
Well, it all started at the age of three and his obsession with drawing. This hobby continued until he was 15 when he came across the work of a car designer in a magazine, which triggered the realisation that he could make a living from drawing cars.
Although his day job entailed drawing conventional cars for this world, in his spare time his imagination began to travel to other galaxies. The inspiration came from watching Star Wars for the first time as an adult and being captivated by the spaceships. He soon started sketching his own spaceships and fantastical vehicles.
“I think designers in general never really grow up. I don’t think I ever really grew up in a sense that I don’t accept the world the way it is. For instance, if you see an incredible building or a bridge you know that someone thought of it but someone else could have thought of it differently.”
So, I don’t really accept things as they are because I know they could have easily been different and with that approach everything becomes transparent, like in the Matrix film. A paradigm shift where you start seeing the world differently.”
After a few years Simon had quite a collection of vehicles and decided to build a website, before many other artists, to simply have his drawings accessible when visiting family and friends. To his surprise, he attracted quite a following, including a publisher in California who suggested he publish a book of his work.
He did just that and in 2007 ‘Cosmic Motors’ was published. It received worldwide attention, even from the likes of GQ and Top Gear magazine, and was stocked in bookshops globally. By that time Simon was working as a senior designer for Bugatti Automobiles but his life was soon about to change when an email from Hollywood landed in his inbox.
The email was from Joe Kosinski, the director of the forthcoming Tron:Legacy film. It was short but to the point – he’d seen ‘Cosmic Motors’ in California and would Simon like to join their team.
“It was one of the outstanding moments of my life,” remembers Simon. “It just blew my mind.”
Six months later he landed in LA and was driven straight to Disney Studios where he joined about ten designers in the art department as a concept vehicle designer.
“I actually got quite a lot of responsibility on the film so it was a ridiculous start. I pretty much started in film from 0 to 100 in one day and had to learn lots of movie insider stuff pretty fast.”
This paved his path to work on other Hollywood films but as Simon describes, project briefs are very specific and don’t always allow for much creative leeway.
“Believe me, scripts often contain a terrifying amount of detail. So whenever I do work for a movie it’s not really my design, it’s my interpretation of what the director or screenwriter wants.”
How it begins
Simon starts all projects off with sketching, but the amount of time spent on this early stage has become less and less. “In the movie world, 3D visualisations and renderings have become so standard.
“I’m literally working on a car for a movie right now and was only given one day of sketching before I went into three weeks modelling because the director wants to see it in 3D as soon as possible.”
To enable him to create all these models and renderings, Simon relies on some pretty hefty hardware, including a BOXX Xtreme workstation powered by Nvidia Maximus multi-GPU technology. His software choice includes Autodesk Alias Automotive for 3D NURBS modelling and Bunkspeed for rendering and animation.
“I’m not a rocket scientist, I’m a typical end user who tries to keep his focus on the artistic side,” he says.
“Nowadays with Bunkspeed you can almost handle the software like a camera – just set up the aperture, take care about the colours and materials and use a light setting – it’s amazing times we live in really.”
Depending on the job, Simon may also get involved in the build process of his designs. In fact, this is a stage he actually really enjoys being involved in, not least of all because a lot of design can actually get lost in the making.
“For instance, you can design a door on the computer that works perfectly but then you find out that it needs to be much stronger in the hinge. So it has to be modified and still look coherent with everything else in the design.
“It’s like an emergency room situation over months – trying to sustain pretty much the original design through all the changes that come with real manufacturing.”
All of this work generally happens before the cameras start rolling or the actors arrive on set. However, sometimes it overlaps as in his work for ‘Oblivion’. For this film he was reunited with director Joe Kosinski who gave him the brief of creating a ‘Bubbleship’ that blended a dragonfly with a Bell 47 helicopter.
Little did he know at the time that this would grow into one of the most complex development challenges of his career. “Between my first drawing in 2009 and the film premiere in April 2013 about three and a half years had passed, of which I spent over 300 days working on this ship,” comments Simon.
The Bubbleship is so prominent in the film that it had to be absolutely perfect, not just on the outside but the inside too. Simon admits that the cockpit design was easily one of the top five most complicated things he has ever had to do.
It firstly involved working with Tom Cruise, the actor who’d be flying the craft, as it would be designed specifically to fit him with all controls within reach.
“I needed over three iterations to find the best layout,” admits Simon. “The seating position also heavily influenced the cockpit layout, since the seats can rotate 360 degrees and needed complex clearance with the cockpit frame and doors.”
Other design considerations included ensuring it was structurally robust to withstand the harsh conditions of Iceland, where a lot of the filming was going to take place, as well as disassembly for easy transportation.
“The part lines on the engine pod arms are in the precise location to fit the fuselage into the only commercial plane flying to Iceland from California,” he explains.
Following eight hectic months of 3D modelling and a multitude of tweaks and alterations, the final Alias model was ready to come off the computer screen and be brought to life.
During this build process Simon worked very closely with the LA-based prototyping house Wildfactory, who he can’t praise enough for their craftsmanship. “Those are some of the best times of my life, taking pressing design decisions in a workshop sometimes way after midnight,” he smiles.
Although Simon enjoyed working on Oblivion, once the project was complete he felt it was time to lay the film work aside for a couple of years and return to his own ideas.
“I had worked in service for four continuous years and there was the fantasy of doing something like ‘Cosmic Motors’ again where it is all my own ideas. Risky but truly fulfilling.”
So, he embarked on ‘The Timeless Racer’ and this time his imagination took him to a racing world that exists between 1916 and 2615.
His protagonist, the fictional racing car driver Vic Cooper, time-travels back and forth during these 699 years to compete in challenging races. His epic tales are accompanied with stunning renderings of the cars as well as maps of the track.
As part of his design process, and proving just what a stickler for detail he is, before committing to 3D Simon would create 1:4 scale models of his designs. These polystyrene prototypes were used to check the shapes and proportions, which he says is impossible to judge on screen.
In total, 4,500 hours elapsed from first idea to the complete large-scale picture book landing on his desk from the publishers. It launched at the beginning of 2014 and by March had reached the number one spot as the best selling car picture book on Amazon US, a fact that Simon is very humbled by.
“It’s wonderful to know that there are people out there who appreciate my work,” he says.
As well as film projects and publishing books, Simon also works as a consultant with one of his most recent projects being as the lead designer for the first ever Lotus Motorcycle – the Lotus C-01.
He has also just launched his first apparel line with a poster line coming next, he is at the early stages of developing an augmented reality app for The Timeless Racer vehicles, he’s in the middle of a new film project and not to mention jetting out to the UK to speak at DEVELOP3D Live on 15 April.
But the big question is, what does a famed vehicle designer such as himself drive around in? Somewhat surprisingly, although he loves flash fast cars, he doesn’t own one. “At the moment the paychecks flow back into my ideas.”
We all make choices, so I rather invest in my fantasy machines than putting gas into a real car that somebody else has designed. But one day I will join the club of cool car guys, and I can’t wait,” smiles Simon.
Daniel Simon is the keynote speaker at DEVELOP3D Live, which takes place at Warwick Arts Centre, UK, on April 15 2014. Claim your FREE ticket now!