Shaping the Future: Car Design for the Film Industry

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In order to design a car for a movie, the car has to have an essential role to justify the investment. There are basically two avenues to take. One is to modify an existing car, the other is to design and build a car from scratch. The latter path happens infrequently. Luckily, I was involved in several films that afforded me the ability to create true concept vehicles.

The motion picture “Minority Report” (2002), was based on a book by Philip K. Dick, directed by Steven Spielberg, and starred Tom Cruise. Set 50 years into the future the vehicles were a critical component of the film, so creating a new vision was key. We spent an enormous amount of time thinking about future technologies and evolving lifestyles that will reflect everyday life.

Having made a name as a futuristic vehicle designer for films, I was selected to visualize transportation in 2054. Autonomous driving was a plausible and logical way to go. We called it “personal mass transportation.” We worked on a complete system where vehicles transport people within a computerized network to be efficient and elegant. The Mag-Lev aspect of going up and down buildings was not very realistic, though was reflective of and consistent with the science fiction genre.

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The most exciting aspect surfaced at the last minute. Two weeks before the holiday break, I got called into Alex McDowell’s (Production Designer) office to discuss a last-minute change to the script. It turned out that the Tom Cruise character needed a vehicle to leave the inner city. Having spent the majority of development focused on the Mag-Lev vehicles, we were suddenly in need of a conventional 2-seater sports car.

We searched through older sketches to maintain a consistent look/feel/language. A concept of a police vehicle caught our eye and we looked at each other thinking that this one had potential. A couple days later I presented a handful of renderings to Mr. Spielberg and he gave us the thumbs up.

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These renderings ultimately became the famous red Lexus that is often the most memorable vehicle of the film. Having come from the car industry, I was familiar with the process of creating a showcar. Car companies constantly talk about how it’s conceived and built in just a few months. Nothing, however, matched the speed at which we had to create and build a working vehicle.

Here is the summary of how it all came together in just 12 weeks.

First, you need to look at the filming schedule to back into the date the car has to be delivered on set and ready to perform. That date turned out to be only 12 weeks out. Impossible you may think.

I met with Ctek (prototype builder) in Orange County to discuss the urgency. They were already in full swing with the fabrication of the two Mag-Lev vehicles. Ctek met the challenge and came back with a best case, 10-week fabrication cycle. That left me with a week and a half to design and deliver a 3D file. Needless to say, it became a sprint to finish. Trying our best to turn my sketches into a complete 3D model, Paul Ozzimo, the 3D modeler, and I sat down to cover every exterior inch of the car and knocked it out. A few sections gave us some trouble and looking at the car, you can see where we had to simplify the surface due to time constraints. The interior and wheels had time to be designed later. We needed to get the file out to start the two-day process for a full-size body milled on a 5-axis milling machine.

The shock came when I looked at the full-size foam model for the first time. I had only seen the car on a 17” monitor (the largest size screen at the time) and was speechless at how grandiose it seemed in many ways. The cab sat aggressively forward, the width of the rear was oversized, and the overall proportions were unexpected.  Since there was no time to make any changes, the final result to me was raw and perhaps inspiring.

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I reminded myself to stop thinking about what else I could have done if I had more time and had to shift to conceptualizing the interior, the wheels and all the other details that still needed to be devised and modeled.

Over the next few weeks, I delivered sketches in the same lightning speed to my two 3D modelers, Paul and Dean, who modeled everything as quickly as possible in 3D and forwarded it to Ctek to be manufactured.

Meanwhile Production made a deal with Lexus as a sponsor for the vehicles. In a meeting with Team One and Lexus, I was told that they would like to have their badge displayed on the vehicles as part of that sponsorship. I was reassured in having free range in design and that the Toyota design team would not be providing input as they did not want to confuse the public by suggesting Lexus was working on this as a retail car. We had a great relationship and I was even lucky enough to join part of their tour to promote the car.

As anyone who has ever worked on the delivery of a prototype knows, the night before the reveal is a sleepless one. This was no different. A good dozen people stayed up to assemble the car, load it up on a trailer and present it to the studio in the morning.

Once the car was viewed and approved, we addressed some quick fixes. Then it was loaded up and delivered to the set in downtown LA for the factory scene. The car performed in a spectacular way at every location while it looked stunning on screen.

This body of work was a unique opportunity and remains very special to me. It gave me the chance to explore many aspects about the future of transportation by having to rethink the way we drive or are being driven.  Car design in that sense will always be fascinating to me.

By Harald Belker, PhD.hon.