Tron: Legacy: An interview with vehicle designer Daniel Simon

Ahead of the release of Tron: Legacy, we sat down for a chat with Daniel Simon, the designer behind the movie’s futuristic vehicles…

German concept designer and artist Daniel Simon initially worked in the automotive industry, before later enjoying wider attention with his sensational book, Cosmic Motors. Showcasing his seductive and highly technical style, the book displayed a real-world approach to the design of futuristic vehicles that Daniel would later carry over into his work for the forthcoming Tron: Legacy.

We sat down with Daniel to discuss his work on the film, and updating Syd Mead’s iconic vehicle designs, which were such a big part of the original Tron, for a new generation…

What was it like to be given the opportunity to update Syd Mead’s original vehicle designs?

It was probably the biggest honour possible. But he’s not just some mysterious design icon. He lives in LA, and he’s very approachable for most of us. So, most of us met him or went to his parties.

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That was a pressure, to not upset him! But on the other hand, we stepped away a little bit, and wanted to create something of our own, you know? So, it’s a mixture of homage to somebody’s work, and trying to put your own ideas in there.

But his spirit is all over it and I hope he likes it.

So, you haven’t had any feedback from him yet? 

Not on the finished movie piece. But he walked through and looked at stuff, and we had a good laugh sometimes, so I think he’ll be fine.

Bearing in mind that Mead’s earlier design for the Light Cycle had to be simplified for the computers of the time, was it difficult to avoid the temptation to go overboard with the new version?

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That’s always a danger, and that’s why you have a production designer and a director who come by every week. So, it’s their job to be available to keep us crazy people somehow within boundaries.

On the other hand, everybody else brings their own vision, and all of us just agreed somehow. We all went through the same schools and have similar hobbies and ideas, so there was very much an agreement on how things should look.

The biggest input I had was in making things mechanically connected, rather than energy connected. With the Recognizer, for example, I knew there’d be an engine, and some form of propulsion system – very mechanical, very believable.

Because, at the same time, those wheels on those [Light Cycles], they could just be floating in an energy field or not really connected. Each piece has a hinge and a purpose.

So, you really took the designs down to that detailed, nuts and bolts level?

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Totally, yeah. Which is why they took us on, because we’re nuts and bolts freaks! But it was a big mixture, because our concept artist, David Levy, who you met before, he paints in big strokes, and sets up a tone. And then people like me come in, and interpret his conceptual visions, and take them down to the nuts and bolts. He did the environments, but those are reflected in the vehicles.

I can’t sleep if something isn’t figured out, so sometimes we spend an extra weekend just trying to work out “Ah, how does that handlebar work?” And there isn’t much time on something like this. You’re not making a car for a car company where you have a year or two years. It’s like, bam, bam, bam, you know? We only have a few weeks. It’s crazy.

So, was that a freeing up, then, in a way, that although you considered how these machines could work, they didn’t actually have to be able to function in the real world?

We wanted the things to look real, so it wasn’t very different, but I didn’t have to worry about putting in an airbag, or seatbelts [laughs], but anything other than that had to work. Olivia Wilde’s character had to steer a steering wheel and Jeff Bridges, when he operated a vehicle, had to look comfortable and have enough space to look around and not look silly.

These are very real design problems. We had body scans of the actors, but sometimes technical problems appear, so we had to tape measure them sometimes in the dressing room. There were a lot of fun stories.

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Was there anything thought up during the design process that didn’t make it on screen, that had to be left out?

It’s almost the other way around. They asked for so much that there was no time to design something extra, where you think “Why didn’t that make it?” It was, up to the last day, more, more, more.

Of course, you’re your own hardest critic, so I wish I had much more time on things to make my car design friends happy, because that’s probably the highest pressure for me!

What’s the process of getting your ideas from a conceptual stage to the final 3D model? Did you make physical scale models as you perhaps would have done a few decades ago, or did it all go straight into a computer?

I wish we did have time for that, because you still need to look at stuff, but this was the first design process in my career where nothing was, in the process, physical. It was all digital.

Everything physical you’ve seen here was manufactured after the design process for shows. Those are the digital designs that we never touched before.

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This is scary, because with computers, it’s a different field. So, the process would be sketching, most of the time, and illustrations. The director gets the first look, and ideas bounce back and forth.

I would then very quickly start working in 3D, because the director jumped on that, and can say “Okay, can you show it to me from this angle?” Even if it’s not finished, it’s simple. “Oh, I can put the camera here.” “Oh my God, if you put the camera there, I’ll have to design the back end so much better!”

It’s like a ping pong system. Pre-vis takes those models and puts them in their software. And then they create a move in, maybe, a pursuit scene, and I think, “Wow, is this what they’re going to do?”, then I go back into my design. It’s a crazy kind of organised chaos.

The original Tron obviously influenced a lot of design that came after it . The motorcycle out of Akira is one example that springs to mind, for some reason. Do you think it’s possible that Tron: Legacy could be as influential?

We hope so, definitely. On the other hand, we’re living in a very fast moving world. Even for me. I’m 34 now, and it’s shocking to me how… I mean, when I saw Avatar, I was so blown away, but I was also blown away by how fast people forgot about it. Like, a few weeks after it came out, if you were still talking about Avatar, you were so from yesterday! [Laughs]

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And I can’t believe it, because it takes so many years to make these things. It’s the same with cars. It’s like, “When’s the new one coming out?” Or the iPhone. “Do you still have the old iPhone? Oh, my God.”

And this scares me a little bit. So, we tried to be a little bit timeless on some designs, so Tron: Legacy can survive way more years and still be fashionable and cool. Because if you’re always cutting edge on everything, you also get outdated very fast.

I also like the fact that some of Tron: Legacy’s design references back to the feel of the 80s original while still looking modern. It’s interesting to see that cyclical nature of design trends.

It’s not specialists that go to the movies. It’s innocent, young kids who aren’t yet inspired by the original Tron movie. It’s good if they can refer to something, and picking a period of time that was cool isn’t the worst idea. And that’s what design actually is. There’s always the 40s, 60s, 70s trends.

I still see it as very 2010, and if there are some 80s references in there too, that’s cool.

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So, what element of Tron: Legacy would you say you’re most pleased with?

It’s hard. It’s like if you had ten kids, and you had to choose a favourite. You wouldn’t dare pick. I love the family! That’s a very cheesy answer.

I’m proud of the amount of work we achieved, and that our designs are on the screen. It’s not like the classic thing where people say, “They screwed it up.” Who’s they anyway?

It is one-to-one what we designed in our computers, and we owe that to the producers, Joe Kosinski and Digital Domain. That’s the scariest part. Every movie you start is, like, “Whatever I draw here, will this be really it?”

It’s really scary, because your name is on it, right from the beginning. You think, “Oh, my God.” Sometimes you wouldn’t even put your name into the official listings, because you’re thinking, “I’d better wait until the movie’s out, so I can still get away with not being mentioned.”

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There was never that threat on Tron: Legacy. Right from the first day, we knew it was gonna rock. I’m not being cheesy, either!

Daniel Simon, thank you very much!

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