Daniel Simon: Designing Fantasy Vehicles for the Movies
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Daniel Simon is a designer, first and foremost. "Everything I do is design-related," he says. Simon has what many would consider to be a dream job: he designs cars. After attending a university in his native Germany that specialized in automotive design, Simon got a job at Volkswagen and worked his way up the ranks to become a senior designer. He then went on to work for the company's hyper-brand Bugatti and, later, on his own, for racing teams like HRT Formula 1 and the Lotus Le Mans team. "Creating real functioning products is a team effort," Simon says. "You don't get to enjoy the whole cake but you get a slice, which is yummy."
His background in design -- and knowing how to work with a creative team -- made Simon a perfect match for Hollywood. More specifically, designing those fantasy machines that show up in movies like TRON: Legacy, Captain America, and Oblivion, just three of the films he's contributed to.
In fact, his interest in designing vehicles for the movies was born the moment he saw Star Wars Episode 1 in 1999. "It opened my eyes within two hours of entertainment, that there's more than just production cars," he says. "My vision up until then was to design a car that drives on a road. Seeing those spaceships and pods in Star Wars was emotional, overwhelming. Within the next few years, I caught up on a few missed decades of entertainment -- movies, books, comics."
He also began to design very different vehicles. "By day, I was a professional car designer, dealing with minimal creative margins, and at night, I would draw fantasy spaceships without limits," he says. "Auto design misses the element of fantasy, and fantasy is missing a lot of shape sophistication. I try to bring a unique blend to the table with my interest and knowledge in both very different worlds."
The Gravion Cup Racer from Simon's book 'Cosmic Motors'. © COSMIC MOTORS LLC
After designing fantasy vehicles for seven years and putting them on a website, he was approached by a publisher who had seen the website and thought it would make a great book. Cosmic Motors was published in 2007 by Design Studio Press, and indeed has sold well (you can find more information on his Facebook page here or purchase it on Amazon here). It also led to Simon's first job in Hollywood when director Joe Kosinski saw this book. "He wrote me out of the blue," recalls Simon. "I was in Europe working on a car, and could not believe it. He liked my style, and I was lucky to be in the right spot, at the right time when he was reaching out to car designers, architects, fashion people. My preparation of over 7 years -- innocently -- paid off."
Working on TRON: Legacy, he says, was a phenomenal experience. "Now looking back and having learned about the film industry, it was an unusual experience," he says. "It was a group of talented designers under the lead of a design-savvy director. We had design conversations that reminded me of a normal design shop -- with the addition of extreme time pressure."
Designer Daniel Simon with Tron Uprising producer / director Charlie Bean. ©2012 Disney
Simon also credits the production designer Darren Gilford being responsible for the beautifully cohesive look of the film, and notes that most of the movie's effects were done at Digital Domain. "We created the Light Cycle and all kinds of fantasy vehicles," he says. "To redesign things that people know, like a Light Cycle, as well as come up with things that people never saw before, is a designer's life at its best."
TRON: Legacy Vintage Light Cycle, Syd Mead's masterpiece carefully re-designed by Daniel Simon. ©DISNEY
Although his background is in drawing, Simon reports that his own interest in technology led him to learn 3D modeling on his own. "I streamlined the design process for myself," he says. "In the early days, you did a sketch as a designer and a 3D modeler interpreted that design. Now you can shortcut a flawed communication if the designer uses 3D tools. I can put in all these subtleties, curvatures and volume sections that I, as a designer, envisioned. Of course, it is not replacing the talent that a professional modeler brings to the table. It only enhances the design communication dramatically."
"Many people in the field now come more from the illustration part, which is generally 2D versus 3D thinking," he says. "3D design has become a trend. Not that I'm a trendsetter, but now more designers started discovering 3D software. Google Sketch-Up or Modo, for example, have opened up the world of 3D to many people in the field. When I started 3D in 2000, it still felt like science and scared many of my peers away."
For his technology, Simon relies on a BOXX 8550XTREME workstation with NVIDIA Quadro 6000 and Tesla C2075 GPUs -- but will update soon to the latest NVIDIA candy. "I reduced render times per frame by about two-thirds -- from 15 minutes to 5 -- saving more than 11 days of rendering over the 1,600-frame clip," he says, referring to a clip [on this page] that showcases the fluent shapes of the 1942 supercharged V16 Coupé he designed for villain Johann Schmidt (aka The Red Skull) in the 2011 Marvel feature film Captain America: The First Avenger.
Simon uses Autodesk Alias Automotive, which, he says, is "standard software in the car design business." "I'm lonely in Hollywood with it," he laughs. "But it interacts well with Maya. I work in NURBS, because I think it's a good way to interpret glossy automotive surfaces. However, polygon modeling is used by more and more car studios for fast evaluation results; and one day both technologies may merge. Since I'm also a photographer, I do my own visualization and renders, using iRay through Bunkspeed Pro, which uses NVIDIA's GPU technology at its best."
The Nembiquarer from Simon's book 'Cosmic Motors' © COSMIC MOTORS LLC
"I often handle both vehicle design and modeling in the film projects that I work on, so I need efficiency," he adds. "My first experience with NVIDIA GPUs was a single Quadro 6000. The rendering speed in iRay was an eye opener, and it also helped my editing process in Adobe Premiere Pro with its built in GPU support." Impressed with the single Quadro, Simon went "all in" with Maximus and now, he says, renders proportionally faster with every card he adds. "Plus, I can keep using the same machine for other tasks while rendering."
TRON: Legacy was just the beginning for Simon's career in Hollywood. He was the lead vehicle designer on Captain America: The First Avenger. "That was fantastic because the director, Joe Johnston, worked as a designer and art director on the Star Wars movies, which had influence me so much. Whereas TRON was futuristic, Captain America was the 1940s. But I was designing under the same time pressure; I designed seven vehicles in five months, and they all had to look believable to a history-savvy audience."
Marvel's Captain America Car by Designer Daniel Simon | HD ©MARVEL
"We had very detailed design discussions on Captain America," he says. "We spent weeks brainstorming on paper with the director Joe Johnston and production designer Rick Heinrichs about how the Red Skull's car should look -- capturing the feel of the 1940s while also looking elegant, imposing and sinister."
Simon just finished working on Oblivion, director Kosinski's latest movie. Since it hasn't been released, he can't get into the details, but only describe his general experience. "All I can say is that it has been my most incredible film experience as a designer so far," he says. "Manufacturing a design is the real deal for me, no effects, no tricks. And that's what we did."
He continues to balance out work on Hollywood blockbusters with work on Cosmic Motors, as well as more traditional automotive design jobs, such as one he recently did doing the graphic styling for a Formula 1 team.
"The movie work is fantastic," he says. "It's a chance to work in a team and see your work rendered by VFX houses at the highest quality on screens with actors you know. No other profession offers this: you're usually either a historian or a futurist. The time traveling factor of working in movies is great."
Simon says he enjoys the blend of sitting at a desk drawing and "fiddling with my high-tech GPUs," but he also likes being in the field with real cars…or on the set of a movie. "The most inspirational part of my design is always trying to see the bigger picture and how we're in relationship to it," he says.
Daniel Simon will be speaking at the NVIDIA GPU Technology Conference in San Jose on March 18 -- 21, 2013. I'll be there, and I'm looking forward to attending the media and entertainment sessions and reporting on them here. Find Daniel on Facebook for more information.
Light Jet design illustration by Daniel Simon for Tron Legacy / Disney Studios. 3D model Daniel Simon / Joe Hiura. © DISNEY ENTERPRISES
Images © by Cosmic Motors LLC / Daniel Simon
Title image: Light Jet design illustration by Daniel Simon for Tron Legacy / Disney Studios. 3D model Daniel Simon / Joe Hiura. © DISNEY ENTERPRISES www.danielsimon.com