A former Mercedes-Benz designer conjures up incredible fleets for science fiction spectacles
At first glance, Harald Belker might not look like a veteran time traveller. And yet, with his slight stubble, tennis socks and an Adidas leisure outfit very much at home in the past, he nevertheless spends most of his working time in the year 2035. So, what’s it like? With a knowing smile, Harald Belker takes a deep breath and states, “man, it’s big there!” Right now, the LA-based German automotive designer is busy crafting visionary vehicles for the upcoming film project Pulse, a high-octane movie featuring streamlined magnet gliders slipping through gleaming urban canyons. We are told to expect a digital high-speed adventure that will make the latest F1 race look like a horse and cart parade. “It is an entirely new way of moving”, Belker explains. And he should know: After all, he studied car design at the renowned Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena after spending several years at the Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design Unit in Orange County. Now based in Marina del Rey in Los Angeles, his office sideboard gives pride of place to plenty of miniature cars. Nevertheless, most of his designs do not end up on the street or in a near-by parking garage, but on the big movie screen – Belker is Hollywood’s most sought-after vehicle designer.
Turning the screen into a test track
Whenever a sci-fi director needs a car or, better, a transport vehicle that does not look out of place on a highway in 2045, he picks up the phone to call Harald Belker – that designer from Germany, the home of the car, who gave shape to his own dreams in California. All the way back in the 1990s, Belker sketched the seminal Batmobile for film adaptation of Batman and Robin. Although he admits today that “the movie was terrible”, everyone still remembers the hero’s powerful gothic wheels. For Steven Spielberg’s dystopian view of the future, Minority Report, Belker built an equally futuristic flounder, unlocked by Tom Cruise via retina scan. And he also had his hand in Tron: Legacy’s iconic light cycles, racing through the film’s digital arenas with an impressive trail of pixels. When it comes down to it, says Belker, there isn’t actually a great deal of difference between these movie assignments and his old work at Mercedes-Benz. The main change: He no longer takes orders from engineers, but from the movie’s main scriptwriters. “Design has always been about things that don’t exist yet,” he explains. “I simply happen to have a lot more leeway now than my former colleagues.” After all, a futuristic look is not just about streamlining and plenty of blinking lights. “It is important to make sure that the cars don’t look like a disembodied hallucination but like a vehicle you would really love to drive”, he adds. With this in mind, he spends a lot of time on new technologies, propulsion methods, interfaces and artificial intelligence in order to isolate edgy trends that translate well to the future.
Future traffic rules
For example, in order to design the high-speed gliders of the Pulse project, he researched maglev technology and human biology. “What kind of speeds and centrifugal forces can our own bodies withstand?” It takes the definition of technical parameters in accord with the laws of nature and even future traffic laws to ensure that the resulting craft comes across as credible and real. A visit to Belker’s office in the Marina del Rey part of Los Angeles immediately reveals what the car designer loves about California. His minimalist bungalow is surrounded by anything from simple log cabins to veritable Renaissance castles – anything goes. The average day in Hollywood and Beverly Hills resembles a 24-7 car show. Here, the movers and shakers of the entertainment industry proudly show off their old-timers, limousines and sports cars. “Los Angeles is a car city par excellence”, states Belker. And thus a useful source of inspiration for the modern vehicle designer.
Months, not years to the finished concept
Designing a vehicle for the silver screen is not so different from crafting a new production model. Belker starts out by sketching a few shapes on paper and then uses the same design software as the car industry to fine-tune his initial design. “The only difference: Hollywood expects you to work very fast. While it might take many years for a real car to see the light of day, we often have no more than two to three months.” As soon as the film’s director has approved this sketch, Belker creates a 3D model on his computer. Based on this data, dedicated craftsmen produce a 1:1 synthetic model and several fibreglass moulds. At the same time, a specialist company builds the chassis, engine and on-board electronics. According to Belker, “the script prescribes the technical parameters.” However, as development eats up a lot of money, fewer and fewer physical prototypes are actually made in Hollywood. A lot of the time, special effects teams insert a digital model into the footage after the shoot. “That’s a bit of a shame, really”, thinks Belker, whose creations often end up as mere background dressing. “I would welcome more films that make use of the cars as a key feature and character.”
After all, both passenger car and the notion of individual freedom, indelibly linked in people’s minds, are central pillars of our modern self-image. So, when Belker designs the car of 2080, he invariably paints a picture of the future era’s society. Take the science fiction thriller In Time, featuring Justin Timberlake. Here, Belker came up with a range of futuristic muscle cars as the film’s premise sees everyone fighting each other. Minority Report, on the other hand, explored a different direction: As part of a highly civilised society and praiseworthy traffic network, individual vehicles enter the controlled traffic flow and reach their destination via computerised remote control – an intelligent and low-impact approach. “Science fiction has a huge influence on our culture”, thinks Belker. “It allows us to dream up new technology. Most people had their first encounter with touchscreens or voice recognition when they watched Star Trek. Nowadays, those technologies have become part of our everyday lives.” So, although he no longer works for a car company, he still helps to shape the automobile’s future. With this in mind, Belker unleashes a string of new prototypes every year, ready for their first outing on a very special test track: the movie screen.