We had the opportunity to interview Harald Belker, a former transportation designer at Porsche and Mercedes-Benz, and a leading concept artist in the entertainment industry.
He has worked on many Hollywood blockbusters, including “Batman & Robin”, “Iron Man”, “Tron: Legacy” and “Minority Report”, for which he created the iconic Lexus 2054 Concept and the Mag-Lev vehicles.
Hello Harald, thank you for joining us for this interview! Could you give us some background information about yourself?
Quickly, I am a concept designer for the motion picture industry. After graduating from Art Center in Pasadena in 1990, I worked as an automotive designer for Porsche, and then came back to the States to work for Mercedes Benz Advanced Design.
In ’95 I went into other aspects of designing and finally ended up in Entertainment.
My first movie was “Batman and Robin”. Thirty some movies later I am currently working on the next Star Trek.
If you like to get a more comprehensive picture about me, please visit my web site at www.haraldbelker.com.
How did you enter the concept design and entertainment world?
The toughest hurdle is getting into the Union: without a membership in the Art Directors Union you can’t work in film.
Yet, you need to work on a film to qualify to get into the Union.
I know, another catch 22 scenario. Why? who knows, but there are ways around it.
|The Mag-Lev vehicles (left) and the Lexus Concept (right) from Minority Report|
Do you have a project – or projects – that you are particularly proud of?
Minority Report was the absolute highlight of my career: the freedom that was given to me, the truly futuristic way of dealing with issues of traveling etc.
Working with Spielberg was icing on the cake. The red Lexus – by the way, it became a Lexus after the design was done – was just eye-candy and fun to do. The real challenge were the Mag-Lev vehicles.
What are, in your experience, the main differences between working in the automotive and in the film industries?
When working in the automotive Industry, your future depends on having the right boss in the beginning, getting the right project and being relatively political.
Very quickly, if you want to have a career, you will become a manager and then eventually work your way up, designing less and less.
In entertainment, I get hired to do one thing and that is to design and visualize. It’s really about what you want: to wear a suit and go to meetings or to run around in shorts and design cool shit.
Creating a “real” car – usually in a team effort – vs designing a unique vehicle that lives only in people’s dreams. Which one is more satisfying from your point of view?
There is a great deal of satisfaction in having the time to create really cool things on something like a show car. Production is another thing, it gets super tedious.
In movies, the budgets are much smaller and there is not much time, so sometimes the final result is not up to what I would like to do. But the sky is the limit and the project changes 2 to 3 times a year, every year.
Starting from Syd Mead up to today, there are few concept artists who are also automotive designers – and/or viceversa. Do you think there is a reason for this? Could this become a growing trend in the future?
Well, we are a handful of guys sharing the work, obviously there is a place for good design in film and the automotive background gives us an advantage because we understand complex form better than most designers.
But projects with a big budget and new vehicles are few and far between. Thanks to Audi, that uses movies for ads and pumps millions into a production, so we get to see the latest model on screen.
The big trend is young kids who can render at incredible speed and produce amazing art.
You have published a set of instructional DVDs with Gnomon Workshop. Do you plan to do more teaching activities in the future?
I am working on a new DVD with Gnomon that showcases the process I used in producing the book. It reflects the way we work. Sketching, building models and creating new environments to place designs and make it all look like it exists.
Sure, it is my vision of future racing. Analyzing F1 racing, Nascar and all other race sports, I wanted to create a racing scenario where the playing field is fair by everybody having the same energy source and make it very challenging and complex, therefore entertaining and nail biting to the last second.
It also invites the audience to be participants through simulators that allow the viewer to drive along the drivers.
It deals with the dirty truth about extreme sports, and what happens to the athletes when they are done with it (look at football players who can hardly function after the NFL, and are in their 40’s).
It is all packaged in the story of a young kid that gets a chance to become a racer and has to decide along the way to fame and glory what kind of future he will have.
Where did the idea come from? What were your main sources of inspirations?
The idea came from working on effect movies that lack compelling stories. At some point I developed a hypothetical story that was interesting to me.
I knew I can deliver the bling. I also wanted to create something to get kids involved in design and creating something that is being rewarded.
I have worked on so many toys and games that I have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t. I think my idea of getting the public involved in the design will reach and interest a wide audience.
When working in the automotive industry or for a feature film designers are often under tight deadlines. What was your experience with a more personal project such as PULSE?
I have learned one thing a long time ago, if I don’t have a deadline I will not get it done. When I finally decided on doing the book I asked Design Studio Press what the deadline would be, and they basically gave me a year and a half.
Now that seems like a long time, but I still had to work, so most of the work was done after working hours and on the weekends.
Even though at times I was ready to shoot myself, the nature of working on your own project would release a tremendous amount of energy.
Once committed, I had to deliver. That’s the kind of discipline I learned at Art Center.
Like many artists and designer I am my worst critic. But with the huge work I had to deliver I had to be happy and move to the next page.
Working on your own vision usually means you are the main decision maker: is it a relief or does it add stress to the process?
It adds to the pressure, I am never happy with my work. It is much easier to work for somebody else. Most people respond very positively when they see the work.
I see the mistakes. But there has to be a reasonable amount of time you should spend on a piece. A famous line is, ‘it takes two to do a great piece of art, one to do it and one to say when it’s done’.
The preview images show a combination and integration of 2D and 3D techniques. Could you share some details on the workflows used to create the imagery for the book?
In the old days (well, until 3 years ago) I really drew everything by hand, setting up interesting perspectives, render it in photoshop. Today I build a 3D model and pre render it, then apply my style in photoshop.
Graphics, environments, sketchy feeling, all that makes it complete and different from others – which is an important part of staying ahead of the game.
Do you have a favorite medium/digital tool?
Modo from Luxology for modeling and KeyShot for rendering. SketchUp is fantastic as well. I like my new ability to build 3D models to my liking. Before I had to sketch everything out and sit with a modeler to watch it get into the computer.
With modo I get to do it myself. Sometimes funny accidents happen and they turn out be very cool, like I meant to do that. It speeds up my process incredibly. The renderings are beautiful and with the right touch in photoshop I can do anything with it.
Given your workflow process, do you think that when designing vehicles in 3D the modern visualization-oriented tools (subdivision surface and polygonal modeling) offer some advantages compared to the CAD-oriented NURBS modeling?
I came to understand NURBS modeling, so it was a bit of an adjustment to get into sub-D modeling. Now that I am comfortable with it, it has its advantages and disadvantages, but overall it is a very nice modeling program for not much money.
You will always be more precise in CAD programs, but I am a designer who is modeling. For that reason it is perfect to use programs like modo.
Do you see any emerging digital technology that could expand the designers’ expression possibilities in the next years?
Possibly a more virtual 3D interface, something like Oblong is working on, but very specific for design, where I can move and manipulate things in space. I think the more technology we will have and the faster processors will be, the more exciting our work will be.
Real time is the key factor. Faster and better. I feel blessed that I am from the last generation that learned drawing and painting and had to move into digital art within a few years of my professional career. That gives me knowledge that has been lost with the next generation.
Are you planning to further develop this vision into a story, a game or perhaps a movie?
Very much, my approach is actually to see if I can get some traction for a game and toys before I will run into studios to pitch it. The next couple of months will be busy with promoting the book…
Can you tell us something about the projects you’re working on at the moment?
Working on the next Star Trek movie, but can’t tell you anything about it. Total Recall, where I designed the hovering cars, is being shot up in Toronto right now. Sure there are some images on the web already (see image below).
One last question: what suggestion would you give to design students who are exploring different career paths? Can the concept art industry be a possible alternative for aspiring product and car designers?
So, if you think about entertainment, learn some 3D and Photoshop and take illustration classes to become aware of ways to visualize your environment.
These days, it’s a combination of many programs used to get the right image to sell an idea. It’s never too late to change if it is something that you really want to do.
Thank you very much for your time, Harald!
(Image Courtesy: Harald Belker)