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Tron: Painting Light

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With Disney’s Tron: Legacy currently taking over the world, we tracked down designer Daniel Simon, the man who had the hardest job of them all: reworking Syd Mead’s unmistakable vehicles for a modern audience.

To get started, Daniel redesigned Syd’s original Light Cycle, which appears in the new film. Before work began, production designer Darren Gilford created an art board to adhere to. “He set the tone for the shapes, feelings… everything,” says Daniel. “I could dance on that path and be creative. The new Light Cycle is much more organic and automotive, and now you can see the rider, which was planned for the first movie but couldn’t be done because the technology was unable to render it.”

Daniel’s role on Tron: Legacy wasn’t simply to create fantastic transport. “As a designer, you’re a problem solver,” he says, explaining how a camera angle on one shot meant he had to rethink his vehicle’s entire layout. “I had to adjust my favourite line on the car, which I thought would be the best line ever in design history,” he says, laughing. “I had to change it.” He adds, however, that sometimes the opposite is true. “When you create stuff without boundaries it can be quite terrifying, so having a script can be really good as a designer.”

Daniel has a background in car design, and has worked for some of the world’s top manufacturers, including Volkswagen, Honda and Lamborghini. While moving from the car business into film and working on Tron: Legacy, the forthcoming Alien prequel and Captain America, he’s noted some big cultural differences.

“Your expectations are so high when you come from such a sophisticated industry,” he says. “You’d spend years on one car, refining surface tension or the last inch of a curve. Here in the movies it just goes boom, boom, boom! The challenge is that things can change within a day; scripts are often rewritten and characters get developed, so vehicles have to evolve.”

Though work on Tron: Legacy was done in Maya and most of his usual designs are completed digitally, Daniel has an aversion to computers. “I officially hate them,” he says, citing the fact that they promise things they can’t do as the reason. It means he always has time for pen and paper: the day before we spoke to him, he’d met with Disney executives and fleshed out two vehicle designs in as many minutes for a new show. ”Pen is still the fastest way to communicate with others,” he says.

He spends a lot more time working in 3D programs now, though, explaining that they offer a much quicker way to find faults in a design. That’s not to say Daniel doesn’t admire and find inspiration in old-school artists like Syd Mead. “You can still look at stuff from the 60s and 70s and have it on your wall without it looking retro,” he says enthusiastically. “He [Syd Mead] still beats 90 per cent of those hyper-modern, upcoming designs. This is because of his sophistication; it’s the volumes, curves and language of his shapes.”

Daniel confesses to being a gear head who looks to engineers and scientists for inspiration: “They’re way more creative than we are as artists. They focus on a problem, not a solution. Artists look for a quick kick; an image to create an impact.” He explains how his love of technology fitted with director Joseph Kosinski’s vision for a visceral cyberworld, one that simulates reality. There’s rain, dirt and rock, and you can get hurt. “When I first saw it [Tron’s script] I thought, ‘Oh my God, we can do crazy, funky stuff with floating pieces and light energy.’ But no, it’s realistic; there are reproductions of materials like paint and glass, so the car itself [Quorra’s rugged-looking runabout] had to look car-like.”

Explaining his take on futuristic design, Daniel describes how the eye has an appetite for the unknown; we want to be surprised by new shapes and forms, even if they’re grounded in real applications, he argues: “It’s futuristic because it’s unknown, but it’s old technology with a romantic touch.” And it’s all up on screen in Tron: Legacy, a fantasy based on copied reality. You’ll see space-age cars built around a fascination with old ideas by a designer who hates the powerful computers he needs – the artistic process can be an enigma.
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