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Meet the man behind Tron’s vehicles

  1. News has just tumbled in to the Top Gear office that you can buy a replica of the cool Light Cycle thingys from Tron: Legacy. Click here to see it

    They are street legal, they have electroluminescent strips and they’re powered by a fuel-injected Suzuki 996cc bike engine. Though you’ll need to be incredibly rich and a bit thick to buy one - they’re $55,000 a pop. FIFTY FIVE AMERICAN GRANDS. That’s £33,337.15.

    The news also reminded us that we’d caught up the neon bike’s designer, Daniel Simon, last year. And that we’d smuggled out a few exclusive pictures of it and the other vehicles that appeared in cinematic eyegasm, Tron: Legacy.

    Click on to see ‘em. But be warned - there are high levels of OHMYGODAWESOME inside.

  2. TopGear first met design genius Daniel Simon at Le Mans in 2008. We were there, mob-handed and enjoying a few refreshing shandies, when we struck up conversation with a group of like-minded race fans. “You need to meet this guy,” one of them said. “His name’s Daniel, and he’s invented his own galaxy.”

    We thought someone had spiked our drinks, but it turned out to be true. Still a car designer at the time, with stints in the VW group’s advanced studio and Bugatti under his belt, this self-effacing East German had been moonlighting as a futurist.

    Words: Jason Barlow

  3. When we subsequently ran a piece on him in Top Gear magazine (issue 182, if you’re interested), we discovered a world called Galaxion filled with Cosmic Motors and some startlingly attractive women. “It’s like putting Barbarella, James Bond, Star Wars and an F1 car in a blender. I can play God!” Simon joked.

    It turns out we weren’t the only ones to be blown away by his work. Hollywood soon came calling. “I got an email in 2008 from a guy called Joe Kosinski. It said, ‘I’m working on Tron 2, and I’d like you to design the vehicles. Please reply, Joe.’

  4. Joe [an architect turned top commercials director] and the film’s production designer, Darren Gilford, had put a teaser trailer together to pitch the idea of a new Tron film to Disney. They’d stumbled upon my Cosmic Motors book and decided that the designs in it had the look they were after. I thought it was a prank at first…”

    If you’re of a certain vintage, you might remember Tron. Released in 1982, it starred Jeff Bridges as software design prodigy Flynn, who effectively gets sucked into a computer mainframe and has to fight for his life in a series of gladiatorial contests, including the legendary light cycle duel.

  5. A commercial flop, Tron became a huge cult hit, and was pioneering in its use of CGI as well as its prediction of a computer-dominated world. Rarely does the phrase ‘ahead of its time’ seem more apposite.

    The new film, Tron: Legacy, picks up the action 25 years later, as Flynn’s son Sam ends up on the ‘grid’ in search of his long-lost father. Crucially, the technology now exists to realise the thrilling computer world posited in the first film, and realise it in the most eye-popping, 3D style.

  6. The director, Joe Kosinski, brings his brilliantly photo-real eye to proceedings. Using the latest performance-capture technology, the 61-year-old Jeff Bridges gets to act opposite his mid-’30s self. Olivia Wilde is stunning as the warrior programme Quorra. French band Daft Punk has done the soundtrack (it’s brilliant).

    And then there are the vehicles: all sorts of fabulous cars, bikes, tanks and jets. Daniel Simon’s vehicles. Not just a blockbuster action film, Tron: Legacy is also a kind of pop-culture nirvana.

  7. Oddly enough, Simon reckons his rich imagination is down to the fact that he grew up behind the Iron Curtain in communist East Germany. So no Tron for him when he was a kid. No nothing, really. “It was like growing up in the middle of the countryside without TV,” he says. “It led to a very individual mindset, and though it was a kind of blank environment.

    “I wouldn’t change a thing. I was in Tokyo recently, and rather than feeling inspired by all the stimuli, I felt over-saturated. There’s so much stuff out there that, in terms of creativity, it’s almost counter-productive.”

  8. A disciple of famous futurist and designer Syd Mead - who worked on Blade Runner and the original Tron - Daniel spent a year on the new film.

    “I worked on most of the hero vehicles and lots of background cars. We did various versions of the light cycle, and also redesigned Syd Mead’s original Light Runner, the
    jets and the background cars. We didn’t reskin existing cars to save budget; everything was designed from scratch. It was like working on 15 motor show concept car projects at the same time, without having to worry about engineers telling us what we could and couldn’t do.

  9. All the cockpits were built to show-car standards, and had to function sufficiently for the actors to operate them. I was running about the set measuring Jeff Bridges’s and Olivia Wilde’s arms and legs, making sure they fitted.

    “On the one hand, we had digital scans of the actors, but at the same time we were building things out of foam cubes. In fact, I built the first positioning model of the light cycle out of computer boxes during my first two days on the film. A few
    weeks later, the art director built one out of old scaffold tubing…”

  10. Not that you’ll be able to spot these lo-fi origins when you see the results - it’s the most spectacular cinematic experience since Avatar. It’s just that Simon - like all good designers - prefers to work with real, tangible materials, to get the surfacing right and to ensure the light reflects off the vehicles authentically. After which he surrenders the designs to the computer modellers and geniuses at VFX specialists Digital Domain.
    In a film like Tron: Legacy, the vehicles are almost characters themselves.

    “My designs influence the story, and the story influences my designs,” Simon confirms. “With a fantasy vehicle, you can go anywhere - these things don’t have to make sense in a showroom context. It’s not like doing a Passat facelift. But what they do have to do is support the story.

  11. “The Light Runner had to be the fastest ‘car-looking’ thing on the grid, like an F1 car. Off the grid, it had to be rough and rugged, like an off-roader. So the body shape is an abstract F1 car - narrow nose, wide body - to give a race-car feel, but it has chunky surface features and an off-road stance too.

    “It’s also huge, over nine foot wide, because it had to look overpowering compared to the light cycles. It has to morph from race mode to off-road mode. This transformation was the most fun, because it was the most ‘Hollywood’. The suspension connects to the bottom piece in race mode, but an inner hub rotates at 180o at the top, which provides ground clearance for an off-road set-up. The whole chassis swivels up on a half-circle path. [Pause] Technically it could work…”

    Simon is now the go-to guy for out-there vehicles in Hollywood. Next up, Captain America. “Evil, World War II-influenced machinery,” Daniel says. We can’t wait.

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