Monday, November 25, 2013

Good/Bad/Ugly: Fictional Vehicle Design

NOTE: I am planning on making this a regular feature on ArtWords.  In between the other posts, I will pass judgment on designs that others have made in the entertainment or publishing fields.  And why not? My design decisions are judged every day, often by people who have no qualifications whatsoever. In most instances – especially the negative reviews – I have found a kernel or two of useful information that somewhere down the line resulted in concepts that are more original, more practical or more in tune with the project’s goals. Perhaps some other designer will read what I have to say and it will have a positive effect on his or her work, too.

Fictional Vehicle Designs

What makes for a good design?  In my mind, it is a tasteful blend of aesthetics and practicality, of form married to function.  Even in the realm of fiction (especially science fiction), a well-designed item needs to at least appear to be functional.  First and foremost, it has to look like it could do the job it’s supposed to do.  For instance, unless you have indicated that there are wondrous dimensional forces at your hero’s disposal, it just will not do to have his bazooka-sized weapon fold up and slip into his pocket; any blaster that slight would have to be made up mostly of empty space, which really cuts into the impression of heft that you were trying to get across by making it big.  If your spacecraft is supposed to be able to dart away instantly in any direction, it should not have jet engines pointing out the back because that would mean it has to turn around and aim them first.

    Bad design, on the other hand, is pretty easy to point out because it usually stems from a problem with the item’s ability to function – or at least, the designer failed to think the matter through.  Superhero costumes, for example, are skin-tight because it’s easier to draw them that way, and because they really show off the body’s contours. But wouldn’t it be nice to have some pockets?  At least Batman has a utility belt!

    Once you have the function part figured out, you can go to town on the aesthetics.  You still have to pay attention to the piece’s workability, but there is plenty of room to doll it up so that it fits in with its fictional setting, be that a world of the far future influenced by alien technology, or a steampunk ambience straight out of Jules Verne.  And here’s where things tend to get ugly.

    Ugliness, in this sense, arises primarily from a failure to keep in mind the big picture.  Your story calls for a sleek vehicle capable of great speed; the last thing you want to do is make it look clunky, with the aerodynamics of a cardboard box.  Ironically, a group of real-life designers and engineers got together and produced the Scion Cube.  If my boy got a Matchbox car like that for Christmas, I think he’d rather play with the package it came in. 

    Another thing to keep in mind is the intangible quantity that I like to call “the coolness factor.”  You might not be able to put your finger on it, but there’s just something about the way the different parts come together in a pleasing shape that makes you want to caress its (usually) glossy surface. 

    Let’s see how this applies to fictional vehicles.

 My all-time favorite in this category is the venerable Starship Enterprise.  In its first televised incarnation, the arrangement of three tubes and a disk was so outlandish that it soon became the touchstone for just about any SF artist who wanted to project earth technology into the far future.

    The producer’s imperative that it always move as if it were a ship at sea stems from Gene Roddenberry’s concept of Captain Kirk as a futuristic Horatio Hornblower, and for me the analogy comes through in the lines of the ship itself.  The twin nacelles rise like a galleon’s quarterdeck above the mid-deck (the Engineering section) and the forecastle (the saucer).  Some would say that the thrust of those engine nacelles, vertically off-center as they are, would cause the ship to pitch forward into a somersault. But who is to say what counterbalancing forces are generated from the warp core located in Engineering?  A disk doesn’t make all that much sense, either, unless it has to spin for centrifugal gravity, yet in the Star Trek universe, antigravity is already a fact of life.  So Matt Jeffries, et al., dispensed with such practical trivialities and concentrated on the coolness factor.

    The result is an iconic design that has endured through many revisions.  My favorite is the one depicted here, from Star Trek: the Motion Picture, because it retains the same basic form of the original, but with less rocket-like nacelles.

©1979 Paramount Pictures

    Another example of coolness trumping practicality is the latest iteration of the Fantasticar, from The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.  The sleek curves of this beauty make me want to forget all about how the turbofans don’t seem to have any air intakes.  What is especially cool about this souped-up family car is the way it can separate into three vehicles, one for each of the non-flying team members to pilot, as if a bomber were to suddenly become a whole squadron of fighters.  I rather doubt that a Chrysler hemi would be an appropriate power plant for this kind of vehicle, but it did make for a cute bit of product placement in the movie.

©2007 20th Century Fox

    Captain Nemo’s Nautilus from the old Disney movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a classic example of steampunk before there even was such a genre. Nemo was way ahead of his time (know what I mean, Verne?), having devised an electric-powered submarine in an era when most ocean-going vessels were still powered by the wind.  The exterior lines are clearly an industrial-age take on some kind of fish (an alligator gar?), complete with a big, bubble-like viewing window and a hardy steel ram for skewering surface vessels.  Granted, this prop was designed at a time when submarines were fairly commonplace, but that’s what steampunk is all about: re-imagining modern technology in a way that could, possibly, have been produced in the age of the iron horse.

©1954 Walt Disney Studios

    If you prefer your submarines with a sleeker, more modern aesthetic, you could do a lot worse than start with a sports car. In the film The Spy Who Loved Me, James Bond’s white Lotus Esprit gets chased off a dock to plunge into the ocean, where its most amazing capability is soon put into play: a row of propellers and rudders replaces the rear bumper, the wheels retract to allow for the extension of bow and stern planes, a periscope rises from the rooftop, and the dashboard rotates to reveal a more nautical sonar display.  The sharp edges and streamlined slopes of the Esprit make it a great choice for such a dual-purpose vehicle, and as an extra bonus, the thing actually worked!  Alas, it was not exactly airtight, requiring scuba divers to pilot it for the underwater shots (which probably explains the louvers that almost totally obscure the interior of the car).  Maybe that’s why Bond was able to roll down his window when he got to shore and toss a fish out onto the beach!

©1977 United Artists

    Batman has had a lot of signature cars, but the best of the bunch is the Tumbler from Batman Begins.  For one thing, it’s not a car at all, but a military vehicle repurposed for urban tactics.  It’s got plenty of armor plates, several of which can be angled to augment the beast’s aerodynamics.  Which brings up another of its cool innovations: having been designed to leap over broad waterways in a single bound, the Tumbler actually uses its afterburners for a (somewhat) believable purpose, making it capable of hopping from highway ramps to rooftops and over lots of other obstacles that the TV version (stylish as it was) just couldn’t hope to conquer.  It has muscular tires, the front pair of which is so close together that the thing could almost be called a trike. As it turns out, that’s a good thing, because in The Dark Knight, one of these wheels is shown to be the leading element of a rather unique motorcycle that springs forth from the wrecked shell of the Tumbler so that Batman can carry on with his caped crusade.  The Tumbler is a more serious Batmobile for a more violent time, and although it’s not exactly svelte, it certainly appears to be up to the task of chasing ruthless criminals.

©2005 Warner Bros. Pictures

    For a badly designed street car, you need look no further than Captain Nemo’s over-decorated runabout from the movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  Aside from all the silvery filigree, there is the problem of an internal combustion engine in a world where there are no oil refineries or gas stations yet.  And what purpose could that extra pair of front wheels possibly serve?  Any advantage gained in additional traction (assuming this is a front-wheel-drive model) would likely be offset by the fact that a third axle up front does not help your car to steer.  In fact, it would be just the opposite, a situation made even worse by the car’s extended hood.

©2003 20th Century Fox     

    But this version of Nemo gets it even more wrong in the design of his submarine.  The scimitar shape of the “new” Nautilus would probably be more streamlined if it weren’t for all those drag-inducing sculptures along its sides and conning tower.  But the icing on the cake of absurdity is the Nautiloid exploration pod.  Apparently, this is what the bubble window on the sub’s side is all about: it’s able to detach itself and go off merrily on its own, though one would think that would leave a big hole in the side of the hull -- about as useful as a screen door on a submarine, as the old joke goes.  But wait, it gets worse!  The pod’s method of propulsion is a spinning saw blade along one side that presumably acts as a sort of paddlewheel so the thing can roll across the surface of the water.  Such a device might just work if there were two of these blades, one on each side of the pod, but since there’s only the one, it could not help but topple over and churn like a crazy top.  Not exactly smooth sailing!

    At least these designers were trying to be original.  I can’t say the same for the perpetrators of the movie Wing Commander, the script of which blatantly steals naval battle tactics from the WWII films Midway and The Enemy Below, not to mention (especially in the climactic ship-to-ship broadside) every pirate movie ever made.  The derivative design of the space-borne Rapier fighters carries this far, far beyond the concept of homage.  Not only do they take off and land from the deck of the battle cruiser like planes from an aircraft carrier, the ships themselves are little more than F4U Corsairs with their wings chopped off and a couple of rocket engines bolted on just behind the cockpits (Wikipedia claims that the Rapiers were actually built from scrapped fuselages of British Electric Lightning jet fighters, but the F4U is a much closer fit, both in style and in the way they were used on carriers).  No wonder the heroes were having such a tough time of it – they were combating aliens, using 1940s technology!

                                                                   ©1998-2010 Wing Commander CIC     

   Now, for a design that just wasn’t thought all the way through, I think Wonder Woman’s invisible jet plane takes the dubious prize.  The idea of invisibility, though implausible, at least makes sense as a means of sneaking around unseen. But when the pilot of the plane is clearly visible through the fuselage, is it really getting the job done?  Don’t get me wrong – I’m as happy as the next guy to see an Amazon in a tight outfit zooming around in the sky, but that’s just the kind of thing that tends to draw attention.  I definitely hope that, if Wonder Woman ever makes it onscreen again, her vehicle will be described as having some sort of stealth capability, perhaps with the power to bend light rays around itself, and thus our heroine will be hidden as well.  On the other hand, if she’s traded her costume for an invisible flight suit, then I guess the see-through airplane would be okay. 

 ©1975 ABC Television

     Let’s go back to the Batmobile, only this time I’m talking about the long, black lump of 1930s streamlining that the hero drove in Tim Burton’s 1989 installment of the film franchise.  Apparently the designer was attempting to play up the turbojet afterburner by contouring the hood as if it was vacu-formed over the nose cone of a rocket.  While it certainly looks distinctive, this near missile causes me to wonder where the rest of the booster engine fits in with relation to the cockpit.  One would assume this is a two-seater, if only because the turbo shaft would have to be in the center. But wouldn’t that completely cut the passenger off from the driver? And imagine the unbearable heat all that jet fuel would produce, burning right next to your shoulder! 

©1989 Warner Bros. Pictures

    Beauty is only skin deep, they say, but ugly goes all the way to the bone. Take the spaceships in the movie Dune, for example.  They are tapered spindles with squarish access modules in the middle.  Now, spindles and cylinders are proven shapes for slipping through planetary atmospheres, and so have long been the body-style of choice for SF vehicles.  Even standing still, they suggest speed and motion, their long, curving lines aspiring to pierce the stratosphere like a needle through a layer of silk.  

    But in the universe of Dune, the needle is expected to attack the ether sideways, not sharp-end-first.  It’s original, I will admit, and I realize that in the vacuum of space, streamlining is not such a big deal anyway.  But this particular concept works against not only the audience’s expectations (as was surely intended), but against our almost innate sense of speed and power, bred into us from the time the first spear was lobbed against the flanks of a wooly mammoth.  It makes me ask why the things are spindle-shaped in the first place; why cram everything into tapering cylinders when a much roomier alternative – say, a sphere or a cube – might do just as well?  It certainly wouldn’t look any uglier.  Just ask the Borg.

©1984 Universal Pictures

    This does, however, point up one of the problems in fictional spaceship design.  It is increasingly difficult to come up with an original silhouette in the wake of so many prior explorations along those lines.  After Star Trek came along, everyone was trying various combinations of disks and tubes; then Star Wars blasted onto the scene and virtually obliterated the envelope.  Suddenly, a spaceship could be any shape you wanted, as long as there was a cockpit and an engine nozzle (or two, or however many).  Fins were optional, no matter that they were useless in a vacuum.  So LucasFilms brought us some pretty cool ships: Imperial cruisers shaped like arrowheads (especially the Emperor’s flagship), the horse-shoe shaped Milennium Falcon, and a spherical Death Star.  Not quite so inspired, but still serviceable, were Luke’s jet-fighterish X-wing and the run-of-the-mill TIE fighter, which basically sandwiches the ordinary day-job pilot between two panels of his office cubicle.  

    However, the production team totally fell down on the job when they dreamed up bounty hunter Boba Fett’s ship.  Designer Nilo Rodis-Jamero has said he was inspired by a radar dish, but that does not explain why the thing looks like a flying door handle.  And its flight mechanics seem to have taken the worst idea of the Dune universe and made it even more nonsensical: the ship takes off and lands from a position with its flat side down, then realigns to fly along its transverse axis, like a vampire rising stiffly from his coffin to glide along in a standup position.  Once again, our instinctual preference is for it to skim along with its flat side down.  Not only would it be more streamlined and less complicated for taking off and landing, but maybe it could iron out a few wrinkles in the terrain while it’s at it.    

©1983 20th Century Fox            

    For many years, I had been longing to see Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars brought to the silver screen, and finally it seemed that special effects were ready for the challenge.  Unfortunately, Disney’s big-budget feature John Carter fell woefully short of the mark.  One of the reasons, in my opinion, was the design of the Barsoomian air vessels.  Led on by Frank Frazetta’s gorgeous illustrations in my treasured hard-bound volumes of the series, I was expecting some stately, ornate airborne versions of Cleopatra’s barge.  In the books, these things did not fly as a result of aerodynamic lift or huge bags of hydrogen, but were held aloft instead by some mysterious ray that the Martian scientists had mastered long ago.

    So we had a chance to see grand ships of the sky, with open decks and perhaps a different motif expressing the identity of each royal family.  Instead, we got these giant bird/dragonfly/B-25 hybrids that make no sense at all.  Their wings look like someone was trying to piece together a turkey vulture but ran out of feathers early on; there is not enough surface area to actually work like a wing, and yet way too much for a ship that stays in the air by other, more elegant, means. 

    I can imagine the producers wanting to avoid copyright infringement with Frazetta over his concepts (but really, wouldn’t it have been worth it to toss the man a bone and sign him on as a design consultant?); however, it would not have taken a great deal of imagination to create a different look for the aircraft that still followed Mr. Burroughs’s description.  After all, there is a whole lot of difference between a Chinese junk and a Spanish galleon, and yet they are still both wooden sailing vessels. 

©2012 Walt Disney Studios

    I could go on and on.  Like a shopping cart in the LuthorCorp parking lot, I’ve barely scratched the surface of fictional vehicles. I’m sure everyone has his favorites, as well as his pet peeves.  I can even think of a few that, were it not for one silly detail, would have landed firmly in the Good column (Black Beauty from the film The Green Hornet comes to mind, with its absolutely ridiculous phonograph hi-fi in the back seat. How do you keep the needle from skipping all over the records while driving like a maniac in a raging street brawl?).  But unless your goal is to drive your audience away, you would do well to remember these fundamentals when designing your hero’s futuristic chariot:
           .      Make it believable.
2         .       Make sure it meets your story’s objectives.
3         .       Make it cool.

    Pay attention to these principles, and chances are you will have something that everybody wants to take out for a spin.  

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