Design Knowledge Intermediary
Harald Belker

Harald Belker is the cinema industry's futuristic car designer. His first job was the batmobil which most of us dream about. One of his latest work is the futuristic 'Lexus', Tom Cruise's car in Spielberg's 'Minority Report'. He also works as conceptual artist. His famous conceptual work is absolutely 'Spider Man'. He also designed spaceships for some computer games, cars for comics and objects for some firms. What it is said about him is that he is good at adapting the famous design concepts of oldies to futuristic car designs. For instance, the Road & Track magazine let some famous designers to redesign the old cars to the future. And Belker's redesign of 49' Buick to 2000 was chosen among them as the best trial. Harald Belker answered our questions in his home office in California.

First of all thank you very much for your support and interest in Designophy Magazine.

You?re welcome; it?s a pleasure for me too.

You should be used to interviews?

A little bit! They happen two months before the movie comes out, so it?s so difficult, because I finished ?Minority Report?, a year and a half before, because there was a ten month period, we finished last year in April, and then you work on three other projects, and then you go all the way back, and it is hard to talk about what happened two years ago, as much as I live in the future, interviews are all about the past.

We know that you began drawing at the age of 26? So can you tell us about Harald Belker before and after that age?

When I was 22-23 I thought that I would become a tennis professional, but somehow I also knew that I could not be a pro tennis player, and at that time I was studying industrial engineering, and as soon as I finished it, I started thinking ?What am I going to do for the rest of my life, really??, and I started thinking of automotive design, but I was not aware of what the education would be. And then went to a German automotive magazine, ?Auto Moto Sport?, and talked about schools that I could study automotive design, and then applied to ?The Art Center College of Design? in Pasadena, and somehow I got in. The first time I visited the school I said ?What the hell was I thinking??, because it is a very professional school, and I had to work very hard. Once you are in school you have to keep up, and then you realize this group of designers and artists all over the world. Then I graduated, and had an interview with Porsche, got in and went to Germany. It was difficult because American companies are very eager helping you, but that was not the case in Germany, so one year later I came back to California, and luckily, Mercedes had a studio opened here, and I began working here.
Anyway, when I was in school I was trying to catch up, just learn the skills, thinking of something and drawing it, because it is very important that it becomes natural. Once you start studying, then you spend all your day, in many other classes, like model making, drawing... so you are always busy. It really takes awfully long time, you can not just sit and begin sketching and rendering. Because, then I was thinking ?How am I supposed to draw?? So it really takes a lot of years to draw, stop thinking about drawing, and just think of the design. Then you can truly focus on the ideas. I get a lot of e-mails, like, ?How do you draw, what do you use?? a lot of questions! The danger is, if you focus on drawing a nice drawing, you forget the whole design thing!

So was the school a big challenge for you?

Yes, there were a lot of guys whose father was a car designer, and the guys who were into art since they are ten years old. I knew about Art Center six months earlier, and it was all about competition. You are competing every week with the presentations, and trying to learn everything you are supposed know to draw.

Did you ever think leaving the school, and try something else then designing?

Not at all! I really like what I do, I like bringing out new ideas, doing imaginary illustrations. But besides that I like sports! Sometimes I say ?I will work, so that I can do my sports!?. I do not play tennis anymore, I windsurf, I do kite surfing, I mount bike a lot, and I snowboards a lot.
California is perfect for all that stuff! In the winter, I go snowboarding, if I do not have to work, and in the summer all day long, you can go to the beach.

Do you have specific times for working?

It is hard to say. Because once you are working for a movie, you have to be there. But when it is windy, I say ?Excuse me guys! I have to take off a couple of hours!? But that is a good attitude, because sometimes, you need to step back for sometime, and get some fresh air.

Do they always let you do this?

Sometimes! You have to make excuses!

You both work for cinema and the real world. Do you see any difference or are they alike?

They are the same in the way they want something very specific. In the movie world you have very little limitations, the limitations in the movie world are usually the budget, and to what extend you can take things. Like, in ?Minority Report? it took us 3 weeks, to finish the red Lexus, from first sketch to finish full model. In the real world you have 9 months to get there. And then in the real world everything has to work! So the start is the same, but then it takes different forms.

You worked with Steven Spielberg, in film ?Minority Report?. How was it working with him?

The man is very busy, my boss was Alex McDowell, and we are friends so we understand how each other work. I had to do the designs, and had to show to him, and he showed them to Mr. Spielberg, and after a few meetings, we decide to the concepts. Usually he liked what we showed him.

Did he come to you like ?I want a red, car and should look like that??

No, there was an s script, ?Tom Cruise drives a sporty car?, so then you decide what a ?sporty car? is.

Do you have any other contacts from the movie?

I talk a lot with the production designers, he says ?I liked this sketch?, and draw 20 or 30 different variations, and then we focus on one of them, and I develop it more, usually from that point you just update it. And then you just work to get it done.

Did you drive the Batmobile?

Unfortunately I am too tall! I could not get in. The Batmobile was just filled with batteries, and tanks. And the Lexus, it was also designed for Tom Cruise.

Which one of the designs did you like the best?

I like Batman a lot, because it was the first movie that I made, but a terrible movie to watch! It was fun, because it was over the top. Everything you dreamt of as a child, you could do! But?

Who do you care about more? Manufacturers or consumers?

Designers design for designers. We always design so that our colleagues think ?God! That is very cool!? To make a product successful you have to think of the consumer, so they have to like it. But then what is the consumer?s reason to buy a Mercedes? Is it because the design, or is it because that Mercedes is a status symbol. I do not think that the 70 year old lady would buy a Mercedes because she is crazy about the design! She wants a comfortable car.

Before getting started to a project, do you prepare yourself?

I always try to keep update. The worse thing is that, you do something, and it is a variation of something else. Sometimes you think that you are doing something very original, and then somebody comes and shows you something from the ?60?s and it is already done! Everything has sort of, already done, and there is lots of stuff that we forget, as we begin to sketch and comes up again, and you do not realize that you have done it before.

Do you have a favorite type, or time period of movies?

I like sci-fi movies; I like twisted movies, like ?Memento?, the kind of movies that keep you interested. I hate the typical high-budget action movie stuff.

Do you usually wait for an idea to show up, or do you collect ideas whenever they come?

I am not from those crazy designers who draw on napkins all the time! The worst thing is to start on an empty page. So lots of times, all I do is watch TV, or a movie, and then take a little sketch. Or you know drawing when you are on the phone, a lot of stuff happens! If you really focus on something it actually will not come.

So this is the place, your home that makes you feel begin a design?

Yeah usually feel comfortable here. Because you have to clean your head before you start, and you have lots of crap in your head. I am not like the designers who go deep into the philosophy, I sketch a lot. I do not think that the first idea is the best, you have to develop.

What hardware do you use for sketching?

I totally switched from all kind of markers, airbrush about two years ago. I draw by hand, scan it into the computer, and begin to illustrate in Photoshop. I just leave it there. I have great guys who are 3d modelers, they take my drawings and build 3d models, and all I do is sketch and do changes. I bring out a few views, and leave the rest to them. That is also how you work for computer games, I decide the views, front, back, side and so on, and have these guys to make the 3d models. I think 3d modeling is not so creative. Because, you are working on a model, to get what your idea is. I sketch and come with ideas, and use that time in what I am good at. No time to waste!

How do you foresee the future of industrial design? Do you think that it will be that big?

I think design is in very good path. For the past ten years designs are becoming better. The general public is becoming more and more aware of good design. I think America is a little behind. But they are catching; they caught up the good coffee! (Laughs) I think designing will go to the next level of craziness. It is a common sense here.

Do you think it has a limit, or do you think that someday it will stop getting better and better?

I do not think that this will happen. Today we have better materials, and everything is developing into electronics, it is getting smaller, materials are getting better, manufacturers are getting better, and there is no teaching to be a good designer, so I do not see a reason for not getting better. It just depends on your imagination.

Do you have any plans for the future?

Good question let me think!

We heard that you want to build your own car...

I want to build my own car, but do not want to pay for it! I have a friend who built his fantasy car, and it took him ten years! I think that it is a fantastic thing to do but you have to design every little detail. I would like to design my own car, and it has to be done in a reasonable time. I am talking to a company who builds a car, showcasing their abilities, future material and everything, so I said ?I will do it for free for you, if you really do what I want to do?. I think that would be a great partnership to have a company, who really wants to show futuristic materials, and building prototypes, and I will have the freedom to design whatever I want to. I would do this for free, because that would be very satisfying. My friend spent about 300-400.000$ on it, it is all labor; you pay the hours to 2 or 3 guys to do it. I actually was very proud of that electric car, Iacocca, but unfortunately America was not that kind of an electric car type market. But Europe is great market for that.

Do you plan to live in California because of the design industry?

No, it is because of the blue sky everyday! (Laughs) You will get used to it, after six months, hanging out with the same people. I like LA because it has a lot of art, activities going on, more than that we had in Europe. Once you are in the movie industry, you have to live here.

How did you actually get into the movie industry?

By luck! A friend of mine, he was already working there, after school, and after 5 years I ran into him, I told that I did quit Mercedes, and I was looking for a job, unbelievable, but, they were looking for a car designer for the Batmobile, so I called the prep designer, I had my interview, and then ?When can you start??! I was shocked; I went back home, and tried to wake up! (Laughs) And then it all happened. That was my lucky day. Then everything came.

What was your role in Spider-Man?

In Spider-Man I did a little bit on everything. My final product was the bombs that ?The Green Goblin? used to throw around. Worked a little bit on the ?Goblin Glider?.

Did you have to make changes on Spider-Man, because of September 11th?

No that was already in the post-production. We finished Spider-Man two years ago, but they I think they did not have time to release it last summer, so we are still waiting! (Laughs)

Do you play games?

I like to play Playstation2. Graaan Turiismooo!!! (Laughs) I also have friends who play, and we call each other like ?Hey beat that time on the Laguna Seca!?

So you were also working for the game ?Freelancer??

?Freelancer? is a pretty big game. I think it is supposed to come in summer. I did a lot of sketching for that game too. I have also worked on ?Spy Hunter?, the car those changes into all kind of vehicles.

What should be the basics of a design education?

Well, your tool is your hand, so you have train your eye-hand coordination, it is like when you writing, you do not think what button to push keyboard, I think it is the same for drawing, once you start drawing, you are not thinking about drawing, so that has to happen. Preschool you are not there yet, so it will take a few years to get there after you graduate from school. Art School was that kind of a school, it hammered you everyday, ?you have to draw, you have to draw, and you have to draw!? Once you are comfortable with that, then you can just think about things. If you are good one or a bad one, you may not be able to train that, which is you?re calling and you seeing it. There a lot of bad designers out there, but they also work! The background is doing it basically, and going through a program that will teach you manufacturing. And you also learn a lot on the job. For example if you work for a telephone company, then you learn about designing telephones! And then you get into the philosophy! When I first started working, it was for Porsche, for the 996 project, and I learned a lot, Porsche was a great place, awesome people, but they had sort of very little room to do crazy things. If you just come out of school, you want to be crazy; you want to change the world! It will not take you more than a year to realize that you will not! (Laughs) Changing the world would take so many years, but movie designing is the easiest way for that, you can jump generations, also for computer games, you 600 years from now on! There is no limit.

Have ever worked with Turkish designers? Or do you know any?

I had two Turkish friends who went to school with me, but I did not work with anyone Turkish.

Actually we are very proud of Murat Günak and his work.

I think he is the future chief of Mercedes. Can I say that? (Laughs) When I was working in Mercedes, he was the up and coming designer, young and talented. And I think he was allowed to go to Peugeot, to have training at being a chief designer. Those are my thoughts, of course. He is back in Mercedes now, and he should be number 2, and I think in a few years he will run up. It is good to have young and talented people out there.

Are there any other young designers that you like? Or do you have any role-models?

Well... I like what Stark does, I like Colani, and that is what a good designer should do, you have to let people know that you are the one. I like Mark Newson... all these people do great stuff. But I still choose to do my own thing. Maybe in 5 years I will have my own company. The great thing about California that it is a freelance base, I car hire anyone that I want, for a project, it is all there without me. I do not want to critic about anyone, because it will come back to me! (Laughs) But I do not respect the guys that are so big, that they do something on a piece of napkin, and then they get all the credit for it! That is a dangerous thing, when you are big and famous; sometimes you are not doing the design anymore. But hey, maybe after 20 years I will be one of them!

How disciplined are you with your projects?

The thing is that I do not know to say ?no?, so, for example right now I am working on three projects. But it is good in a way; you have fresh air switching between projects. And I like to work hard. One time, I worked 140 hours in eight days, I like to be on-time, and I am German! Although by the eight day I was tortured! That is one thing that you learn at school, you work so hard, that you learn that you can deal with that. It took me 3 days and 3 nights to recover from that!


This interview is made by Ali C. Dogramaci in 2002.  Designophy ©

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