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Harald Belker creates a visionary world of life in the ultra-fast lane for futuristic 'Minority Report'

June 24, 2002|DAVID DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report," set in Washington, D.C., circa 2054, the cars offer a not-so-far-out peek into the automotive future. They travel vertically as well as horizontally on a magnetic track and feature video interaction via holographic projections and a DNA recognition entry and ignition system.

They're the vision of Harald Belker, who is fast becoming Hollywood's go-to vehicle designer. He created the sleek, ominous Batmobile for "Batman & Robin" (1997), the whacked-out Lincoln Continental for "Inspector Gadget" (1999) and the space shuttle in "Armageddon" (1998). He also tricked out Vin Diesel's macho GTO for the upcoming summer action movie "XXX."

But souped-up and eye-catching as the cars might be, Belker designs them to blend in with the rest of the movie. "I design vehicles that stand out but are in character," he says. "They help the feel of the film." With "Minority Report," which opened Friday. Belker's automotive universe underscored the film's surreal yet strangely familiar visual landscape.

When Belker first heard about "Minority Report," loosely based on a short story by sci-fi novelist Philip K. Dick, he sensed that the project "was my ticket." Before production started, Spielberg assembled a think tank of scientists, environmentalists, urban planners and writers to create a vision of the future. The resulting cinematic world merges present-day Washington, D.C.--including traditional touchstones such as the Washington Monument--with visionary technology, including a mass-transportation system that operates via magnetic levitation.

Belker collaborated with "Minority Report" production designer Alex McDowell (Fight Club," "The Crow") to devise the intricacies of the so-called Mag-Lev system. "A lot of designers draw up 'picture vehicles' without thinking how the cars work," McDowell says. "Harald designs from a real-world stance. He combines his knowledge of mechanics to produce functional, aesthetic models."

The Mag-Lev system transports brake- and wheel-less "pods" along a vertical-horizontal roadway made of magnetic discs. Belker created Tom Cruise's computer-controlled, voice-activated "pod" that zips along the tracks accident-free. According to Spielberg, "The most futuristic thing about the movie, and maybe the most science-fictiony thing, is the look of the Mag-Lev systems."

Says Belker: "The real problem was figuring out how to get a vehicle from a flat surface to go vertical, along buildings. We didn't want flying vehicles, like 'Blade Runner.' It had to make sense, with form following function."

McDowell says that they labored to avoid any comparisons with Ridley Scott's groundbreaking sci-fi film, also based on a Dick story. "When you're doing an urban-based future film, it's hard to avoid 'Blade Runner' because it's always going to be a classic," he says. "But 'Minority Report' goes in a different direction. It imagines more of a utopian future in a green, non-post-apocalyptic world."

During production, Spielberg decided to add a twist in which Cruise's character leaves the Mag-Lev, fleeing his pursuers by driving to the country. Belker rejected the idea of a Mag-Lev pod going "off system." Instead, working with McDowell, Belker sketched out plans for another type of vehicle. He designed the so-called "hero car"--a snazzy red two-seater coupe--in just three weeks. After getting Spielberg's approval and running it by the designers at Lexus' Southern California design studio--the car company's logo appears on the vehicle--Belker turned it into reality.

A computer converted the sketch into a 3-D model. CTEK, a Tustin technology development company, used the prototype to build the electric-powered car in four months. "The design came from a police car I had done, an early model, with rugged wheels," he says. "I integrated that into a sports car concept. It's very raw and different in proportion."

The car makes its first appearance when it emerges, with Cruise inside, from the computer-activated factory that produces it. The car's appearance is deceiving. Indeed, when Lexus began to display it at car shows, the extreme cab-forward design fooled many observers. "People say they don't know which way it goes," Belker says. "To me, I always knew where it was going. The car always leaned forward, so all the lines go forward."

In imagining the future, Belker also created a "wow" car, one that virtually drives itself. Among the features: laser-guided cruise control, a carbon fiber and titanium composite chassis, retinal scan entry and a weather-sensitive response system (with tire tractions that adjust automatically to road conditions).

When he drafted the voice-activated, computer-controlled system, Belker curtailed the car's interior architecture. That left Cruise with little to do, so Belker added screens and other doodads. "It's funny--you think future, so you minimize everything," he says. "But I forgot about the actors."

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