Hans and Franz
and the Silver Arrow.
The team around Hubert Lee designs
the future Silver Arrow.
New design for the Silver Arrow.
After winning “Best Animation” at this year’s L.A. Design Challenge for their short film “Silver Lightning”, featuring two intelligent crash test dummies with an agenda of their own, designer Hubert Lee tells us about the fun times and challenges he and his colleagues faced along the way.
Cool crash test dummies and
The life of a crash test dummy is ruled by monotony and repetition, their behavior is clearly self-destructive and their job description a dead-end street. Time and again they have to sacrifice beautiful cars for the higher cause of human safety. A look into the future where Artificial Intelligence will have enabled them to think for themselves and take action was well overdue. Leave it to the creative super power of the Mercedes-Benz Design team in Carlsbad, California, to rise to the challenge. The L.A. Design Challenge 2011, in this case. While the prize of this year’s competition entitled Hollywood's Hottest New Movie Car went to sister company SMART, the short movie accompanying the design entry Silver Lightning took away Best Animation - with Pixar Studios sitting in the jury this is not exactly a consolation win. We spoke to Hubert Lee, Creative Director of Mercedes-Benz
Advanced Design Carlsbad in California who not only is in charge of Design but runs the operational side of the studio as well. Hubert took some time in between flights to tell us about the making of the Silver Arrow and the challenges of designing cool looking crash test dummies.
Mercedes-Benz: How can we image the environment and the atmosphere that you work in?
Hubert Lee: The atmosphere is very creative. The whole thing about us being in California is to be physically apart from the mother ship in Sindelfingen (Ed. note: Headquarters in
Stuttgart). It’s our job to provide something fresh, adding a different perspective. So we look at the mainstream, at what is going on here in the mother ship and then we try to take a different approach so that we have a diverse variety of proposals. That is our goal.
Mercedes-Benz: Should we image you guys catching a few waves before you come into the office?
Hubert Lee: Actually we have a couple of surfers in the studio. I used to surf, too, so yes - the whole California lifestyle does affect your way of thinking. The great thing about being in California is, that all the guys are born and raised there so they have a very laid back mentality. It’s calmer. At the same time everybody is extremely hard working. This attitude is the foundation for our work, it’s where the creative juices start flowing. And we have the nice weather; we try not to be stuck in our studio all day. Being exposed to the sunshine definitely affects your attitude - and your work.
Mercedes-Benz: The topic of the L.A. Design Challenge was Hollywood's Hottest New Movie Car. What was the idea behind the Silver Arrow?
Hubert Lee: There was a very important criterion for judging: What does this vehicle bring to the brand’s attributes? So we wanted to focus on the core brand values of Mercedes-Benz with whatever story we come up with: heritage, style and safety.
These three elements became our foundation of our story. And that is why the Silver Arrow starts at a test facility were they test the safety of the cars. The heritage of the Silver Arrow going back to the original silver arrows from the past, the 40s and 50s and of course style where we created the Mercedes-Benz world of the future and then incorporated this look into the design of the car.
Hans and Franz.
Mercedes-Benz: We had to laugh when we read the names of the crash test dummies – were you making fun of your German colleagues?
Hubert Lee: There is a program called Saturday Night Live in America and long time ago there was a sketch called Hans and Franz - two comedians who had this kind of stereotype Austrian or German accent. Ask any American about Hans and Franz and they will immediately associate them with this cliché and the show. We wanted our story to be dynamic, emotional but at the same time whimsical, humorous.
The last thing we wanted was something serious so we thought naming the dummies Hans and Franz as it is very German but at the same time it’s funny. Everybody smiled and said: Oh, it’s Hans and Franz.
Mercedes-Benz: Do movies play a role in your design work? Are they an inspiration you draw on?
Hubert Lee: Yes, very much so. Especially movies like "Tron", "I, Robot" or "Ironmen" are very inspiring to designers.
And we really wanted to take that entertainment approach. Even though we’re Mercedes-Benz we’re not afraid to combine the elements and make a creative design statement.
From first sketch to perfect animation.
Mercedes-Benz: In the film there are also other elements like the helicopter and the truck. Did you work on the design of all of that?
Hubert Lee: Yes, we designed everything. The members of the team that came up with the designs were Jack Luttige, Yasu Sato, Daniel Kim, Sam Lim and Alan Barrington. After the best designs were picked and refined, Andre Frey and Benedek Toth modeled them. It was really teamwork.
And then of course Hans and Franz - Daniel Kim and Jack Luttige designed them and then Andre Frey modeled them in Maya. Actually that was the toughest thing - to design a cool looking crash test dummy!
We wanted to make them very futuristic but at the same time instantly recognizable as a crash test dummy.
They had to be likeable but not goofy looking, and they had to be well designed on top of that. That was the most challenging part, as challenging as the Silver Arrow itself.
Mercedes-Benz: To what extend were you involved into the making of the movie?
Hubert Lee: I was directly involved in every part of the animation but it was the designers that really put their heart and soul into executing it. Jack Luttige's storyboard was picked for the main story. Then the designers came up with their environment paintings for the scenes (segments). Alan Barrington who is great with anything digital took on the challenge to complete the animation based on the
storyboard. We began with the future world, so we created the background environmental paintings before we even started to design the Silver Arrow. Our goal was to design a nice car, which would blend into this world that we created. Nothing was designed separately. Everything had to work together.
A big challenge.
Mercedes-Benz: Were there any challenges?
Hubert Lee: Yes. One challenge was to finish the animation on time because we were very ambitious but we were not sure if we were able to achieve what we had in mind. And then there’s Pixar on the panel! The bar was really high so it had to be something great. Also, finishing the model on time. The event was on Tuesday and we finished the model Monday morning at 6 AM. It was crazy. Another challenge was fitting the competition in with our other projects - it was kind of a side project. Balancing the task was for me personally the big challenge. I can’t have everybody working on this thing.
Thinking beyond borders.
Mercedes-Benz: What’s the appeal of participating in a competition like the L.A. Design Challenge?
Hubert Lee: The great thing about the L.A. Design Challenge for a designer is that it gives us an excuse to think beyond the normal design process, not to be too serious and to use fantasy. It doesn’t have to work in reality because everything is fiction. So in that sense it gives us a lot of freedom to think outside the box, as we don’t have to work with engineers. Also, we get a lot of interest from the media. For us it is a very win/win situation. We are also very proud of that it inspires design students and it gives them the impression that
Mercedes-Benz Design is willing to take on something so creative. We want the best people. And the best to attract them is to show them: look, this is a great studio, this is a great company to work for.
Cult films and design classics.
Mercedes-Benz: Speaking of film cars. Which car scene and which movie is your favorite or your most iconic?
Hubert Lee: For me, it’s the green 1968 Fastback Mustang GT in the movie Bullitt with Steve McQueen. Everybody associates that Mustang with Steve McQueen. That was a very iconic car. Still to this day
I would like to have one of those. Also in The Graduate Dustin Hoffman drove an Alfa Romeo Spider that to me is also iconic.
Mercedes-Benz: Thank you very much and we're looking forwad to your next projects!