Next Movie: I Was A Vehicle Designer on Captain America

Reporting by Alex Zalben, for Next Movie

"Captain America: The First Avenger" takes place way back during the WWII era, so you can bet your baseball bat making it look believable takes a lot of work. One of the most important things in recreating any past time period? The vehicles.

After working on "TRON: Legacy," vehicle designer Daniel Simon came back from the future, so to speak, to create cars for "America."

Simon created a whole fleet of vehicles for the Hydra baddies that fit right in to the time period while still appearing advanced. He told NextMovie all about designing vehicles for one of summer's most anticipated movies.

Simon has an impressive background that led him to the job… I am a vehicle concept designer with a background in real car design for brands like Bugatti or Volkswagen. I published a book with my own vehicle creations called "Cosmic Motors" which brought me to Hollywood to work on Disney's "TRON: Legacy" film. I’ve been working ever since in the film industry on imaginary vehicles of all kind, and offer consultancy for everything around vehicles, including a styling deal with a Formula 1 team.

He used a futurist’s take on the past… The future is just one part of my job. The beauty of Hollywood is that it needs designs for all times in history. Marvel's "Captain America" project was a dream - it challenged me to think like futurists of the past. What could have been? What did scientists and engineers really work on back then? And, work is also related to people - and working with director Joe Johnston was always on my wish list too. His design work on the original "Star Wars" films inspired me for a long time, and discussing the look of the "Captain America" project with him and production designer Rick Heinrichs was a treat.

The Hydra vehicles had plenty of inspiration that went into their designs… It is rather more advanced than futuristic. We studied many references - regardless of this being a comic film, we wanted a believable scenario. An easy way to reverse-engineer a past future is to look at designs of the '50s - like the flying wing XB-35 - and then plant it 10 years earlier.

An example how we mixed the '40s and an advanced look in the film would be the submarine - a rather conventional era design for the fuselage paired with a water propulsion drive that may have been in the works. Another one is the aircraft carrier concept of our flying wing - some aircraft companies really investigated this enormous undertaking back then.

The '40s were an incredible inventive period of time - with all scientific and industrial resources focused on the war resulting in leaps of technology and design. That phenomena has never changed. Many useful inventions have their inglorious roots in resourceful military research. From rocket engines to today's GPS.

He kept the vehicles believable for the time period, while still making them cool…We created 'coolness' in terms of concepts - and 'believability' in terms of looks. A 'cool' concept in the film is water propulsion for the Submarine, the trust-wing drive of the Miniplanes, the twin car layout of the Train, or the fact that the big wing is a flying aircraft carrier. The styling of all this though is entirely grounded in the '40s.

But what fits into a time period depends on the level of your interest. Look at the Auto Union Streamliner car, would you believe it is from 1937, if you didn't know? Take Schmidt's Coupe. It is a completely made-up vehicle, but it looks believable for that time. I referenced one of the most beautiful cars of that era as a style guide for the front, the Mercedes 540K. The six-wheel chassis is inspired by another real era vehicle, the Mercedes G4. The massive supercharger is inspired by a Bentley. All those ideas are thrown in a basket and my job is to find the right balance and proportion, using my experience in car design. Schmidt's coupe is as big as a truck, a simple up-scaling would not have worked.

The Hydra cars kept a slight German style… In the story, the Hydra is a fictive German organization, so my task was to apply a German design aesthetic. There are obvious styling keys, like dull colors, little decoration, menacing proportions, straight lines, functional features. If you compare an American Mustang P-51 with a glass bubble cockpit, an organic shaped fuselage in polished aluminum finish and a colorful nose art with a German Bf 109 plane with functional straight lines, sinister cockpit cage, a matte finish...then you have a simple example of visual styling differences. Another obvious German-esque styling key of that era is gigantism. We applied that to the tank and the flying wing.

Teamwork is key to the design… With Joe it was special because you can't fool him...he knows an awful lot about cars and planes! I even lost a bet once. I also remember a day we all wondered about the different types of rocket engines and what ram jets do. What a weird job we have! We approached every vehicle differently. When I started, Rick had already a concept for the flying wing. Then, the director doodled on my sketch pad how he want the bike to look like, and I suggested other vehicles from scratch. It is a very organic process.

Teamwork comes into play every day. Designers like Jim Martin and Nathan Schroeder developed the interiors of the vehicles. Storyboard artists put live into the designs. Illustrators paint amazing action scenes with the vehicles in it. Art directors tell you what you have to change to build it for real. And the production designer is above all of that and holds everything together.

But the script plays a bit part too… The script is the bible. It clearly defines the functions, the actions, and gags of the vehicles. The look of it is the job of us in the art department. But sometimes, the energy flows both ways. I remember putting a rear turret on the train and it found its way into the script. Homerun!

A ton of types were made for the Hydra vehicles… Eight different Hydra vehicles. The Coupe, the Flying Wing, the ram-jet powered Mini Planes, the Submarine, the Hydra Bikes, the Giant Tank, the Train, and a Wheeled Tank (based on a tractor purchased on location).

The factors that come into play depend on the type…For the Hydra Bikes as an example - being a functional assets for stunt drivers, it was crucial which bike the studio would purchase to modify. I started designing based on a Harley chassis, but deep into the design process we switched to enduro bikes as a base - the action scenes required a short wheelbase for the stunt drivers. Within days we had to adjust the looks to practicality.

On the other hand is the Schmidt Coupe, an uncompromised design, where the team went out to even find the exact tires I designed. Imagine my reaction when I saw the finished Coupe on stage - unbelievable. For moments like this you go to work every day.

There’s also a practical difference… The bikes are a practical asset, the tank is a digital asset. If you need a workshop to quickly build five bikes that can take a beating in action, you design them differently than let’s say a tank you never need to drive for real. On many films, you even consider the size of shipping palettes for your practical vehicles to make sure it fits into an airliner.

The "TRON: Legacy" cars are another thing Daniel Simon created… Disney's "TRON: Legacy" project was one of the largest undertakings in film industry and is probably one of the most designed films out there. It will look good for a very long time. I think everybody involved is really proud of it.

However, he doesn’t have his own… I feel utterly insecure in a skin-tight TRON suit, so that was not really an option for me.

He’s listed as an unaccredited designer on "Akira" but… I was singing Sinatra's "Strangers In The Night" in a duet with Katsuhiro Otomo, the creator of "Akira," in a small karaoke bar in Tokyo. And let me tell you, his is a hell of formidable karaoke singer! And I am not so good. That's all I can say.

Another thing he’s listed for is the untitled “Alien” prequel which he enjoyed working on… Working side-by-side with Ridley Scott is a great honor. He was deeply invested in the development and would sketch right at your desk. It is so inspiring. I was briefly hired as an early investigator for vehicle concepts, another facet of a designer’s dream job. I thoroughly enjoyed it and can't wait to see what other artists came up with for the final film - it will be really amazing.

“Captain America” is the Marvel movie he’s content with but that could change… For now, I want to enjoy the work we did on "Captain America." We all are very proud of it. Let’s see what the future brings.

As for "Captain America," there’s one person he can’t wait to see moving on screen… I can't help but answer Peggy Carter...

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