How GPUs Make Imaginary Cars Into Movie Stars

by Tony Kontzer

If Daniel Simon‘s work doesn’t cast GPUs as a technology of the future, nothing will.

Simon, whose vehicle designs have appeared in such films as Tron: Legacy, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Prometheus, has become one of Hollywood’s go-to resources for futuristic cars, planes, motorcycles and, more recently, spacecraft.

Using Autodesk’s Alias industrial design software running on GPUs, Simon spent a year creating and refining what he clearly believes is one of his crowning achievements: the so-called “bubbleship from last year’s Tom Cruise film Oblivion, a helicopter-like contraption that bears a close resemblance to a dragonfly.

Daniel Simon Captain America carAnd while GPUs clearly aid in his work, Simon, who is at GPU Technology Conference Tuesday to talk about his designs, doesn’t like to credit the technology. He’s much more interested in what can be done with it.

“We all have the same outlets at home,” he told GTC attendees attending his talk. “You plug this in, and magic comes out.”

More to the point, he says 3D rendering technology has become so commonplace that Hollywood folks have stopped asking, “How did you do that?” and have instead swung back toward talking about his designs, a development that clearly jazzes him.

Hollywood started coming to Simon, a former Volkswagen designer, for futuristic vehicle concepts after the release of his 2007 book, “Cosmic Motors,” which explored the vehicles of a futuristic, far-off galaxy. But after spending several years focusing on such designs, Simon decided to shift his focus back to Earth and jump back and forth in time with a 13-book series called “Timeless Racer,” a new episode of which he plans to release every other year.

The ongoing story, told mostly with images of Simon’s designs, depicts a fictional company, Masucci Racing, which builds vehicles for races in a variety of time periods, from 1916 to 2615. The first episode, released late last year, showcases theoretical vehicle designs from the year 2027 — designs that, while future-looking, frequently draw upon the Le Mans race cars of yesteryear.

The images in Timeless Racer are mash-ups that combine his Alias-designed vehicles with photos of live models. The results manage to make the designs even more eye-popping in that they look like they’re co-existing physically with the models.