Chris Rogers | Writer on architecture and visual culture
Spinner and gun Tools of the job
A work of science fiction does not predict the future – it explains and explores the present in which it was conceived. Accurate alignment of any given incident or invention with later actuality is merely co-incidental. This is especially true of technology, where even real-world prophesy fails on two grounds. Grand concepts – nuclear fusion, interstellar travel – are easily foretold but seldom occur within the timeframe expected. Smaller changes – personal computers, the internet – tend to arrive from nowhere and become immediately pervasive.
The technology of Blade Runner is no exception. There is space travel and the ability to produce an organic human replica, but no mobile phones or laptop computers. But even if those artefacts of the future that are featured have not yet arrived in our world, the highly productive merging of their designers’ talents did at least ensure they remain convincing.
Many characters in Dick’s novel use cars that can fly, and this concept was carried forward into the film. In the book they are neither described nor branded. Resolving this for Scott’s production caused a true icon of science fiction cinema to emerge, and from a single, throwaway line from the novel: “…a hover-car taxi spun down to land on the roof”.
The Spinner, as one type of these cars was subsequently named, proved to be not only a key component of the film in its own right, but one of science fiction cinema’s defining images.
Syd Mead was originally hired to visualise the vehicles included in and implied by the script. The flying car used by the replicant detectives was clearly crucial to establishing a convincing look for the rest of the film, not least because of the obvious problems inherent in the phrase ‘flying car’. Fortunately Mead’s background led him automatically to consider the Spinner as a real design problem to be solved rather than a mere movie flight of fantasy:
“So I thought to myself that if we want a flying car, we wouldn't want folding wings or a lot of complicated parts that folded out or collapsed back in. It had to be a self-contained, car-sized thing. I knew about […] the basic principal of the Harrier vertical take-off jet aircraft […] we were going to pretend that you could generate all controlled lift internally and vent it out through the bottom. So that was the start of the idea. We wanted a sort of a clean shape that could roll along the ground on wheels and blend with traffic; but we also wanted a shape that looked like it would do what it was supposed to do — which is fly.”
It is clear that Mead was aware of developments in aerodynamic theory at the time. That his high school was located in Colorado Springs, home of the US Air Force Academy and two active airbases, must also have been a factor during his upbringing.
The Spinner’s wing-less design recalls the then-current NASA programme to investigate the potential of what are known as lifting bodies, aircraft with little or no wing surface that derive their ability to stay airborne purely from the shape of their fuselage. During the 1960s and 1970s a number of such vehicles were test-flown over desert locations. Though not especially publicised, they were not secret either and lifting body technology appeared in the 1969 Gerry Anderson film Doppelgänger, also known as Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, and the title sequence of the television series The Six Million Dollar Man, shown in America between 1974 and 1978.
Although lifting bodies are actually biased toward supersonic flight rather than the clearly subsonic velocities of the Spinner, Mead’s grounding of its basic concept in such a reality undoubtedly assisted in creating the illusion of an actual flying car.
Mead sketched a number of variations on enclosed lifting body vehicles. Of those published, many resemble widened fighter jets with snub noses and the rear fuselage and wings removed. Aileron-like flaps and consideration as to how the propulsion system would be shown are common to all.
Once a final shape was selected, and with the application of a mix of contemporary aircraft and car design principles to generate the detail, the Spinner emerged.
The large canopy of its main body and transparent view panels in the floor recall helicopters such as the Bell 206 JetRanger, first marketed in 1966, a sign of how Mead understood the enclosed urban grid the Spinner would navigate. Solving two problems at once, the front ‘arms’ of the Spinner allow unobstructed forward vision during flight whilst facilitating the four wheel layout necessary for road travel. Copying the kind of articulating mechanisms found in aircraft, such as the Harrier’s engine thrust nozzles, Mead incorporated into his design outer covers for these ‘pods’ that shroud the wheels in flight but rotate 90 degrees to expose them for driving. Further moveable panels at the rear of the vehicle are less obvious in the final film.
From the world of automotive design, Mead borrowed the scissor door. Invented in 1968 by car stylist Marcello Gandini for the Alfa Romeo Carabo, they were popularised with the 1974 launch of the Lamborghini Countach. For the Spinner, Mead had the doors open and close under power rather than by hand, with the beautifully subtle detail of external push-panels on the front wheel covers instead of conventional door handles. These can be seen being operated by a police officer as Deckard approaches Bryant’s Spinner after killing Zora.
Mead also set out the Spinner’s cabin (or cockpit). He furnished it with the array of visual display units that were becoming standard both in fiction and fact; the F/A-18 Hornet strike fighter, one of the first aircraft to use computerised screens in the cockpit rather than mechanical flight instruments, had just been unveiled at the time Mead was designing the Spinner. A military-style head-up display, projecting information onto the windscreen, was also envisaged. A steering system christened the ‘twist-wrist’ comprised two cut-outs in the dashboard inset with handles that were grasped and rotated to direct the car on the ground and in the air. A later alteration moved these controls into the cabin. Insightfully, film prop memorabilia specialist Bryan Ebenhoch has described them as “collective grips”, the term used for one of the two control columns in a helicopter, and notes that the system “was also designed to further jump the boundary of road vehicle to aircraft”.
In contrast to those elements of the initial Spinner design that survive in the finished product if not especially conspicuously, one was eliminated entirely: it was originally armed.
Two long-barrelled laser weapons were mounted on the roof, with one just to the left of the illuminated centreline fin and the other over the driver’s-side canopy. Close examination of Mead’s paintings, production blueprints and online sources suggest that this gun’s mounting could rotate, elevate and actually move around the Spinner body (when airborne) to sit beneath it. Mead himself has since confirmed this, with the two guns forming what he called at the time a 360 degree sphercial fire system. Combined with the Spinner’s ability to hover, as depicted in the film, the weapon would have had a wide field of fire enabling it to be trained on any target. Mead may have been inspired by the remote-controlled gun systems on American helicopter gunships in the Vietnam War and the unusual defensive armament fitted to the wartime German Messerschmitt Me 210 fighter.
Weapons were eventually removed from the Spinner for reasons that remain unclear, although no action sequence that could have involved their use is present in either Dick’s novel or any known version of the script. A trace of their design presence remains in the vertical stretch of toothed track visible to the rear of the driver’s door, which the flexible gun’s mount would have travelled along.
The guns were replaced by a dazzling array of flashing and static warning lights. A wealth of detail from graphic designer Tom Southwell, including a ‘Spinner’ marque badge, leant the vehicle a final aura of logic.
Despite the rigour of this approach, the curse of predicting the future of technology did strike the Spinner in one small way. Two external rear-view mirrors were included in its design, no thought having apparently been given to the rather more aerodynamic alternative of rear-facing television cameras despite their presence aboard the jet glider in Escape from New York, released during Blade Runner’s production.
Deckard’s pistol was not excluded from the exacting process of reshaping the everyday for the near future, but Mead’s involvement ended after he produced a drawing which, perhaps surprisingly, looked like the kind of ‘ray gun’ Scott was determined to avoid. For a different approach, the project was passed to assistant art director Stephen Dane with guidance to adapt an actual firearm to provide the desired level of realism.
Dane first tried an adaptation of the COP .357 Derringer, a recently-invented update of a weapon seen in countless westerns. Derringers have multiple barrels, each loaded with a single round, that fire sequentially with each trigger pull. Not dependant on either a rotating cylinder (as in a revolver) or reciprocating slide (like a semi-automatic), this type of weapon is reliable, very compact and can be fired from within clothing. Dane’s design too was abandoned, though the unmodified COP was kept for use by Leon in his Voight-Kampff scene.
Finally, a decision was taken – apparently by Scott – to remodel another real-life firearm, albeit nothing less than a small-calibre hunting rifle made by the respected Austrian firm Steyr Mannlicher. An example of their .222 SL was radically cut down so that only its action, containing the magazine, chamber and bolt, remained. This was then grafted on to a Charter Arms Bulldog revolver, to which a new pistol grip was attached. Additional parts were added for detail.
The result is probably the most expensive prop firearm ever created. Replicas of Deckard’s pistol have been created by many model making firms and fans, who have also enjoyed speculating on its mechanism (veteran Blade Runner writer Paul M. Sammon has described footage of a scene in which Deckard is shown reloading the weapon during his climatic duel with Batty, but this has not been seen in any publically-released version) and creating fictional specification sheets and adverts.
From a car to a gun, Blade Runner’s design team created products that are of their time but convince as products of a future time. In examining them, the whole of Scott’s immersive vision of that future can be glimpsed.
(Some material on the Spinner originally appeared in the article Prediction Design, which has now been amended to exchange the Voight-Kampff machine for the Spinner)
This article is one of five that together form the online project Fragments of a hologram rose: Re-seeing Blade Runner. Find each from the subject pages for architecture, film, television, design and art
Posted May 2012
Fragments of a hologram rose: Re-seeing Blade Runner
“The postcard is a white light reflection hologram of a rose […] Holding it carefully between thumb and forefinger, he lowers the hologram toward the hidden rotating jaws. The unit emits a thin scream as steel teeth slash laminated plastic and the rose is shredded into a thousand fragments […] Parker lies in darkness, recalling the thousand fragments of the hologram rose. A hologram has this quality: recovered and illuminated, each fragment will reveal the whole […] from a different angle”
- Fragments of a Hologram Rose by William Gibson, first published 1977
Three of Syd Mead’s pre-production paintings of the Spinner in its final form. The weapons were later removed from the design and replaced by the glittering light array that produced one of the film's more famous images (visualnews.com; miscellaneous-pics.blogspot.com; pasalavida.org; astranovascifi.com)
Three views of the highly distinctive and commendably original firearm designed for the Deckard character, a combination of a cut-down rifle and a revolver. These images are a mix of the actual 'hero' prop made for the film, sold at auction some years ago, and reproductions produced for fans (shootingmessengers.blogspot.com; Reuters; thereplicapropforum.com)