“The only thing they said to me was, we go 30 years into the future, and there’s something called hoverboard. Put together a package. We’ll get together with Bob Z and Bob Gale and see what you make.”
This was the terse brief dictated to John Bell in 1986, the young concept designer and hot rod enthusiast who was working at the famed special effects workshop ILM (Industrial Light and Magic). Only a year on the job, he’d already created storyboards and concepts for Star Trek 4, Innerspace, and Cocoon 2. Now, he and his colleague Dave Carson were being handed a tabula rasa on which to paint the year 2015 and the sequel to the film Back to the Future. In an interview with Co.Design, Bell gave us the exclusive story on developing this world, while sharing some never-before-seen concept sketches of the hoverboard.
BTTF, you’ll recall, wasn’t just the highest grossing film of 1985; it owned the 1980s cultural consciousness. “Doc.” “Great Scott.” “88mph.” “Flux capacitor.” “This is heavy.” This was the lingua franca of the era.
Bell had just finished concepts for the Ron Howard fantasy film Willow when he received the BTTF2 brief. He sketched 30 images–ranging from hoverboards, to cars, to Hill Valley, to costumes. But then Bob Z–also known as Robert Zemeckis–went to film Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Two years passed before the project was picked up again.
Rick Carter, the production designer on BTTF2 (who’d later work on Jurassic Park, Avatar, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens), liked what he saw in Bell’s work, and negotiated that he come to L.A. to work on the film “I was put on loan,” Bell tells me. “It was only supposed to be two to three weeks, and it ended up being four months. It was the first time I worked in an L.A. art department.”
From then on, as Tim Flattery, a vehicle designer on BTTF2 puts it, Bell “did everything,” serving as Carter’s right-hand man, working closely with costume designer Joanna Johnston, and putting “his stamp all over the film” while coordinating the backlot design of the future Hill Valley.
Creating A Colorful, Bright Future
A simple but important line from BTTF2’s script read, “Hill Valley has changed for the better.” It wasn’t some sad, dystopian place, like you see in The Hunger Games or The Matrix. It was a a rare future that the audience would actually look forward to living.
Bell says he was a pop culture Anglophile then, obsessed with the experimental graphic design coming out of Europe. i-D magazine was particularly inspiring. At the time, it always featured a person winking on the cover–and indeed, if you look at covers from the era, you can almost see BTTF2 looking back.
“The layout of those magazines were always so colorful, and sometimes the juxtaposition of colors was bold and shocking,” Bell says. “I started throwing that into the artwork I was doing.”
He also took advice from famous futurist Syd Mead that he’d heard in an interview. Mead claimed that while designing Blade Runner, he’d looked back several decades to past trends, because design was cyclical in nature. Bell did the same thing. He went back to 1955–just like they do in Back to the Future, to pull visual cues. Look at the post office boxes, street lamps, and taxis of BTTF2, and you’ll see hints of 1955 all around.
“If you put something familiar into the design, the audience can hold onto it better,” Bell says. “If it’s a color palette, or a shape, the audience says, ‘I’ve seen that before; it reminds me of something.’ Sometimes in films something is totally abstract and removes people from the story.”
So many sci-fi movies paint the future in spires of black goop. In BTTF2, what’s old became new, and what’s new was both unexpected and familiar.
Creating Griff, Bell’s Alter Ego
Sometimes, Bell’s inspirations were more personal in nature. In fact, for the character Griff–that’s Biff’s doppelgänger grandson–Bell pulled some of the most iconic elements from his personal lookbook.
“At the time, I was wearing a pair of shoes I bought on Melrose or something, and they almost had a kind of rhino type nose to them. And the costume designer, Joanna, said, ‘Those are great shoes! We should do something like those for Griff,’” Bell says. “So I took pretty much the shoe I was wearing, with a jagged sole, and fit them with an aluminum tip so it looked like a spike was on it.”
Griff’s car, too, was modeled after that of Bell. You may not remember, but Griff had a matte black BMW with a bright orange graphics. “I’d painted my car matte black,” Bell admits. “Nobody had matte black cars but old hot rodders…of course, my car was a Ford Fiesta.”
Building The Hoverboard
Of all the futuristic elements from BTTF2–with the possible exception of Tinker Hatfield’s self-lacing Nikes–it’s the hoverboard that grabbed the greatest prepubescent cultural mindshare. While the hoverboard effect was created largely by clever cutting and actors dangling by wire in midair, many believed that it wasn’t a special effect, but an actual, working technology. (Robert Zemeckis, a serial media prankster, only fueled the rumors by claiming they were real but deemed too dangerous by parents to ever go on sale.) And even after journalists–or maybe just people grounded in sound logical thinking–debunked the existence of the hoverboard, rumors started that inventor Dean Kamen was developing a hoverboard of his own. (This secret project ended up being a Segway.)
The hoverboard of the film is a Mattel-branded toy of the future, designed for girls and thereby coated in Barbie-esque hot pink. But Bell’s original hoverboard sketches looked a lot different, and for years he worked on a series of hoverboards for Marty and Griff’s gang that were less magical, and more mechanical.
In Bell’s very first hoverboard sketch, Marty more or less surfs on a miniature hovercraft, complete with lights and air vents. It has Swatch and Zubaz patterning that would be later lost to the pink aesthetics of a Mattel sponsorship. The word “Rodis” was an homage to Nilo Rodis Jamero–the famed ILM designer who originally hired Bell.
In the sketches that Bell shared, I see jet engines, pipes, and metal chunks that might have been pulled off a mid-century car, radio, or vacuum cleaner. This heftier aesthetic was a reference to 1955 technology. Bell was also inspired by experiments with physical models in ILM’s model shop, where he and colleagues pieced together various design elements that would make an audience believe these things could really fly.
You’ll also see that each member of Griff’s gang actually had his own custom hoverboard, exploring a Menudo or Power Rangers member-by-member color scheme. “I was playing around with ideas that some of the gang members were totally into one color,” Bell says. “One guy would be completely blue. He’d have a blue hat. Parts of his face would be blue. He’d have a blue hoverboard.”
Bell’s original concepts are a peek into an alternate BTTF universe, where people modded their own hoverboards like hot rods. “They kept getting bigger and bigger,” Bell says. “The biggest one was more like a wakeboard, or a snowboard, but wider.”
Eventually, Robert Zemeckis reviewed the work and decided the hoverboards needed to be pared down for both the sake of the story and budgetary reasons (a dozen hoverboards of each design might have to be built for the stuntmen to use during shooting). His directive? Make it as simple as a regular skateboard, without the wheels. A somewhat magical, levitating hoverboard was the natural response.
But in another instance of Griff mirroring Bell’s personal tastes, Griff’s “pit bull” board still got to keep its jet engines.
John Bell went on to work on BTTF3, The Rocketeer, and team up with production design Rick Carter again in Jurassic Park. He burned out on L.A., and moved to Oregon to work at Nike for seven years–having met Nike CEO Mark Parker on the set of BTTF2–before moving back to L.A. and returning to film. Bell currently works at ILM and is every bit as nice as your eight-year-old self would hope.