Somehow it's still hard to fathom that Back to the Future Part II was set three years ago. For children of the '80s and '90s, the Robert Zemeckis sequel was the most popular and recognised vision of a future we might see when 2015 finally arrived. And while some of the technology imagined for the film never got made, several devices actually did make it to reality — so we talked to one of the men responsible for creating them.
A concept design of the Texaco station in Back to the Future Part II by Edward Eyth. All concept images below were used with his permission.Photo: Edward Eyth
Edward Eyth is one of a handful of designers who helped bring that iconic 1989 version of 2015 to life. For about six months in the late '80s, he worked alongside legendary production designer Rick Carter, current Executive Creative Director at Lucasfilm Doug Chiang, and several others designing all of the technology in the film.
"I was tasked with much of the technology of Marty McFly's condo of the future, and the personal electronics & devices that might be in common use in 2015," Eyth told io9. Writers Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis had several pieces of tech, such as flying cars, in the script — but beyond those key items, Eyth and his colleagues were basically given a blank slate.
"We were given free reign to generate ideas that would populate scenes with technology and visual elements... and often those ideas would be written into the script or integrated into the sets and scenes for actors to use," he said. "Filmmakers take a big risk when making any bold statements about how the future will play out, but Bob G. and Bob Z. set the tone for this playful, but realistic, forecast, and let the designers have freedom to fill in the blanks."
Though we've covered some of this in the past, Eyth is now auctioning off many of his original concept drawings from Back to the Future Part II, and we asked him to tell us about the pieces he himself designed. We think you'll recognise most of them.
The Fax Machine
"At the time, they were bulky, noisy, and took up a lot of table space," Eyth said. "I went for sleeker, smaller, wall mounted, and simple as possible. A tube mounted on the wall, more or less. I'm surprised no one's made this happen! Fax machines are pretty much the same as they were back then (in the increasingly rare instances they're still used) but let's compare notes on this in another 20 years. I think I may have jumped too far ahead on this."
The Ortho Lev
"I did several versions of this, and my primary inspiration came from the inversion boots and tables made popular in the '80s film American Gigolo," he said. "But it seemed fair to assume inversion as orthopaedic therapy would require a mobile device, and if we have flying cars and hover boards, why not ortho levitation units? I tried to give a medical/clinical look. The simplest (easiest to build) version was used."
"This wasn't the most inspired design," Eyth said. "I basically took a standard countertop oven and made the look more playful and curvy. There was no real method to have the rehydration gag work, so I did some suggestions on having a false ceiling in the unit that would conceal a real pizza that dropped into place on top of the small one when the hydrator was closed. There was an incentive to do mechanical effects when possible back then, to avoid the expense of computer generated effects that weren't nearly as sophisticated as current FX are."
Eyth also designed the Texaco station and its components — though not the cars, that was tasked to Tim Flattery and Michael Scheffe.
"With flying cars, I thought an automated or robotic service station was in order," Eyth said. "No real inspiration short of how can we make the experience of pulling in for gas a more pleasant experience. Just yesterday I stopped for gas and there was a box of disposable gloves with a sign indicating I should put one on, since over 13,000 hands touch that pump nozzle each month. Hopefully electric cars will torpedo my automated station concept."
The Wrist Communicator
"I have a dozen of various wearable tech 'wrist communicator' designs that in many ways predicted smart watches of today," Eyth said. "Ultimately even if they were built for the film, it's not likely you'd see them, unless some director prompted an actor to bring his wrist into a close-up shot. So even with the one you see on George McFly's wrist in the photo, I doubt anyone ever noticed it. I didn't even see it till about a month ago when I was searching for stills from the film online."
Marty never got his watch in the movie, but you can see his father George wearing one here:
The VR Visors
"These just made sense," he said. "Even back in the '80s some low-res tiny screens were being produced and this just seemed like the viable next step: full immersion and isolation to some extent, for an undistracted experience. I added the 'holograph' idea, thinking these headsets would have the capacity for a more 3D enhanced experience. Evidently I should be getting royalties for every VR headset sold."
Of course, Eyth may have came up with these designs, but he never figured out how to actually make them work. That's a job for others. But that doesn't make his design work any less special.
"With each of the items I was assigned, I tried to imagine what the 'next gen' version would be. Or the 'next gen after that gen,' since we're forecasting 25-30 years ahead. It's fairly easy to accomplish that visually, since it generally just means smaller, sleeker and less complicated from an aesthetic standpoint," Eyth said.
"But to create something that's credible, aside from the way it looks, you have to consider how it could function more efficiently. That's more challenging but also more rewarding for a designer, I think. Of course the beauty of design for scifi or fantasy films is you really don't need to actually engineer the entire technology of a product or device, you just need to suggest it in a way that seems believable. And in the case of Back to the Future, there was a playful aspect to the entire process that really made it fun."
You can check out Eyth's available pieces at this link.
We'll have more from Eyth in the coming weeks, as the list of classic movies he's worked on is very impressive.