The Oblivion bike began life as a Honda CRF450X. Glory Motor Works likes to work with Hondas as they said they are generally easy to modify and tough performers.
In this spring’s thrilling science fiction movie, Oblivion, actor and avid motorcyclist Tom Cruise plays Jack Harper, a mechanic who goes about his day repairing robotic drones that are damaged during combat with mysterious alien invaders on Earth. It’s a plausible storyline considering that the film takes place 64 years in the future. For the most part, Cruise gets around via an imaginary flying machine (think super futuristic Harrier-style fighter jet), but there are some places that it just can’t go. So how does he get there? You guessed it, a motorcycle.
Having seen it in the theater months ago, it didn’t occur to me that Harper’s bike actually began life as a real life motorcycle. But after chatting with the bike’s builder, Justin Kell, owner of Southern California’s Glory Motor Works, we learned all kinds of interesting facts about the Oblivion machine in addition to what it takes to create functional, yet one-of-a-kind, (or as it turns out between two and four-of-a-kind) motorcycles for the film industry.
“We restore pre-‘70s British bikes,” says Kell, owner of the Glendale, California, motorcycle shop, in regards to his business’ primary focus. At least on paper. “But over the years we’ve done a lot of feature films. The way it breaks down is we do restorations to lose money and we do movies to make money [laughs].”
“It puts us in really weird situations,” he reveals when quizzed what actually goes into building a functional motorbike that, up until he gets his hands on it, is nothing more than just a drawing on the director’s iPad. “We work on stuff that we would never touch, and do things that you’d never do for a private customer. So it’s pretty cool.”
Filmmakers including the Prop Master and the actual bike builder, Glory Motor Works go back and forth in an effort to nail down the specific features critical to making a successful stunt machine.
“The Oblivion bike came about because the Prop Master called me,” he explains. “I worked with him on the last Indiana Jones. He called me one day and said we need three or four bikes built. There are going to be tons of stunts and we need them to fold them into a suitcase. So my response to that was ‘absolutely, we can do that.’ ”
Turns out, Kell and his crew are pretty good at what they do. In fact, they’ve been cranking out expensive Hollywood prototypes for over six years. During that time they’ve gathered all kinds of tricks of the trade, making it easier to choose the right tool for the job. In this case, a Honda.
“We started with a CRF450X. That was our basic bike,” he says. “We knew we were going to do a lot of jumping and they are such good bikes to work with. They can stand up to a lot and are such a minimalist design. When you pull everything off the bike you’re really left with nothing more than the frame, wheels and suspension.”
But choosing a platform is just the beginning Kell says: “As we sort of get into what is going to happen. That’s when it gets a little tricky.”
“We get these concept drawings,” he continues. “I go in and create everything. [But] you need to know everything that the bike has to do. The concept designs are just that: Concepts. We can do this, this and this. But it’s going to cost $20 million, oh yeah, and it’s going to take 10 years. So that’s what we do we start whittling away and getting to what’s really important.”
After finalizing what’s expected by the actors and/or stuntman who will actually be riding the finished product, as well as the director and the prop master, Kell and Co. begin the fabrication process.
“We didn’t want traditional exhaust or moto parts visible,” he says. “So we fabricated fuel tanks, made new exhaust systems, and changed the fuel delivery. The fuel tank we made for these bikes was probably under a liter. We just couldn’t fit much of a fuel tank in there, but we knew we could get about 20 minutes of riding at high speed. We sort of set-up the bike and all of the suspension the same way you would set-up a bike for Supercross.”
Glory Motor Works tapped South Africa’s BST for a custom set of wheels to give the Oblivion bike a supermoto-style look.
“Visually we wanted to run a supermoto set-up [so] I had BST out of South Africa build us a set of wheels,” he says. “But here is the tricky part: I need five sets in three weeks and had to explain what I’m doing, without telling them exactly what I’m doing. Some companies can do it, some can’t.”
“Another thing we’ve got to take into consideration is that these bikes are going to get crashed… a lot,” elaborates Kell. “It had to be a bit overbuilt. We had to really upgrade all of the electronics because we run a lot of auxiliary lighting and HIDs. We have to make sure the bike’s charging system is heavy-duty. Because these bikes will get started and stopped 20 times an hour.”
“It just happens,” replies the bike builder when asked why the bikes get crashed so much. “When we did Indiana Jones we started with five bikes and ended up with three. With Oblivion we did three bikes and we ended up with two. Actually the third one we could fix probably.”
“We have to thoroughly over build these bikes and think of the worst-case scenario,” he says. “Consider this: we’ve got two bikes down and one left and we have to switch out bodywork. I have to switch out all the bodywork in under five minutes. We have to think the same way you would for a pit crew for a pro NASCAR team. We need to be able to fuel these bikes quickly. There’s no waiting around. That’s the hardest part of my job: If I make a mistake or we have a bike problem I could be costing the production company hundreds of thousands of dollars. Let alone if we do something bad and someone gets killed. It’s a little different than building a prop because our stuff can take you 100 miles per hour and jump you 50 feet.”
“Working with Tom Cruise is good and it’s bad,” he reveals. “Most actors that are supposed to ride bikes never actually ride bikes and have no idea how. But Mr. Cruise is a really good rider. Not a really good rider for an actor, but a really good rider. So it makes our job easy and hard at the same time. We can’t fool him. He is very particular and knows exactly what he wants.”
Meeting the exact demands of a Hollywood A-lister who also happens to be a real pro adds an element of complexity to the project, says Kell: “It’s basically like making a tailored suit. We put the footpegs and the controls exactly in the position he’s comfortable. With Tom and Jimmy [Roberts, Cruise’s hired gun and co-founder of ‘A Day in the Dirt,’ not to mention son of famous off-road racer J.N. Roberts] they can adapt to anything.”
“Tom likes to do all of his own stunts,” he tells. “He really does. And he is very capable. I was not actually expecting him to ride as good as he does.”
But what happens to the bikes after the film? Are they sold, crushed into a tin can or cool ornaments in the living room of the filmmaker?
Filmmakers had a wish list of features—one of them was the ability to fold down into a smaller piece as this schematic demonstrates.
“It depends on each project,” says Kell. “Like the Indiana Jones bikes; George Lucas has one, Steven Spielberg has one and the Harley museum has one. The other two went into the dumpster because we just mangled them. [For] Some films they just go into storage and just wait for the next one [movie]. Tom turned 50 while we were shooting in Iceland. So we had a birthday party out in the middle of nowhere in Iceland. So Duncan [Henderson, Producer] and Joe [Kosinski, Director] gave Tom one of the bike’s for his birthday. And then the other one is in storage. Generally they become assets of the film. They become studio property. A lot of times if there is a sequel than they have them to use. For the most part they hold on to them and keep them stored. Most studios have pretty extensive archives.”
To purchase a copy of Oblivion on DVD or Blu-Ray check out here via Amazon.com