Designing V.I.N.CENT

Pre-production and concept art for Disney's The Black Hole was undertaken by Art Director Robert T. McCall. In early concept art V.I.N.CENT was rendered as a robot with multiple arms/legs, using several for standing and propulsion.

Pre-production painting by R T McCall, The Black Hole
Above: Pre-production painting by Art Director Robert T. McCall
showing V.I.N.CENT and two other characters.

McCall's final design concept (below) shows the same design for the robot, although here he appears to be floating with jet propulsion from below. McCall was quoted at the time as saying "I thought of him [V.I.N.CENT] as a hummingbird, as being able to levitate and dart around very gracefully."

Pre-production painting by R T McCall
Above: Second pre-production painting of V.I.N.CENT by Art Director Robert T. McCall.

Designing the props

George McGinnis designed all four robots for the film, V.I.N.CENT, Old B.O.B, Maximilian and the sentry robots. This was the only design and build work McGinnis did on a movie as at the time he worked for Disney designing science fiction themed rides for their theme parks. On taking up the role several full sized models based on the concept art had been build but Director Gary Nelson and Production Designer Peter Ellenshaw wanted to take the design in a different direction.

VINCENT with Harry Booth, The Black Hole
McGinnis was asked to come up with a new design, including large eyes, allegedly influenced by Japanese cartoons and regarded as an example of 'Kawaii' (cute) Japanese technology. Like the Maximilian robot, V.I.N.CENT originally had different colouring, white in this case, before the grey/black/red mechanical colour scheme for the film was decided on. From the front, V.I.N.CENT's shape resembles a friendly teddy bear, where as the humanoid 'robots' on board USS Cygnus seem creepy by comparison.

Robot butlers

Arguably all film robots up to this point in cinema history were patterned on butlers - asexual man servants. Robbie the Robot from The Forbidden Planet, Robot from Lost in Space and C3-P0 from Star Wars to name some notable examples. From today's cultural viewpoint a stereotype of a fussy, ridiculous gay man could resonate. V.I.N.CENT was voiced by an uncredited Roddy McDowall - himself a gay actor - who delivers the characters esoteric sayings with great aplomb: "[It's only dinner] ... said the spider to the fly".

Maximilian from The Black Hole
However, V.I.N.CENT is different - he's the first character to unravel the Cygnus' dark secrets. He saves the crew of The Palomino (well mostly) and stands alone in the fight against the one real horror of the film: Maximilian. The gay subtext between V.I.N.CENT and Maximilian seems deliberately worked. Max is broody, menacing and violent. In the end, V.I.N.CENT nails him.

Look into my eyes

In a magazine review from the time, McGinnis explained, "With V.I.N.CENT they wanted a robot whose eyes could be animated. So the eyes I came up with used a matrix of Ferrani-Packard discs, discs that flipped. You see them in these alpha-numeric readouts. They're small little discs that quiver when they flip. You could have created any pattern that you wanted with those eyes. But they had technical problems getting them animated when the principle actors were on the stage, and they didn't have the time to develop a solution to the problem. So they threw a couple of buttons on there, which bothered a lot of us. ... I wish the matrix of dots had worked initially, but I understand. ... They had the actors on stage. They had to do something."

This can be seen in the close-up of the production photograph below, where Director Gary Nelson holds one of the original dot-matrix eyes in position on the V.I.N.CENT prop.

Production photograph, VINCENT with Director G Nelson
Production picture of VINCENT with Gary Nelson, Director

Above: Production photograph, and close up, of Director Gary Nelson
holding one of V.I.N.CENT's original 'eyes' up to the prop.

McGinnis finished the design with a helmet that allowed V.I.N.CENT to hide his face - tortoise like - when in danger. Mechanical hands, legs, laser guns, a drill, E.S.P. and a tether showed just how indispensable V.I.N.CENT was - the Swiss Army knife of ship's robots - or perhaps more cynically a plot devise for every occasion.

However, one problem remained that late 1970's film making couldn't solve - wires. The wires used to suspend the prop remained to be seen in many shots, despite clever camera angles and rigging. It would be several decades before computer technology would be developed to automatically remove the traces of such wires in post production.

Pictures: The pictures on this page are from Cinefantastique and American Cinematographer issues that were dedicated to the film The Black Hole. They were reproduced online by Denis Warburton.
Other pictures are from Disney's The Black Hole, available on DVD.