The Essence of Z-ness

Turning a block of clay into an unmistakable icon

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Since joining Nissan in 1978, Haruo Yuki, has created approximately 60 major clay models ranging from sedans to minivans. His latest work of art is the striking all-new Z.

The automotive clay-modeling profession has largely remained hidden from the public eye because the artists usually work on future models whose designs are closely guarded secrets. Although the modelers remain behind the scenes, the impact they have in deciding the outcome of a car’s design can’t be understated. 

Essentially Yuki’s job is to recreate a two-dimensional image in three dimensions, exploring shape and tackling proportion as he painstakingly crafts a clay model. While some may argue that the same task can be performed using the latest in 3-D modeling software, Yuki disagrees.

 “Yes, we also use digital programs to create 3-D images as it is necessary in the process. But clay modelers provide a human touch to the design that software can’t. While it may seem simple to digitally add a door mirror or accents to a design, and seeing the car in a virtual space is helpful, subtle changes are not so easy to convey digitally. What we see on a monitor versus in real life is very different, especially under natural sunlight. Therefore it’s the clay modeler’s job to decipher and interpret a 2-D perspective into 3-D,” Yuki explained.

Yuki believes that by using digital programs alone, it’s difficult to express an emotional allure and depth when it is transitioned to a physical form at scale. 

“I’ve found that designs come to life only when we explore the shapes with our hands,” he said. “After being part of the creative process for dozens of cars, I have yet to see the emotional nuances of a design fully interpreted by a computer. I think that the favorite parts of a design for people come from the clay modeler successfully conveying shape and proportion. With the new Z, I don’t think the final appearance would have been possible had we relied on computers and software alone.”

The way a clay modeler takes a sketch and transforms it into a three-dimensional reality can vary greatly once the process begins.

“We completed the full-size clay model for the new Z in about three weeks. A full-scale clay model has an aluminum frame with axles so we can install wheels and tires. The total weight of the finished clay product is about 1.6 tons, so it’s a bit heavier than an actual car,” Yuki said.


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