A retrospective Q&A session with an artist who has shaped how moviegoers picture the future for nearly four decades.
Even if you are not familiar with Syd Mead’s name, you almost certainly are with his designs. The self-defined “Visual Futurist” has hugely influenced the way films—and therefore all of us who watch them—imagine the future to look like. First dipping his toes into the waters of Hollywood with Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Mead was brought on board to design the “V’ger” entity), Mead’s designs have taken center stage in such iconic films as Blade Runner and Aliens. With a background in industrial design, his cinematic creations are known for their ingenuity and balance of aesthetics and plausible functionality.
Earlier this month, Titan Books published The Movie Art of Syd Mead: Visual Futurist. Co-authored by Mead and Craig Hodgetts, it’s the largest collection of Mead’s film art ever printed, featuring hundreds of images, sketches, and concept art from his 38 years and counting of movie work, up to (and including!) Blade Runner 2049. The book also features a number of designs for concepts and scenes that were cut or changed before production, such as sketches based on Blade Runner‘s original script that illustrate a completely different opening sequence, as well as designs for several films that never ultimately made it off the ground, including a mixed animation and live-action reboot of The Jetsons. It’s both a testament to the scope of Mead’s cinematic legacy and a tantalizing glimpse at things that could have been.
In honor of this new book, Syd Mead took the time to answer some of our questions about the book and the fascinating history of his work in movies (and yes, Blade Runner 2049):
The way the book describes how you first started working on movies makes it seem like it came out of the blue—that Robert Wise tracked you down after seeing your renderings in a Phillips brochure and asked you to put together some designs for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Did you have any intentions or even any interest in designing for movies before this point? Was it somewhat common in your field of work to receive such a request, or was it entirely unexpected?
My work in movies did come out of the blue. I’d been doing corporate design for almost twenty years before the whole movie involvement came along. The director of Star Trek: The Motion Picture was Robert Wise. He had no idea who I was. I received a call from John Dykstra, Oscar award winner for the ‘motion control’ technique. (A model is mounted on a ‘motion control’ post, run through various maneuvers as a separate track, then composited into the final print. This gives the illusion that there are ‘many’ vehicles in the same shot.)
His partner for APOGEE studios, Bob Shepherd, called me and asked, “Syd Mead? Would you like to work on a science fiction film?” I had no idea who he or John Dykstra were, but met them at their studio in Van Nuys, a suburb generally North West of central Los Angeles. I had moved to Southern California from Detroit in 1975 and how John knew I was ‘in town’ so to speak, I have no idea. My interest in the job was simply another active account for my eponymous company, SYD MEAD, INC. I created my company in the fall of 1970 and yes, new jobs always came as a challenge and usually ‘unannounced.’ I never had a business plan, but always received a continuous flow of requests. I was, have been and still am very ‘lucky,’ (thousands of years ago, was it Socrates?) someone said the ‘LUCK’ is opportunity meeting preparation.
People appreciate how much your movie designs are grounded in plausibility—how there is clear consideration of functionality in addition to aesthetics, even if there is some creative license involved. In the book and various interviews, you have mentioned real-world inspirations for your movie designs ranging from ancient structures like Angkor Wat to various modern-day cityscapes. Do you ever take inspiration from fictional sources—films, television, books, etc.? If so, could you name a few and what projects of yours they influenced? If not, why do you think that is the case?
I received a degree in Industrial Design and had a very firm grasp of manufacturing, material characteristics, and appreciation of basic engineering principled. That, combined with an active, analytical imagination has, did and still does, furnish my solutions to look ‘real’ even though they may be completely fantastic. The legacy and ‘library’ of human experience is vast. I am fascinated by the past and keep up with technology through various publications ranging from magazines like Discovery, Scientific American, etc. The lay press, even newspapers do a very credible job of explaining the cutting edge of technological developments. Recently, the internet is a vast and handy source of information.
I was hired by Disney to help ‘redesign’ Paris in the year AD3000 for their experience called something like ‘Jules Verne…’ I had read about two French scientists who could manipulate molecules in a vacuum chamber by shifting frequency agitation. I need something to visualize the future of Paris without doing the usual thing of simply making everything taller or bigger. I envisioned vertical beams of ionized light from sources around the periphery of Paris, with the center on the Isle d’citi. Connecting the vertical light shafts was a huge floating circle of ionized air. Aerial traffic would float into the urban area and descend down the vertical light shafts to ground. The Disney guys loved it and more importantly, the French liked it. I had not violated the 7 story architectural law, Paris was still recognizable and my solution reinforced the attribute of Paris being the ‘City of Light.’
It’s been decades since the original Blade Runner, and Blade Runner 2049 takes place thirty years later, so of course, things are different. But even with that in mind, did working on the sequel feel like a “return” for you, or did it feel like an entirely new and different project?
Working on Blade Runner 2049 was a completely new inventive challenge, which I relished. I mean, having worked on the original with Ridley Scott in pre-production and post-production, this new involvement was a professionally thrilling way of ‘bracketing’ my Blade Runner design history. It was an entirely new project.
The Movie Art of Syd Mead includes designs you did for a number of films that never ended up making it into cinemas. Of all the films you have worked on, how many have actually ended up getting made? (Half? More? Less?) Are there any projects you worked on that you were particularly disappointed did not end up making it off the ground? How attached do you feel to the films you work on? Does it vary?
Since working in post-production on Star Trek: The Motion Picture designing the V’GER entity, I worked on a total of sixteen films to date out of which ten went to release. In those thirty-eight years, that means I worked on a film about every two years. There are two kinds of projects that I’ve worked on that never were realized. I’ve created the design concept for three theme park emplacements, all with a billion dollar plus budget. The other kind is the design, working with professionals in that field, are mega yachts up to the 400′ plus Overall length.
I treat each of the films I’ve worked on as a challenge to my imagination. My ‘attachment’ to them is like any other job that SYD MEAD, INC. gets involved in. And in that odd way of generality, the films all share a common feature with other jobs going through the corporation. They are a challenge to my expertise.
Here at Film School Rejects we also run One Perfect Shot, which is a Twitter account that highlights great stills from throughout film history. Do you have a favorite—“perfect,” if you will—shot from any of the films you have been involved in? In other words, is there a shot, or more generally, a scene in a film you have worked on that particularly wowed you? That you felt truly reflected your designs and met, or even exceeded, your expectations?
One of my favorite shots is from the original Blade Runner. It is a street shot that has several of the things I designed for the film. In the background is a matte shot for which I did the preliminary for production completion by Matt Yurichich and Rocko. There is the street pole fixture, parking meters and the SPINNER floating over the street. From Aliens, the shot of the SULACO entering from frame left moving out of shot to right. I painted a color sketch of this view for James Cameron for that year’s Oscar preview clip.
And finally, your signature is very distinctive [note: see the bottom right corner of the Blade Runner concept art]. Is there a story behind that? When did you start signing your work that way?
My signature was a result of a class assignment in Design School. I’d read about Oscilloscope signals. My family name is four letters with the ‘M’ resembling a ray trace on an oscilloscope screen. It was relatively easy to take it from there. At this point, it is really my ‘brand’ graphic.
[All the artwork featured in this post taken from The Movie Art of Syd Mead: Visual Futurist, which can be purchased here.]