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|Self-proclaimed visual futurist Syd Mead shaped the retro-tech worlds of Blade Runner, Aliens, and Tron, defining how movie-makers of today see the future.
[Photographer Shawn Mortensen met the reclusive designer at his sunny house-cum-design-studio in Pasadena, California.]
SHAWN: Before you began working in film, you were a well-established industrial designer. What inspired you to branch out into Hollywood?
SYD: In the '60s, I worked on a series of
promotional books for U.S. Steel. I designed the typography, the layout, and did all the illustrations I had complete creative
SHAWN: Those books were very influential within the design community.
SYD: Yes. John Dykstra, who did the special effects for Star Wars, got hold of one of them when he was studying industrial design at Long Beach State. Ten years later, in 1978, his then-partner Bob Shepard invited me to lunch, and asked me to work on a science fiction film Star Trek. Sometimes you get these incidental links from one thing to the next I think that's just how life works.
SHAWN: You're the only person I know who calls himself a "visual futurist."
SYD: I invented the title while I was on the phone with my entertainment attorney. We were trying to figure out what to say for my credit at the end of Blade Runner, since I wasn't part of the formal Hollywood system. I was thrilled because they ended up giving me a full-screen credit, rather than just being part of the roll at the end. That was pretty unusual as it was only the second film I'd worked on from inception to release.
SHAWN: Blade Runner imagines LA in 2019. You
created a throbbing, congested, post-modern cityscape of chaotic street markets and dilapidated buildings.
It reminds me of a hi-tech Hong Kong.
SYD: The whole idea in pre-production was to modify existing designs for machines and buildings by adding new parts and devices. We called that look "retro deco." I used developing countries, like Cuba and the Philippines, as examples. Typically, industrial production is way behind in those countries everyone in Cuba drives around in beat-up old cars from the '50s and '60s. The film was made on the tightest of budgets, so the production designer Larry Paul went around scavenging for old neon signs and junk.
SHAWN: Where did you come in?
SYD: I drew concept sketches for the street sets. I wanted to make the urban faŁades very dense to create a really compacted feeling. Essentially, we elaborately dressed the existing building faŁades on the Warner Brothers back lot.
SHAWN: How much freedom did you have?
SYD: I worked closely with Larry and the
art director, Dave Snyder. And once director Ridley Scott found out that I could draw
well and envision the machines for the movie because of my industrial design background,
I was pretty much left alone. Every now and then, Ridley would come in with these nice little ink drawings that he'd done. We called them Ridleygrams. I still have several.
SHAWN: How did you get into the visual arts?
SYD: I started to draw very early on. I still have drawings of cars with drivers and passengers that I did when I was three years old. I've always thought about objects in the
context of their actual use. I started thinking about why things look the way they do when I was quite young. By the time I got
to high school, I could draw the human figure very well. After I graduated, my first job was coloring animation cells. When my boss discovered I could imagine and paint non-existent situations, I was asked to illustrate the animation backgrounds.
SHAWN: In 1959 you moved to Detroit to work for Ford Motors, where you designed futuristic show
vehicles and inspirational artwork for the creative department. I think your early automotive designs influenced what we see on the market today.
SYD: It's hard to say what influence I had.
I know I was designing cars in the early '60s that we didn't have the technology to produce until twelve or thirteen years ago. Metal bodies and glass sheets are glued together nowadays, but that simply wasn't possible back then everything was riveted or welded. I just read an article in Popular Science outlining how the automobile is going to change I was rendering most of those ideas in great detail forty years ago.
SHAWN: Perhaps your most famous vehicle is the spinner in Blade Runner, a car that flies.
SYD: I saw the spinner as a distinct character in the movie, so I wanted it to be instantly recognizable. I didn't want it to change shape that much no retractable blades or wings. Then it hit me all we had to do was flip the wheels. The idea was based on aerodyne technology, internal lift. Think of the Harrier jet and the new F35 Joint Strike Fighter. The car was built by Jean Winfield, a genius hot rod customizer.
SHAWN: Even though Blade Runner didn't do well at the box office, it has become a cult classic.
SYD: When it came out on video, it stayed at the top of the rental list for weeks. But it felt like just another account when I was working on it. I'd go to the studio and see editing clips, but I didn't know what was going on besides the fact that they liked what I was doing and I was getting paid. Working with Peter Hyams on 2010 was more exciting because I could see the development of the script. Hyams was working via satellite with Arthur C. Clarke, who lives in
SHAWN: Is it important to you to work closely with the director?
SYD: Working with directors one-on-one is a prerequisite for me. I got into a tussle with legal on the last project I was offered because they assumed I would be just another on-set staff member. I withdrew from the project. One of the things you strive for in any profession is the ability to just say no. It has nothing to do with Nancy Reagan or drugs you just build the professional stature and the financial reserves to pick and choose.
SHAWN: Have you ever worked with Spielberg?
SYD: I met him on the studio lot of Columbia Pictures when he was trying to buy back the property for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He wanted to film a new ending, showing the inside of the spaceship. Like most of these high-powered Hollywood people, he was wearing a baseball cap and sweats, and then drove away in a three-hundred-thousand-dollar Ferrari.
SHAWN: One of your other great achievements is Tron, which came out in 1982. Like Blade Runner, it wasn't a box office success, but it became a cult classic.
SYD: One reason that Tron did badly at the
box office was that Disney was having major problems at the time it almost ended as an intact corporation. The Bass brothers from Texas hired Katzenberg and Eisner away from Paramount to put the company back together.
SHAWN: Disney was completely transformed as a result.
SYD: Disney has fired all of its animators in Orlando, and kept only a skeleton staff here in Burbank. That completely changed the focus of the company. Disney has become more of a managerial licensing company, farming out pieces of an overall project to different people. Tron was a happy accident, produced under circumstances that would not be acceptable today. The budget overran the original estimate by at least three or four times.
SHAWN: Tron was a landmark in computer-generated imagery. A lot of the people working in CGI today were inspired as kids by that film.
SYD: There had been nothing like it before.
It was the first feature release to have over twenty minutes of computer-generated footage.
SHAWN: In retrospect, it seems so funny that it's all about hard drives, computer data, and RAM...
SYD: And nobody had any idea what those things were back in 1982. [laughs]
SHAWN: The actors play against very colorful computer-generated backgrounds, almost as if they are in a silent film.
SYD: For the costumes, the director Steven Lisberger and I came up with the idea of
layering circuitry over the surface of the body. I did some sketches exploring how the human body would work if it were an electronic device. You'd power its muscular attachment points, like the shoulders, hips, and knees. I thought the circuitry should spread out from the joints to create an electronic map of the human form.
SHAWN: Have you worked on the costumes for any other movies?
SYD: No, but I do love costuming. Years ago
I did a radio interview in Kansas City, and the interviewer asked me, "Mr. Mead, if you had an unlimited budget, what movie would you make?" I said, "Well, my father was a Baptist minister, so I would make a nude science
fiction version of The Book of Revelation."
He had to turn off his microphone because
he was laughing so hard. I imagine it would be a combination of Oh, Calcutta and Hair.
SHAWN: Several of your film designs have proved prophetic the melting-pot architecture in Blade Runner is increasingly evident in modern LA. How do you visualize something that you've never seen before?
SYD: You use pictorial logic. Everything looks a certain way because of the history of its use. The key to designing a technical object is to imagine the optimum solution to the problem without any restrictions on manufacturing techniques or materials. But, to do that, you have to know how things are made. Even if it's fantasy, there must be a logic to why it looks the way it does. Otherwise, you'll create odd things that will have no particular impact on the viewer. People are more visually sophisticated than you'd think.
SHAWN: Manufacturing techniques are advancing
so quickly that what used to be fantasy is fast
SYD: The problem for science fiction designers now is that you don't want to design some wild futuristic thing and then find it for sale in the latest Sharper Image catalog. That's why so many recent science fiction films have focused more on personal relationships. The Lord of the Rings series is a perfect example.
SHAWN: I was surprised by the level of violence in those films. The director Peter Jackson seemed to
relish the battle scenes.
SYD: Many films are a response to a public desire for excitement. People enjoy the catharsis of, "Yes, we're seeing something really horrible, but it hasn't happened to us, yet." Poor Los Angeles and New York City get trounced in almost every single disaster movie. Hollywood films are meant to entertain, rather than educate, the average
fifteen-year-old moviegoer. It's like Samuel Goldwyn said if you want to send a message, call Western Union. Movies are a business, not a missionary effort.