Exclusive interview: 'Blade Runner' futurist Syd Mead
|INTERVIEWS - FILM|
The man behind the visual style of many a Hollywood SF classic (and who has arguably done more than anyone else to shape the cars we drive today) prognosticates on the automotive industry...and the prospect of a Blade Runner sequel.
As you know, we at Shadowlocked.com get to do some pretty cool things – interviews, game reviews, films reviews, and we get to go to places and do things that we know we are very privileged to see and do. Well, I got to do a very cool thing.
I’ve had the chance to catch-up with one of my all-time heroes, one of the Hollywood legends in the movie making process. He’s a man who has had an incredible career, and not only as a designer of some of the most incredible and iconic vehicles and sets in some of the biggest movies in the world. This man has shown us the future of civilisation, made it feel real; in developing public spaces, restaurants, computer games, watches, cars, posters, books and more. You know who it is? No?
If I said that it was the man who created the V’ger design in 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture', the Sulaco warship in 'Aliens', the police cars and believable cityscapes in 'Blade Runner', the light cycle in 'Tron'...then anyone who is into their Science Fiction films should know this man’s work and his name.
He is Syd Mead and he has ‘imagineered’ the future of many every-day objects, public spaces and made them all – incredible.
Syd Mead is one of the reasons why I initially became an artist and wanted to go to Art College. I, like Syd, drew rocket-ships when I was a kid. I’m 41, so I think I’ve earned the right to call them rocket-ships too. When I left school, I went onto art college and was a designer; then I was captivated by computers, went to IBM and I left my art work behind. After a long break from drawing after my daughters were born, I returned to art and came back to a world full of incredibly talented artists around the world, I’ve made friends and learned so much from them. They have all helped me to work at growing my skills as an artist.
So to get to develop this feature for Shadowlocked with the help of Roger Servick and of course, Syd Mead, was an amazing opportunity. I hope you find this is a revealing view into the mind of one of the most imaginative and insightful illustrators alive on the planet today.
Design for life
What inspired you as a boy - books, radio and films? Were you inspired to draw at an early age your ideas of what the future could be like?
As a boy I was inspired, really, by my own imagination. One possible influence (I was four or five, before learning to read) was that my father, for some still unknown reason, read ‘big/little’ books to me. The story subjects? Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Strange, But True. As I got older I became fascinated by rocket ships, the enormous Hindenburg airship as depicted in Life magazine at the time, and generally what familiar things (cars and motorcycles, for instance) might look like in the future. This would have been in the late thirties, so take cars of that era, just beginning to evolve toward ‘envelop’ bodies and accelerate the trend as morphological entities. I would sit at my desk overlooking Main Street in Canton, South Dakota and draw constantly.
Radio? Didn’t have one.
Did the time in the Army affect your views of the future?
By the time I was in the Army from 1953 to 1956 I was already expert in depicting the human form, both male and female, shading, had a design sense and the ability, thanks to what education provided ‘back then’ to write coherently with an advanced vocabulary. For instance, I still remember the longest word in the English language, which I memorized at the age of eleven: Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis. Its common name is ‘rock lung,’ a disease that afflicts people involved in any dust-laden air supply activity for prolonged periods of time.
The future then was a wondrous anticipation; I read everything and was fascinated by advancing technology as it impacted the whole visualization process. By the time I was in the Army (twenty years old plus) I was well on my way to having a mature illustration sensibility that enabled me to visualize my imaginative ‘worlds’ for my own amusement.
You were quoted saying in Starlog once that Science Fiction was “reality ahead of schedule”. So what are the key things that help you keep envisaging ahead of schedule?
To visualize ‘ahead of schedule’ I read lay media (which, by the way is very good at dumbing down complex technology for the lay reader) on new technological advances in medical biology, electronics, nano-technology, robotics and transport across the entire range of going from ‘A’ to ‘B.’ This exposure gives me the starting inspiration that informs what I come up with as a visual ‘peek’ into future scenario.
Your work never feels dated and even the work in the sixties and seventies has a retro chic feel to it, what would you say are the elements that are captured that keep your work feeling ahead of the game?
My work has been called ‘future proof.’ That comes about by combining the familiarity of implied social context with ‘future’ stuff. If you advance your informed appreciation of technology across the vast spectrum of applied science into the visualization process you create an 'ahead of the curve' rationale, which convinces that the visual speculation is ‘real.’ I’ve been doing this for over fifty years.
What were the best things you remember about Elwood Engel, Ford's vice president for design in 1955, and what kind of an influence did he have on you whilst working at Ford’s advanced styling studio?
My brief stint at Ford’s Advanced Styling Studio in Dearborn, Michigan lasted around twenty-six months. Elwood hired me during my seventh semester at Art Center School in Los Angeles (now the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California) and wanted me to start then. I declined and finished the eighth semester and received my BfA (Bachelor of professional Arts) degree, then went back to Ford. He waited for me. I had finished Art Center on a Ford scholarship plus my G.I. Bill funding for serving in the U.S. Army Engineering Corps during the Korean War. Elwood’s influence on me in terms of forming any sort of design sense was zero. I mean, I was hired to ‘influence’ Ford Advanced styling/design, which I did. Elwood was a talented staff motivator. His design sense was, I remember, rather naïve, but he was an expert at playing the corporate hierarchical game.
"Glorious Chrome! I’ve often made the cheeky remark that chrome is my favourite colour"
In the sixties chrome seemed to be the big thing in cars - what would you say are the big materials in car design now, and what materials inspire you in your futuristic work especially for the screen?
Glorious Chrome! I’ve often made the cheeky remark that chrome is my favourite colour. Chrome is a magical surface that mirrors its immediate environment, changing a reflective surface into a mosaic of the world around it. These days, with flash-chromed plastic, the surface lacks that metallic finish that real chrome possesses. ‘real chrome’ starts off with copper underlay, then a layer of nickel and finally, chrome. Chrome is very porous, microscopically. The nickel serves as a sheet of corrosion blockage and the copper (or brass) provides the base electrostatic anchor for the layers above. High quality chrome plating has all three layers.
Materials now include carbon fibre, variable density moulded foam, high impact resins and flexible plastic moulded sheet for impact mechanism shrouds and exterior impact resistance body panels. Glass is coated with a high impact coating to resist scratching and pitting and paint is overlaid with a clear coat that protects the actual pigment during ownership maintenance of washing and waxing, and resisting chemical and UV attack. The paint will become an addressable RGB lamination or applied coating, the seating and other interior surfaces will employ electro-lastic fibres and the whole electronic environment will become increasingly complex, eventually turning the automobile into a sentient super-evolved version of the horse. ‘It” will ‘know’ where it is, where it is in relation to local environment and other ‘its’. And the dream of unattended transport will become a day-to-day reality. Shifting to ‘right-handed drive’ will lose its challenge when visiting the UK and former colonies! The vehicle will simply access its memory chip for that circumstance.
Working in future-world movies requires a broad appreciation of technology (for that scripted world) and the ability to mix and match familiar ‘reality’ cliché with imaginative’ derivative creation.
Shortly after leaving Ford you set up your own business. Philip's work seems to have been the main factor for this, but did you see bigger lucrative potential in the design industry at the time? When did you realise that there was an opportunity for a business to look to designing the future?
I started my corporation in October of 1970 in Detroit, Michigan after working with a small company in Chicago for about nine years and then briefly with a New York City media company. There was also a brief stint with a nascent promotional company in Detroit, which proved to be an unpleasant interlude. After three corporations had either folded, been bought out (eliminating my job) or proved perfidious, I decided that creating my own risk entity was the best thing to do. I did this with a huge dose of naïve enthusiasm, having zero clients at the time plus having just turned down Chrysler’s bid to send me to Brazil as their ‘idea guy’ at their facilities there.
My good fortune for starting my own company owed to considerable professional skill visibility before I incorporated. I already had wide-range visibility in the vehicle design market due to the series of very successful United States Steel book series. Locally, I had visibility to the architectural illustration market, so starting my own company, in retrospect, was the smartest thing I could have done.
Would you say there is a need or room in the current market today to create a company like Syd Mead Inc?
Now? Firstly, schools all over the planet are graduating high-profile guys who are very, very good. Without parsing the various educational profiles, the competition for attention is extreme. Most graduates already have their blogs, web-pages and other media release visibility generators that were non-existent when I started out. The general artistic landscape has expanded into many more specified areas of expertise than existed when I launched my design company. We will always have entrepreneurs, hopefully, that enrich and variate the professional response to creative challenge. The competitive environment will continue to evolve.
A Minnesota boy, moving to California in the 1970s – how did California impact your design inspirations? Did the post-modernist style in California influence you at all?
My move to California was a liveability decision and had zero to do with either ‘inspiration’ or professional ambition. When I moved to Southern California in 1975 I did so because of the weather, I had the Philips N.V. account in Eindhoven, Holland, the Raymond Loewy account for both the New York City and Paris offices, a link to Volvo in Goteborg, Sweden plus a robust business in Architectural illustration for firms in Texas, Singapore and New York. California provided a year-round relief from grey, Michigan weeks and, of course relief from annual adventures in frozen ruts to drive in, ice to contend with and snow to shovel. The modernist movement? Why would that influence me? I’d already gone through my Klee period, my appreciation of why Picasso moved from representative art to abstract, why certain artists pursued their various formats.
Everything you design, no matter how fantastic, always feels so real. What are the key elements to make the fantastical so real even to the point of feeling ‘everyday’?
To make something impress as ‘real’ means that you have to appreciate the process of manufacture. The way something is made has a great deal to do with how it looks. With the recent advent of automated three-dimensional on-demand fabrication, the manufacturing process devolves into data. The data to make something is the valuable part of process. The finished thing merely proves that the data was correct. This is a complete inversion of our prior notions of design, prototyping and item production. I try to keep myself ‘educated’ on how and why things are being made a certain way. However, utility is a visual appreciation of how something fits its intended usage. Whether practical or stylistically intriguing for its own sake, there has to be some familiarity ‘trigger’ that reminds. That done, you can load up the idea with strangeness that now becomes amusing or fascinating. I apparently have been successful in accomplishing this effect. The way something is made has a great deal to do with how it looks.
Syd Mead Inc. has produced work in architecture, automotive design, product design, graphic design, set design, futurology. Is there an area you would like to work in that you’ve not had the chance to?
I would dearly love to finally have a super yacht in the water. I’ve been involved in the design and presentation of illustration and drawings for super yachts up to 4OO+ feet OAL, sailing sloops and assorted watercraft. In each case the funding was cut off or other administrative intrigues aborted the project. As counterpoint, I’ve designed and specified four aircraft interiors for heads of state, three 747’s, of which two were delivered, and a 727 for the Sultan of Brunei that was delivered. I’ve also created three master plans for One Billion dollar themed areas, all of which were aborted due to financing and ancillary manoeuvrings.
What would you like to see America and the rest of the world do with regards to investment in space technology?
America has become a large, polyglot society that is now embroiled in serious fiscal mis-management yet still the largest homogeneous socio-economic consumer bloc in the ‘developed’ countries. China and India also come to mind but their demographics range from primitive to high-tech, with the majority of each country still mired in almost medieval social conditions.
America still has the inventive advantage but is falling behind as a trail-on effect due to poor basic education, excess expenditure on pandering social entitlements and an abysmal set of foreign intrigues sponsored by the unholy linkage between the military establishment and the political clique. Given that, the investment in space technology must continue as part of basic research into where we came from cosmologically, how our local system actually operates relative to earth’s physical future. Mankind has always gotten a ‘push’ when new frontiers are discovered and explored. We need that species encouragement. The numbing effect of ethnic, religious and mystical nonsense must be overpowered by intellect, by appreciation of how unique this planet is and by the insistence that we stop insulting a million years of species evolution. The investment in space technology must continue as part of basic research into where we came from cosmologically.
Do you ever feel that clients sometimes don’t truly understand the full breadth of your ideas? If so how do you handle them?
Our clients approach us because of some specific challenge they think I can assist in solving. That does limit my professional exposure to a tightly defined job category each time around. I don’t think that this is a bad thing, nor am I displeased because they are not aware of other things I am familiar with. What my breadth of experience does benefit is ourselves. I have never been beholden to a singular professional task environment, which is one reason, I am sure, that I have been successful continuously for over fifty years.
“Employing my accurate depiction of human anatomy, I laid an acetate sheet over the finished illustration and proceeded to render an orgy taking place on every piece of furniture and level surface in the view”
Illustrators are notorious for adding little touches in their work that are sometimes humorous or a little risqué. Have you ever done this? Would you ever say?
Risqué? Of course! I was finishing an interior illustration of a hotel lobby for an architectural client in Houston, Texas. Having finished numerous illustrations for the same client before, I knew all of the young architects on staff. I finished the hotel lobby early and thought ‘let’s spark this up a bit.’ Employing my accurate depiction of human anatomy, I laid an acetate sheet over the finished illustration and proceeded to render an orgy taking place on every piece of furniture and level surface in the view. For added poignancy, I included an extra pair of jockey shorts in the package that went to the client. I got rave reviews, even from the senior executive of the firm.
Would you like to be more involved with computer games or are the commercial pressures of the games industry today too restrictive to be able to explore more?
The electronic game market dwarfs the theatrical release market. I’ve worked with electronic game clients since four-bit days, starting with the Blum studios in Canada and ranging from Japanese clients to onshore clients like Gearbox, Blizzard, and a few futile stabs at Electronic Arts. I’ve experienced as much creative freedom in the game industry as I‘ve experienced with movies. If you understand the story pretence thoroughly there should be no problem being freely creative within the proposed parameters. I don’t react to ‘pressure’ imperatives any more. If the job contract is specific, the creative response is the same whether I’m creating a corporate logo, completing a customized illustration assignment of designing an actual movie prop or commercial product.
What advice would you give games, movie and product designers to make their work have the same longevity as yours?
Longevity? Long-term validity depends almost solely on the concept being valid for whatever story purpose is being promoted, and a consistent pursuit of idea as a further evolution of the original concept. If the original concept is flawed or not understood, the prospects for longevity are diminished in proportion to the original error.
So how do you manage to keep a finger on the pulse of change? Or is change still trying to keep up with you?!
Change, in this era of multi-media onslaught is constantly reported and dramatized. Keeping up is a matter of curious exposure to what is being reported.
Sentury II is a further collection of projects. There must be quite a process to select work to go into this amazing book?
The selection of stuff in Sentury II was limited to projects completed in the last ten years. The slight exception was the Turn A/Gundam project, which finished in 2000 but carried over from 1998 and 1999. The challenge was getting ‘hand-done’ stuff since a lot of my final product is a composite of hand-drawn artwork that has been scanned in, digitally ‘cleaned up’ and digitally colorized or modified. The final example might not always be done at the high-resolution end of finish, which impairs suitability for publication.
"The latest Transformers movies are appreciated by multi-tasking generation who can text, down a cheeseburger and fries and play a thumb-twitch game simultaneously"
The book features so many well-loved and iconic designs. There’s Mattel’s Hot Wheels which I played with when I was a Kid and I remember the brilliant artwork on the boxes which I loved then. The Turn A / Gundam project shown makes me wonder what you think about the latest Transformers movies. Are the robots too complicated to be memorable or probable?
The latest Transformers movies are appreciated by multi-tasking generation who can text, down a cheeseburger and fries and play a thumb-twitch game simultaneously. The finished footage shows a series of elaborately articulated constructs that are so visually dense that it is hard to distinguish just what you are seeing. (My stylistic opinion) Transformers III took computer farms 80 hours per frame to render, and around 500 cars were demolished to make the film. The Transformers movies are really a demonstration of computing power.
There are several pages devoted to the movie adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder, directed by Peter Hyams and production design by Richard Holland. You seemed to really get a lot out of the project. What were the highlights for you in terms of ideas that came about?
A Sound Of Thunder was unfortunately plagued by convoluted funding, the flooded set in Prague during principle photography and a segmented post CGI task spread over several sources, some of them not up to screen standards of matting and compositing. Nevertheless, working with Peter Hyams (in my opinion one of Hollywood’s under-appreciated directors) was a delight as it had been on several former projects, notably designing a lot of stuff for 2010: The Year We Make Contact.
It would be unfair to our readers not to mention Blade Runner. A large part of its iconic status must be attributed to your creativity. However important and popular it is seen as being now, it was a job for a client. But working with Sir Ridley Scott, who is also an artist and who can be very single-minded regarding his ideas, must have been quite a challenge?
I got along with Sir Ridley with ease. I had been doing major corporate design work and elaborate illustration for over twenty years by the time I got the career-boosting involvement in Blade Runner. Ridley appreciated my grasp of lighting, scenario depiction and the fact that I was completely sympathetic to the aesthetics of the story and his visual skill at interpreting the story into cinema. Ridley accepted my design ideas on the first or certainly the second submission. I was supra-staff and enjoyed a one-on-one relationship with both Ridley and the production designer of record, Lawrence Paull. Being associated with the movie is, in retrospect, an incredible match-point in my, at that time, budding movie ‘career.’
"To produce either a prequel or sequel to Blade Runner would be, to me, a daunting adventure in story, technique and chutzpah"
Will you be working on the new Alien prequels with Ridley?
I will not be working on Ridley’s prequel. Directors rarely direct their own sequels or prequels, but George Lucas is the exception as his own muse for the Star Wars series. There are rumours that a group has secured the rights to produce either a prequel or sequel to Blade Runner. To produce either a prequel or sequel to Blade Runner would be, to me, a daunting adventure in story, technique and chutzpah.”
Marcus Pullen is a writer and reviewer for Shadowlocked, and a science fiction and fantasy artist and author. He has written two books, the second is awaiting publication. He lives in the UK and works during the day for a software company. You can see selected works produced by Marcus at www.markervisuals.com
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