Unsung Heroes: Syd Mead, Visual Futurist


Richard Taylor, the effects supervisor of Tron, had this to say about Syd Mead’s design work – “It reminds you of something you’ve never seen before.

Syd Mead started drawing at three, creating cars, his first design love, with interior detail. By High School, he could accurately draft human and animal form. Art enthusiasts and admirers of his designs in many science fiction films can revel in the images of this self styled ”Visual Futurist“ in his latest book, Sentury II.

He is a widely celebrated industrial designer, providing a vision of not just cinematic future scapes, but design concepts for big business, such as US Steel and Ford. An early design for a vehicle on legs for one such company was a definite design inspiration for the Imperial Walkers in The Empire Strikes Back, although he didn’t approve of their anthropomorphic look. He has also developed cityscapes for cutting edge cities such as Quatar. Research is important to him. He often reads up on new technological advances in medical biology, electronics, nano-technology and so on, to give his imagination a “sneak peek” into future scenarios.

Mead may be 79, but he’s working as steadily as ever, and continuing to influence many up and coming designers / artists. Think of a science fiction film from the late ’70′s onwards, he’s either worked on it or influenced its look. Among his work are such greats as Star Trek The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, Tron, 2010, Aliens, even MI:3 – he designed the mask making machine.

He loves to design futuristic vehicles. His College work in the mid-50′s on a gull-winged auto-mobile with jet tubed after burner lights pre-figured T.V’s Batmobile and the DeLorean. He even worked on the Concorde interiors, that iconic aircraft that the pygmies of the aviation industry have mothballed, without creating a worthy successor.

It is his work on Blade Runner that most film fans would know him for. The Spinner was designed by him, with a view to complete functionality, even down to the scanner screen in the cockpit, used to detect Replicants. He described the style of Blade Runner as “trash-chic”, as the ultra-modern was built upon and collided with the crumbling old world.

Syd Mead told BladeZoneI took the two world trade towers in New York City and the New York street proportions as a ‘today’ model, and expanded everything vertically about two and a half times. This inspired me to make the bases of the buildings sloping to cover about six city blocks, on the premise that you needed more ground access to the building mass. I later continued this idea in the city matte painting because the slanting sides of the mega-structures did not line up with the scale models used for the moving street shots. In this way, the cityscape matte could be dropped into the shot without upsetting the perspective.”

I’m working for the director on a film. And the director is working for the script. So, I’m really helping the director to illustrate a story. The design process is to treat a movie prop like a design problem in that particular ‘world,’ …the story world. Regardless of how weird or preposterous that story world might be, it has its own logic and its own rules. You design to fit those rules.”

Some of his designs for the film are so subtle, they don’t even show up on screen, such as Parking meters that electrocute anyone who tampers with them. He was given a lot of leeway by director Ridley Scott. Mead said “What Ridley created was very intense, this Multi layered investigation into how that world might be.

The iconic Tron light cycles? His work too. His original design more closely resembled the reconfigured model from Tron Legacy, but computer simulation wasn’t sufficiently advanced at that stage, hence the final enclosed design. He was called back for preliminary work on the Tron: Legacy lightcycles. Mead has never stood still, constantly keeping on top of technical advances to further impress with his work. He believes imagination supersedes technique, however. “There are more people in the world who make things than there are people who think of things to make.” Mead refuses to be pigeon-holed by producers who don’t understand “what constitutes creativity”. In between design work on Tron and Blade Runner, he worked on matte shots with Douglas Trumbull at his SFX facility, as well as carrying out architectural contracts across America.  

If more people with influence had half the imagination of Syd Mead, and the will and power to implement their ideas, maybe by now we’d be hopping into our hover cars for the weekly supermarket run (actually that’s depressingly familiar, isn’t it? Ah well!)

I leave you with one final quote. Mead states: “The future arrives in bits and pieces, constantly. The future doesn’t start from zero, it starts with the entire accumulation that is represented by “now”. What we do now actually invents the future. If we celebrate crap, guess what? I strive to depict my futures as bright, functional, well conceived and constantly elegant.

Originally posted 2012-12-16 18:17:42. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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