A Conversation With Visual Futurist Syd Mead.
WORDS Chris Nelson ARTWORK Courtesy Syd Mead
Syd Mead’s life takes place on a timeline parallel to our own. A self-described “visual futurist” who gained international notoriety by designing the antiutopian backdrop for Blade Runner (1982), Mead began sketching at a mere three years of age. By five he had taught himself how to draw fairly sophisticated vehicles. Not long after, he became fascinated by the idea of how life could one day look, using 12 basic paints to render ornate, imaginative scenes full of futuristic-but-familiar machines. Mead continues to have his feet planted firmly in the present as he lets his mind discover unexplored, unstructured, and unbelievable worlds — and then make them believable. After the release of his new book, The Movie Art of Syd Mead: Visual Futurist, we sat down for a wandering discussion about his design career, his passion for invention, and his outlook on humanity.
Chris Nelson: Let’s start with Blade Runner. You’d been successfully designing for companies like Ford and U.S. Steel. What called you to Hollywood?
Syd Mead: I came out to Southern California in '75 from Detroit, and I didn't particularly want to be in the movies. That was not why I moved here... I moved here because it doesn't snow. Being invited to work on a science-fiction film was just another kind of a job; I'd done corporate design for 20-something years before Blade Runner came along. I was the first person on the roster for pre-production of the original Blade Runner. The invitation came from [director] Ridley [Scott]’s office. Ridley told me right away, “This is not going to be Logan's Run.” I started doing the vehicles, which is what I was originally hired to do. Knowing the story and the sort of noir, dystopian look, I painted the vehicles in the situations that they might be designed for in this future. Ridley liked that very much... he could see the sort of nasty backgrounds, the decrepit buildings and all of that. It was a critical start to my career and gave me visibility, for sure.
CN: What did you learn working on a feature film?
SM: A movie is a story; an illustrated story. You have to have a very, very accurate and agreed-upon premise. What's the technological basis for the story? What's the stage it's taking place on? You sort out the socioeconomic situation, and then you go from there. You invent a world that correctly illustrates that particular set of boundaries.
CN: It seems like setting up boundaries for a "situation" is pretty essential to your work, no? Your most famous futuristic paintings depict an entire scene.
SM: I've always used scenario as the basis for my paintings. I always had a fascination with scenario, even when I was in grade school. Objects don't just occur by themselves, floating in nothing. They always sit on a table or drive down the road, so I always embedded my objects and designs into a scenario. It made my fantasy worlds more real.
CN: Your worlds are home to awesome vehicles of your own design. As a kid, were you inspired by a specific machine? Something that struck you and reshaped your perspective?
SM: Life Magazine published a fold-out of the Hindenburg — the huge, giant Zeppelin. And that fascinated me. Here was this thing as long as a cruise ship, and you could see little, tiny, tiny people walking underneath it. I thought, “Holy Christ, this thing is huge.”
CN: Funny to think the surreal worlds you’ve created could’ve been shaped by a shiny beacon of innovation that literally went down in flames.
SM: Here are three phrases that describe human development in any period: Where we live, where we go, and how we get there. Those three statements — or questions, or whatever — describe everything. Remember, early airplanes crashed a lot. And they were expensive to ride on... you'd take a whole year's salary to climb aboard. They had taffeta walls and beveled glass windows, and they weren't pressurized. They were very luxurious but in a kind of odd, “Let's pretend we're further along than we are” kind of way. Technology tends to encourage that kind of thinking.
CN: You’re saying technology gives us a false sense of hubris?
SM: The world has moved a lot faster in ways than it probably should have. And yet at the same time, we're still plagued by a lot of the same problems we have always been. Human beings haven't changed that much, not compared to technical development. And advancement is very spotty. Consider China, a huge country with more than a billion people. The eastern seaboard is well-off near Beijing and Shanghai... a very exotic part of the world, architecturally and technically and so forth. But go further and further west in China, and it becomes more and more medieval.
CN: Sure, emerging and growing markets make it clear just how fractured our society has become, but — and I’m sure you agree — a lot of good has come from our technological exploration.
SM: The whole thing about technology is that to be accepted, you have to form a social contract between what the technology is capable of doing and how people are going to use it. We have satellites — cumulatively weighing thousands and thousands of tons — orbiting the earth so we don’t need wires running between telephone poles anymore. And while there are still people starving, it's not because of lack of food. It's because of diplomatic intrusion by political forces, or lack of infrastructure. Things are getting better.
CN: That’s nice to hear from someone who's always looking forward. It's good to know that when you consider the present, you don’t wish you were in one of the worlds you're dreaming of.
SM: You know, the worlds that I create... Somebody once said, "How come all of your worlds are shiny and the people are beautiful?" And I replied, "Well, you know, people hurt for a world like that... so, maybe it will happen."
This article was originally featured in Issue 031 of Iron & Air Magazine