deep dives

Talking to Syd Mead: The Visionary Behind Elysium, Blade Runner, and 40 Years of Sci-Fi

951023 - Elysium Photo: TriStar PIctures

Syd Mead can predict the future. At least, that’s what Hollywood pays him to do.

Working as an industrial designer in the 1970s for corporations like Ford, Philips Electronics, and Intercontinental Hotels, Mead established himself as one of the tech world’s premier forward-thinkers. His illustrations would take modern concepts and propel them, with scientific and aesthetic consideration, into the far reaches of the 21st century. Inevitably, filmmakers tapped Mead to mix his artistry with live-action science fiction. His job wasn’t to “draw a spaceship,” but to “craft a reality.” Tangibility was key. Pictures like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, TRON, and Aliens remain genre staples partly because of Mead’s work.

Now 80, he continues to find himself in demand by young filmmakers he inspired years ago. For his action thriller Elysium, director Neill Blomkamp recruited the legendary designer. We spoke to Mead on teaming up with 33-year-old Blomkamp and his lifetime of imagining Hollywood sci-fi. He sees the past as clearly as he does the future:

Elysium (2013)
Neill Blomkamp is a
self-proclaimed Syd Mead fanboy. What had him seeking you out for this film?
I did a rendering for National Geographic on space travel and the future. One of them was a view inside a “torus” kind of world. I call it inverse perspective because the ground plane goes up out of sight, up into the ceiling. He saw that rendering years ago, and that fascinated him. Elysium is one of the few or only films with that inverted perspective.

So he flew down from Vancouver and we met him, while he was still working on the shooting script. So that’s when I started on it. I started working with him on some of the end of the film action sets, where Matt Damon and his gang confront the elite management on board Elysium. That was very special.

Images from Elysium: The Art of the Film. Motion Picture Artwork and Photography © 2013 TriStar Pictures, Inc. All rights reserved. Photo: TriStar Pictures

How would you describe your vision of futuristic design? There’s a “Syd Mead” look you established in films of the seventies and eighties that is at the heart of what we see in Elysium.
I like to do what I call “supersonic baroque,” a swirly pattern of embroidery typical of the lush baroque era, superimposed on to slick, geometric shapes. The result is like a tapestry wrapped around a cylindrical or hexagonal or triangular section. It does wonderful things in terms of detail. The amazing thing about ancient Chinese lacquer work and the patterning, essentially they were mapping organic patterns over and around the edges of cubes and cylinders. This was thousands of years ago. It’s not a new idea, but now with computer mapping of textures to objects, and laser printing, and 3D printing, elaborate construction, all you have to do is press the button. But you still have to think up the original idea.

How important is realism to your work? For Elysium, did you study the speculative science behind the crafts and worlds you designed?
I have a friend of mine at [NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory] — he’s an astrophysicist — who I asked. I was curious if this thing, if it’s 15 kilometers and rotating to duplicate 1G, how long is it going to take for a given point on the circle to come around again? I’m curious about that kind of functionality, but of course, it’s a movie. The construct has to be open so people can come crashing into the estate grounds. So my guy at JPL says, “It’s open to space?” I say, “It’s a movie!” Star Trek’s Enterprise would never work, anyway. It would topple over because the center of gravity is a considerable distance from their thrust vector. [Laughs] It’s a movie. What starts me off is hearing what the director has in his mind and telling me what the technological base is in the story. You can invent into a parameter everyone understands.

Images from Elysium: The Art of the Film. Motion Picture Artwork and Photography © 2013 TriStar Pictures, Inc. All rights reserved. Photo: TriStar Pictures

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Speaking of Star Trek, you designed “V’ger,” a sentient version of the Voyager space probe that is revealed as the “enemy” of the film. How do you straddle realism and otherworldly fantasy with that type of design?

It was a stylistic invention that had to look organic and mechanical at the same time. Robert Wise, the gentlemen director of Hollywood, knew what he wanted. He wanted something that looked utterly strange. By combining organic organization with a mechanical overlay, it really did look quite different.

The script said, “They were looking at something no man had ever seen before.” I had to come up with that! At the time, I was going back and forth to Holland for Philips. I did half the design of V’ger in my hotel room. Paramount would send a driver down two times a week, take them to Amsterdam airport, and fly them to Los Angeles. I did one of the final sketches I did, for the backend when they come out of the cloud, on a bar napkin at the hotel, while having a Bitterballen, an old gin and a beer. There’s a blur spot where a drop of beer fell on the ink drawing.

Did you ever meet Trek creator Gene Roddenberry? How did he influence your designs?
The second generation of the Enterprise [seen in The Next Generation] had a kind of oval planned view. The top came off so it could remain in orbit, theoretically, and the bottom could descend to a planet. So I was supposed to design this new Enterprise. I go over to Paramount and have a meeting with Roddenberry and I say, “I’m fascinated because you’re very well known, and I’m complimented that you would want me working on this design.” He says, “Yes, we’ll get you a cubicle right here.” And I tell him, “Well, Mr. Roddenberry, I live in Hollywood a few minutes away. I have other projects going all the time.” He said I had to work there. He was a control freak. [Laughs] So I had to turn him down.

Blade Runner (1982)
Your cityscape designs for Blade Runner are instantly recognizable. Modern sci-fi movies strive to emulate them. How did you build an atmospheric world from the ground up?

Ridley wanted to make a noir-style science fiction film. My first meeting with him, he was sitting there and he had a version of the script, originally called Dangerous Days and he said, “Syd, this is not Logan’s Run, where everything is slick and clean.” It’s going to be gritty, noir style. Everything in the movie had to look like it had been forced to work from the original design idea. For the vehicles’ models, I used jitneys from the Philippines, stuff from Cuba, cars from the fifties and sixties. They’re made to work. It was industrial design in reverse. You start with the original idea and design, then overlay it with stuff that makes it work past its design lifespan. It gives you a retro look underneath that looks rational.

I imagine it’s hard to build an entire city from your imagination. Where do you start?
I used New York and Chicago — they’re linear cities. So I started with an extrapolation with what’s happening already. We’re building cities 2,000 feet high, so let’s go to 3,000 feet, so 60 floors above the ground was your secure lobby access to the structure. The street became a basement of the city, with wiring, tubing, and fixtures that service the floors high above your head.

There’s also a collision of Eastern influences in Blade Runner. Where did you pick up those ideas in order to incorporate them?
My first visit to the Far East was Hong Kong. I was in the army in Okinawa, from ‘53 to ‘56, just after the Korean War ended. I admired the sensibilities of the shapes. I went back to Japan in ‘61. People say I copied the genes of it. The geometric lights and the glowing buildings. The Ginza [District in Tokyo] in ‘61 was not that active at all. We didn’t have pixelated signage. People say, “Mead just copied what’s happening.” Not true — next time I went over there was in ‘83, after Blade Runner had come out.

TRON (1982)
TRON applied futuristic imagery to a world set inside a computer. What did you have to learn about that world in order to grow something inside it?

In the corporate work I did before, I worked with [chemical company] Celanese on their new material. I understood the molecular structure of it, and that influenced the logo. In TRON, everything was happening on the backside of a cathode ray tube. There’s no weight, no gravity, no rules other than graphical. So when I designed the aircraft carrier, tanks, and the light cycles, these were images created frame by frame by pixels on a screen. They’re essentially unreal. You can float things next to each other forever and stay exactly in the same position. I was fascinated by that. Then the alphanumerics  I did for the walls, they were designed on a nine-square basis. The release graphics of the word “TRON” were designed with the same graphical system.

Short Circuit (1986)
Johnny 5 is a character, not just a machine. Was that a new challenge for you?

John Badham wasn’t a sci-fi director. He had just come off American Flyer, the bicycle film. All he said was, “I want this robot to look like there wasn’t a person inside.” So it had to be skinny and highly articulate. The problem was it had to stand up and look Ally Sheedy right in the eye, as well as fold up and fall into a 50-foot drum. It had be self-mobile, it had to stand, and it had to dance with her, if you recall. I thought it was a three-wheeled robot, but we had to disguise two car batteries so it could drive through the shot by remote control. That’s why you have tank tracks. That was later.

So in this case, practicality was a priority.
Badham wasn’t terribly specific. We had a meeting — he was supposed to present to [the studio] the next day — and he looks and says, “We’re not there yet. Tell you what, it’s about 5 o’clock now. Go back to your studios and come back here at 7:30.” So I ran back to my house and did a quick, dry-mark action profiles of what I thought the robot should look like. Went back, he looked at it, and it went into production.

Aliens (1986)
Much like Neill Blomkamp, James Cameron came to you as a fan when he hired you. How did he rope you in?

The production went to Pinewood Studios very early in the schedule of the movie. Gale Anne Hurd was his wife and producer then. They went right to Pinewood because they had large stages. They wanted the dropship, the Sulaco, to be full-size for camera perspective. I was in Florida [in 1985], as one of the judges of the Miss USA contest, and Cameron FedExed the script to me. I had visibility. I had worked with Peter Hyams on 2010 and designed a lot of stuff. Spaceships, handheld items, thrusters, interiors of the spaceship Leonov — Cameron was very aware of that. He knows what he wants, comparable to Neill. I designed the original Sulaco, a huge sphere with antennas. Cameron says, “Syd, this has to move past camera, and we don’t want to pull focus. It has to be flatter.” That established the slab-like format for the Sulaco.

Cameron comes off as a guy who is always on, always thinking.
Directors are very different than you or I. They think in their heads and have the movie page by page. Stuff at the end of the film could be shot first, which was the case in Elysium. When I worked with Ridley, he only slept four hours a night. He was thinking all of the time.

I know you also had a hand in the power loader.
I started designing it when they went to Pinewood. They constructed the test model with 2x2s and trash bags stuffed with newspapers to get the articulation down. The finished prop was so cumbersome, they had to have guys in black skin suits running it. It was not power operated, it was operated by manipulators behind out of shot.

How did you wind up on the jury for Miss USA?
They wanted a spread of talent. They had Eric Dickerson, one of the running backs from the Raiders, they had Patricia Maxwell, author of steamy, Southern romance novels, and a few actors. They wanted the final pick to be averaged. [Laughs]

Mission: Impossible III (2005)
You designed for sci-fi movies throughout the nineties and aughts. J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible film was a fairly high profile. He made sure to name drop that he got the legendary Syd Mead to design the mask-making machine. How did you reverse engineer a famous bit of pop culture technology?

Yes, J.J. wanted to see how they did that. Otherwise you would have to carry around a library of masks. He wanted to see how it was made in place, on the spot. I had to come up with how they produce this face. You start with a tube of plastic sheet, you pull it down across this form, and you have two arms that come around. The first pass is a laser, that would carve imperfections in his skin, wrinkles and pore marks. Then you have a second pass with the six-color jet spray that would go back over the head shape and tint it to look like the character.

Abrams gravitates towards you because you provide answers. He likes answers.
I gave him one of the sketches. He wanted it for his office. You know he didn’t know what Lost was about, either? Maybe that was a cute remark.

Have your visions of the future changed over the course of your career? Do you dream differently now than you did decades ago?
You would like to have your stuff sustain. We call it being “future-proof.” I did a series of books for United States Steel back in the sixties. Back then, I was fascinated with the Le Mans racing coupe, the closed coupe format, and making it into a retail item. Now they have the Murcielagos, the Gallardo, the Lamborghinis, and super cars. They’re exactly what I was rendering 50, 60 years ago. My designs still drop in seamlessly. What it amounts to is taking the knowledge of what a technology can do and translating it with industrial design principals, all to synthesize what it would look like if you could do this or that.

Syd Mead on His Elysium, Blade Runner Designs