Steve Withers talks to the legendary visual futurist
The word ‘legend’ gets used far too often these days and almost always the recipient of such praise is undeserving.
In the case of Syd Mead it is entirely appropriate and over the last thirty-four years he has been responsible for some of the most iconic designs in modern cinema. The vast V’Ger spaceship in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the dystopian cityscapes and flying ‘spinners’ of Blade Runner and the sleek computer generated ‘light cycles' in Tron all came from this one incredible imagination. Most recently Syd was responsible for designing both the exterior and interior of the huge orbiting space station that gives the film Elysium its title. As part of the promotion for that film’s Blu-ray release, we were lucky enough not only to speak with Syd about his work on Elysium but also to look back at his incredible career and forward, to what the future might hold for humanity.
Sydney Jay Mead was born in Saint Paul Minnesota in 1933 and, after graduating high school, he served a three year term in the U. S. Army. Later he studied at the Art Centre School in Los Angeles before working at the Ford Motor Company’s Advanced Styling Studio. Syd made a name for himself working in industrial design, before setting up his own company - Syd Mead Inc. - to accommodate assignments from various clients, most notably Philips Electronics. It was in 1979 that Syd had his first brush with the film industry, being hired by John Dykstra as a Production Illustrator during the post-production effects stage on Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Syd’s primary task was to design the gigantic V’Ger spacecraft that dominated the second half of the film.
Syd's first film assignment was designing the gigantic V'Ger spacecraft in Star Trek.
However it was the next film he worked on that he’ll forever be associated with - Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Syd was credited as ‘Visual Futurist’ on the ground-breaking film and was intimately involved from pre-production through to post production. In the same year that Blade Runner was released he also worked as Conceptual Artist on Tron, helping director Steven Lisberger realise the electronic world he had created. This was followed by another stint as a Visual Futurist, this time on Peter Hyams film 2010, the sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. Since many of the designs had already been established in the previous film, Syd was primarily responsible for creating the Russian spaceship - the Leonov.
In 1986 Syd worked as Conceptual Artist on James Cameron’s Aliens and in particular the design of the Colonial Marine’s spaceship - the Sulaco. That same year, Syd designed the sentient robot ‘Johnny 5’ in John Badham’s Short Circuit. He was reunited with Peter Hyams as Visual Consultant on Timecop in 1994 and he worked as Conceptual Artist on Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars in 2000. More recently he designed the mask making device used in J. J. Abrams Mission: Impossible III before his most latest role working as the Set Designer on Elysium. This is the new film from Neill Blomkamp, who made such an impression with his debut feature District 9, and the director is a self-confessed Syd Mead fan.
How did you became involved with Elysium?
“Neil Blomkamp had an image of a rendering I did decades and decades ago showing the inside of an inverse perspective circular world, where the horizon goes up out of sight. He was fascinated by that. He’d already got accolades for District 9, which was a social metaphor and so was this movie. He wanted part of the film to take place on this orbiting construct called Elysium. My first task was to design this inverted world, with the horizon going out of sight and then WETA in New Zealand were to realise it.”
I get the impression from interviews with Neill Blomkamp that the entire idea for Elysium seems to have been inspired by your original illustration all those years ago.
“Yes it’s very complimentary that he’s told that to quite a few people and I’ve been fascinated by rotating worlds since even before 2001, when Kubrick had that rotating set built. On this scale, this thing was immense, I mean it had to be because it was an entire world. In fact it’s sort of a technological heaven, if you will, where everybody is healthy and nobody gets sick. But it also has its political intrigues too.”
Did you have to rein in some of your more speculative scientific ideas because this film is intended as more of a social metaphor?
“Yes that’s true, in fact I have friends at JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) here in Pasadena and one of my buddies said it’s not an enclosed structure. I said it’s a movie and besides they have a new development called ‘ionised air’ that protects the air pressure. He laughed. But it is just a movie and here’s this wonderful place, very technologically advanced but God know’s how long into the future before we can actually build something like this.”
"One of my buddies said Elysium isn't an enclosed structure and I said it’s just a movie!"
Were you just responsible for designing the rotating world?
“No, after I had finished designing the external views of Elysium I started working on the interiors and Neill was fascinated with me doing the internal computer core and the CCB, the main control centre. That was fun to work on and I spent a lot of time up at the studios in Vancouver where they were shooting the film. It was very enjoyable working with him, Neill knows exactly what he wants and is always supportive of solving any problems.”
How do you approach the task of designing something?
“It’s the story. You have to have that, everything has a story. Even when I was working with Philips in Holland, I would design future appliances by looking at how they would work and inventing a story. If I was designing props for a movie I would do the same thing and it changes your whole approach because you think - how does this fit into the story? That starts the process.”
Once the story has started the process, where do you get your inspirations from?
“Well the story is what it is and then you need to establish the scientific parameters, so what is feasible within the world you’re creating. In Blade Runner for example we had flying cars and that’s been a dream of technology for decades. But once you have a story in mind, then you have a series of conversations with the director and find out what he wants. Because you are working to help him flesh out his vision of what the movie is going to look like. Now that’s critical and as you’re doing this, since my background is as an industrial designer, you have to build in a recognition element so that the audience knows exactly what they’re looking at. And then you can add things on top of that.”
How important is realism in your designs?
"That’s part of it, paying homage to the whole idea of design and the fact that it’s a very deliberate process and if you do it carefully then everybody looks at it and thinks yeah that would really work."
Has technology changed the way that you work?
"I still draw by hand and so do a lot of people in film because they’re artists. And so I draw the designs, then email the drawings and sketches to the director, get some comments back and maybe do a re-do. Then I take my drawings and I shade them with grade series felt-tip markers, scan them in and colourise them and add any graphics. Then I print them out on my big printer and voila, we have a set of designs. The electronic aspect of my work is after I’ve done the designs when I’m archiving them and changing the presentation format.”
You previously worked with both Ridley Scott and James Cameron, who are established artists in their own right, how did that affect the work dynamic?
“Well Ridley went to the Royal College of Art, that’s his background and Jim was actually a truck driver before his first film and he learnt in Roger Corman’s academy of budget filmmaking. However working with them, as major A-list directors, was enjoyable. Ridley knows what he wants exactly and he has a very firm vision of what he’s after. And so does Cameron. So once you get an accurate description of what the story is about and what their take on it is, then you’re off and running. That’s a great way to work because you have all the information you need at the start. I’ve worked with other directors and I won’t mention their names, but they really didn’t have an idea of what they were after. That makes it a very scattered and time consuming process to try and come up with something that they recognise as ‘that’s it’.”
You mentioned 2001 earlier and you obviously worked on 2010, what was it like working on a film where many of the designs had already been established?
"I don’t know if you know this but when Kubrick finished filming 2001 he destroyed all the drawings, sets and models. So when Peter Hyams was going to do the sequel, he had to recreate the interior sets for the Discovery from the film itself because he had no drawings. The Leonov on the other hand, which I designed, was to be the Russian ship and, you know, the Russians had a reputation for being sort of clunky and so I wanted to reflect that. When 2001 came out, the public thought that everything had to look like a rocket, like a rocket to the Moon. Well that’s true to a point, until you leave Earth’s atmosphere and then you could fly a box through space at light speed, if you had enough power. So the Leonov didn’t have to be streamlined but it had to look completely believably mechanical. The rotating cabin system was because that created gravity which meant you didn’t have to fly everybody on wires when they had the interior sets built. That’s very important because it would be prohibitively expensive to recreate a weightless environment.”
"When you're designing something it's about the story. Everything has a story."
How did you end up working on Star Trek?
“I was hired in post-production by the director Robert Wise and John Dykstra to work with his Apogee company up in Van Nuys. I got a phone call one day from Bob Shepherd who was John’s partner up at Apogee and he asked me if I’d like to work on a science fiction film because he’d seen some of my earlier work for United States Steel about the future of transportation. So I said sure and met them at a hotel in Century Plaza, discussed starting on the film and I got an agent. Then I found out what the problem was because they really didn’t know I guess, so I invented this hexagonal twisted warped thing (V'Ger) that was immense in size and they built a forty foot model of it. John took a huge gamble because Star Trek’s post was fixed due to the release schedule already being set legally all over the country, so he had to get it done by a certain date. John took a very great risk and did multiple periscope lens runs over this big model with in-camera optical exposures. So if run six had gone awry, they would have to do it all over again.”
Is that why in the original theatrical cut you never really saw the entire V'Ger spacecraft?
“Well for part of the story’s original ending I did a little sketch for Doug Trumbull and we were going to show V’Ger floating over the Moon because it was running these things around the Earth that were going to destroy the carbon-based units. So V’Ger was going to be throwing its shadow on the Moon, which would indicate how huge it was but sadly that never made it into the final film.”
It’s interesting you mention that because I was wondering if advances in special effects have changed how you approach design, knowing there are less limitations on the technology?
“The question is not can you do it, the question is should you do it? If you’ve got a million dollar computer and a dumb idea you’re still going to end up with a bad effect. So it’s self-limiting in that sense. On Transformers 2 we were told that it took 80 hours per a frame in the computer rendering farm, which is incredible. These things run 24 hours a day of course but still that’s a huge leap in generating moving images that don’t exist except in the computer’s memory but you have to have a good story in the first place.”
Over the years you created some of the most iconic designs in cinema history, how do you keep coming up with new ideas?
“It’s the story. You find out from the director what his vision is because you’re helping him tell a story. Movie making is to storytelling what the philharmonic orchestra is to music. It’s the most complete way of representing a story, so once you have the story down then you look at the technology available and the time frame and that generates the ideas. Even when I was working for Philips I always thought of products as props for a movie that may never be made. Your whole approach to design is to create something fascinating that’s also instantly recognisable for what it is. So the generation of the idea isn’t really the problem, it’s trying to fit it into the parameters in which it’s going to be used. I can sit here and think up weird shit all day long…”
Of all the sci-fi films you've worked on over the years which, in your opinion, is the most scientifically accurate?
“Probably the Sulaco for Aliens because it’s big, it’s huge and we could actually build something like that, although it would take a long time. It’s accurate because of what it was, a heavily armed freighter with working features. The doors down the side were loading doors, so it was a realistic mechanical vehicle. With flying cars like the 'spinners' in Blade Runner it's controversial because you'd have to have a huge and very robust system to lift a car off the ground.”
When it comes to Blade Runner not everything may have transpired as you imagined, there are no flying cars for example, but many of the mega cities in Asia certainly look like the world you and Ridley created.
“People often accused me of just duplicating the Ginza district of Tokyo but I tell them that the first time I was in Japan was in 1961 but the next time was in 1983, so I saw Ginza after Blade Runner and not before. In 1961 Ginza was nothing like it is now.”
Blade Runner was a very design heavy film, what are your biggest memories of working on that particular film?
“Well Blade Runner was the first film I worked on from zero, from pre-production through production and into post-production but I didn’t think it was a big deal at the time. Yes it was a design job and I worked through it carefully as I always do and Ridley was a big A-list director even then and it was an enjoyable process but I just treated it as another job. I didn’t really appreciate working on a film and working one-to-one with a director until I worked on 2010 with Peter Hyams. So Blade Runner was just a job at the time, it wasn’t until later that it became something else.”
Blade Runner was a film that wasn’t originally successful, in fact it was a bit of a failure when it came out in 1982.
“Actually both Blade Runner and Tron were failures on their original release. I remember seeing Blade Runner in a double bill screening with The Road Warrior which made for an unlikely pairing, although I guess they are both about dystopian futures.”
"When it comes to modern effects the question is not can you do it, the question is should you do it?"
Were you involved at all with Tron: Legacy at all?
“No, we were invited over to Disney, which is kind of rare, to see everything they were doing - the costumes and models and so forth - and meet the director which I enjoyed very much. The costumes I thought were fantastic, they were electrically wired and just looked incredible but very elaborate and very expensive to make. But what I did do was work on the game and specifically the light cycles for the game.”
You’ve been imagining the future for a long time now, have things turned they way you expected?
“They’ve turned out the way I expected in terms of consumer goods but not in terms of an overall social context. What happened was entitlements took over all the money and what’s left for private research is not big enough to sustain the infrastructure that was built up in the 60s and 70s.”
Have any developments surprised you?
“What has surprised me the most is non-organic intelligence, we’re building four-footed and now two-footed robots that can run faster than humans or animals, which is scary and reminds me of The Terminator. Non-biological intelligence is advancing very very fast and nobody literally knows what impact that will have.”
That almost brings us back to V’Ger. Do you subscribe to Ray Kurzweil’s theory of the singularity?
“Yes I do. What usually happens is that the future predictions are much too conservative but in actual fact developments trigger each other and become algorithmic, that’s how it’s been going and the speed up in discovery is speeding itself up. Since it is an algorithmic curve once development becomes vertical, you can no longer predict what will happen - that’s the singularity.
You spent a lot of your career designing spaceships, do you think we haven’t achieved as much in terms of space travel as was hoped in the 60s?
Well it’s a complex process because were animals and we’re very messy to keep alive in an enclosed environment. That’s why I think that non-biological intelligence will eventually take over and we’ll be able to upload our intelligence into a machine and that will become the person. Effectively the person will be the spaceship, just like V’Ger in fact, you put the brain into the machine and make it integral and then you have rational thought but also a human element. We’re much better at randomised guess work, that helps us come up with solutions. We obviously don’t know how to do that yet but it’s only a matter of time.”
So I guess immortality isn’t that far off.
It isn’t and in fact right now in terms of age extension research they sort of know why we die and are already beginning to think of death as a curable disease. I’m 80 now so I’m going to miss the immortality boat but people who are currently in their teens have a very good chance of a radically increased life expectancy. And now I think about it, that’s actually one of the major thematic elements in Elysium.
Elysium is released on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download on December the 26th and you can read Cas's review here.
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