Henry Turner talks to famed visual designer Syd Mead about his influential work on Blade Runner, old school vs. digital tools and the luxurious SUD.
At a recent appearance at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, Syd Mead spoke of his educational background as an artist, his time working for the Ford Motor Co., his famed concept cars (he is certainly one of the most prolific designers of The Car of the Future) and his contributions to s Blade Runner and Tron, which have become milestones in visual design. He also covered in detail his designs for cruise ships, airplane interiors and his latest illustrations for concept vehicles, including one huge windowless blimp-like form that features the exterior world shown to travelers on interior, 360-degree digital screens.
And funnily enough, he showed one of his first vehicle sketches, made at about age three, of a huge windowless blimp-like form and the comparison went to show how there has always been a continuity in his work. Nor did he leave out his low opinion of recent Cadillac design (his one-time car of choice), or his working methods of drawing and painting without the use of digital tools, through a meticulous process of retracing an original image to maintain line definition as colors are added. These techniques are available on his four DVD set, which covers his artistic process in all its stages from rough sketch to finished illustration, while his recent work, along with classic illustrations, are available in his latest book, Syd Meads Sentury.
Seeing Mead at the Petersen is ideal after the talk everyone sojourned for drinks in one of the museum showrooms, which boasted everything from full-scale Hot Wheels cars (Meads Hot Wheels Cadillac design is still on store shelves!) to award-winning hot rods. But in case one does not have the opportunity to see Mead in person, the following interview with the master will have to suffice.
Henry Turner: How was it working with Peter Hyams ( 2010) again on A Sound of Thunder?
Syd Mead: A delight. Peter is very explicit and knows what he wants, and more importantly, can verbalize his ideas accurately. Nothing is so valuable to a designer as knowing just what the target solution is supposed to be.
HT: What did you create for A Sound of Thunder?
SM: I designed the heros sets, which was the time machine set, where time safari has their headquarters. It was a full-ceilinged set. Then I designed the cage that sort of goes into time the pfm (pure f-king magic) vortex cage, in which six guys sit in chairs and the system knows where they are and analyzes their bodies mass, and then they go back into time. I designed that carriage and the uniforms and the chairs and the nitrogen rifles that they hunt with they use nitrogen because it is an inert atmospheric gas, you dont damage or affect the environment, and thats key to the plot of the story.
HT: What do you think of the continuing influence of Blade Runner?
SM: Blade Runner, Ridley Scotts seminal film, is completely immersive and presents a story and ambience consistently missing in so many purported sci-fi films. It creates parameters around so many visceral aspects of human emotion and intellect, while assigning those same sensibilities to made entities. This is profoundly disturbing to human egoistic motivations and our sense of specialness.
HT: In your talk, I got the impression you still work with brushes.
I certainly do. I create imagery in what is cutely called old school. I tell people that essentially I apply paint to cardboard with animal hairs on the end of a stick, although the sticks cost upwards of $40 to $70 each, depending on size and shape.
HT: Do you use digital tools as well? If so, what digital tools do you use to create your initial renderings...
SM: I dont use digital to create my initial renderings. I complete renderings by hand, and use digital for scanning and archiving, adjusting color for print reproduction and overlaying graphical pattern or typography.
HT: Do you use a Wacom tablet and what size do you recommend?
SM: Im waiting for digital paper and RGB film that will have both the tactile and flexibility properties of sketch paper. We are closer to that than most people think. Since I dont create digital artwork from scratch, the interface of a Wacom tablet is not something that would speed up or complement my work.
HT: Do you use the digital media much like you did the natural media, or have you developed new techniques?
SM: New techniques in the digital format would suggest that I use digital software all the time. Most, if not all digital software, is very deep in terms of capability. Unless you use it daily, you never get to the point where it is a facile second nature level of usage.
HT: What current digital artists or recent artwork do you admire? And further, which artists, past and present, do you think of as inspirational in your own work?
SM: I do not keep up with specific digital artists. I create hand done artwork. I admire the digital artists who create matte shots and supporting CGI.
HT: Do you use mechanical drawing tools, or is it all freehand?
SM: Oh, I use tools, definitely. I dont know if I showed pictures of the Yamato anime spaceship or not, but I was doing that for a client in Tokyo, and that was the last drawing I did using a classic panagraph tool, the pencils, T-squares. I still use those in sketches to make the lines straight, and French curves, things like that.
HT: Would you characterize your four DVD set as training DVDs?
SM: Kind of. Theyre how-to. Theyre produced by the Melman School by Scot Robinson, thats a publishing and design company over on the west side of Culver City, and they had been asking us for quite awhile and I said okay, lets do it. We were going to do our own, but I found out that you have to have the proper lighting and studio conditions or nothing looks right in terms of pure color, and just the set up to make one DVD is complicated. And were not a DVD house. They were set up to do a series. Theyd already done work with digital artists primarily matte shots for movie companies. So I drove out there every day for about two weeks and did the series the voice over and so forth and the layouts. The four DVDs have been doing very well, and this is in competition with the new digital methods. Im old school, they tell me.
HT: Any new projects that you can discuss?
SM: I am finishing up work on a film at Paramount Pictures, and will shortly start on design work on a videogame project with a Japanese agency.
HT: What do you feel are the personal/creative/psychological traits of the best designers?
SM: The best designers notice and remember stuff. Creativity is essentially implementing expert memory, both visual and contextual.
HT: You certainly seemed to like Cadillacs and since Ford said you had GM style have you ever contemplated approaching GM with a Cadillac design?
SM: General Motors rarely hires outside designers, other than for marketing purposes, like a special car edition named after some famous designer for a signature series. Ill agree that I think the current crop of Cadillacs is an ill-conceived combination of warped planes and clumsy proportions, but due to the juvenile preferences of the average automotive market, they are selling well.
HT: What was a favorite project or possibly your all-time favorite?
SM: Designing the interior of a Boeing 747 4OO series SUD (Stretched Upper Deck). This plane was built and delivered to the Royal House of Saud. I had to fit essentially an elaborate palace inside an operational aircraft. I did. It remains to this day as the most elaborate interior ever installed in an operational aircraft.
HT: Because of the new digital film technologies, you would seem a natural in terms of designing the complete look of a film, right down to the costumes and vehicles. Do you have any intention of looking into producing films that could give a motion picture version of your artwork?
SM: Making a movie is a concert of hundreds of people, from experts to trainees and grunts. That task is daunting from both a managerial level, an egotistical level and, of course, a technical level. Directors (especially successful ones) are very different kinds of people. I have worked in past films with the director from pre-production to post. Currently, budgets are completely skewed toward computer-generated effects, star pay and capital generation. The fact that some films turn out to be genuinely good is almost an after-effect of the process.
HT: Is anyone working to create 3D environments from your illustrations?
SM: Were now working with some people who want to start a competition. I submit a drawing with a certain level of complexity, and they get 3D artists all over the world bring this to life and then they award some kind of recognition to the one who does the best.
HT: You have designed and drawn the car of the future, flying cars, etc. Based on your knowledge, how far are we from the true car of the future something that will be truly different and innovative compared to what we drive today? And what might it be?
SM: The notion of a flying car persists because it allows the extension of personal transport to a three-dimensional convenience. However, airspace is perceptually quite different from two-dimensional road way space. Computer managed flight systems might very well handle increased (barely) commercial and civil aviation. I hate to imagine what would happen with thousands of folk flying to work every morning and returning at night.
It takes an extremely robust power source to lift a ton or a ton-and-a-half of dead weight from zero to aerial position. Planes do it by going very fast and creating lift over wing contours. Various schemes have been tried, but the power source remains the stickling point. Ducted fans... it takes four of them (The Moeller car) to lift a lightweight composite two passenger vehicle vertically. If we succeed in achieving gravity management, we will be on our way to a genuine flying car. I would say by the middle of this new century.. around 2060.
HT: Is there still a dream project you would still like to accomplish?
Ive been doing scenarios all my life. What I would like to do as a dream project is create a theme environment. You see, now some of the resorts and hotels are immersive theme environments. They are called destination resorts. I keep coming nose close I worked on a master plan for a development near Singapore, and I made the ground layouts and I did a lot of the presentation artwork. And for other areas Ive done ground plans. These are up to a billion dollar projects. So Ive worked in the industry and to design that kind of immersive target environment would be my dream project.
Visit Mead's official website www.sydmead.com to purchase the four-volume The Techniques of Syd Mead DVD Collection, an in-depth journey into his creative process, along with other collectible Mead merchandise.
Visit the Syd Mead artist section in the AWN Store to purchase the posters featured as artwork in this article as well as Syd Mead's books and other merchandise.
Henry Turner is a writer and award-winning filmmaker, whose Lovecraft-inspired horror feature, Wilbur Whateley, won top awards at the Chicago International Film Festival. His writing on film has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Lecran Fantastique, Variety and many other publications. A longtime film festival executive, he has programmed for the Slamdance Film Festival, and currently heads FilmTraffick L.A.