Even if most people don’t know Syd Mead by name, his work–and the work of other concept and industrial designers deeply influenced by his art–has left a definitive imprint on how we envision the future. His designs for Blade Runner, Tron, and Aliens brought us “reality ahead of schedule.”
The latest work from the artist–who is now 84–is on view in Blade Runner 2049, and he was kind enough to share one of the sketches that he sent to Canadian director Denis Villeneuve for the sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic. “For me,” Villeneuve told the Sydney Morning Herald, “it was important to have one moment where Syd Mead would express himself [ . . . ] When I saw his drawings, I was so moved.”
Villeneuve wanted Mead to imagine the post-apocalyptic Las Vegas in which Officer K (Ryan Gosling) finds the replicant hunter Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford)–a crucial moment in the film.
I asked the master about this collaboration with Villeneuve, who asked Mead for his visual input. “I received a secured copy of the script and read it to get a sense of the story,” Mead tells me via email. “Denis made a brief visit to our studios and discussed what he wanted me to do for the film. Briefly, he wanted me to submit my ‘take’ on future of Las Vegas, as it was described in the script.”
From there, Mead’s vision grew from modern Las Vegas: “I first downloaded street views of Las Vegas and used those accurate views as underlays for my sketches. Those were submitted, Denis indicated the ones he liked the best.” His working relationship with Denis “was no different that working with Ridley 35 years ago,” he says: “I read the script, had an advisory meeting with the director and submitted my drawings and designs for approval or comment. I did less in terms of design than I did for the 1982 movie.”
Mead got his start in 1959 creating car concepts at the Ford Motor Company’s Advanced Styling Center in Dearborn, Michigan. Soon after, he moved into the industry that gave him full freedom to realize his futuristic dreams: Movies. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was his first collaboration with Hollywood; then came Blade Runner, where he created its futuristic version of Los Angeles. His work in Blade Runner gave us, for the first time, a vision of the future with true gravitas. It was as fantastical as Star Wars, but with a sense of realism that audiences had never experienced in sci-fi–not even in gems like 2001: A Space Odyssey. His city, his sets, and his iconic spinner–Harrison Ford’s flying car—blew audiences away. They felt as real as daily life.
Mead loves the new spinner in Blade Runner 2049, “with the sloping back.” When I asked if the rest of the movie lived up to his legacy and expectations, he said he liked it too: “The set designs were very nice.”
Much has changed about the world–and the film industry–since the original Blade Runner, a film that used optical and practical effects to create a tangible, fully believable world. Villeneuve’s film uses a lot of CGI, even while its production team built a lot of actual sets to avoid falling into the “green screen of death” trap of other contemporary films. Contrary to what you may think, Mead is not against the use of CGI: “Computers can now produce completely believable objects, scenery, and other visual effects,” he says. But that doesn’t change the necessity of using your imagination as a designer or artist: “You still have to be able to make a picture, design something. The computer is a tool. Tools will always change, but the ability to design and create scenario remains a creative ability.” Some would agree with the idea that human creativity can’t be replicated by machines, even while artificial intelligence seems destined to create entirely new worlds from scratch. Perhaps artificial intelligence as a creative force is one future that Mead can’t visualize.
When I asked Mead which industrial designers and companies of real world objects are moving us toward the future, he described a future that’s arriving in fragments: “I really don’t have an idea other than that the ‘future’ is coming true in bits and pieces as we go about our daily lives.” Maybe Elon Musk, the chief designer at company SpaceX, who is actually building interplanetary spaceships, spacesuits, glass cockpits, and hyperloops? “Elon Musk is an ambitious fellow,” he answers. “His multiple endeavors are startling, innovative, and constantly surprising. He will go down in history as an entrepreneur possibly equal to Henry Ford.”
You can check out Mead’s futuristic worlds in his new book, The Movie Art of Syd Mead, Visual Futurist, which contains a lifetime of visionary designs for what’s coming next.