Prof. Michael Stoll


Wissenswertes für Studierende der Fakultät für Gestaltung an der Hochschule Augsburg (HSA)

The future came true – An Interview with Syd Mead

Photo by Gudrun Martin.

On May 11th, Syd Mead and his manager Roger Servick visited the Augsburg University of Applied Sciences (Dept. of Design) for a talk. We picked both up in Munich. While on the ride to Augsburg, Syd Mead kindly gave the following interview. You may find more photos of the event over here:

The future came true
An interview by Michael Bauer, managed by
Bunch of Monkeys

MICHAEL: Mr. Mead, you’ve achieved so much in your life, you’ve been involved in Hollywood productions, worked with various companies and even designed for games. Your mission always being constructing the future. Were you born into the wrong century? Would it be cooler if I were a replicant?

SYD MEAD: I think that would be very cool. You would be a very handsome replicant.
Already back in the renaissance many people were considered to be a century ahead of their time, the most well-known being Leonardo da Vinci. There was a weird science fiction theory that he was sent back in time and trapped and had to do the best with the simplistic technology that was available then. We have no idea whether people have been sent back in time because time travel will only be invented in the future. How do we know that big inventions haven’t been made by people, who were sent back in time. So in fact, nobody knows if the person sitting opposite to one is from the future, or not.

MICHAEL: Especially in the 50s and 60s there were all kinds of predictions about our present. Many of them never came true. Can you tell us why cars still don’t fly?

SYD MEAD: First of all it is a problem of logistics, human beings have never created anything that is 100% perfect. Imagine thousands and thousands of flying cars in a metropolitan area, you would have to have ideal three dimensional control over each one, because otherwise you’re going to have a disaster. And so, I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon. And secondly you’d have to be able to lift, support and direct a two-ton-vehicle in mid air for a period of time. Scientists have tried propellers and jets, but the time and energy consumption is too huge. And if you create anti-gravity you have to have some place for the gravity to go. So you have to displace two tons of force until you want to get rid of it again and come back down to earth. Furthermore the scientific community hasn’t got the faintest idea what gravity actually is.

MICHAEL: How do you ensure that your designs are future-proof?

SYD MEAD: Most of them have been, that’s very nice of you to say so.

MICHAEL: Take Blade Runner for instance, it is more than 25 years old and still an up to date vision of the future. People don’t look at it and say: Oh come on, this will never happen!

SYD MEAD: Well BR is a special case. It is a dystopian world described by the author Phillip K. Dick (in his book “Do androids dream of electric sheep?”). It is a morality tale of when we get to the point of being able to create human duplicates should we treat them like appliances. History has many similar examples with humans, take all the genocides. But he goes further and says, if we’re able to do it technologically, would that be okay? Can we just throw them away when we’re done with them? In the film we made them superior in strength and intelligence, but with a four year life span in order to control them. They’re not given any emotions, but they develop them, evidently when Deckard and Rachel fall in love. They are therefor above a NEXUS 6 (most advanced replicant type in the movie). Originally it was even the plan that Tyrell should be a replicant, the front man of the enterprise so to speak.
But I digress. About the future: It actually did come true, yet in little technological retail pieces. For instance the digital camera, the satellite, the all-in-one phone and the video games. What still remains future is the social service phenomenon in particular because of the lack of money.

MICHAEL: You once said that your normal approach is to take an object from the present and by alienating it, transferring it into your future visualisation. Is this for the recipient’s orientation?

SYD MEAD: Well that’s important because I’m commercial. For me fine art doesn’t have to be necessarily commercial. (And if it is, then it is being deliberately created in order to satisfy some sort of weird taste in art. )
I do commercial art. For the average person you have to have some recognisable gripping point so one knows what’s going on. And then overlay that with something different. That’s how you do it.

MICHAEL: Once again Blade Runner is a good example: There was no clear break between the old and new. There were still rotten, worn down buildings from our time mixed with futuristic architecture.

SYD MEAD: The example we used was Cuba and the Philippines. Their society essentially stopped in the 60s and they therefor have a culture of old cars. They have to work for a long time and are repaired over and over again. The same principle I applied to the cars in the film. I took a very clean design and undesigned it – industrial design in reverse. It was fascinating making something that was very well proportioned and sleek and turning that into a left-over of itself.

MICHAEL: Now in the 50s and 60s future visions were very positively charged. Whereas in the late 70s Star Wars introduced the used look to SciFi and in the 80s BR portrayed a dirty, worn-down future. Can you explain where this change came from?

SYD MEAD: Well, this is a well known social phenomenon. There’s an old saying in journalism: Bad news travels much faster than good news. It is always more entertaining to hear bad things and not be a part of them. Eventually each form of storytelling includes this mechanism in order to enhance the drama of the futuristic visions. A very exciting story with not enough conflict is boring.

Photo by Gudrun Martin.

MICHAEL: You’ve worked with various big directors like Ridley Scott and James Cameron. Could you describe the process from the spark of the idea to the final production of your design for the film set?

SYD MEAD: The best example would be my work on the film Aliens with James Cameron. There was this Miss Universe contest which I was part of as a judge, which was located in Florida. I returned to the place I was staying one evening and there was a package addressed to me. Inside was the script for Aliens sent to me by Cameron.

MICHAEL: Sent by James Cameron, not an agent?

SYD MEAD: Yes, it was sent by him personally. He had become aware of my work from Tron, Blade Runner and Star Trek. A short note indicated that he wanted me to design the Sulaco spaceship. I stayed up all night reading that script, which was fascinating since Cameron is a great script writer. After the judging ceremony was finished, I completed several sketches of my first impressions of the Sulaco on the plane on my way back. The general procedure is then to meet with the director. This is critical. I am part of the production group for the duration of pre-production, but am not part of the ‘on lot’ staff. I am a visual consultant directly answerable to the director.
In the beginning, I was only hired to design the spaceship, but as the involvement progressed I was given the challenge of creating the launch bay, the tractor and the drop ship.

MICHAEL: Did any people ever screw-up any of your designs?

SYD MEAD: With Blade runner I had a close contact to Ridley and a good understanding of the ambiance, so my design went into production unchanged. In Tron my original organic layout for the Lightcyle had to be altered since at that time it was not possible to create round shapes with computers. But the worst thing that happened for screwing up my design was not on film, but when working for a special featured kinda installation in Las Vegas. My sketches were going to be translated to a higher application computer language for footage production. So I sent them my layouts and one of the vehicles that was supposed to be round came out square and had completely screwed up the proportions and graphics.

MICHAEL: Technique-wise, you’re still on pen and paper, right?

SYD MEAD: Yes, indeed. I don’t like pen tablets.

MICHAEL: Shouldn’t the future be designed with more futuristic devices?

SYD MEAD: As long as there is no RGB-paper I’ll stick with Gouage – that’s French for bitchy colors. So the reason why I haven’t switched yet is because the temporary technology doesn’t work for me as well as the old analog techniques. I use the computer, but only for scanning my work and adjusting the colors in Photoshop and for printing it out on my big printer.

Photo by Gudrun Martin.

MICHAEL: To put it in the words of Rudger Hauer (plays the antagonist in Blade Runner): “Have you seen things, we people wouldn’t believe?” Where does all your inspiration come from?

SYD MEAD: It comes with the job. Here’s a funny story for you: I was at a meeting with Hot Wheels Mattel. Since it was a business meeting I had to sign a non disclosure agreement (n.d.a.). The boss was late and we were sitting around waiting for him. When he finally showed up he thought he’d be clever, so he asked me: “So Mr. Mead, I understand you’ve been to the future, could you tell us about it?” And I replied: “No, I signed a n.d.a.” He was embarrassed and left the room.

MICHAEL: Let’s say you are designing a spaceship. What do you consider during the layout process?

SYD MEAD: Well, a lot of SciFi design violates the rational of the story, that’s why it looks so silly. What I do is picture the technology that is available at the time the story is set it. And based on that construct a physically believable futuristic blue print. For instance spaceships that are built in space don’t have to have an aerodynamic form, but since they’re in vacuum can have any shape. This progress in thought can be seen when comparing 2001 to 2010. Therefor I try to make all my designs realistic, even if some will always remain fiction.

MICHAEL: Do you always work with a fixed schedule, or do you sometimes wake up in the middle of the night thinking: Skyscrapers, 200 floors tall, walking on legs – I’ve got to draw that, now!

SYD MEAD: I was working on an architectural project once, doing an interior design. I worked on it all evening and went to bed thinking about it. Since it was on my mind all the time I dreamed of it. I was walking through the room in my dream and I realized the light was wrong. It sounds sort of spooky, but it has happened several times. 

MICHAEL: You are admired by many people as a design-guru. Who were YOUR influences?

SYD MEAD: I started drawing when I was two and half. My father was a baptist minister, who read Flash Gordon to me when I was four and five – I have no idea why? Why would a baptist minister read those kind of stories to his young son?
M: Perhaps he knew!?
SM: I don’t know. That’s still very weird to me. And that influenced me, I think. So when I was in grade school, instead of drawing tanks and trucks, I drew rocket ships and cars, very, very slick, elegant cars, which looked like cars do now – featureless blobs of metal. That was the beginning of it all.

MICHAEL: What do you think our future will look like? Can we expect something positive or negative?

SYD MEAD: The future is what we try to make of it. Obviously we’re going through a earth warming period, which could be caused by our local star, the sun, or other reasons like the accumulation of carbon dioxide. But you have to remember that nature has treated this planet rather harshly several times before, take the asteroid for example that wiped out the dinosaurs.
You have to realize that over 80% of the scientists and engineers that have ever lived are alive right now. So if anything is going to be figured out we’re in a good position to do so now. I like to image a bright future, because that’s healthy. If you really believe that the world is coming to an end then it probably is – you’re helping.

MICHAEL: You on the other hand don’t strike one as a man who’s career is coming to an end.

SYD MEAD: I’ll probably get to the point where I can’t draw steady figures anymore, but I’ll probably still draw. Maybe I’ll even do plain air painting, just like Churchill. Which is sort of silly, but maybe I might even do that. Probably badly. Or on a pen tablet. Who knows?

MICHAEL: Mr. Mead. Thank you very much for this interview.

SYD MEAD: You’re very welcome.

May 11, 2009, Augsburg, Germany. In cooperation with the University of Applied Sciences Augsburg. Managed by Bunch of Monkeys with Michael Bauer as interviewer.

Photo by Gudrun Martin.

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Category: Allgemein, Designtheorie, Fakultät für Gestaltung, Informationsdesign, Kommunikationstheorie

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3 Responses

  1. [...] I felt it apt to adopt a futurist theme for this version of deeds amidst the hype surrounding the recent reincarnation of ‘Tron’. Who better to feature than the undeniable talent that is Syd Mead, a conceptual futurist who worked on both the original film and this year’s release of ‘Tron’. Operating under the name ‘Syd Mead Inc.’ conceived in 1970, Mead’s early illustrations saw him work with a gamut of high profile clients with a particular focus on architecture and product design, remnants of which still carry throughout his work. Owing to his numerous projects with major film studios in the 80′s his career blossomed and he quickly established himself as a benchmark futuristic conceptual artist. Mead’s role in films such as Blade Runner, Tron and Alien had a specific focus on vehicle design, an area he declares his love for, a love which is clearly visible throughout his work. ‘A Portfolio of Probabilities’ is an album I mistakenly stumbled across some years ago and despite it being printed decades ago, it’s yet to lose it’s relevance. The aptly titled series of timeless images serve as not only a testament to Mead’s talent and imagination as a futurist illustrator, but also provide us with a stimulating vision of what the future could hold. Futurism being a movement created by those who disapproved with present technologies, came about in the early 1900′s and flourished by the 1950′s and 60′s under the hybrid title of ‘retro-futurism’. This era drew perhaps some of the most insightful and innovative conceptual illustrations of the 20th century. Mead, a self confessed advocate of new technology, displays an almost utopian future through ‘A Portfolio of Probabilities’. Humans are portrayed as master innovators and conquerers of their surroundings(Earth or elsewhere), harmoniously incorporating natural life with the artificial. Ironically, these are issues of existence we still struggle with today. Annotations: ◊ Syd Mead ◊ ‘A Portfolio of Probabilities’ ◊ ‘The Future Came True’ – An Interview With Syd Mead [...]

  2. [...] UPDATE: On May 11th 2009, Syd Mead and his manager Roger Servick visited the Augsburg University of Applied Sciences (Dept. of Design) for a talk. We picked both up in Munich. While on the ride to Augsburg, Syd Mead kindly gave the following interview: The future came true – An Interview with Syd Mead – Prof. Michael Stoll [...]

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