Syd Mead is the conceptual artist and “visual futurist” responsible for some of sci-fi cinema’s most iconic designs. Last year he worked with Neill Blomkamp on Elysium, and with that film’s recent Blu-ray release, we caught up with Syd and got him to talk us through ten of his most famous imaginings.
"I designed the V’Ger entity at the end of the film. That was fun to do. They already had this hexagonal machine, which was like the maw which was the entrance into a chamber behind. They had built a plywood interior set about eight feet in diameter, but they literally had no idea of what to do for the exterior. They were designing the camera tracks to shoot it, but they had nothing to shoot! The model I eventually designed, that they did the camera crawl over, was 40 feet long. You still never see the whole thing on screen. There was supposed to be a shot of the whole V’Ger casting a shadow on the Moon to show how big it was, but that was cut."
"Ridley [Scott] was a busy man, and a very fine artist, but once he found out I could paint and embed my vehicle designs into the garish and junky look of the streets, he just let me go. I painted my way much further into the film than would normally be the case. I designed all the vehicles, and saw my little wash renderings become real on the Warner Bros. backlot. Usually if you get 85 per cent of what you imagined, then you’ve won. On Blade Runner, it was almost 100 per cent. The vehicles were almost identical to my designs."
"Again, I did all the vehicles on Tron. They were iconic representations of an aircraft carrier and a tank and the light cycles and so on. It was all literally the bleeding edge of computer-created FX technology, although I designed the traditional way, on paper. I worked on Tron at almost exactly the same time as Blade Runner. It’s interesting: they couldn’t be more different, but they’ve both become cult classics and they both did horribly on their first release. There’s a lesson in there somewhere..."
"I think Peter Hyams is one of the least appreciated directors in Hollywood. He’s a delight to work with. My job here was to invent this Russian spacecraft – the Leonov – in contrast to [Stanley] Kubrick’s Discovery. I called the Discovery 'the GE kitchen of tomorrow' because it was all these wondrous white surfaces. When we did 2010, I wanted to reflect that the Russians had this reputation for building clunky, oversized, not particularly sophisticated stuff. I hope there aren’t any Russians reading this! So I designed it with that brutalist style in mind. I also worked on the interiors of the bridge and the map room. Again, they were designed with Peter Hyams, with dramatic camera shots in mind. I met Arthur C. Clarke. He had a cameo in the film, in The White House."
"I got the script FedExed to me by Jim Cameron, and he’s a great writer. I started designing the Sulaco on a plane journey. I did some of the interior sets too, like the cafeteria and the egg chamber. In Ridley’s movie the ship was like an industrial oil derrick going through space. It was very gritty and real. Cameron wanted to do more a sort of Rambo in space. The path that I took was from a sketch that Jim gave me. The Sulaco had to be more or less flat, because he was going to run the camera past it fast and he didn’t want to have to pull focus, because it would be messy. I made it into a massively armed freight carrier. That’s what drove the design."
"Ah, the Muscles from Brussels! That was Peter Hyams again. I was hired to design the time machine launch vehicle that they rode in. It ran on rails very fast, so that it could somehow... ohhh, I don’t know. It was a fun movie, though! What was the movie with the DeLorean? Back To The Future, yes. It was a similar idea that if you went really, really quickly you would violate the time... thing. We put a wall at the end of the rails, so that there was the threat of not making it at all and ending up as a splatter on a brick wall! The machine had to look very substantial, with lots of tubes and stuff. It looked serious. You had to believe that they could die in it, like bugs on a windshield."
"I didn’t really need to do this one, so my agent sent an outrageous demand to the producers and they came back with a cheque, so we were off on another adventure! I was supposed to design the bridge where the techies had their headquarters. I actually also started designing a cryogenic capsule to hold Keanu [Reeves’] head. I wondered why if the information’s in his head they don’t just cut his head off, so I designed this cabinet to hold it, but it was never used. I designed the dolphin too, and all the appliances that went on it. The director had never directed before, but he had William Gibson looking over his shoulder. Gibson looked at what I was doing and said it was exactly what he’d imagined when he was writing the story. That made me feel good."
"That was [James] Cameron’s wife (Kathryn Bigelow), who is now an Academy Award winner! I did the playback decks for that: these fixtures that go over the head for recording. The snuff tapes that were shuttled around were a metaphor for the drug industry. I was called in to show the young actors what I’d designed and how it worked. I thought that miniaturisation of technology was going to continue, so we had these little cassettes you could slip in. But it had to look like a real retail product. I have an industrial design background. The logic to doing something like that is it has to look like it works. Once you have that, then you can start doing weird stuff with it, but if you don’t have that initial familiarity link then you’ve failed."
"They always whip these masks out, and it’s sort of clever, but where do they get the masks? Do they carry lots of them around? J. J. Abrams wanted to show how they could create these masks in the field, on the spot. My job was to design the cabinet so they could create a mask from scratch. We did a life cast of Tom Cruise, and – in the film - his head was the model that you pulled the plastic sleeve over. Then you have these arms that go down over the face, for the first pass, carving in wrinkles and skin texture, then it would spray the right colour, and you could put it straight on and add hair and moustaches or whatever. It had to be really portable: it only needs to be the size of a head, really. J. J. wanted it to look really used and worn, like one of these battlefield things that you kick around. It had to have a military, field hardware look to it."
"Neill [Blomkamp] is a great guy. We had a wonderful meeting and got along great. I designed the interiors of the orbital, and the terrain. I did not design the medical machine... I have this style I call 'supersonic baroque' and he loved all that. I do all these curlicues and ornamentation patterns and then carve them into extruded sleek geometric volumes, and the contrast is just startling. Neill wanted me to incorporate that into these designs on board Elysium."
Elysium is out on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download now