When androids dream, Syd Mead gets paid
Syd Mead (Tron, Alien, Blade Runner) is a professional artist. This explains why he doesn’t work more in the movies.
That’s professional artist. He does a lot of work for major corporations who are happy to meet his fee for his services without any phony penny pinching. When it’s the movies calling, he says, the price “starts at zero” and the artist has to “work his way up.”
There are many needy artists. Producers always can find someone to work on spec.
But they won’t get Syd Mead.
He also insists on a “one to one relationship with the director,” which means no intermediaries or departments of intermediation. And if they do agree to his fee, and his working conditions, he then makes sure that the exact amount of work is specified and the fees due for anything more. That means anything.
The last picture he worked on was Mission Impossible III, on the Mask Maker sequence.
I’m one of Syd Mead’s newest fans. Before I signed up to cover his panel at Comic-Con I didn’t know his name, though I’d enjoyed his work.
Though “artist” is a big enough term to hold him, he is sometimes called a “visual futurist.” But that’s a little silly. No one can predict the future. But an artist who is good enough can make images that speak to our sense of how we would like to improve the way things look and our need to make things that are better and more useful than the things that went before. Henry Ford wasn’t being a futurist when he made a Model A to replace his Model T automobile, but today we would call him one.
Most designers are making good livings doing renderings that gently recycle the images of the past, the better to please the client. This is why there are several hundred fake Tudor houses on Shady Bend for every saucer shape clinging to a hillside.
He is best known for his work on Blade Runner, though his career began in industrial design. Like many successful designers, his career has made many twists and turns. Designers work alone when they’re putting pencil marks and paint on illustration board, but they turn their work over to dozens, even hundreds of people who will then make a car or a building or a movie along the lines the designer suggests. Good designers like this process. They like working with directors and architects and other confident, creative people. People who are in charge of insane amounts of money, risked by other people to create things people will buy and take to their hearts.
Mead got a head start by starting at the Ford Advanced Styling Center after art school. Making cars was the main business of America and he learned that good design didn’t come cheap or quick or easy. He came to the attention of Hollywood after his illustrations starred in a series of books for U. S. Steel.
When Mead talked about Blade Runner to a hundred or so fans at his Thursday afternoon panel he didn’t talk about “where he gets his ideas” but about the pleasure of collaborating with the incomparable author Philip K. Dick (“Phil liked to drink and he liked to laugh”) and the ditto director Ridley Scott. He didn’t read the book until after the movie. “That’s Ridley’s job. That’s the script people’s job.”
They all came up with the look of Blade Runner along with several other artists credited on the and a hundred other now dead designers going back to the great pyramid with a notable stop at Los Angeles’s Bradbury Building (George H. Wyman, 1889). He knows the future is only the latest layer to be applied on top of our thousand pasts. An opposite approach is what Ridley Scott had in mind when, during an early conversation on the project, he told Mead, “this is not going to be any fucking Logan’s Run.” To Mead, it was Scott wo is responsible for the look of the film, for hiring Mead and many other talented designers and then for being such a determined advocate for the film with the studio.
Ridley Scott understands how my brain is wired. I am absurdly affected by Alien and Thelma and Louise and Matchstick Men, my favorite drama of 2003.
This fall Blade Runner is the subject of several DVDs from Warner Home Video, the largest containing no fewer than five versions of the film. Historians and fans know that the idea of “final cut” gets all misty and indistinct when it comes to this movie. There were disputes between director and studio throughout production, postproduction and even after the theatrical release. The home video version I have says it’s a Director’s Cut and experts are exquisitely aware of the differences between that and every other version. I’m not.
This fall, true believers will fill their own dreams with variant versions of the story. Those of us who need a guide will consult Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner by Paul Sammon, who shared the panel with Mead. A new edition will be out this fall and the devotee will not be satisfied without both the new DVD and Sammon’s book. The release date is December 18, the last Tuesday before Christmas. If your casual fan has anything else on his mind that week you might be able to snag this one for under the tree. Enthusiastic fans will get it themselves and immediately get to it. Don’t expect any help with the Christmas goose.
Mead put his heart and soul into several self-published books, all of which are out of print and pushing the middle three figures on Alibris. We thank him, on behalf of the rest of us, for making a DVD, Visual Futurist: The Art and Life of Syd Mead, out now and available on his website. Along with the Blade Runner set, it anticipates the obsolescence of yet another medium, the DVD. Sic Transit Gloria.
Mead doesn’t start working till the phone rings and he gets and assignment. His is a directed imagination. When asked from the floor if he has any stories to tell on his own behalf, he replied, “Being the son of a Baptist minister, I’d like to see a nude, science fiction version of the Book of Revelations.” So would I. But unless someone comes up with some development money, we needn’t look for it among his effects.