Review: The Movie Art of Syd Mead Visual Futurist

That title is a doozy and so is the book!  Bit of a spoiler there.

If you are reading this, it’s likely you know who Syd Mead is and if you don’t then you do but you don’t realise it!  He’s the man behind the look of some incredibly influential (and not so influential) science fiction movies in the last and the current decade: Aliens, Blade Runner, Tron, Short Circuit, Johnny Mnemonic, Star Trek et.al.

Gonna name drop…I had the pleasure of interviewing Syd Mead (and the late Morgan Paull, a.k.a. Holden) in a Blade Runner radio special and Mead was a wonderful interviewee.  In fact, they both were and gave me some wonderful insights into their creative worlds.

Starting with Star Trek: The Motion Picture (or as my friend Barry calls it, “Star Trek: The Motionless Picture”, and I would have to agree – yawn!) and ending quite abruptly on Blade Runner 2049, this Titan Books production is a must have for any one interested in movie design, set work, colouring and lighting and even perspective.

One of the things that stood out most about this book is the ability to ‘see behind’ Mead’s sketches.  His sketchy structural lines are a lesson in perspective and form.  Its not surprising though given his discipline acquired as a graphic designer.  He started out in advertising and concept design for real world companies and he imbues practically every film he works on with a sense of realism.

No where is this more evident, at least to me, than in Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner. Around 66 pages are devoted to this work alone which I was pleased with being quite the fan of the original.  And to Villeneuve, I can see what you tried to do there ol’ boy but no one holds a candle to Scott’s movie!  Between Scott and Mead, both talented artists, the movie is a workbook on how to make believable, futuristic designs.  How the managed to make a dystopian future so appealing and repelling at the same time, I will never know!

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Mead’s wonderful yet deceptively simple approach to colouring and lighting is also evident throughout.  Large swathes of neon and contrasting colours inform a great deal of his concept design and that clearly went from page to screen wonderfully in Scott’s movie.

The section on Aliens is also a great read.  The Sulaco ship design is a masterclass in stripping back a design.  But it also shows the lines and three dimensionality that artists could learn much from.

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His work on Tron give us an insight on what the world would have looked like if Mead had influenced the director even more and it would have been the better for it.

But, perhaps because of his level of involvement or design directives, some chapters are far less engaging.  At least in this reviewers opinion, and that’s what I am here to give.

The work on the Jetsons and Elysium isn’t all that inspired or inspiring and the book tends to lose energy towards the final pages with a weak puff of air given to Blade Runner 2049.  It would seem in that case, Mead was only involved with the design of the irradiated Las Vegas sequences, which were pretty incredible.  Apparently, Villeneuve compliments Mead with design of the cityscapes too but scant details are given in the book, just a miserly six pages!

On the positive, there’s more written detail here than in your usual movie art book which was a welcome surprise and gave great insights into the man and his art.

All in all, the production quality and the quality of the images is up to. the typically high standards that Titan Books seems to achieve with its movie books.  Again, if you like movie design, this really is one of the essential tomes to acquire.

Thanks to Titan Books for the review copy.

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