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.

Book Review: The Art and Soul of Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 has only just finished in movie theatres in my local area. I happened to go and see it twice having been a big fan of the original.

Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner left quite an impression on me at around the age of 12 back in 1985, 3 years after the movie was released.

And so it was with some trepidation I stepped into Denis Villeneuve’s sequel.  After all, what’s a Blade Runner movie without Scott and the sardonic somewhat eccentric Rutger Hauer as Batty?

The movie takes place 30 years after the original ( hence the rather imaginative title) and the sad world we saw in 2019 has just gotten worse. Leviathan-like synthetic farms cover great swaths of the landscape. There’s no lush tomato plants or mangoes growing in these greenhouses. Just grubs and algae! Outside of Los Angeles, the rest of this corner of the United States looks like a gigantic rubbish tip with a few scavenger settlements here and there. The city itself has become, if you can imagine it, even more dense, even more dark and more oppressive.

Sadly, it wouldn’t be too far fetched thinking that in another 50 or so years our world might look similar to the world Ridley Scott and Denis Villeneuve have created.

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How about that! K9 makes an appearance!

Twice I finished the movie undecided as to what I really thought. The second time I enjoyed Blade Runner 2049 a great deal more and I got a lot more out of it and having read the book The Art and Soul of Blade Runner 2049, I understood more clearly why this was the case. As Michael Green the screenwriter articulates, “the first film was about quantity of life. How much do I have left? This film is about quality of life. How do I live my life? How do I make it meaningful?” Well put and spot on Mike.

And so, for nearly 3 hours (really guys it could have used some editing), Ryan Gosling as the replicant known as K struggles with his existence and the burden of his work which involves taking out earlier generation replicants.

The story is a little too convoluted in some respects but it manages to be more or less a very worthwhile sequel and that is high praise indeed given the almost flawless masterpiece that is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

But what is the book like? Like many movie art books it’s a little thin on information but one expects that. It is after all an art book not a Making Of. But given that, there are some wonderful insights to be learnt within it’s impressive hardback cover.

I particularly liked the page dedicated to the process known as a Baseline that Ryan Gosling’s character has to go through seemingly at the end of each day of operations. Using scrambled text from Nabokov’s book Pale Fire, the company responsible for reconditioning replicants dictates some weird and slightly unsettling prose in an effort to assess and control the emotional quality of their new generation, thus far obedient replicants.

Here is an example: a blood black nothingness began to spin began to spin let’s move onto system system feel that in your body the system have they let you feel heartbreak interlinked within cells interlinked did you buy a present for the person you love within cells interlinked why don’t you say that three times within cells interlinked…

Sinister corporation indeed!

It’s bizarre and unsettling and even as the viewer I felt uncomfortable watching poor K having to go through this. As the movie goes on, one really does empathize with his predicament.

Ryan Gosling seems to go from one completely different movie to another with seemingly no regard  to whether or not the film will have any box office success. I respect that. I also see now that he is quite intelligent in the way he approaches his roles. In the few paragraphs devoted to the process of the Baseline, Ryan Gosling eloquently summarises how this scene helped him to understand his character and beyond that,  in RG’s own articulate words,  “it also provided insight into the state of mind of those who would force this burden upon him.”

Interesting insight into the character indeed.

Beyond character development, the book also does a very adequate job of presenting the design elements of this impressive movie. From urban to natural, although heavily tortured, landscapes, the book gives a wonderful overview of the detail involved in building the world of Blade Runner 2049.

To Villeneuve’s credit, much of the world seems to have been created in real life using stunning physical models and real world locations such as the Inota power plant in Budapest. And then there’s wonderfully crafted locations like an irradiated Las Vegas courtesy of the incredible Syd Mead who was responsible for the futurist design of the original movie.

There is a largish chapter on Wallace’s office building and the quite stunning lighting therein, some nice side notes on the old Blade Runner blaster, a double page devoted to the hologram advertisements that cover the cityscape and of course incredible concept artwork.

For any fan of the movie or movie making in general, this book is a real gem.

One of our favourite parts of the book explains a small device known as the Memory Orb, which was inspired by old analogue cameras and looks like a chunky lens with several different styles. The quarantined and enigmatic Doctor Stelline uses this contraption to create the wonderful memories that comfort the replicants in their brutal existence.

There’s a great deal more to go into and we really enjoyed Mariette’s costume designing as it harkens back to one of our favourite replicants Pris, in fact the costuming in general was top notch, but we won’t spoil everything by giving up the entire contents of this wonderful art book. Denis Villeneuve has done an outstanding job of crafting and styling the movie, the characters, and the world they inhabit and the book does credit to showing the enormity of the project he, his crew and cast undertook.

Was the movie as stylistic as the original? In some ways it surpasses it, particularly in the grandness of the scale in Blade Runner 2049. This is seen nowhere more fully than when K find the belaguered Rick Deckard, now a hermit, living in an abandoned and irradiated Las Vegas.

One has to keep in mind too that this is a world 30 years in the future and things change. Ridley Scott’s vision feels rightly antiquated but also slightly more stylized with a great deal more emphasis on detail. For example, there is a major difference in stylistic detail one can see in Deckard’s original apartment compared to K’s more spartan apartment. I wish they spent a bit of time on his apartment in the art book, oh well!

But then we see this dystopic future becomes more and more brutal, less stylistic and more functional ( I mean everyone’s eating grubs and algae for heaven’s sake! So much for noodles!). So we can see the impact upon the way people must live in their environment and it ain’t pretty or stylish!

We are still going to tip our hats in favour of Ridley Scott’s original, but Blade Runner 2049 is an exceptional sequel and The Art and Soul of Blade Runner 2049 is a very worthy keepsake!

If you’re a fan of the movie, get yourself a copy today. Thanks to Titan Books for a review copy.

The Art of the Ghost in the Shell Book Review

The Ghost in the Shell…the cyberpunk soaked storyline that has captivated it’s audience for nearly 30 years. It has moved from manga to anime to the big screen. It’s a creative property that most of the fan base are quite rabid over.

Understandably so. In its earliest form it was part science-fiction part philosophical text. It questioned what it was to be human,  very much like it’s progenitor Blade Runner and The Matrix that followed.

In an age of recent and burgeoning A.I. hysteria The Ghost in the Shell is even more topical now.

The movie became its own thing and faced its own set of contentions, weathering claims of white washing (possibly deserved) and not doing justice to the property.

We disagree with the latter at least. At 1 hour and 47 minutes it was really never going to scratch the byzantine surface of this remarkable cyberpunk world but it did a damn good job in trying and we enjoyed the film greatly. But what is the art book like?

We’ve opened the covers, had a good look and we share our thoughts here.

Initially the impression is outstanding. This is a Titan Books production and it is quality throughout. The cover is a wonderfully bold detailed image of a cyber geisha as seen in the movie.

The introduction by WETA workshop founder Richard Taylor is promising for what lies ahead. He and his crew clearly have a great deal of love for TGITS universe.

The image quality is astounding throughout with very little exception.  It is wonderful to see the development of Kusanagi and the world she inhabits and the book does justice to how much work and effort occurred behind the scenes.

There are fascinating insights on location scouting. The final location for the majority filming was Wellington, NZ or as it is called in the book Wellingkong. It seems the budget couldn’t afford London or Berlin and so more power to the Kiwis who’s show not just great creativity in the cinematic arts but fantastic entrepreneurship!

There is nothing new about the ‘sologram’ or so called solid hologram that the movie uses to adorn it’s cityscapes but nevertheless that is also an interesting chapter.

What we absolutely loved in the book is the way it details the integration of old school physical modelling, coupled with modern computer imagery. It’s nice to see that the director in his own words prefers ‘shooting amid the textures and details of real streets.’ This artistic philosophy carries through on every part of this movie and in this book. We can see a beautiful integration of prosthetics models and CG which is very welcome in a movie market saturated with almost solely computer generated over-the-top affairs with very little substance.

The concept art is also wonderful. It is excellent to see the evolution of the robot geisha, one of our favourite things about the movie. In particular, we were delighted at the attention to detail in their costumes. But not only costumes designed for the robot geisha but for the citizens of the so-called Wellingkong.

Hats off to Kurt Swanson and Bart Mueller. It seems to be getting particularily rare to see such imaginative costuming. But Swanson and Mueller put their flare on display with every thread and stitch.

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Does this look like David Bowie to you?

 

The book covers characters, constructing the future, locations, cinematography, action sequences and is capped off with a thoughtful conclusion.

Our one and only criticism,  common to books of this type, is that we would like to have seen some more detailed writing backing up the subject matter, though text is not as scarce as in so many similar books.

We thoroughly recommend you purchase The Art of the Ghost in the Shell by Titan Books. It goes beyond a meer coffee table book towards something fans of science fiction will truly appreciate for years to come!

Stay tuned over the next couple of months as we look at more titles from Titan Books including the new Blade Runner 2049 art book!