An Artist with Designs on the Future


Actors Harrison Ford and Edward James Olmos slog their way through a metropolitan street scene gone haywire. The street is not only a home for some of the seediest pedestrians seen since Tobacco Road but is populated, as well, by a tangle of industrial tubing and pipe fixtures. Taxis resembling tanks chug by. Tenement buildings have their windows blotted out by large television screens which flash slices of exotic, tropical lifestyles onto the macadam below.
Ford and Olmos are "hunting" genetically created human replicants on one of the strangest sets to be created in the history of futuristic films.
The film is Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.
The set is constructed in Hollywood, U.S.A. and much of its nightmarish ambiance arose from the fertile mind of artist Syd Mead. Although he is not physically present at the Warner Brothers' studio Mead's touch is certainly felt.
At no time, for instance, does any part of the set conjure up cinematic memories of such films as Funny Girl or The Way We Were. Yet, this New York street scene was indeed part of those films, as well as most of the James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart films produced at Warners during Hollywood's golden years.
For director Scott's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the standard New York backdrop had to be transformed into Any-Metropolis U.S.A., circa 2020.
That's where Mead came in.
A uniquely individualistic graphic artist-turned-consultant-turned futurist, Mead parlayed a few preliminary sketches into a wide-screen vision of a near Dystopian tomorrow. Not bad for a fellow not usually associated with motion pictures.
"I feel pretty responsible for the final look of the film," says Mead from his West Coast headquarters several months after production has stopped. "The way the street scenes are dressed is right off my sketches. I walked around the set one morning and it was like being in one of my drawings. It was pretty eerie."
Mead's impressive cinematic triumph actually came about quite accidentally. A commercial artist best known for his futuristic designs for U.S. Steel, the Ford motor company and other corporations, Mead was lionized by many science-fiction fans a few years back when a collection of his drawings, Sentinel, was published. He then was asked to design the inside of the Voyager craft for Star Trek-The Motion Picture, his lone film credit before being contacted by director Ridley Scott during Blade Runner's embryonic period.
"Ridley called and came over to the house with Ivor Powell (the film's associate producer)," recalls Mead. "They had Chris Fosse's book, Roger Dean's book and mine. Ridley was aware of my work and when he was shopping around for special-effects people, he talked with John [Star Wars] Dykstra who wound up re-enforcing Ridley's opinions about my possibilities."
Mead and Scott hit it off. "Initially, he was interested in me only in terms of automotive design. Although I had only done a little bit of work on the Star Trek film, I felt comfortable accepting the assignment. I don't mind working on vehicles for movies. I'm comfortable with that, having done it for corporations countless times."
And so, Mead set off to work. Before long, however, he discovered that it was impossible to ignore the challenge of inventing an entire futurescape as opposed to just elements within it. "I never like to sketch a vehicle on a blank page," he shrugs. "I'll toss in back ground settings. I had read the script to Blade Runner and wanted to give the city a shot. After some discussions with Ridley and art director Larry Paul, I began putting in backgrounds that fit the tone of the picture.
Ridley liked them. He had me expand on them and sketch a few street sets and, then, some mtenor sets. Before it was all over, I wound up working on the look of almost all the articles in the film from hand-held hardware to more elaborate articles."
In short order, Mead was immeshed in the laborious process of launching a motion picture. "To get this movie really rolling in terms of design," he says, "it took at least three months. The actual preproduction lasted a year. That's pretty long. I worked on the vehicles first because they took the most time. Then, I did the street sets. Then, I did the detailed objects like coin slots and parking meters... all the gadgetry you need to make a non-existent society seem realistic down to the last detail. Ridley is a stickler for detail."

Future Cars

As much as Mead wanted to dive into envisioning a futuristic society, he labored long and hard on Blade Runner's automotive designs first. "After all," he laughs, "that's what I was paid for in the first place. I came up with five basic designs that seemed to please everyone.
"The Spinner is the star vehicle. That's the car that actually flies. Right from the start, I tried to stay away from stereotypical approaches. I thought that folding wings and helicopter blades had been done to death on vehicles in futuristic films. I thought we should think of it as an enclosed lift vehicle.
"It would look like a car all the time, whether it was flying or just rolling down a street. That seemed more logical and easier to handle dramatically than a thing with all sorts of attachments that unfolded or popped out for take-off. The Spinner was the most expensive vehicle to build and, dramatically, the most important. In the film, it's only used by authorized personnel because it flies and, therefore, is involved with complicated, three-dimensional travel patterns.

Artist/designer Mead stands beside one of his concepts come-to-life, the Spinner. 

"The second most important vehicle was Deckard's [Ford's] sedan. It's about the size of a contemporary medium-sized car. The theory behind this model is that it's a decommissioned flying sedan. All the exterior flaps and air directional panels have been removed and it's now only used for street travel. It still has all the original bumpers, light patterns and overbuilt windshield wipers, though. It's a sleek sedan.
"With those two out of the way, I had to come up with a means of mass transportation, a People's Vehicle. It's a little cart that anyone can rent or lease. You climb in, insert a card and only pay for the time you actually use the craft. You drive it and, then, simply leave it in the street when you're through. Eventually, some other customer walks by, inserts his or her card, and just zooms off.
"I also had to come up with a pretty crazyquilt kind of design for Sebastian's van. In the movie, the character of Sebastian is sort of an electronics wizard, a super-hobbiest and tinkerer. He patches his truck together by taking a commercial chasis and adding things onto it, making it an enclosed truck with a bed in the back and everything.
"The trick with Sebastian's van was to come up with something that looked patched together using pieces that audiences wouldn't recognize as being available today. I figured that Sebastian could give his truck a real armadillo look by using a whole bunch of flawed deflector panels as the basis for a body.
"After that, the film began using a lot of cross-over vehicles. They took Sebastian's truck and modified it into an ambulance. Deckard's sedan became the basis of police cruisers and staff cars. There's a bus in the film that I didn't actually work on but the look was extrapolated from the style I had already established."
Even while designing the movie's auto horde, Mead was coming up with ideas about the environment that would make the vehicles both plausible and necessary. He found his inspiration in contemporary New York.
"The city in the movie is not named," he cautions. "There's no particular setting. But, let's face it, New York is the example of what's going on in cities today with buildings going up over 1,000 feet.
"We used that as a springboard. We drew a profile of a city taking the two World Trade Towers as the norm. We figured that, as you went up higher, the street level as we know it today would become some sort of massive service alley sequestered beneath these enormous megastructures.
"That would, in turn, give the streets a sort of subterranean sewer look. You'd have generators and tubes and gigantic pylons supporting the sides of those buildings and taking up space on ground level. You might wind up taking a whole city block, leaving the old building structures in place, and building a large structure inside that block that would represent a pylon supporting a 3,000 foot skyscraper. Heck. That single pylon might extend for several city blocks on the side of the building. Using that idea, you eventually come up with a street filled with a lot of stuff. It would be transformed into a maze of pipes and tubes.
"By inference, the crime and the congestion present on this ground level would be an enormous problem, making, it almost necessary for all decent citizens to avoid it, to not venture below the 40th level of the megastructures. The streets would really be low, in every sense of the word.
"That sort of low crime vs. an elevated society would lead to the creation of a second level of between-building accesses for normal citizens; freeways and people carriers looming high above the original street level. In essence, you'd have a second society built upon the remains of a past one."


Quite heady stuff for a designer. Listening to Mead speak, one wonders if he was hired to sketch or philosophize. In Mead's mind it's all part of the same process.
"I approached Blade Runner as a classical industrial design exercise," he says. "We reinvented things to solve the problem; the problem being the script.
"The script called for us to come up with new ideas that would support the action realistically. We had to come up with objects that looked like what they were supposed to be. In corporate work, when you're asked to design the inside of a train or a plane, the problem is clearly delineated for you. In that type of work, however, you're dealing with reality. For this film, I had to invent things that might not be realistic by contemporary standards, but fit the dramatic reality of the story. In essence, everything had to have a dramatic, emotional or technological reason for being.
"For instance, the state of the art today for entry into an enclosed space is through the use of a little plastic card that has a magnetic code buried in the plastic. That card, however, isn't very dramatic visually. It doesn't look like it's doing anything special to allow you into that enclosed space.
"So, for the movie, we invented little 'keys' that lit up and rolled down something that resembled a watch fob or a key chain. You roll this little wheel down a fob and if the lights twinkle in the right sequence, you're allowed to enter the room. It's waaay past what you'd actually need, but it's more visually intriguing for the purpose of plot."
Also on tap for Blade Runner are parking meters (at three bucks per minute) that give off a red glow when your time is up and deep fry your hands should you try to cross them; pollution control devices for the tops of cars; a Voight-Kampf machine that measures "empathy" and a series of tools used by Deckard in tracking down renegade replicants.
Despite the forboding atmosphere depicted in Blade Runner's vision of the future and Mead's enjoyment in the work, he does confess, "This is someone else's story. I was hired to visually represent it according to the dictates of the script. Personally, I don't see the future going that way. I'm an optimist."
In Mead's eyes, cities will flourish, not decay, in years to come. "I know that we're going to have 3,000 foot buildings," he declares. "That idea jibes with the current trends of enclosing space. But I think that, once you're inside the future skyscraper, the building will represent a variety of spaces from parks and zoos to business centers. Right now, we're just building artificial cliffs in cities, dull structures.
"In the future, we'll probably go back to the concept of artfully constructed vistas that will take some of their cues from nature. We all like nature's randomness in terms of design. We like that visual variety. If everything becomes architecturally too streamlined or cubistic, there will be a negative effect on people. It won't seem human. The architecture of the future will have to be very creative.
"I see the next generation of people growing up being able to contribute to that creative element. They will be much less intimidated by technology. Right now, technology is hamstrung because of the so-called flower children; the 1960s youth who are now in their 30s and 40s. Right now, I believe what we're experiencing is the last wave of technology-inspired paranoia as this final remnant of the hippie generation moves into politics.
"They're the last group of sad, disillusioned people who just can't figure out how to bridge the gap between a thoroughly technologically supported natural society and the old industrial revolution machinery. Technology isn't a villain. Even in our movie, the robot replicants are actually people."
Mead sincerely believes that society's wellbeing depends on humanity's pushing for a more productive lifestyle through the use of  technology. "Nature isn't really very efficient," he says. "I've always been fascinated with organic/mechanical crossover." He talks for a few minutes about new developments in protein-molecule computers before returning to the subject of his film career. With Blade Runner now part of past history, Mead is turning to a few new movie assignments while keeping in touch with the corporate design world. He's not in the field of design for the glamour. His biggest reward lies in solving a problem. "I don't really have to see my designs rolling down the street in order to be fulfilled," he states.
He pauses for a moment before reconsidering, "But there IS one scene in Blade Runner... The Spinner takes off from the street. It's moving down the block. The rain is falling, illuminated by all this strange lighting. The scene is really a moving sketchbook of all the designs I did for the film; vehicles, buildings... everything." He finds himself lost in visualizing that single segment of the movie and says with a laugh, "It's pretty super."

Concept art showing a Spinner airborne.

From the film: the Spinner sits in surface traffic.

Concept art for new ciry cab.

From the film: "Metrokab" awaits passengers.

Concept for Deckard's vehicle: A grounded Spinner.

From the film: An almost perfect realization.

Concept art for one of Mead's finest creations-the Spinner. It's a unique flying-car desing, having no wings or stabilizer fins. It was the most expensive and complicated prop in the film. Mead calls it an "enclosed lift vehicle."

A typical downtown scene in the Blade Runner mega-city. Mead designed the vehicles first and tehm took a shot at a city. The vehicle on the right is Sebastian's van. Mead describes Sebastian as "an electronics wizard and tinkerer."