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Inside Syd Mead’s visions of the future, from Blade Runner to Tron

One of the main reasons the original Blade Runner remains so iconic is that its futuristic Los Angeles feels like a real place. From the clunky, utilitarian vehicles on the streets to the hulking megatowers that dominate the skyline, it’s a city that’s both a vision of the future and grounded in the modern day. Much of that look comes down to one man: Syd Mead, a concept artist and industrial designer. And for both fans of his work and the uninitiated, a new book, called The Movie Art of Syd Mead: Visual Futurist, is the perfect way to delve further into Mead’s particular brand of science fiction.

Mead’s career hasn’t been limited to Hollywood — he started out designing vehicles for the likes of Ford and U.S. Steel, and products for Phillips — but his work in films is what he’s predominantly known for. Particularly a trio of sci-fi classics from the 1980s: Blade Runner, Tron, and Aliens. Mead’s background in industrial design lent a sense of weight to his work on these movies. When he created a new vehicle, for instance, it was plausible even if it was a sleek futuristic motorcycle, largely because Mead though the end result through in its entirety, working out how the vehicle would actually function based on existing technologies.

Blade Runner concept art

Blade Runner concept art.
© 1982 The Blade Runner Partnership. All rights reserved.

Visual Futurist provides fantastic insight into this process. It’s broken up into individual movies, and each section features an array of early sketches that show the thought and care that went into these creations. The book isn’t just a collection of pretty sci-fi paintings (though there are plenty of those as well). Instead, it’s more of a complete look at how Mead works and thinks. You can check out hand-drawn sketches and notes to see how he fussed over seemingly trivial details, like the notches on Deckard’s keycard, or how the ATMs should look in Johnny Mnemonic.

What’s perhaps most interesting is seeing how these designs influenced more than just how the films looked. In one especially illustrative example, when Mead looked at the script for 2003 disaster thriller The Core, he realized that the drilling machine that was central to the movie’s premise had an engineering flaw, and wouldn’t actually work in the real world. After heeding Mead’s advice, then-director Peter Hyams ultimately changed the script to incorporate these new ideas.

If you’re a fan of Mead’s work, Visual Futurist features large sections dedicated to his most popular works. Blade Runner is focused on in particular, but also movies like Elysium, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, as well as his brilliant designs for the reimagined version of the starship Yamato in Yamato 2520. One of the great things about the book, though, is that it also looks at Mead’s design work on a number of lesser-known movies, including some that were never actually made, like director Rob Minkoff’s live-action reboot of The Jetsons.

Mead’s ongoing career has spanned decades, and being able to see such a range of work in one place is fascinating. Whether it’s his debut designs for Star Trek, or his most recent attempt at revisiting dystopia in Blade Runner 2049, Mead’s work on each movie carries a similar hallmark feel — most notably, an obsession over the small details that many may fail to notice, yet make his designs unforgettable.

You can check out The Movie Art of Syd Mead: Visual Futurist right now.

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