Due to the key role played in the production of Blade Runner (1982), illustrator Syd Mead was asked to elaborate on the wording he wanted to appear in the film’s end credits. His answer? “Visual futuristic”. Imagine having to explain it at a party. Mead was a visionary today, an industrial designer and a conceptual artist who built the worlds of the future. And that’s not all: his imagination has had an immeasurable impact in video game production today, influencing artists in the industry.
We often hear that games have few cultural references from which to draw inspiration. There are only two basic plots (and not seven as Christopher Booker suggests): lone robot combat, or Space Marines in an armed showdown against aliens. Blade Runner, Aliens and more Blade Runner. Syd Mead, who died a few weeks ago near New Year’s Eve at the age of 86, it is no coincidence that he is the artist behind the dominant aesthetic of our media. His energy, his spirit, his DNA, we find them game after game, like ashes scattered in the wind.
In the 1980s, Mead helped develop several theme parks, laser tag arenas, and even a few casinos, with lights that rivaled the blinding alleys of Cyberpunk. Of course, the next step was the gaming world. Among his early works Cyber Speedway, for Sega Saturn, in which he stood out for his already proven expertise in vehicle design. He worked on the motorcycle cycles of Tron 2.0, he designed the Wing Commander 5 spacecraft and with Westwood Studios he collaborated on the transposition of the Blade Runner video game. He mainly dealt with concept art, the design of flying machines and other futuristic vehicles with his sketches. He was a consultant for Aliens: Colonial Marines, giving new life to what he started years ago working with James Cameron. We are unhappy if we think that such a talented artist has never found his “big” game. But deep down, it doesn’t matter, if we think of the number of artists influenced by his style, contaminated by his vision. .
Where to start to tell about your immense artistic heritage? Syd Mead always started with a car. As already mentioned, his background is that of an industrial designer, having worked for Ford Motor Company and for US Steel. Mead had been hired to make cars desirable, cool. It’s hard not to think about the upcoming 2077 Project RED CD and its commercialization: in Cyberpunk, the sports car is the 20th century’s addition to the romantic image of the traveler looking at the horizon. There is undoubtedly something fetishistic about it, a violent and necessary encounter between ’80s style and Mead’s careful renovation. Night City needs a car the same way NeoTokyo needs their bike.
Mead’s cars were always stylish and avant-garde. They longed for something more. It was the era of technological optimism, and Mead crafted the scenarios with the same skill with which he imagined his coupes. While machines can soar through the air, even distant, spiraling cities can stand out against the sunset suns of an alien world. It is no coincidence that everything that was originally created to support the vehicles designed by Mead has often overlooked them.
Mead had been hired to design the Blade Runner vehicle, but the car – his specialty – turned out to be an opportunity. This is the instrument with which he opened the portals at different times and places. As he drew the iconic Spinners from the film, Mead began to think big. The charm of a car depends on the surroundings, the reflections on its shiny surface. The car was beautiful compared to the landscape in which it was moving. Hence the importance of the “fluid cascade of reflections”. “Chrome lit by a hundred white-blue suns,” as Mead said. A sketched sketch was not enough. He needed dark, damp streets with rain lit by streetlights. In the Polish cyberpunk Observer, the investigation begins in the cockpit of an imaginative police car: the windshield to protect against polluted rain, the dashboard illuminated as if it were Times Square. This is a prototypical image of Mead.
With Blade Runner, Syd Mead transformed cold, technical drawings into fragments of urban and nightlife. A panorama of a cold city suddenly comes to life, evoking the lonely realism of an Edward Hopper painting. The dazzling lights that the Los Angeles of the future offers us are impressive: neo-noir with a gothic hue, abandoned apartments, streets draped with cables and electrical systems. To balance out, the hustle and bustle of market stalls and neon signs with cryptic symbols glowing in the dark, which were meant to make the shadows more dramatic. It is no small feat to invent the whole cyberpunk aesthetic almost by accident. Quite a lively genre because a taxi, drawn without contours, seemed boring.
Director Denis Villeneuve described Mead’s work as “nostalgic”. Weird term to describe something so futuristic. But the future is never just the future, right? It is a fundamentally unfathomable moment. Instead, Mead exchanged visions, and if, when we look at his performances, we have the “strange feeling” of having been there, of having “passed” before, it is because in the end counts, in a certain sense it is so. It reminds me of a quote attributed to cyberpunk grandfather William Gibson (who worked with Mead on the Johnny Mnemonic movie): “The future is already here – it’s not evenly distributed yet. We live in pockets of high technology, individual elements advanced in advance, glimpses of things to come. The raw material with which futurists work, extrapolating.
Syd Mead’s material may come from two years spent in Okinawa, Japan. Or when you visit Hong Kong. Cyberpunk, as a genre, has long had a strange fascination with parts of Asia. The dawn of globalization is accompanied by a kind of “yellow danger”, with concerns about the “tiger economies”. The first Deus Ex, in part, took place in Hong Kong, while Human Revolution in Hengsha. But even when this Orientalism is seemingly stripped, as in Mankind Divided’s Prague, the original influence is pervasive. There is something familiar about Golem City. A sprawling heap of slums, crossed by cables and ventilation ducts, crowded with lights and flea markets, exotic billboards and more lights.
Mead’s imagination runs throughout the games – cyberpunk suburbs, alien infested spaceships, even ring worlds – and his work has also indirectly influenced an entire generation of artists. It has inspired several global manufacturers, including Viktor Antonov, the architect of City 17 in Half-Life 2 and Dunwall, in Dishonored. Antonov, like Mead, trained as an industrial designer. Much of his work begins with vehicles – APC Combine or Dunwall cars are jumping off points for exploring the greatest imaginary metropolises. Science fiction is still speculative, and Antonov was hired specifically to make places of fiction plausible and authentic. Of course, thanks to solid and continuous technical references.
Most of Mead’s work has been obscure and industrial. Think of the USS Sulaco by Aliens, meticulously designed inside and out. “Ruffled with antennae,” as director James Cameron asked, the military spacecraft was very different from other science fiction spacecraft. Instead of being improbably sleek or unnecessarily twisted, like in Star Trek and Star Wars, Sulaco was highly designed, each piece had a purpose. Inside, the tangle of pipes, grilles and doors – now a science fiction staple – gave the impression of spatial depth. What was hidden behind these walls? In video games, we see, right in this dead space, the prowling Necromorphs or a bunch of demons ready to attack us, leaping from a hidden panel.
Mead is famous for the harshness of his dystopias, but Denis Villeneuve suspects that his universes are in fact “fueled by the optimistic force of the 1950s” when, at least in the West, we had war behind us and capitalism was entered a new golden age, supported by technological and scientific innovations. Jet engines, computers, Apollo space program. From this cultural background, Mead’s visions blossom – not so much of a future as of a collective dream, now seemingly unrealized. A lost future. It is not surprising that when looking at some of his works, one feels like coming home.
Mead also knew how to represent utopias. His style – colorful, crisp, bright, clean, precise – channeled the speed and positivity of a supersonic era. Probably, Mass Effect is the video game series that was inspired by more evidence. In an interview, Derek Watts, Artistic Director of BioWare, explained how, in search of a visual identity, the team examined Mead’s early utopias, with distinct geometric curves and exciting optimism. Like the airplane hissing through the blue sky designed by Mead, leaving trails, Mass Effect is full of smooth curves and projections that make up the speed, propulsion and positivity of its world.
The Mako rover, the costumes and the visors, the nebulous discos with dancing holograms, the Citadel and its ring structure reminiscent of the illustrations of US Steel. That sense of wonder when you land on a planet – light years away from any earthly dystopia. Indeed, distant skyscrapers and pastel skies radiate optimism.
“Their sensuality and beauty provide such a magnificent contrast to the brutality of our reality,” Villeneuve explains of Mead’s early work. The director feels there is a desperate need for utopias right now. It’s hard to disagree, although I think what’s more special than Mead’s work is the variety – the ability to draw in different shades. No wonder we see so much evidence of Mead’s influence on video games. Every time we land on a new planet or look up, to a sublime skybox or impending mega-structure. When we zoom in on a spaceship, a bicycle, a car. It is difficult to take away the visions of someone who has to look to the future for work.
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