Due to the key role played in the production of Blade Runner (1982), illustrator Syd Mead was asked to clarify the wording he wanted to appear in the end credits of the film. His answer? Futuristic visual. Imagine having to explain it at a party. Mead was a visionary of 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 today’s video game production, influencing artists in the industry.
We often hear that games have few cultural references to draw inspiration from. There are only two basic plots (and not seven as Christopher Booker has suggested): the loner in the fight against robots, or the Space Marines in an armed confrontation against aliens. Blade Runner, Aliens and more Blade Runner. Syd Mead, who passed away a few weeks ago near the New Year 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 rival 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 spaceship and with Westwood Studios he collaborated on the transposition of the Blade Runner video game. Mostly, he was engaged in concept art, designing flying machines and other futuristic vehicles with his sketches. He has been a consultant for Aliens: Colonial Marines, giving new life to what he started years ago working with James Cameron. We are out of luck if we think that such a talented artist has never found his “big” game. But in the end it does not matter, if we think about the number of artists influenced by his. style, contaminated by his vision.
Where to start to tell 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 CD Project RED’s upcoming 2077 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 traveling. Hence the importance of the “fluid cascade of reflections”. “Chrome lit by a hundred white-blue suns,” as Mead put it. A sketched sketch was not enough. He needed dark streets damp with rain lit by streetlights. In the Polish cyberpunk Observer, the investigation begins in the cockpit of a so imagined police car: the windshield to protect against the 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 cold city panorama 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 once 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 was trading visions, what if, when we watch his performances, we have “the odd feeling”? to have been there, to have been there ?? it is first because after all, 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 just 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 have come from two years spent in Okinawa, Japan. Or during his visit to Hong Kong. Cyberpunk, as a genre, has long had a strange fascination with parts of Asia. The dawn of globalization is combined with a kind of “yellow danger”, with concerns about “tiger economies”. The first Deus Ex, in part, took place in Hong Kong, while Human Revolution in Hengsha. But even when that Orientalism is seemingly stripped down, 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 signs and even more lights.
Mead’s imagination runs throughout the games – cyberpunk suburbs, alien infested spaceships, even circular worlds – and his work has also indirectly influenced an entire generation of artists. He has inspired several global builders, including Viktor Antonov, the architect of City 17 in Half-Life 2 and Dunwall, in Dishonored. Antonov, like Mead, was 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 always speculative, and Antonov was specifically hired 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 Aliens’ USS Sulaco, meticulously crafted inside and out. Antennas spiky, ?? as director James Cameron requested, the military ship was very different from other sci-fi spaceships. Instead of being improbably sleek or unnecessarily twisted, as 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 hiding behind these walls? In video games we see, just 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 his universes are actually fueled by the optimistic force of the 1950s, when, at least in the West, we had war behind us and capitalism had just entered. a new golden age, supported by technological and scientific innovations. Jet engines, computers, Apollo space program. Mead’s visions flow from this cultural context – not so much of a future as of a collective dream, now patently unrealized. A lost future. It’s no wonder that looking at some of his works 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 that whistles through the blue sky designed by Mead, leaving contrails, Mass Effect is full of curves and smooth projections that render 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 offer such a magnificent contrast with the brutality of our reality. Villeneuve talks about Mead’s early work. The director thinks there is a desperate need for utopias right now. It’s hard to disagree, although I think what’s most special about Mead’s work is the variety – the ability to draw in different shades. No wonder we see so many clues to Mead’s influence on video games. Every time we land on a new planet or look towards a sublime skybox or impending megastructure. When we zoom in on a spaceship, a bicycle, a car. It’s hard to pull back the visions of someone who has to look to the future for work.
Source : Reddit