Syd Mead
EXPOSÉ 6 Grand Master Award

The EXPOSÉ 6 Grand Master Award winner is Syd Mead. Syd’s extensive career reads like an artist’s wildest dream being launched into prominence in the early 60s for his futuristic vehicle designs for U.S. Steel. In the late 1970s and early 1980s Syd worked at the forefront of science-fiction film with concept work on ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’, ‘Tron’, ‘Aliens’, ‘2010’, and his best known work on Ridley Scott’s ‘Bladerunner’. Syd was asked what title he’d like for the film’s end credits and came up with ‘Visual futurist’. Though it was an off-the-cuff suggestion, the title perfectly describes the work for which Syd Mead has become synonymous.

Running of the Six DRGXX
“Commissioned by the promoters of the first (and last) ‘Tokyo International Sports Fair’. It depicts six huge robot ‘dogs’ coming around the turn on a racetrack scaled up for their 120 foot height.”

Syd Mead’s earliest creative memory wasn’t set in the future, but a little closer to his surroundings in South Dakota: “It was a stencil illustration of a guy skiing down a slope when I was in the second grade. I used brown paper, cut out the stencil, and then sprayed it with a white paint supplied by the ‘arts’ class teacher.”

With a Baptist Minister father, the Mead family was often on the move through Syd’s childhood before they settled in Colorado. Syd’s first job out of high school was for Alexander Film Co. as an animation cell-inker, character originator, and background illustrator. Shortly after, he joined the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers serving two years in Okinawa Japan: “Okinawan culture is a mix of Japanese and Chinese. I became fascinated by the decorative geometry and the stylized depiction of scenario. Then, before I checked out of the Army I spent a month in Hong Kong with a buddy on ‘R and R’ and got more exposure to the oriental culture.”

On his return to civilian life Syd presented his portfolio at Art Center in Los Angeles and was accepted for the fall semester. In the interim, he was asked to work at a new studio in Albuquerque by the former head of studio at Alexander Film Co. He instead took a position designing window displays at the Lerner Shoppe (a chain of women’s wear stores). The three state manager wanted Syd to take over as the three state head of display design, but Art Center beckoned.

“A gouache preliminary for a project that never went full size.”

After graduating from Art Center with ‘Great Distinction’ Mead joined Ford Motor Company’s Advanced Styling Center at Dearborn Michigan where he worked for just over two years. His next position was the chance of a lifetime with Hansen Co. in Chicago where Syd was commissioned to illustrate future vehicle scenarios for a variety of corporate clients. “The highlight of this time was the complete creative freedom I enjoyed doing the series of advertising books for U.S. Steel, Celanese Corporation, Allis Chalmers. The U.S. Steel books went worldwide and definitely launched my career.”

At the beginning of the 1970s, Syd started his own company, Syd Mead Inc. which started a twelve-year account with Philips C.I.D.C., and also worked with Raymond Loewy in Paris and New York in addition to other contract work. Syd’s first standalone book was published in partnership with Roger and Martyn Dean in 1976 titled ‘Sentinel’.

In 1975 Syd headed to California while continuing his work for the automotive industry and other clients. The next chapter of his career in film began in 1979. ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ was Syd’s first movie project: “I worked with John Dykstra at Apogee in post production designing the V’ger entity—the climax of the film. I had to accommodate an existing hexagonal construct which Paramount had bought from a professor of mathematics at Boston University. The device created a hexagonal orifice when the periphery of the mechanism was rotated.”

Hypervan (detail)
“The first painting of Syd’s Hypervan showing the vehicle parked on a brilliant red granite plaza with sculpture, foliage, and masonry accents.”

Syd’s next movie with director Ridley Scott made Syd a household name for sci-fi buffs around the world: “‘Bladerunner’ happened through a series of links to other people in Hollywood, and the book that Roger Dean printed using U.S. Steel illustrations,” he explains. Though it was Syd’s second movie, it was the first he worked on from the beginning of production. In ‘Bladerunner’, Syd’s time in Japan and Hong Kong helped him to envision the memorable future cities complete with backgrounds, interiors, and the now famous ‘Spinner’ flying police vehicle. “While I was doing post production matte painting preliminaries for ‘Bladerunner’, I started work on ‘TRON’ for Steven Lisberger at Disney,” explains Mead. His work on ‘TRON’ included the design of the Sark’s carrier: tanks, light cycle; the CPU; Sark’s camp; various scenic sets and graphics; the title graphic; and alphanumeric ‘TRON’ typeface. After ‘Bladerunner’ was nearing completion, Mead was asked by his agent what he’d like to be called in the end credits to which he replied: “Visual futurist.” Mead’s body of work revolves around visions of the future, however, he goes beyond simply painting outlandish futuristic scenes: “I read lay magazines and try to keep up with the technological ‘wave front’ so that when I concoct some fantasy device or scenario, it has some basis in rational concept.”

In 1985 Mead formed OBLAGON, an acronym for a story he had started to write years before—Orbital Biolab@LaGrange Operational Node. OBLAGON has published several books of Mead’s work including ‘Oblagon’, ‘Kronolog,’ and ‘Sentury’ with help from his business manager and partner Roger Servick. “The books were our sales force and catalogue, and kept our presence worldwide while normal design account work was in progress.”

Asteroid Facility
“A large cargo shuttle leaving a planetoid mining and processing facility.”

Over several decades Mead has developed a great understanding of the creative business: “First, have a grasp of context, detail, and the rationale which makes design and image-making worthwhile to yourself and commercially, to someone else. Try not to become a ‘linear’ professional. Learn a variety of techniques, of thinking methodology and most of all, don’t become complacent. Honestly, I get scared shitless every time I start a new, big job. I read, I gather information and push the client to tell me what they want. (Sometimes they really don’t know, and those jobs are usually nightmares!) Remember details, notice how people move, how sunlight cascades over moving objects, why foliage looks the way it does (it’s nature’s own fractal magic) and how come velvet has about the same range of value as metallic surfaces but one is soft and the other is brittle. Finally, don’t assume that technique alone will save your ass. It still is the idea that wins—every time. Remember that elaborate technique and dumb story produces a demo reel, not a narrative.”

Syd Mead continues to present his work and thoughts to audiences worldwide. He is a truly talented and thoughtful artist and thoroughly deserving of the title ‘Grand Master’.

Eyes on the classics
“Syd’s first attempt to utilize a computer to create an illustration, back in the 1991 using a Macintosh IIfx.”

“The control area for a lunar installation. We see the moon holographic image floating above operation consoles, EVA vehicles at right available for terrain exploration. In the background are defense fighters in their hanger space.”




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