A huge part of the enduring appeal of Blade Runner is the way it looks. Beginning with that big flaming eye in the film’s opening moments through its final rain-drenched monologue, it remains a triumph of design, its every car, set, outfit, and machine a masterful piece of visual composition. Tiny details are capable of telling whole stories—like the specifics of Deckard’s apartment, the opulence of the Tyrell building, the subversion of Pris’ wardrobe—and much of the credit for this goes to legendary sci-fi designer Syd Mead. (You can see a bunch of his work on his website.)
Vice recently republished a long interview with Mead that originally appeared in Garage Magazine. While Mead has worked on other classic films, including Tron and Aliens, as well as produced reams of corporate work, including the first commercial laser disc player, much of the interview focuses on his creative process and the ongoing cultural fascination with Blade Runner. As we approach the year in which that film is set, Mead’s vision of the future is worth reexamining.
Blade Runner was set hugely ahead of its time‚ but 2019 is only a couple of years away and we’re not even going to be close to that pretense in real life. However‚ as we go into more elaborate stories in the future‚ the technology is starting to catch up. We now have little color cameras that are 2mm across. The technology of reality is starting to compete with the imagination of what movie writers can write. More and more‚ like William Gibson‚ we’ll see this social embedment in an imaginative future. But technology is background – it’s not the story.
Part of what made the collaboration work was the deep connection he felt with the world director Ridley Scott was creating. All of those costumes and landscapes did more than look cool; they also communicated something fundamental and philosophical:
It also connected on so many levels: socially‚ morally‚ and—I hate to use this word—spiritually. It had a built-in intent on what it is to be human. Is it fair to throw away people when they’re used up‚ just like an appliance? But then of course when there’s a war people are sent off to die‚ as if they are being discarded. So it’s a moralistic crossover.
Intriguingly, it was as a result of this “moralistic crossover” with the world that his designs came to dominate the film’s look. Originally, he was hired to do much less:
I received the script and saw that it was a very dystopian world we were looking at. Earth had been left behind because all the technology was directed off-world. Originally the only thing I was hired for was the vehicles‚ and I realized that they were characters and should look a certain way‚ each one very distinctive. I thought: let’s show them in this world. I dropped in these dark backgrounds with garish lights and street scenes‚ and that’s what fascinated Ridley‚ because he’s an artist and he enjoyed the fact that I could sympathize and illustrate this dystopian world with the vehicles I had been asked to design‚ all in one little visual package. So I was left to go at it‚ and a lot of the renderings from my street scenes were duplicated by Laurence Paull and his team almost exactly like I had painted them.
The interview goes a lot of other interesting places, including talking about some of the most ambitious projects Mead ever worked on. One that failed to come to fruition—a theme park for Michael Jackson—sounds like it would’ve been the place to be in Kuala Lumpur:
He wanted to produce his own kind of professional-career ego entertainment center where you’d be able to follow his career and tune in via tapes. It was going to be near Kuala Lumpur‚ in Malaysia. My partner Roger and I had several meetings with Michael‚ and he said to me: “Have you seen the movie Judge Dredd?” We had. He said: “I want the interior to look like that‚” with the pipes coming down‚ a sort of industrial look. I’d been to Tokyo many times and I’d sat in the bar at the top of this 40-story building looking out over the Imperial Palace and gardens. At night you’d see cars going down there and the light would disappear behind trees and come out again. For Michael’s pavilion‚ I wanted to install television sets that were timed to duplicate this diorama effect on a miniature scale. You’d look out over a walkway as if you were 40‚ 50 stories above the ground. It would have been really spectacular.
Check out the whole interview for much more, including Mead’s intriguing obsession with sci-fi “encounter cloaks.”