For much of the last 40 years, the concept art of Sydney Jay Mead has defined what science fiction looks like on the screen. He passed away December 30th, 2019 at the age of 86.
If you don’t recognize the name Syd Mead, you will recognize his work from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Tron, Short Circuit, Timecop and Mission: Impossible III.
You’ll remember it from Blade Runner.
You’ll remember it from Aliens.
Syd Mead was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota in 1933, and from a young age became both a science fiction fan and talented artist. Following high school, he served three years in the Army and then went to the Art Center School in Los Angeles, graduating in 1959. After working for the Ford Motor Company’s Advanced Styling Studio for two years, he became a successful freelancer, eventually founding his own company, Syd Mead Inc., in 1970.
His artwork and designs for companies like United States Steel, Philips Electronics and others drew the attention of Hollywood, and Mead was brought on to redesign the model for V’Ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. While the full scale of Mead’s design was not really seen in that film, it would be front and center in his now iconic vehicle designs for both Tron and Blade Runner. Mead told Empire Magazine, “Usually if you get 85 per cent of what you imagined, then you’ve won. On Blade Runner, it was almost 100 per cent. The vehicles were almost identical to my designs.”
Blade Runner was also the film where a new film credit was born: the “Visual Futurist”. Coined by Mead himself as a way to describe what he was doing on the film, it was a title that he would carry with him the rest of his life.
Concept art and design work for the Leonov in 2010 and the Space Marine ship Sulaco in Aliens would follow, and fans of the AT-AT from the Star Wars films owe that design to Mead as well. He worked on Turn A Gundam, the unfinished Yamato 2520, Elysium, and Tomorrowland. He would return to his Blade Runner designs and give them new life with his work on Blade Runner 2049.
In 2017 he wrote The Movie Art of Syd Mead: Visual Futurist, which covered his career as an artist and designer, and includes many previously unpublished designs and sketches from his long career. In 2015 he was awarded the Visual Effects Society Award, and was scheduled to receive the Art Directors Guild’s William Cameron Menzies Award on February 1st, 2020. On the news of his death, the Art Director’s Guild stated, “Syd Mead has played a pivotal role in shaping cinema with his unique ability to visualize the future. His visions and illustrations of future technological worlds remain as a testament to his vast imagination. While we are sorry he was not able to experience the celebration in person, we know his presence will be felt as we acknowledge his contributions to the world of design in all forms.”
While no official cause of death was initially given, he had been fighting lymphoma for the last three years, and had gone to City of Hope in Duarte, California for cancer treatment. He is survived by his partner in both life and business, Roger Servick, and his sister Peggy and her children.
The following is just a small selection of Syd Mead’s artwork. More can be found on his website.