Book Review: The Movie Art of Syd Mead: Visual Futurist by Syd Mead & Craig Hodgetts

A giant collection of art from the man who showed us what the future looked like.
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If you’re a fan of science fiction films, there’s a pretty good chance you’re a fan of Syd Mead. Even if you don’t know him by name, it would be almost impossible to avoid his work. And even if you somehow managed to miss films like Aliens, Blade Runner, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Elysium or Tron, it’s safe to say that you are familiar with something or someone that borrowed a bit from Mead’s style. The man has played a pivotal role in shaping cinema’s vision of the future for nearly 40 years and his fingerprints can be seen all over modern film, television, and video games. You could go so far as to say that we know what the future looks like because Syd Mead showed us. The Movie Art of Syd Mead: Visual Futurist collects hundreds of images from throughout his career and offers insight into the artist’s process and a behind-the-scenes look at some of the coolest design work from your favorite films.

The best description of Syd Mead’s work can be found on page 226 of this gigantic hardcover. In the chapter dedicated to Mead’s work on Mission: Impossible III, we learn that the film’s director called on Mead to create something “technically plausible, yet visually astounding”. And that’s Syd Mead in a nutshell - technically plausible, yet visually astounding. Everything he designs looks like it could really exist and function in the real world, yet each and every design will make you do a double take, your eyes widening as you take in the beauty of his work. This is no doubt due, at least in part, to Mead’s background in engineering and car design. When you’re armed with an actual understanding of how machinery works, it’s got to come through in your art.

But it goes beyond that, as hiring Mead to design a vehicle for a film generally meant that he’d throw in a whole world for free. A painting of the cockpit of a flying car wouldn’t just include a control panel and technical readouts; it would also have a fully realized setting with futuristic architecture and bystanders sporting outlandish, yet realistic fashions, possibly reading the news on some sort of 3D holographic tablet and…well, you get the idea. As I took in the images in this book and read the stories behind them, I got the impression that Mead just couldn’t help himself. There’s an immense amount of dedication and passion in the artwork presented and even if it didn’t come through visually, there are plenty of quotes from Mead and various people he’s worked with over the years which serve to educate the reader in regards to the man’s passion and pride in his design.

Syd Mead is pretty awesome. We’ve established that much. So how’s the book? Well, I’ll be honest - I was going to buy this book anyway, even before a review copy became available. And having spent a few weeks with it, my opinion hasn’t changed. This is one of those “must haves” for artists, film buffs, and sci-fi fans alike. It covers 25 movies that Mead has worked on (not all of which actually ended up seeing the light of day) and clocks in at 256 pages. So you’re not just getting a page on Short Circuit here and a paragraph about Mission to Mars there; you’re getting chapters devoted to each film - full-page, sometimes two-page spreads in full color and detailed accounts of the influences on Mead’s work, as well as phone calls from directors and anecdotes from the artist himself. We get to see the process evolve from rough sketches to fully painted images or designs that resemble actual blueprints for functioning vehicles and technology.

Probably the biggest section of The Movie Art of Syd Mead: Visual Futurist is spent on Blade Runner because…well, because it’s Blade Runner. Come on, have you seen this movie? Mead’s work on the film left an indelible mark on our view of the future that science fiction has had a hard time escaping from.  But there are plenty of smaller chapters dedicated to a few movies that never ended up getting made, and that stuff is pretty cool too. We get to see Mead’s work evolve and adapt to differing projects. Ever wonder what it would look like if the guy who designed those awesome flying cars from Blade Runner worked on a Jetsons movie? It’s in here! Along with a whole bunch of other stuff that you’ll be drooling over once you pick it up.

So how about a downside? Because there has to be dark to balance the light, right? Thankfully, the negative aspects of The Movie Art of Syd Mead don’t quite rival the positives, but they do exist and it all comes down to one simple thing. When I got past the foreward and introduction and started getting into the meat and potatoes of the book, I immediately noticed something. It was in regards to Mead’s work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, released in "1999." Except that it wasn’t - it was released in 1979. You know that and I know that and everybody knows that. In fact, the folks at Titan Books know it too and they’re probably wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth as they read this, furious that a million online dorks keep harping on the one error that made it past their proofreading department. It’s totally a minor mistake, but it’s one of those “you only had one job” things and honestly, if it wasn’t the first thing I read in in the book, it wouldn’t bother me. Actually, it really doesn’t bother me. That much.

Minor quibbles about release dates aside, I didn’t buy this book for the words, I bought it for the pictures. Actually, I didn’t buy this book, I got a review copy. But I was going to buy this book and I still would buy this book, even with that one mistake. And I’m going to tell you to buy this book too. 

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