Interviews · Syd Mead

Syd Mead Interview – Turn A Gundam DVDs

This is a transcription of an interview with mechanical designer Syd Mead by Robert Napton originally shot for Bandai Entertainment’s canceled release of Turn A Gundam, which was announced in 2010. This has often been referred to as the “lost” Syd Mead interview, until it finally resurfaced with Right Stuf’s North American release of the Turn A Gundam DVDs in June of 2015.

The transcription follows below and has been edited for readability.

Q. Thanks for having us and thanks for doing this. It’s going to be exciting to bring the story of Turn A Gundam to all the American fans, a lot of whom probably don’t know a lot of the details. Before we go there, I’d like to get into your background… obviously your first love is automobiles and cars. You studied at ArtCenter, you worked for Ford — that was one of your big first things. So when did your fascination with cars begin?

Well, I’m now working on my autobiography. I figured I better do that so I can still remember all this stuff. I started drawing when I was 2-1/2. I’d have a drawing and it’d be in a book and my parents would save everything, fortunately. My first car drawing was when I was 3 years old. When you’re a child, you’re always looking up at everything. So the car I drew had a lot of body and very small windows, sort like now — I was 70-some years ahead of my time! There were even people waving out the windows of the car; it had a scenario from the start. My car fascination took over rocket ships. My father was a baptist minister, and for some unknown reason he read Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers to me before I learned to read. I have no idea why, I still don’t. By the time I was 6-7, maybe 10 years old, I could draw really quite well. And by the time I was in high school I could draw the human figure, I could draw animals, and I had a sense of shading to show shape. I was really quite accomplished at that point with brush technique and so-forth.

Then I went to the army for 3 years during the Korean War. I was on Okinawa–I had a lot of fun there. And then I went to ArtCenter after that. So the 50s were the army, ArtCenter, and starting at Ford. I graduated from ArtCenter in 1959. Then Ford hired me in their advanced design studio, and that lasted 26 months. Then I got a connection to the company in Chicago that published the steelbooks. So I quit Ford, my salary increased 5 times and in 1961 that was a good thing. I worked for the Hansen Company in Chicago for the next 9 years, let’s say, and then started my own company in 1970 in Detroit. My first client was the international giant corporation Phillips Envy in Holland. That account lasted 12 years, which funded the start of the company. I then went into architectural rendering. I’d been very fortunate and lucky: I could illustrate well and I had design training, so I could illustrate my own ideas very well. Now with computer imagining and so-forth you can easily do rotational models of your design, but back then you had to make a drawing or sketch. And then it went to prototyping to a 3-dimensional form.

Q. What’s interesting is how you were so adept at such a young age. Did you always have a proclivity for drawing?

Well, I was sort of an insular child. I didn’t associate much with people my age until college. There was once a 60th anniversary of my graduating class from high school; I didn’t remember anybody in the class. Now, I was active in posters for athletic events, I was active in theatrics and all that, but I don’t remember any of my classmates.

Q. Did science fiction have the same impact on you as your love of drawing did?

I learned to draw, and I learned to draw better and better because if you’re visualizing your ideas, and the better you can render your idea, the more real it becomes as a fantasy extension of your imagination. And I think that’s what drove me to keep trying and refining my technique. Plus I had a lot of time. Nowadays, the kids have dance class, writing class, they want to be a lawyer, a politician, whatever. And they’re pummeled into this constant 24-hour push to be something. They end up 35 and married and still don’t know who they are. I knew who I was very early on, and drawing was a big part of it. I spent hours and hours drawing. The more you do something, as long as you do it reasonably right, you get better at it.

Q. Did your military experience influence your art?

No. The reason I joined the army, right after being drafted, was that I wanted to control my life timeline. It’s as simple as that. So I drew in my time at the army. They found out I could draw, and I’d decorate the mess hall and the supply room and got along well with the officers because I was helping their company look really nice. Once I was in Okinawa I became a training sergeant for about 120 men in the company. The challenge of the army was really to learn how to be social with a wide variety of people. Being in Okinawa for 2-1/2 year was my first introduction to oriental and Asian graphics and design mentality — that was eye-opening. The whole history of oriental art goes back thousands of years, and the amazing thing is the Chinese practice of lacquer: you take an image, say a dragon, and wrap it over a corner of a lacquered box. Well, that’s mapping. That’s what we do with computers now. This technique was thousands of years ago. They would do sliding screens in a ground-floor space, but the tree lines would be above the floor. So it’d be like you’re above a tree line, and it was amazing. Then I spent a month in Hong Kong on vacation from teh army and that was another peak into the slightly different look at another subculture of mainline Chinese culture. I had a wonderful time there and got drunk on very expensive wine.

My next trip to Japan was in 1961, between the time I quit Ford and went to work for the company in Chicago. I had contacts already in Japan; there was an art student I had met at ArtCenter, he was now in Nagoya as a ceramics artist. Another friend of mine’s brother was a Time life correspondent in Tokyo, so he knew all the spots. We had a wonderful time. Tokyo Tower was new then. Another friend of mine was Hans Bretsner, from GM, who’d gone to Mitsubishi and helped them set up their auto design studio for production of automobiles. At that time there were only five Mercedes in Japan: the palace had two, there was a business executive who had buried his two during the war, and Hans had the fifth one. He learned to speak perfect Japanese in two years. Some people are just good at languages! It took me almost a year to learn to say “okonomiyaki”. Anyways, we’d drive to Kyoto in his black Mercedes with two geishas in the rear seats. We were wearing ties, jackets, shirts, and trousers and were treated like royalty. I mean, we drove up to this hotel and are baggage would disappear to our room. It was fantastic.

Q. How did traditional Japaneset art influence you?

The influence was patterned — how you treat pattern, as applied to objects. At ArtCenter, I learned why things are made a certain way, and I still like to apply pattern to primarily geometric solids. Organic shapes are nice because they duplicate a natural feel, and I like that too. But I very much like geometric shapes that you slice at an angle, which results in an odd geometry however wrapping a pattern around something like that. The influence was in the modularity. In my first trip to Japan in 1961, I stayed at the new Hotel New Japan in Akasaka, which is now gone. I had a 8-9 tatami room, which is fairly large. The modularity, the carefulness, in how things were arranged impress me a lot.

Q. Were you influenced by Asian city design?

No. Tokyo is extremely visually confusing, architecturally. because it’s a pre-medieval city. Now cars drive around — almost, as the traffic jams are legendary. But there’s no grid, because it’s an old city which gradually just had to pack stuff in where they can. And the buildings literally are shaped by the footprint of the land they can get a hold of.

Q. Do you think there’s a strange beauty in it though? Even though it’s sort of chaotic. I’m just curious what your takeaway is.

Well, all good directors of film like texture. When I was first introduced to Ridley Scott and Michael Deely at the first meeting for Blade Runner, the first thing Ridley told me was “this is not going to be Logan’s run,” which was this blank white, no texture, sterile, and Ridley of course is a heavy texture guy. So in that way the visual texture of Tokyo is fascinating from that standpoint. It’s intense, much more so than most big American cities because our cities are newer — Boston, New York, they get jumbled. Boston in particular, which is a street nightmare. New York does have a grid, once you cross Houston and Canton it becomes a grid system, which is easy to find your way around in. In Japan, the oldest house has the highest number. Taxi drivers will have to ask local residents how to get to House #32 because they have no idea.

Q. What was it like in the ’50s at ArtCenter?

Well, it was on 3rd St. in Los Angeles, between McCadden Place and Las Palmas, a very upscale neighborhood. Rossmore is to the east and there’s a country club and golf course nearby. It’s a very elite residential neighborhood. The school was purchased by Tink Adams and with the help of two older ladies, the Franklin sisters — it was a girls school prior to that. They moved the school to Pasadena in 1972. So there was air conditioning, as the air quality in Los Angeles at that time was so bad that it would have this blue tan color to it on some days, and you could taste it. In particulate, it was so thick, yet you had to go to your miserable non-air conditioned apartment and do precise artwork with paint or charcoal or whatever. And ArtCenter early on had made an alliance with the Japanese government; they started bringing over young Japanese people to train them to go back to Japan so they’d know the American marketing design prevalence mentality — for export. That was a big cultural window for ArtCenter and a great thing that Tink Adams thought up. They were going to open a post-graduate branch in Kyoto and I went with them on that trip. There was supposed to be a big presentation with the mayor of Kyoto and some of the political luminaries, but that never happened. I have a little story to share about Kyoto though. We had just been watching their temple architecture garden motif where they build these sand pyramids, they’re perfect. It was Fall, and we’d just seen that while walking alone. I collect leaves from all over the world: I have leaves from Norway, Germany, Sweden, all over. So I wanted to bring back a leaf from my trip to Kyoto. It wasn’t a ginko, it was like a Japanese maple or something. I had bent down to pick up this leaf and was looking at it and noticed a tiny little tear on the tip. This old lady with one of those twig brooms was brushing the walkway. She said “chotto chotto chotto” and reached out and found a better one and said “dozo”. That was so nice!

Q. What was the purpose of your first company?

Well, between the Hansen company and my own company, that span of time, I worked for a corporate group in New York called Intergraph. They made point-of-purchase collaterla material brochures, which I’d also been doing for the Hansen Company. That entity was sold to a larger group and they eliminated the group I was working for. So now I had no job. I started my company with no clients. I turned down Chrysler, because they wanted me to go to South America to San Paulo, to be their sort of idea guy down there. I told them I have a corporation right now, can I go as a consultant. They said that I’d have to go on contract, for tax reasons, really. I did a couple jobs for General Motors, their styling center. But essentially I had no clients. Then Phillips got a new design director, Knut Yran, a Norwegian multi-millionaire, and he heard about me through Jerome Goole’s office in New York, because that office was designing packaging for the American market. Knut was looking around for somebody to be more visionary than the European-trained designers, who were more engineering-adjustment-trained at the time. So he comes to Detraoit on his way to Tokyo to visit their satellite office. We we went out for dinner, and so I had their account for the next 12 years. That was a turning point for me, in terms of going to Europe, having a more sophisticated environment to pick up queues from and so-forth. I found out how embarrassed you are when you go to a cocktail party and everybody there is trialing. You walk up to a group and they all start speaking English and you don’t understand anything they were saying before that. They’d make jokes which depend on knowing three languages because otherwise it’s not funny. It was an amazing 12 years going over there back and forth, and we’ve been over there many times since, as invitees for film festivals and just for travel.

Q. What do you think of the shift in car design?

There is no domestic-made automobile anymore, first of all. The first big car I bought was a 1961 Cadillac Coupe Deville, second one was a ’63 Cadillac, ’65 Cadillac, 1970 Imperial. These are all cars that are 2-1/2 tons and between 19 and 20 feet long. And the one in my driveway now is a ’72 Imperial, my collector car. Of course when those cars were built gasoline was 35 cents/gallon or less, and the big difference in appearance is that those cars were made with components that had to be modeled individually. Every piece of chrome had to be modeled in clay, maybe a hardwood prototype model made for it. Dyes were made and the car was assembled by all these different parts. Now cars are designed as a three-dimensional envelope that encloses the package, which is the underneath part of the impact system and the air conditioning and the internal parts of the car — the envelope that describes the passenger compartment. But this envelope is a tessellated mesh of computer generated points, and then you map the stuff onto it. You map door-cuts, you map exterior light packages, and other details. So you can have the gas doors made somewhere halfway around the world, they all arrive and they fit perfectly because they’re matched to an ISO international digital standard. And it’s totally different in appearance from if you assembled it with an individual part-matched sheet metal. Some of the cars — my joke is that they look like badly drawn manga drawings. They’re strange; they’re angry little bugs staring at you and they’re about the size of a carnival ride, to me. But they’re in response to the price of gasoline, which is artificial in the first place. It costs no more to have gas in Europe than it does here. So here we think $4/gallon is expensive, but it’s not as expensive per gallon as bottled water, first of all. It should be $4/gallon in Europe, but it’s $10/gallon in Europe, and it’s all tax-related. It has nothing to do with the cost of the product. Gas is a commodity, it’s shipped worldwide, and there’s no difference in retail price as a staring point anywhere in the world.

Q. What do you think cars will be like in the future?

Well, the battery technology is advancing very rapidly, which is the key to an all-electric car. Tesla makes a roadster Sudan, and they have hundreds and hundreds of little batteries all lined up in them in series. Because big batteries… the technology was bought by oil companies, and you’d have to claw them out of their hands to see who can develop it, because they don’t want to lose their immense oil profits. The hybrid now is the best answer because you aren’t limited by the length of time until your batter runs out. You have a little donkey engine, a low capacity engine like the Prius, and it feeds electricity into the battery system, and when the battery runs out you still have a generator on-board. So it’s probably the best solution right now as an interim. As gasoline use drops all over the world, the oil companies have to figure out something else to do. They’re funding alternate sources as well — the business of a business is to stay in business, so that’s what they’re in the process of doing.

Q. Do you think there will ever be flying cars?

You can buy a flying car thing now for about $120,000, but if you have 4 people on-board this machine, it has to be very lightweight, carbon-fiber or something, as you don’t want dead weight. You’re lifting dead weight up and then you have to control it for flight patterns and all that. And right now it’s all fans, circulating fans like a helicopter. You could put them in a little shroud to increase the efficiency of the downdraft, but you’d need a very robust power source to do this. The Blade Runner car, for instance, the Spinner, was imaginary technology. The Spinner was the size of a mid-size car. But to have these automobiles under private ownership flying around in urban… imagine rush hour in the morning! You’d have people coming up, people coming down, in-and-out of the pattern constantly. You’d have tens and thousands of them. It’s true that computers are getting very fast, big, and cheap, but you’d need a fail-proof system to keep all these things on-track in-and-out of the system. If you control it all past a certain point then it doesn’t make any sense to have one because you’d have to follow a flight path that’s prescribed, and you can’t go where you want to go point-to-point like you can with an automobile. The genius of an automobile in urban traffic setups, even though you have these horrible traffic jams, is that you can climb into your car and go wherever you want at the time you want and not have to wait for a schedule. You’re private, you can listen to your music, you can smoke, you’re in your own private ruling environment — that’s very attractive on a personal level. I don’t think that’ll probably ever go away. You’ll have time-share vehicles–I’ve rented those 40-50 years ago–where you purchase time to use a vehicle and then you climb out of it and somebody else uses it. And there’s social niceties and social imperatives in that too, but that way you don’t have to pay to own this thing. It’s like hiring a taxi, but you’re in the vehicle yourself. And once you get self-driven capsules or traffic units that talk to each other or are part of the system, then you have a non-linear per-choice per-trip system that duplicates what people have with cars now. That’s the ultimate nice way to have it.

Q. And you think that’ll happen?

Yes, I do. Computers are so good they’ve now had computer-driven vehicles. Google has been doing this for several years now, they have vehicles that take pictures. They have  somebody on-board in case something really goes wrong, but they’re all autonomous vehicles going around these cities. And the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), they sponsored that race into Las Vegas across the dessert*. The first year (2004) had 17 entries or whatever, and only two of them made it past the first kilometer. They’re so good [now]; they can navigate around rocks, there are new walking vehicles the army has developed that are self-stabilizing. You can kick it and it’ll recover and stand back up again. The robotics of controlling motion are advancing very rapidly.
(*DARPA Grand Challenge)

Q. Let’s talk about how your film-work started. You had a pretty amazing trifecta in a short period of time of Tron, Blade Runner, and Alien, which is a pretty remarkable amount of work. How did the filmwork begin for you?

Well, the US steelbooks went horizontal and that was the first big visibility boost. That actually started my career, because a career depends on referrals and a visibility that generates demand for having you do something for somebody and getting paid for it. So John Dykstra and his partner Bob Shepherd owned a company called Apogee; they were assigned by Robert Wise (the director) to do post-production for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the first of the Star Trek series. I got a phone call. I’d just moved out here in ’75, so this is now ’78. Got a phone call from Bob Shepherd asking if I’d like to meet for lunch and work on a science fiction film. I thought “well, that’s nice”… I had no particular ambition to be in the film industry at all. I’d been doing corporate design work for 20 years before that. So I had lunch with him at the Century Plaza Hotel, and started doing the designs for V’Ger at the end of the climax of the film. I also met Robert Wise. Interestingly, Katzenberg was assistant producer at Paramount at the time. I also had the Phillips account. So here’s a little side story: I was in a meeting and Robert Wise said “Mead, I’d like maybe one more generation of sketches for this V’Ger thing” and I said “Mr. Wise I’m leaving for Eindhoven two days from now.” Without a pause he turns to Katzenberg and says “do we have a studio in our Amsterdam office?” Katzenberg responds “Yes sir. I’ll have a driver go down to Eindhoven every second day and pick up Mead’s sketches and we’ll courier them back here.” So my first movie was done halfway around the world in Holland! Well, about half of the design for V’Ger. So, Star Trek comes out.

Then Ridley had gotten together –Michael Deeley had just come off producing Deer Hunter — he and Ridley had gotten together and financed and pieced things with Bud Yorkin and Jerry Perenchio. Some wag in New York said the financing of Blade Runner was at least as interesting as the story. So I had a meeting with them at the 9000 building at Sunset Boulevard, which was the Playboy building, and started working on Blade Runner. My lawyers started doing the contract with the film company. That was my first [film]… so I just sort of fell into all of this. I was doing other work at the same time; architectural renderings and design work for clients around the world. So Blade Runner comes out, to less-than tumultuous acclaim — very disappointing. And then Tron. I was actually doing post-production work on Blade Runner, and then I got a call from Don Kushner, who was working with Steven Lisberger at Disney, to produce Tron. Disney was going through a very bad period at that time; they were ready to be bought out and sold off in different corporate sections. Thomas Wilhite was feature executive, but that wasn’t his real job; he’d just taken over the position. So Lisberger came from Boston, with some stuff already done that he didn’t like, so I got involved in working on Tron. I’d come up from my house on Capistrano Beach to do Blade Runner in the morning, have lunch at Denny’s, and then drive over to Burbank and have an afternoon meeting about Tron — then I’d go home. I was working on Tron and essentially Blade Runner at the same time. So people who say I have a dystopian view of the future, that’s really just silly because you can’t imagine two more different films than Tron and Blade Runner. Then [James] Cameron gets the green light to do Aliens. At the time, I was in Florida as one of the judges for that year’s Miss Universe contest. So he (Cameron) knows about me now, and he FedExes the script down to me; I read the script and start drawing the Sulaco on the way back on the plane. Then 2010 comes along with MGM and Peter Hyams. I met Arthur C. Clarke, he was in some cameo shots in front of the White House. That was my movie career, starting as you say very fast, 3-4 high profile films in a short number of years.

Q. Where did the design elements for Blade Runner come from?

These little gouache sketches that I did were very small, really. People wanted to exhibit them and I say “well they’re only by 15″ by what…” not very big for an exhibit. But there’s a scene where we have the Armadillo, or Sebastian’s truck, parked there and it was going to be in what was going to be the Chinatown part of the Blade Runner set. It was never fleshed out to that degree. I did happenstance kanji scribbles, I have no idea what it says; Ridley of course did higher a linguist. The reason Ridley did that is because then you can make the visual clutter very dense, with his Asian cultural influence, but the American audience couldn’t read it. So it packed up the visual density of the shot but it didn’t mean anything particularly. Now I don’t know if it actually said things. Of course, Blade Runner is extremely popular in Japan. When I was in Japan in ’61, there wasn’t even a small bit of the elaborate electronic signage in Ginza, for instance. Y’know, it hadn’t gotten to that density point yet.

Q. Could you tell us a bit about “Retro Deco”?

Well, there was using Warner Bros.’ back lot. It [Blade Runner] was all shot on lot, except for the Bradbury building. These back lot streets have been shown in hundreds and hundreds of films, and Ridley wanted it to be disguised so you’d never recognized any of these facades. So part of working with Larry Paul, the production designer, I just visually packed this stuff onto these facades to make them unrecognizable. And part of it was the socioeconomic profile of the story: everything really important was happening off-world, in off-world colonies and all that. So, what was left here had to be made to work regardless. I use the models of retro-backwards-mechanical-cultural icons like Cuba, the Phillipines (where they have the Jeepneys) — they take something, a vehicle or whatever it happens to be, and they just make it work way past its design deadline. And that sort of drove that work. I took architecture — everything I could imagine: Byzantine, and Neo-Greco and all these different styles and then mashed them all together and then added this curious electronic overlay for signage and stuff. What you end up with is a look that looks completely logical but is complete mechanical fantasy.

Q. What is the balance between idea and detail?

You have to be there. In your head, you have to be on that street, imagining what you’d put on that building to carry power. You’d have this generator sitting at the curb because the street now became the basement for this city which now had gone on very high. I imagined in Blade Runner land the big buildings were probably 200-300 stories. I don’t remember how high Deckard’s elevator went on the readout, but it went above 100. In my mind, I was thinking “how would you put together a society that depends on this patchwork?” And that means you’d cabling running over buildings. I’d been to Europe by that time, and the practice in Europe in some of those old castles, when they’d air-condition or re-plumb them they’d just run stuff outside 1m thick walls. So all these sensibilities come together and you produce something that looks completely believable because you really have thought why that cabling system should be there rather than over there. Some of it is composition and the nicety of the look, but really it’s deliberate and not done happenstance. And people that copy that style and don’t think that way, it comes off looking like something’s wrong. I worked with Westwood Studios in Las Vegas; they got licenses from Warner Bros. to use the basis of Blade Runner as a game. It didn’t go anywhere, but the premise was you were following Deckard 15 minutes after the film time. I was hired as a consultant to help the designers reprogram their thinking patterns so they could duplicate the look but in a slightly different stylistic way. I found out what they were doing was adding detail, thinking they could duplicate it, but it didn’t work. Deckard’s car was essentially an industrial design in reverse. I thought we have flying cars in this world, as the Spinner was called that in the original script, so rich people have flying cars. Nice sleek, aerial limos. What happens when that kind of vehicle is decommissioned? Now it’s a street vehicle; you strip off some of its sheet metal that was laminar-flow-controlled and external flaps and things. Take all that off. You have to add street packaging for driving, turn signals and headlights. What you end up with is Deckard’s vehicle, but it’s been taken apart very carefully and added onto carefully. So while it looks completely logical but it has an odd junky look to it.

Q. Do you think it’s safe to say that Blade Runner gave you an audience in Japan you didn’t have before?

Oh I think so, definitely.

Q. Why do you feel Blade Runner was so popular in Japan.

I may be wrong, but my understanding of the Japanese mentality relative to fantasy is that fantasy is just considered something that’s not real. It’s rather I think a simplistic transfer over to a story format. Blade Runner is completely immersive, it is its own world, it’s consistent, and it never violates its story idea. The most irritating thing in a movie to me is when you have a super hero, yadda yadda yadda, and suddenly he’s incapacitated because he saw his reflection in — I don’t know. They violate the character’s capacities for the convenience of that particular time in the story, which I think is dumb. It happens with Superman, it happens with all these super hero characters. Blade Runner never violates its own premise, which is very important. The storytelling art of it is seamless.

Q. There’s also a theme which I think relates and I think the anime world picked up on, which was the whole man-machine relationship. Obviously that’s a huge thing in Japan.

We’re there already. There are robots being built in Japan by all these electronic companies. They talk, they interact. The first ASIMO had to have a big backpack because computers weren’t that fast; now computers are condensed, they’re very fast, you can have multiple terabytes in a little handheld package. That means you can build a robot that’s athletic, that’s slim, doesn’t have the backpack, and it’s instantly programmable, and it does acrobats. It stands on one foot, it can run — the first running robot was about this high and could run with both feet off the ground. So it’s calculating the weight of the body, the forward thrust, when the next foot comes down, and transfers that weight to that foot while the other foot is brought forward for the next step. And it runs! And that’s amazing! It’s autonomous, completely autonomous.

I was working on Short Circuit. PSO Productions sent me to Japan to [inaudible], which is northern Japan, an industrial technical city, to see an exhibit on robots. At at that time, they had a robot walking back-and-forth but it this big cabinet at top with loose cables going up to the power and cable sources. But it’d walk back-and-forth, back-and-forth… we’ve come a long way. Now they have skin, motion points underneath the skin, the robots talk, can play the violin, it’s amazing. We’ll have robot companions much sooner than people think. The genius of Blade Runner, in terms of convincing people that the story was rational, was using live actors and making the public believe that they were artificially created. That was a big breakthrough. When you think about it, it’d be easier to make another human and you’d boost the genetic profile at birth or the cell structure, and then come up with a super human, rather than building a machine that tries to duplicate the whole thing. And that was the premise for Tyrell — what his slogan? “More human than human.” That’s our design goal. Even Laurence Paul did an interview, and the interviewer said “was Deckard a replicant?” And I thought “of course he was!” and Laurence Paul said “I don’t really know that still.” Oh for Christ’s sake, Paul! You have the little unicorn, you have the memory flash, of course he’s a replicant! But he was beyond Rachael, he was beyond Nexus-6. Tyrell wanted to see if Deckard as that generation of replicant could recognize that Rachael was a replicant, which was a next tier down but still above the Nexus-6. That’s why Deckard was so good at what he did, because he was a replicant and he could key-in and resonate with how replicants work. Even Ridley said “of course he’s a replicant!”

Q. So before I dive into your anime work, I have to leave Blade Runner with a final question, because last week there was a lot of buzz ‘cuz Ridley announced he was going to do a new movie. Is a Blade Runner sequel a good idea?

First of all, it’s very rare that directors direct their own sequel or prequel. I worked with Minkoff on supposedly a Jetsons movie at Warner Bros., but that was canceled, but he did direct both Stuart Littles. He came to the house and grabbed me a cup of coffee a couple times. The comment I made in another interview for a French magazine, with the same question, and my response was that it’d take a master to bring this off, because it’s such an iconic sealed-together story and the only trap door you have is when Rachael and Deckard go into the elevator and the doors close. Now, Blade Runner had 5 beginnings, the release version was the fifth beginning. The first beginning was, and I was in the meeting, Ridley and Michael Deely were there, and John Rogers and Chuck Rosen. It had storyboards, and here’s this long ramp way down into a furnace, and the replicants that had been retired were going down to this furnace to be recycled and Ridley said “you know, we can’t really do that.” That was beginning #1. Beginning #2, which I designed vehicles and costumes for, was on one of these off-world colonies. We had a big vehicle, we had people running around in pressure suits, and that’s where they were supposed to kill the squad leader and hijack the rocket ship to come to Earth. Number 3 was Deckard coming on a train from the east in Los Angeles and they couldn’t afford to lease the train car and dress it for the shot. Beginning #4 was Deckard was in his car riding on the express way, gets a download from headquarters saying “pull over to the side and we’ll have somebody pick you up and the Spinner and bring you to police HQ” because Bryant wants to see you. And beginning #5 was the progressive going-towards-the Tyrell tower. And that set was about 10 feet-squared, with little plastic parts and everything. They could only light it up for about 5 minutes without melting all the plastic, and then of course the flames were put in during post-production.

I designed the story. On a movie production, the director’s God and the script is the Bible. That’s what you believe. I didn’t read the Blade Runner book until after I’d worked on Blade Runner, because I thought it’s none of my business to do an interpretation. That’s been done.

Q. Your first anime was Yamato 2520. Tell us about how you got involved in designing that. You were brought on to redesign the hero ship.

Yoshinobu Nishizaki’s (the director) company called me and flew me over to Narita. Nishizaki was a member of a family… he was sort of considered the “bad boy” of that family. But he was a very successful, a very rich “bad boy”. He picked me up in his Ford van, with television screens and telephones and everything inside of it, and even a bar. Back then I could take a trans-pacific flight, smoke, get off the plane, and have drinks. You’re younger and more resilient. Anyway, then I met Leiji Matsumoto-san, who designed the first generation of Yamato. I thought “you know what this is? This is a space submarine-battleship combination.” But the first design that Matsumoto did didn’t have a sort of bottom to it that violated being a land-thing, so it was very close to the original Yamato destroyed battleship — only for space. I made it more three-dimensional: it had a lower mast and a high mast, and I wanted it to look like a huge ninja ship with a big flaring, trailing layers and stuff. The drawing that I made of the Yamato, the longitudinal section, I did that first. Sent it over to Nishizaki and it scared him because he said “how can you do that without knowing how it looks on the outside?” Well, if you design something that’s elaborate, you have to know where everything is and then you enclose it. That was the last drawing I did by hand on a drawing board with a drafting machine, and then I bought my Apple computer. I designed the complete deck plans for all the decks and did about 20 interior views, so it was a complete design job. A fellow who was working with me at the time, Nick Pausback, who was hired from NASA, was working with three-dimensional programs on the Macintosh at that time. Do you remember the 950 Quadras? Anyway, so we did a three-dimensional model of the Yamato, which I still have, and it flies by the camera and the turrets turn and the shadows… and we showed it to Nishizaki and said “here’s what we can do. Instead of having this dumb drawing just come at you as a static that’s getting bigger and bigger, we can do a three-dimensional model of the Yamato, run that through a line edge-to-edge pickup filter, and then print those on acetate sheets — much like they did with Beauty and the Beast for Disney. Then you can hand color it on the back; it’ll look just like anime, it’ll be real. It’ll be rotational.” He had no idea what we were talking about, so that’s why it came out with just these front shots, side shots, and back shots and they just get bigger and smaller and smaller, but there’s no change in three-dimensional volume.

Q. Were you given any restrictions with Yamato?

No, I had a free hand. And interestingly enough, we found a 1:200 scale model kit of the Yamato kit — we put that together. So I could look at it and get the spirit and the Ghost in the Shell kind of feeling, and then design my generation of Yamato with this feeling of this massive cruising machine.

Q. What was it like, seeing your work animated?

It’s exciting. The movies in general, its exciting. You design a set and it’s cardboard or plywood or whatever, and all it has to do is be photographed — it doesn’t have to do anything. So this big cardboard door slams shut and you put a soundtrack to it and its ten tons of concrete and steel, which I think is fascinating.

Q. You were tasked at one point the Gundam for a live action movie, which never happened. Can you talk about your work with live-action Gundam?

Well, Lions Gate was going to produce a film with Gundam as the core character. I never saw a script for that. I was hired by them to work with Gary Demos and his partner on their Cray computer to model this thing. They had just completed The Last Starfighter. So I came in to design the characters for the classic Gundam story. The Zaks, which are the bad guys, and then the Gundam mobile suit. I was in the process of doing CAD-work on that for eventual computer and three-dimensional animation. Lions Gate got a cease-and-desist from Sunrise’s New York office saying that they don’t have the license to use these characters, so that was the end of that!

(if you’re interested in learning more @TomAznable has researched and written an article about the history of the canceled Gundam live action film)

Q. But you did do a rendering of the Gundam itself, correct?

I did a poster for Sunrise of the classic Gundam, yes. I don’t know exactly what that was used for. So I’ve had an association with Sunrise long before the Turn A series of designs.

(the poster being referenced is actually of the Gundam Mk-II)

Q. So on your first trip when you first met Tomino-san and the animators, what was your mandate? What specifics were you given for Turn A Gundam‘s design?

I knew that the character had history to it. In the meeting, Horuguchi was right across from me, and I don’t speak Japanese and he spoke very little English — but we could draw. And we got going, and Tomino left the room thinking “well this is going very very well!” He left the room and we finished the whole day out at Sunrise’s offices. Horuguchi had some ideas for jet planes for the drive system of the Gundam character. I got along instantly with the staff, very very well. And they’re some of the best animators in Japan of course.

Q. What was the design philosophy for Turn A?

The philosophy was that it had to be recognizable to the fans, instantly. They hired me essentially to create a new zero-base, which could be modified as story-time goes on. The difficult part was you had 20 years of fan memory in your head, so I had to be very careful of what I did to this character to change it. I put the Roman helmet accent on, I moved the antennae down to underneath the nose, which got a negative reaction from the hardcore fans — but eventually everybody liked it, I think. So that was the Gundam character, and once that was settled then I went on to the Dianna Counter and FLAT fighters. The FLAT fighter mentality there was an oriental, especially Edo period, almost like a flat pajama-type costume: the legs are wider than they are long, essentially, and that was the FLAT fighter inspiration — that’s why they call it the FLAT fighter.

Q. How many Gundam designs did you go through?

Well, one of the first versions was a very robust bulky design. Because I thought “here’s this powerful character fighting evil and these kids are running it” and that’s when Inoue-san came down and said it needed to be more graceful. So that changed the characteristic of it quite a bit. That original design then became the SUMO, the so-called SUMO robot when I increased the design intensity of that.

Q. You mentioned that you worked from the inside-out. Did you apply the same “inside-out” design philosophy with the Gundam?

Yes, because first of all they build toys of them which have to hinge in a certain way. Secondly, in animation you can make an arm disappear partially into the chest as the arm comes around; you can’t do that if it’s a real physical piece of stuff, so I had to think about that. I was sensitive to the anime system of shading and color divisions. That’s why the Gundam character has a hard line down the shin of the leg, for instance, and on the thigh so they can shade as a sharp line break as that’s how the style is. After the Gundam character was settled, then these other characters came into play for discussion to fulfill the story role. For the Dianna Counter suit I thought “this is a threatening thing from the Moon.” It has a big head with a single eye which is really just a projector. And for that one, Tomino-san did want it to look not too mechanical, more organic, because they were growing these things on the Moon. So that’s why the legs have this sort of vein texture, and it isn’t as sleek and mechanical as the other robots (he’s talking about the WaDom here). I did a utility robot, very strange-looking thing. As the story progressed, Tomino-san wanted an enemy for the Gundam at the same technological level — the Turn X. So I get the storyline from our liaison lady for the Turn X, and she said “this is crazy! This thing all comes apart and then goes back together again. The arms come off as fighter ships, and the legs come off; the thing that remains is the control center at the head and upper thorax.” I thought “well that’s really weird.” I was trying to think how do you lock and unlock the arm? I came up with a six-pronged thing, with three on each to lock together. So I fly over to Tokyo and I’m in the Akasaka Prince in my suite, and in about 10 days or so I did about 110 sketches of this Turn X and how it locked together and how it was supposed to look in scale to people and all that. So that goes into production, and when it was all over we had a wrap party in the suite. And then we went down to Izu, about 10 of us, on a celebration trip at a mountain inn. We had a kaiseki dinner, tables from here to that glass window, about 6-7 meters long. We had course after course after course and a big bottle of sake. It was a fantastic time. Then all the guys had a soaking hot water bath and went to bed. I woke up the next morning and I’m still thinking about the final details of this Turn X… I throw open the windows in my room and the whole mountainside was pink — it was sakura time. So I took a piece of paper and sketched all the final details of the Turn X. The finished details were really done under the inspiration of this pink mountainside of cherry blossoms.

Q. It sounds like the Turn X was a much bigger challenge? Just because of all the intricate parts…

Yes. But I’ve been told it sells just as well as the Gundam character, because that’s the enemy conflict entrance into the story.

Q. What was it like working with Mr. Tomino and the Gundam team?

It was seamless. Once Tomino-san knew that we were fleshing out the story, visually, with his characters, the robot characters — he definitely approved each one, as it’s his story. Then working with the anime guys and the people at Sunrise… it was seamless, it was a very nice experience all the way through.

Q. The whole giant robot phenomenon which is really took off with Gundam. It’s a really specific thing to Japan that finally found a home in America with Transformers. From a design standpoint, why is the “giant robot” story so attractive?

Well, the “giant” is a very staple part of fantasy stories. Jack and the Beanstalk, for Western fantasy stories. I mean, giants and ogres, they’re just part of fantasy stories. To make a mechanical one is an adaptation of the same fantasy underpinnings of fantasy stories. You have a threatening giant, you have a kind giant: you have Gundam, you have Turn X. You have other threatening robots, like from the Dianna Counter. The factor that I enjoyed very much was the way they were fitted into the story. Every movie has a gimmick, if it’s a clever movie. The gimmick in Blade Runner we have this microclimate, it’s raining, humid, and hot. Rachael is running around in a fur coat and Deckard has long topcoat on. Tomino-san has the setting for Turn A almost like a medieval or 20th-century… the cars are old cars, the airplanes, the buildings are half-timbered — that’s the gimmick, the stylistic gimmick, because it’s a retro-future fantasy. It’s brilliant.

Q. Is the man vs. machine story perennial, or will it disappear someday? Will they lose their meaning with artificial life running around.

I would think so, yes, because then it’s not longer fantasy. It’s real. You have a robot in your house that does things for you that looks like a person, which is kind of spooky. I think it’s going to take people to get used to that, but it’ll be less and less threatening if they’re designed well. I would prefer to see a non-human duplicate. A sleek robot that floats over the floor and has interesting lights on it; I’m thinking a slimmer, athletic version of R2D2. It’s amazing to make a duplicate human as a robot entity, and it’s being done right now, so that’s no longer difficult. But I think just having a machine that does stuff, for me, more interesting.

Q. When Yamato and Gundam, when they came in the 70s, they really ignited the anime industry in Japan because they were so successful. And you’ve redesigned both, which is a record that’ll probably never be replicated, certainly not by a Western artist. What was it like to work with two such iconic, cultural series?

It’s an honor to have had the chance. And it is unique, I’m sure. The incident to be asked to do that by two completely separate sources is a compliment to my visibility from the movie industry, which carries over, and my ability as an appreciative admirer of that culture-base. The design — the cultural customs that creates the design in the first place.

Q. What is it about your aesthetic that makes your work so popular in Japan?

Well it’s very difficult to analyze your own work, and probably you shouldn’t do it too carefully. But I think it’s the precision of the design sensibility; I’m very careful about what I do. An appreciation of proportion. And an insistence on anything I design as part of a story in my head, and that I think is very important because it gives it legitimacy from a visual standpoint. When you analyze it, if you’re a designer or a layperson, it looks like it should be that way.

Q. To me, a lot of the Gundams look very similar. You were actually able to really redesign it, to put your stamp on it. How did it feel to apply your own artistic touch to a Gundam?

The original Gundam was essentially the sensitivity to what makes a machine look a certain way. The original Gundam had more square cross-sectional limbs and sections. What I thought in my mind was to add curves and more elaborate shadowing possibilities for the anime technique. It was basically an advanced version of what would’ve happened anyway with that kind of machine. Being an industrial designer, I could sort of synthesize that transfer to a more elaborate fabrication method for the story, and appreciate the mechanical joints and make them look more contemporary.

Q. You mentioned like with the head you were able to change things, and the helmet and the eyes. It was all really inventive and fresh for that design. Was the face and the head something you spent a lot of time with?

That was the most challenging, yes, because that’s the identity. The coloration and the shape and I put the classic Roman helmet top fixture to add to the character and make it different. But I kept the head more-or-less as a reminder of what the original one looked like. Any time you design something for mass-market appeal you got to have some cliche trigger that makes it recognizable pretty quickly, unless you’re going to have an elaborate promotion campaign. Think about what cameras looked like 30 years ago. Now they’re little tiny flat things, and if you’ve showed that from 30 years ago they’d say “that’s not a camera, it’s some kind of… whatever”. But over time, you educate your consumer audience to accept the fact that this is a camera. Now you only need the little tiny pinhole for the lens, which is completely different from what cameras used to look like.

Q. Would you be interested in working with anime again?

Sure, yeah.

Q. Do you still go to Japan?

I haven’t been there for a couple of years now. It’s the economic profile of the society that pays you to be there as an outside consultant. We were going to go to Korea for a science fiction convention, but that was canceled. We were supposed to be in Tokyo for a convention, just before the tsunami hit the power plant and all that horrible business, so we didn’t go. We’d already appearances for other organizational regions prior to that, but had we gone it would’ve been a disaster because they canceled the event anyway. The electrical power profile is way down in Japan to get systems up and running again to generate electricity, and it’s a very highly electrified society.

Q. Going back to your reputation as an urban planner, is there any way you think to build things better to resist these kind of events?

You’re dealing with history and you just can’t redo it. The future starts from right now and we still got a lot of stuff. You just don’t start from zero. It’s gonna happen.

Q. Would you ever want to design your own city? Would you like to work in urban development?

Well, I’ve worked with people in that business. Sure, I’d do a professional idea viewpoint overlay. Throughout my career I’ve always worked with people who have up to that point spent their own professional lives doing a couple things; rather limited linear careers. Then I come in and listen to them very carefully and absorb what’s happened so far up to that point, and then I’m given the license to reassemble what I’ve just learned into a new profile of that same idea. That’s what I’ve done over and over again.

Q. Well that’s a beautiful summary of your career.

So, that’s it.

Q. Thank you.

4 thoughts on “Syd Mead Interview – Turn A Gundam DVDs

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