Syd Mead, Still Designing The Future After 50 Years The "visual futurist" who helped create the worlds of Tron, Alien, and Blade Runner is envisioning the future again in Neil Blomkamp's upcoming Elysium. NPR's Steve Inskeep talks to him about where his ideas come from — and why Google is a great help.
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Syd Mead, Still Designing The Future After 50 Years

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Syd Mead, Still Designing The Future After 50 Years

Syd Mead, Still Designing The Future After 50 Years

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Now let's talk about people who predict the future through fiction. Old movies about the future occasionally seem comical once the future has become our present day. But sometimes a look at an old movie reveals that the filmmakers had some insight into the world we live in now.


Technology that's common now - like tablet computers, touch-screen phones and biometric scanners - has turned up in futuristic movies. So we asked Syd Mead how that happened. He's a visual futurist who helped design the worlds of "Blade Runner," "Aliens," and "Tron."

I'm curious. If you're approaching a sci-fi film, obviously, there's a screenwriter, there's a director. What do you see your role as? How do you fit into that?

SYD MEAD: Well, I work one-to-one with the director and the production designer. You read the script, and that becomes your bible for the duration of creating the ideas, and the director's god on the film. And I keep up on a lot of technology wave fronts, because you have to. To me, science fiction is reality ahead of schedule.

INSKEEP: Ahead of schedule. Well, let's look at a few films that seem to have reality ahead of schedule. One of them is the Tom Cruise movie "Minority Report," from a number of years back - uncanny representation of different kinds of technology, including iris-scan technology. There's - you have a character walking through a shopping mall, and there's scanners everywhere, constantly looking at his eyes, identifying who he is, and commercial messages are beamed at him. Let's listen.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The road you're on, John Anderton, is the one less (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Believe me, you can move the old fashion way. Century 21 (unintelligible).

MAN: John Anderton, you could use a Guinness right about now.

INSKEEP: You have this 2002 film that grabs a number of things that almost seem ordinary now. There are eye scanners in operation in the world, are there not?

MEAD: Yes, there are. And facial recognition is very accurate.

INSKEEP: And the thing about computerized advertising messages directed straight at you, which would have been less common in 2002, happens every time we go online now.

MEAD: Well, yes. It's data mining, combined with a keystroke, and the cookie is buried in your computer's memory.

INSKEEP: I want to play another clip, here. This is from the movie "Tron," on which you worked backed in 1982. And you have essentially the bad guy - if I can oversimplify - giving instructions to people about how information about them is now going to be stored and carried around.


DAVID WARNER: (as Sark) You need to receive an identity disc. Everything you do or learn will be imprinted on this disc. If you lose your disc or fail to follow commands, you will be subject to immediate de-resolution.

INSKEEP: Okay. I feel like the only thing that's out of date about that is the thing about needing the disc.


INSKEEP: It doesn't seem like corporations need the disc anymore to have all my information.

MEAD: They don't, not at all. Every time you go to the bank, every time you swipe your credit cards, that is remembered by some system or others. Your activities, financial and where you are, cell phones, by triangulation, they know where you are all the time you're using your phone. So it is sort of frightening.

INSKEEP: Does it ever make you feel a little strange that you could walk around in the world today and see all kinds of devices that seem to remind us of devices and technologies used in nightmare scenarios for the future?

MEAD: Well, the critical thing, Steve, is that technology, when it becomes widespread, is not owned by a top-down agency. What's driving the revolution in China, what's driving the revolution of social response in a lot of the countries around the world is because more people have cell phones, Twitter accounts, they have Facebook accounts. They can access the information outside the closure that their particular political environments impose on them.

INSKEEP: Oh, you've hit on the great distinction, haven't you? Because in a lot of these nightmare scenario movies, a lot of these futuristic movies, technology is used to control people or to monitor people, or to hold them down. And the question is whether technology will be used that way by people, or whether it will be used to expand freedom.

MEAD: It can go both ways. My favorite analogy is: A knife is a very dangerous object if you use it as a weapon, but you can bone a duck and create a delicious gourmet dish. So if the?


INSKEEP: The duck may have a different opinion of that analogy. But go on. Go on.

MEAD: Well, ducks don't have a political base.

INSKEEP: Well, that's true.

MEAD: So it points out the fact that the technology is invented, and then it goes into the broad universe. And that's where it either does neat things or does horrible things.

INSKEEP: Iris scanners don't hold down people. People hold down people.

MEAD: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Syd Mead, it's been a pleasure talking with you.

MEAD: Well, Steve, it's been a delight. And thank you very much, everybody.


INSKEEP: Designer and futurist Syd Mead. And you can see some of his future designs from the past at



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