ANS Exclusive Interview: Legendary Mechanical Designer Syd Mead
By Jonah Morgan
Forget about anime for the next few paragraph’s…… Syd Mead’s (www.sydmead.com) visual creations have been translated to represent some of the most recognizeable characters, machines, settings, landscapes and props in modern western cinema. In 1978 he designed the V’ger entity for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, in 1980 the world Tron and Blade Runner with director Ridley Scott. In 1984 he designed the props and sets for 2010 based on the novel by Arthur C. Clarke. In 1985 he worked with Director James Cameron on designs for 20th Century Fox’s Aliens. In the same year he designed the number Johnny Five robot in Short Circuit. In the 1990’s he collaborated on the film adaptation of cyberpunk culture creator William Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic and the futuristic experience drug headset seen in the movie Strange Days.
Syd has a love of Japan too and has done design work there in live action and animation formats. Unknown to probably every anime fan he did mecahnical renditions on an aborted Mobile Suit Gundam Hollywood movie project for Lion Gate Film. 1989-1995 saw his first dive into anime as he worked on ship exterior/interior, prop, costume and setting designs for Leiji Matsumoto’s Yamato. Probably his best known design role to anime fans came in 1998 when he worked closely with studio Sunrise and director Yoshiyuki Tomino on a mecahnical revamp for the 49 episode Turn-A Gundam TV series.
Beyond his entertainment work Syd Mead is a visionary, futurist, artist, illustrator, conceptual designer and posses many, many other special qualities which can be not relayed through words. ANS is elated to bring you our interview with him:
1. Thank you for accepting our interview Mr. Mead. What have you been doing this summer? (Work and/or non-work related)
I was on a retrospective celebration panel related to the original TRON feature release, linked to the recent release of TRON2.O, the game. I designed the new LIGHTCYCLE for the TRON2.O game release.
I was part of the annual president’s advisory board’s session in San Francisco, for the San Francisco Art Institute, a three day event with review sessions celebratory dinners and gallery reviews.
I completed an illustration of a future HONDA motorcycle arena race scene for the U.S. HONDA MOTORCYCLE division design headquarters in Torrance, California. The 72X56cm gouache illustration was scanned in and enlarged to a 8 X1 foot wall mural.
I produced a digital presentation to the faculty, students and Hollywood professionals at the Gnomon school of special effects in Hollywood.
I have been finishing a series of illustrations of my current theoretical high-speed private transport vehicle called: HYPERVAN.
The third illustration, HYPERVAN IN COURTYARD will be the subject of a four or five DVD series ‘how to’ collection to be announced and offered for sale in the fall.
Just last year I completed several watch designs for the NUTS studio in Tokyo as part of a celebrity design scheme. The watch I designed was called ‘ESSENCE’ and is visible on www.rakuten.co.jp/nuts/427131/285534/.
Personally, I have enjoyed several weekends at my Orange County condo overlooking the Pacific, and several evenings with friends in the movie industry and students from Art Center, Pasadena City College and young fans in the area.
2. Looking back at your biography, it appears you have had a personal affinity with Japan throughout your life. You were stationed in Okinawa from 1954 with the US Army, was this your first real exposure to Japanese culture?
My US Army years in Okinawa exposed me to oriental culture in general. Okinawa has its own dialect and is a composite of Japanese and Chinese cultures. I enjoyed that experience immensely. I was training sergeant for about 2OO men in the 59Oth Engineering Company. Just before I was discharged from the Army, I took a one month vacation in Hong Kong with a buddy of mine. We had the good fortune to meet up with a millionaire Chinese man who owned an insurance company in Hong Kong and Macao. With that connection, we were his guests at the Polo Club, had several dinners with the Mayor of Hong Kong (Portuguese, at the time) and made a two day trip to Macao and spent the first night ‘out’ at sea with the ship’s captain, destroying, between the four of us, two bottles of single malt scotch.
That exposure to oriental culture fascinated me with its exotic geometry and pattern arrangements, the architecture and the elevated sensibility to color and graphics.
3. Did your stay there kindle a fire of interest in Japan of sorts? Upon your return to the USA did you know you were destined to return there?
Referring to my answer to question number two, yes, if you consider that Japanese culture is classically related to Chinese culture.
Upon my return to the United States, I had no idea whatsoever that I would ever return to the orient. I spent three years going through the Art Center School (then in Los Angeles, now in Pasadena) and met two guys who were Japanese exchange students. We got along famously. They returned to Japan to take up positions as teachers.
4. In 1961 you returned to Japan and this time visited the cities of Nagoya, Tokyo and Kyoto. In relation to Okinawa, what was your impression of that visit and which city in particular left a lasting impression on you?
I graduated from Art Center, went to work with the Ford Motor Company’s Advanced Design studio, and quit after twenty six months and took a position with a promotional company in Chicago. Between accepting that job, and leaving Ford Motor Company I took my first trip to Japan. I flew first class from San Diego to Tokyo’s Narita airport and spend two weeks exploring and enjoying Tokyo’s atmosphere including several meals at neighborhood restaurants, an incredible massage session and a trip up into the then NEW Tokyo Tower. Then, I took a train to Nagoya to meet one of my Art Center friends. He was teaching ceramics for export. I still have the Noh mask he gave me! (The Shinkanzen was then just being built) With that meeting done, I then looked up a designer friend from General Motors in Detroit who had been hired by Mitsubishi to help them set up their automobile design studio. He had learned conversational Japanese, had brought his Mercedes Benz sedan with him from the ‘states and with his two lady friends in full geisha costume, and the two of us in jackets and ties, drove down to Kyoto. We arrived at the hotel and were treated like royalty! At that time, there were only five Mercedes sedans in Japan. The Imperial palace owned two, two had been buried during the war by Keiretsu executives, and Hans had the fifth one! After the exhilarating Kyoto stint, I then returned to Tokyo, got to know a young lady who escorted me around the ‘real’ Tokyo for a few days. I stayed at the Hotel New Japan in the Akasaka district. (The hotel is now gone.) I hooked up with the brother of an Art Center exchange student. The family name was Okuda. He was a Time/Life correspondent in Tokyo and showed me around the city. It was a fascinating trip! So, that was 1961.
5. So when you were asked to design the cityscapes of a futuristic Tokyo in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, did you draw upon what you saw in the Japanese metro areas you had visited? What facets of what you had experienced personally did you incorporate into your designs?
Actually, none. Remember that in 1961, the Ginza wasn’t nearly as illuminated as when I returned in 1983 for my one man exhibition at the LaForet museum in the Harajuku district. No, the BLADERUNNER scenes drew on my memory of high density architecture, and the kanje graphics were ‘made up’ for graphical effect and the general feeling of the BLADERUNNER ambience was a response to the script and Ridley Scott’s promptings.
6. Around 1983 you worked on an American film design project based on an anime property that was eventually aborted for legal reasons. The was a film for Lions Gate based on adapting the mobile suit Gundam mecha for domestic audience film style. Can you tell us more on this project? Did you ever complete your original designs for Gundam?
No. I worked first on the ZAK character because for whatever reason, the director thought that would be more mechanically interesting as a demo. The character of GUNDAM was started after I drafted the ZAK character for computer vector plotting and modeling. (The computer being used at the time was a supercomputer CRAY.)
Lion’s Gate had failed to get license approval from Sunrise! The Sunrise New York office sent a cease and desist court order and the project was shelved, never to be resurrected. My job was to first, draft the ZAK character for plot input, and then I started on ‘de-kabuki-izng’ the GUNDAM character for the American market. I finished the head first, and was starting on the body when the project was discontinued.
7. In the 1980’s you also enjoyed great success with your one man show exhibitions and sales of your Oblagon book in Japan through Kodansha. Could you give us your overall thoughts on this experience?
In 1983 we received an invitation to supply art for a one-man show at the LaForet museum in the Harajuku district of Tokyo. I went over with my PR guy and a friend. The visibility was keyed to the Japanese release of BLADERUNNER (by Toho?). The experience was fantastic. I had gotten a liking for Japanese style food in my 1961 trip so I was completely at home with sashimi, sushi and could actually eat firm ice cream with hashi. Anyway, the hospitality was flawless. I was on television with kids prompted to chant ‘SHIDO MEEDO’ as I walked down the studio aisle to the stage for my televised interview. The next day while I was on the street in the Ginza going to have drinks at the Lion place, two young Japanese guys recognized me, I stopped at their calling my name and signed autographs!
That exhibition was the beginning of my high visibility in the Japanese professional and corporate society. At the time, I met a PR lady who was high-born, whose family was ‘old’ Japanese money (Mitsukoshi Department Stores) and who had attended middle school with the royal son at the special school in Akasaka precinct across from the guest palace. Her exquisite knowledge of Japanese etiquette and both social and business manners contributed greatly to my visibility and consultant success over the next twenty years.
8. In 1989 you were first approached by a Japanese studio to do designs of the ship, all interior sets, costumes, and various “prop” pieces for Space Battleship Yamato, could you tell us how you were first approached to do this work and your reactions?
I first started on the re-design of Battleship YAMATO in 1988 with a company in Tokyo headed by an interesting man named Nishizaki. He had an animation studio in the Philippines and access to healthy cash flow. I was flown over, put up in the Akasaka Prince Hotel in a suite. This allowed me to work on sketches ‘in situ’ and have consultation conferences locally.
The project extended into 1989 and then went into lapse. I don’t recall at the moment why, but I was ‘off’ the project until it revived in 1992. I then really got into elaborate CAD drawings of deck plans, costumes, on-board hardware and perspective views of all major spaces onboard the YAMATO. I received a model of the original YAMATO designed by Matsumoto-san and went to work. By coincidence my partner, Roger Servick found an advertisement for a 1:2OO scale model of the original YAMATO BATTLESHIP from the end of WWII. We put that together and that gave me a visceral appreciation of scale, level of detail and, most importantly, the ‘gestalt’ and emotional projection of the ship. It was then that I realized that what Matsumoto had done was to shift classic battleship proportions into a kind of ‘submarine – aircraft;’ a kluge of silhouette, empennage and surface markings.
It was at this time also that I bought my first Macintosh computer with a CAD program on disk. I also bought an eight pen plotter that was driven by the CAD program so I could print out the elaborate drawings I was doing on the computer. NO MORE SPILLED INK! NO MORE SMUDGES! And, I could enlarge the work area and complete scaled detail easily.
Nishizaki-san made several trips to Los Angeles during the second ‘go-round’ of the YAMATO project. I completed all of the black and white perspective drawings of selected volumes in the ship, then completed numerous full color gouache illustrations showing the ship from exterior views that visualized significant story ‘key frames.’ The project produced a soundtrack CD and a snap-together plastic model by Bandai. To my knowledge none of the ‘episodes’ aired on television. The project ended with the ignominious arrest of Mr. Nishizaki at Narita airport and his subsequent legal troubles.
9. Did you travel to Tokyo again to collaborate on this work? Did you meet or collaborate with Yamato creator Leiji Matsumoto on this project?
As answered above, yes. I made several trips to Japan in connection to the YAMATO job. On each of these trips, Mr. Nishizake extended elaborate generosity to me. This included having a TV equipped van and driver meet me at Narita airport, putting me up in a suite at the Akasaka Prince hotel and elaborate kaiseki dinners. On one of these dinner occasions I met Matsumoto-san and gave him a baseball hat from, I believe, the Los Angeles team. (I had been advised by my liaison lady that Matsumoto-san collected baseball hats.) Matsumoto-san gave his complete ‘approval’ of my new design, so I felt that not only had I re-created the mystique of the battleship YAMATO, but had not violated the admiration of the original YAMATO anime creator.
10. As you know, the specifications for mechanical design as well as the end execution in the final animation product is so much more detailed and involved in Japan. What are your thoughts on this aspect of Japanese Animation and did it present any special challenges to you?
After I had presented my drawings and color scenes to the Nishizaki organization, my creative job was essentially finished. The anime production system is unique to Japan, both in artistic styling and in production methodology. I met some of the guys who did the translation of my designs into style sheets for the animation production. But I really didn’t get to know the process in greater detail until my later involvement with Sunrise/Bandai in the design of the robot characters for GUNDAM MOBILE SUIT, TURN A generation.
11. Did you have a chance to see the finished release of Yamato? What were your overall impressions?
As I said before, I am not aware that any of the finished sequences got to broadcast TV or to disc release? If they did, I have never seen any of the composited finished product. I do, however, have the sound track CD.
12. In 1998 you were rang by Sunrise in Tokyo to redesign Mobile Suit Gundam for the TURN-A Gundam TV series, this involved you traveling again to Japan, what do you recall from the initial stages of this experience?
I had met Yosuyuki Tomino-san many years before on one of his rare trips to the United States. On that trip I met both him and his wife. So, when the GUNDAM TURN A story was ready to animate, I got the call from Sunrise/Bandai to start creative work. A large vector in the recommendation came from one of Bandai’s chief executives, Shigeru Watanabe-san, with whom we had worked prior to the start of the GUNDAM TURN A project. Anyway, I traveled to Tokyo with my lady liaison and we met the staff at Sunrise’s headquarters. That first meeting lasted about five or six hours. In that amount of time the staff and I enthused each other to a running start of my involvement in the design and creation of all the robotic characters in the story. Tomino-san was enormously pleased, and his wife had even made a special cake to celebrate the event. We all had wine and cake in the staff room during those first several days.
I returned to Los Angeles with a sketchy script and a general idea of the story, as translated for me by our liaison lady. I started to work.
13. Was Sunrise aware of the cancelled Gundam film from the early 1980’s? Did you share these earlier designs with production staff?
I do not know. The subject never came up, I did not mention it and to my knowledge the staff guys did NOT know anything abut that incident. I had, however, produced a poster of the GUNDAM MOBILE SUIT for Bandai years before the TURN A project was launched. They all knew about that image, which was printed by permission in our second ‘Syd Mead’ book co-published with Kodansha. That title of that book is OBLAGON.
14. From the creative standpoint, how did you approach the design of the Turn-A Gundam and other mecha in the series? What types of cues or source material did you work from on the Japanese side?
Now, this was 1998 when I first started the job of redesigning one of Japanese anime’s most high visibility characters, MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM! I wasn’t intimidated at all. After all, I’d been doing professional design at that point for over forty years, in addition to about half a dozen feature releases. No, the challenge was accepted with elaborate information and the enthusiastic support of the author, Tomino-san and the entire Sunrise staff.
First, I became acquainted with the idea of ‘robot’ in Japanese toy tradition, and VHS cassettes of past GUNDAM episodes. I also was given several VHS cassettes of ‘Blue Submarine’ and ‘Pat Labor’ by the Bandai guys to accelerate my appreciation of the anime visual style. As a professional designer, a very important part of any design project is to be sympathetic to the end product method of realizing one’s creative contribution to the process!
My first concern was to capture the mystique of the main character, the GUNDAM MOBILE SUIT. As a gaijin, my first direction was a ‘slim’ version of the traditional sumo wrestler. This approach produced a thick limbed character that had large organic-shaped feet, leg segments and upper body and arms. At this early stage I was fortunate that Bandai sent a man with the family name Inoue to the U.S. to finish final sound track composition for the Bandai movie, GUNDAM SAVIOR at Lucas Film. This guy, Inoue and his wife ARE the most influential GUNDAM fan club people in Japan. Inoue-san gave me valuable hints and guidance in my re-stroke of my original ‘heavy’ approach to the new GUNDAM design. He said that “…I should think of a combination of kick-boxer and thin sumo as my inspiration…GUNDAM should be obviously athletic with a fluid grace to movement and of course, intense mechanical design.’
I will always give him credit for designing the successful new ‘zero base’ for the GUNDAM MOBILE SUIT character! Interestingly, the first approach became actually known as the ‘sumo’ robot character!
In all, I designed seven robots (including the GUNDAM MOBILE SUIT) for the series. The other six were:
‘sumo robot,’ ‘flat fighter,’ a gigantic robot for the ‘Diane’ moon people, a ‘freight’ robot that looked like an animated industrial crane, an aggressive robot with a huge armament carapace and the ultimate anti-hero robot;
I had been sketching the intricate idea components of this last robotic character, TURN-X, on the plane from Los Angeles to Narita on one of the last ‘GUNDAM’ trips to Japan. As a ‘thank you’ to the Sunrise team, we were favored with an ‘end of creative phase’ to a weekend at a ryokan on the Izu peninsula. I was given the ‘western style’ suite.’ After an incredible kaiseki dinner the previous evening ending with a hot dip in the bath with some of the designers, I retired to my room well fed and feeling fabulous.
This ‘reward’ trip was during sakura. I woke up the next morning and opened the windows of my room, stark naked and looking at an entire mountainside covered with a cascade of pink! What an incredible sight! I was suddenly inspired and, still totally naked, grabbed paper and ink pen from my briefcase and in about an hour finalized the design idea for the TURN-X robot! Then, after showering, dressing and packing for the return trip to Tokyo (with a stop in Shisioka…spelling? to tour the Bandai action figure factory and meet the staff there) I joined the rest of the company for breakfast and showed them the sketches of the TURN-X robot. They were overwhelmingly approving in their opinion, and with further detail refinement after I returned to Los Angeles, THAT was the final design for TURN-X.
Each of the six (plus the ‘new’ GUNDAM) had a unique silhouette, unique articulation and unique persona. I am extremely proud of these designs, and subsequent sales of the action figure variants validated the designs.
15. And so what was your impression of this work once you saw the finished product? How well did the design translate to the animation?
I received episodes from the TV broadcasts (on channel 4?) and was immensely impressed. My liaison lady confirmed that the series was enthusiastically and critically received by both the fan base (important!) and the general anime world. The style sheets and final ‘anime-ization’ were done with precise appreciation of the essence of my designs.
MITI awarded the ‘new’ GUNDAM a prestigious ‘design of the year’ in their annual Japanese product design concourse.
16. Your first professional job was at the Alexander Film Co. doing animation cell inking, did you bring any of these experiences and special appreciation of the medium into your Japanese Animation design work?
The method of cell animation has stayed essentially the same. Much of the hand work has been replaced by CAP (computer aided painting) and other computer-aided techniques. But essentially frame by frame cell animation hasn’t changed much since I worked as an inker and character creation artist back in 1952! My past experience with the ‘hands on’ technique made me very aware or the work involved in bringing my designs and the story episodes to screen. Sunrise had 3OO to 4OO young animator guys working on the season’s episode series. Each week, I was told, they generated about four to five thousand animation cell images! Incredible!
I have endless admiration for these talented young people, and the dedication which drives their enthusiasm for an industry which depends on their patience, their expertise and their appreciation of the anime art form.
16. Among all your Entertainment industry designs where do the Japanese Animation design works you’ve undertaken rank to you personally?
Understand that I have worked across the broad expanse of the ‘design’ world, from bicycles to motor yachts, from electric shavers and CD players to the interiors of 747 aircraft. So when I am asked ‘what are / is your favorite design project’ I must always respond by isolating one particular design field.
In the field of designing for media (television and motion pictures) the work with Sunrise/Banda on the GUNDAM TURN A anime series ranks number one! Remember, the YAMATO series never saw any professional visibility. The Sunrise / Bandai GUNDAM job compares, in my opinion, with working on BLADERUNNER because in both cases, my design input was a major part of the final project visualization.
I should mention that I recently worked with Tokyo Dentsu on a computer generated film short to be featured in the Mitsui / Toshiba corporate pavilion at the 2OO5 WORLD AICHI EXPO, to be seen in October. For that film short titled “SPACE CHILD ADVENTURE: GRAND ODYSSEY 2OO5, I designed the featured space ship which is the ‘location’ for much of the story.