Syd Mead, Conceptual Designer, Aliens

Written by Hicks Sunday, 31 December 2006 19:08

Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing one of the most influential visualist from this century, none other than the legend, Syd Mead. For those who aren't familiar (and shame on you), Syd was one of the conceptual designers for films like Blade Runner, 2010, Tron and, of course, Aliens. Syd and I sat down to discuss his contributions to the production of Aliens, to clear up some common rumours about the film, and to talk about some of the concepts that didn't make it onto the big screen. Let's get to it:

Alien Experience: How did you first get involved with Aliens?

Syd Mead: I was one of twelve judges for the 19xx Miss Universe contest. That year, the judging was located in Florida. Each of the judges were housed in a new condo, courtesy of one of the local developers. The condos were not yet on the market. I returned to the condo one evening after one of the endless sequence of dinners, photo ops, interview, etc. and there was a Federal Express package addressed to me. I opened it. Inside was the script for ALIENS, sent by James Cameron himself. A short note indicated that he wanted me to design the SULACO. I stayed up all night reading that script and after the televised judging ceremony was finished, completed about six or seven sketches of my first impressions of the SULACO on the plane on the way back to Hollywood.

AXP: And, originally, how much of the story were you asked to conceptualize?

SM: Originally, I was hired to design the SULACO. As the involvement progressed (after I got back to Hollywood and my media attorney had made a deal), I was given the challenge of designing the launch bay, the tractor and the drop ship.

AXP: Can you describe the conceptualization process for films, from the spark of the first idea, to the final design?

SM: Conceptualization starts with the script, and a meeting with the director. This is critical. I am part of the production group for the duration of pre-production, but am not part of the ‘on lot’ staff. I am a visual consultant directly answerable to the director. Believe me, that simplifies the process greatly.

AXP: What do you think it is about your designs that caught the interest of James Cameron and Gale Ann Hurd? What made them say 'we've got to get this guy!'?

SM: Well, prior to being selected to work on ALIENS, I had worked on STAR TREK, the motion picture, BLADERUNNER, of course and TRON over at Disney. The industry is very close knit. I suppose that my ‘reputation’ supported the selection.

AXP: Since you were responsible for the lion's share of the designs for films like Blade Runner, Tron, and 2010, it must have been a relatively easy transition to work on specific concepts for Aliens?

SM: Working on a film, designing often the ‘hero’ prop or props, or views, is always a challenge. You must never think of it as ‘easy.’ This is not an invitation to angst or hand wringing. It is just that you have to forget everything you’ve ever done before and, guided by the script’s story, the director’s comments and a general trust of your creative instinct, produce something that is really different.

AXP: Since you design anything from vehicles, to structures, to landscapes, who decided what you would design, and what Ron Cobb would design?

SM: As far as I know, Ron Cobb was assigned to design the off planet colony; the exterior pressure doors, the outpost’s various above ground enclosures, and the interiors. He left the movie rather abruptly, from what I was told. I don’t know why, and I don’t know what he actually designed, for that matter. I was assigned to do what I did by Jim. What he assigned to others I didn’t know, or was I particularly interested.

AXP: And how close was your working relationship with Ron? Did you bounce ideas off each other?

SM: I never had any contact with Rob whatsoever. I would drive up to Jim’s house on Mullholland Drive and have an very casual review of the sketches I had brought. Then, I’d drive back to my Hollywood house and go to work, preparing for the next review.

AXP: Considering the design benchmark that he and H.R. Giger set on Alien, did you feel any extra pressure to set the bar even higher for Aliens?

SM: To be frank, no. ‘Raising the bar’ is what I do each time I’m engaged by a client, whether it’s a manufacturing corporation or a movie production company. I’m never really concerned about competing with others, even in professional fields that I’ve never worked in before. I’ve always managed to come up on top.

AXP: Were you at all surprised Giger wasn't back for Aliens?

SM: No. Giger is who he is; enigmatic, quirky, weird. The fact that he wasn’t on ALIENS had nothing to do with me. Besides, his designs were owned by the studio, not by him anyway. That’s why Cameron could take the liberty of designing the queen ALIEN based on the same morphological scheme as Giger’s ALIEN, which, in turn, was a variation on his extensive exploration of the penis, a kind of fixation of his.

AXP: Apart from Cameron's script, how did you visualize your designs?

SM: I imagined that the SULACO was essentially a heavily armed cargo ship, outfitted to transport material, men, equipment between earth orbit (perhaps) and outlying worlds. That, and the comment by Cameron on my original spherical sketches that the model had to move past the lens. A spherical design would have meant variable focus, something he didn’t want to deal with.

AXP: In terms of design specifics, how much direction did you receive from James Cameron?

SM: The SULACO was a huge ship. As I said, on the way back from Florida, I sketched several designs cued by the script’s description of ‘a forest of antennae enters frame, followed by the enormous bulk of the SULACO'…or words to that effect. Cameron cautioned about making the SULACO design flatter, side to side to facilitate camera focus. That suggestion was made quite specific by a quick sketch he made.

AXP: How important was it that Cameron is a talented artist in his own right, and could show you sketches of his own concepts as a basis for your designs?

SM: Bingo! [See answer above]

AXP: What was the biggest design challenge you faced?

SM: The biggest design challenge working on ALIENS actually was never used. Toward the end (?) of the story, Ripley is hospitalized in the ‘moon orbit’ space hospital. I designed a modular system for the rooms, based on hexagonal panels that could alternately become screens, fold out amenity fixtures and storage compartments. The set was never built. On to the drop ship. I did a very complete design job for the DROP SHIP design; longitudinal section fitting the assault tractor into the hold, the articulation of the armament pods and the landing posture; tracks at the rear and skids at the front. I liked it and I guess Cameroon liked it too, but my design was a casualty of the movie’s fast paced production. The drop ship was first built as a camera angle prop in the drop bay set, and then a model was made to link visually with the partial drop ship set piece. The assault tractor became a dressed 747 plane tow truck, ‘de-leaded’ and covered with appliqués.

AXP: Is it true that the final design for the dropship was partially based off some toying James Cameron did with an Apache AH-64 helicopter model?

SM: That I don’t know. Gale Ann Hurd was producer and de facto line producer for the show. Everything had to be approved by her office, down to the cost of sending faxes. The whole production went to Pinewood soon after I’d submitted my designs for the SULACO, and the other transport items. The rest of the props and vehicles, etc. were all done there. I had no further involvement.

AXP: Are the Vietnam War undertones overexaggerated, or did that period of history infact influence the designs for the film?

SM: I don’t think the Viet Nam war had anything to do with the production of ALIENS whatsoever. Remember, Cameron had worked on RAMBO, and could write a dynamite action story. The edgy bantering between the male and female crew members was really raw, very ‘in your face.’ This gave it a very military feeling, but I don’t think it had any reference to the war.

AXP: For your first design for the Sulaco, why did you choose a round structure for the spacecraft? Did it have anything to do with the ship rotating to create it's own gravity (which is a concept based in science-fact), or was it a purely aesthetic approach?

SM: The spherical configuration was purely in first interpretation of the script. [Read a previous answer.] The gravity field aspect was not part of the rationale, as this film was so far off in future that the whole gravity field problem was assumed to be solved as a locally generated phenomenon. (read, the ‘STAR TREK’ effect!)

AXP: Is it true that some of the design for the Sulaco was based off actual scientific research conducted into how a spaceship might infact work?

SM: That I don’t know. I designed the SULACO to be an immense, heavily armed freighter. Look at the row of ‘doors’ along the side just aft of the nose. These were loading bay doors, each with it’s lift frame folded down over the closed door.

AXP: How closely did you work with Peter Lamont (the Production Designer on Aliens) to get a futuristic, yet practical, concept that could actually be fabricated on set, and within budget?

SM: As I mentioned, I was here in Hollywood, the movie production crew were at Pinewood in England. I never met Peter Lamont. I submitted my designs to James Cameron. If he liked them, he would have the production designer make them like my sketch.

AXP: Of your designs - the Sulaco (interior and exterior), the dropship, Ripley's apartment and the APC - which were you most pleased with?

SM: I was very pleased with the SULACO. I was mildly disappointed with the way the drop ship turned out…I thought it had a flimsy look to it. The assault tractor was okay. Remember, ALIENS was made on a remarkably conservative budget.

AXP: Were there any of your designs that didn't make it into the film?

SM: Ha! Read some of the answers above. But to repeat. Designs that were used was the design of the hero ship, the SULACO, the interior set design for the drop ship bay, a sort of close cafeteria sketch. Not used were the designs for the DROP SHIP, THE HOSPITAL CABINET, THE ASSAULT TRACTOR.

AXP: Looking back, would you have approached any of the designs differently?

SM: No, I don’t think so. Remember, I’d been working in corporate design and promotion for twenty years before I got involved in the movie business. I’d had many, many go-rounds with advertising agencies, corporate executives and their wacky motivations…when I get accurate information from the client, I do it once, and it’s done.

AXP: You are often referred to as a futurist, in fact I believe you coined the phrase 'visual futurist', and have proven over your career that your design concepts stand the test of time; comparing Aliens to the last 20 years worth of science-fiction, would you say those designs have enjoyed the same longevity?

SM: Well, BLADERUNNER will celebrate it’s twenty fifth year since release in 1981. Hey, that’s longevity! It is ensconced in the national film archives along with GONE WITH THE WIND, CITIZEN KANE and CASA BLANCA. Quite a remarkable fact. The TRON bike I designed was featured in the ‘review’ part of the game release, TRON 2.O, and I was asked to design the ‘new’ light cycle.

AXP: Did you ever consider sneaking a chrome bumper onto the APC when James Cameron wasn't looking?

SM: No. We don’t want specular highlights on a military vehicle.

AXP: Just recently Sega has announced that it will be developing both first-person-shooter, and real-time-strategy, video game titles for next generation platforms; if you had the opportunity, would you be interested in working on those games?

SM: Of course. I’ve worked on many electronic games of all types: first person, rail, etc. I am hired to create the ambience, the vehicles and the visual technological gimmick for the story. Once that’s done, I’m not really concerned about either the technology or the editorial slant of the game. I used to get involved in understanding the image generation frame-by-frame screen image of my stuff. Now, with resolution approaching that of theatrical release, I conceive, make the artwork and hand it over the client. They take my design ideas and interpret them into the games sequence and technology.

AXP: I understand you did some design work for a Japanese video game this year, any other interesting projects that you are currently working on?

SM: I’m getting ready. We have two game client sources that are supposed to get back to us after the first of the year, and several other non-game projects. The project you refer to was BOUNTY HOUNDS, now in release.

AXP: Before we wrap up, is there anything else the world should know about Syd Mead?

SM: Syd Mead absolutely has enormous respect for the designers who entertain with their concepts, their professional expertise and their dedication to keeping us all enthralled with adventure. I have the opportunity to work with these younger people and that is exhilarating for me.

Many, many thanks to Syd for sparing us his time. As an Aliens, and general science-fiction, fan it has been an honour to have this opportunity. Hats off to one of the masters, who still makes himself available to his fans. And thanks also goes out to Roger Servick, Manager of Business Affairs at Syd Mead Inc. for setting all this up.

For more information on Syd Mead, visit his official website at