Syd Mead Documentary DVD Review

A while back I purchased the DVD Visual Futurist: The Art & Life of Syd Mead. I thought I would write a review of it so that people could get a taste of what it's like, and determine if it's worth buying. So I decided to sit down and write this: giving my honest opinion on the documentary itself, the features of the DVD, its packaging, and its overall presentation.

When first playing the DVD, you are greeted with a very simple and bare-bones menu that either allows you to play the documentary, or go to a screen with a chapter list that lets you jump to various points in the feature. There are no extras: such as any behind-the-scenes vignettes that show what went into the production of the documentary, director commentary, or footage from the screening at the Dances with Films festival where it premiered with Syd Mead himself attending. Which is a shame. However, Director Joaquin Montalvan has posted such clips online. So I encourage everyone to check them out. They're called Visual Futurist Q&A Video and Syd Mead Candid Video Footage.

The documentary itself starts off by showing a montage of Syd's work, and it isn't until almost three minutes into the feature that the documentary proper begins. It's an interesting choice to start Visual Futurist this way. If there's one thing that can be said, it's that the man's artwork certainly speaks for itself. It's easy to just sit there and watch, drawing in the detail and richness of each work, and letting your mind wander off into these realities. Realities that are extremely functional and realistic in appearance. Some people might find this section a bit boring, but I didn't mind it at all.

Then Syd Mead himself appears, in what can only be described as his "workshop". Sitting at a table, drawing, he begins to tell you about his background. As you listen, he makes no bones about the fact that he is very confident, considers himself very intelligent, and he enjoys his success. Who can blame him, really? For someone like me, who isn't that familiar with Syd's background or early career: this section of the documentary is very enlightening. It takes us from his earliest days as a professional industrial designer, all the way to his film design career. I gather that most of the public, like me, will also only be familiar with the latter — his work on Blade Runner being the most notable, followed by TRON. And it's his credit in the film Blade Runner, for which this documentary is named. Visual Futurist.

As the documentary progresses, we cover his careers at Ford, U.S. Steel, Philips, and many other companies. Eventually we're told about how Syd found himself without a job at one point, and decided to start his own company. Then in the late seventies, Hollywood entered a phase where they sought out designers to become attached to films, and this is how Syd entered the movie industry. His first work was on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and from there he entered a whirlwind period where he designed for picture after picture. Blade Runner, TRON, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, Aliens, Short Circuit, Mission to Mars . . . the list goes on and on.

The lengthiest segments pertaining to the films he worked on are for Blade Runner and TRON, as you might expect. Steven Lisberger (the Director of TRON) and Richard Taylor (Visual Effects and Computer Graphics Supervisor for TRON) appear throughout the documentary, commenting on various facets of Syd's career and not singularly on TRON. While all of the people in the documentary have interesting and intelligent things to say — including Mead himself — I found Lisberger's comments to be the most entertaining and eloquent. You literally can see the gears turning in his mind like an intricate and precise machine, with his thoughts and their enunciation coming at a rapid-fire pace.

Since this is a TRON-based site, I will keep the coverage of the documentary focused on the TRON portion. But I can tell you without hesitation that I enjoyed all the segments. Especially the one regarding Blade Runner. Blade Runner is definitely another one of my favorite films, and I can't wait for it to finally be released on DVD this year. It's been a long time coming.

The TRON segment of the documentary shows how Syd is responsible in large part for the look of the TRON electronic world, and is completely responsible for items such as Sark's Carrier, the Tanks, the Light Cycles, the MCP, the prison cells, and Yori's apartment. He also designed the TRON font, and even had some influence on the costumes. We are shown many of his concept sketches that resulted in the final look in the film, while Lisberger and Taylor comment throughout. Lisberger felt that Mead's work was "cutting edge" and exactly what they were looking for. And Syd himself states that his work in the film and the film itself, had an enormous impact on the youth watching it at the time. That most of the people in the computer graphics industry today, credit his work and the film TRON as being responsible for leading them into their profession.

A notable aspect of the documentary is its soundtrack, presented in Dolby 5.1. Throughout the film we hear composer Richard Souther's themes, that he specifically composed for Visual Futurist. Souther's ethereal compositions often evoke memories of Vangelis' score for the film Blade Runner, and they are a clear homage to that film. Thus, the music fits the subject matter and the tone of the documentary perfectly. In fact, the music is so good that I would recommend purchasing the separately available soundtrack CD wholeheartedly.

With regard to the aesthetics of the packaging itself, the DVD comes in an Amaray keepcase with a somewhat bland wraparound label. The design is quite minimalist, and perhaps even unexciting for a DVD featuring a documentary about one of the world's foremost artists. And I don't know if it's intentional or not, but the type on the label and the insert booklet has a blurred effect that makes it a bit hard to read. You can't pick it up in the scans above, but it is there. Considering the price for the DVD itself ($29.99 U.S.) and the shipping (anywhere from about $7-$10 U.S.), I was personally hoping for a bit more of a refined looking package than what I got.

Still, in the end, it's the documentary itself that matters most. And in this area, the DVD does not disappoint. The transfer quality of the film seems very good. Clocking in at approximately one hour and forty-five minutes, it quite extensively covers Syd Mead's career and shows us an incredible number of his works. The film never becomes slow or boring (except perhaps at the very beginning, as I stated earlier) and is a fascinating look at a fascinating man. It's no wonder the film won an award for audience appreciation when it premiered at the Dances with Films festival.

Highly recommended.