Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Fragments of a hologram rose: Re-seeing Blade Runner

“The postcard is a white light reflection hologram of a rose […] Holding it carefully between thumb and forefinger, he lowers the hologram toward the hidden rotating jaws. The unit emits a thin scream as steel teeth slash laminated plastic and the rose is shredded into a thousand fragments […] Parker lies in darkness, recalling the thousand fragments of the hologram rose. A hologram has this quality: recovered and illuminated, each fragment will reveal the whole […] from a different angle”
 
    - Fragments of a Hologram Rose by William Gibson, first published 1977

Painting the future Syd Mead’s production art

Syd Mead started work on Blade Runner in April 1980, having been hired to design the vehicles for the film. That an industrial designer was engaged rather than an artist or illustrator – Mead brought twenty years of experience visualising near-future modes of transport including cars, vans, boats and aircraft for a number of major manufacturers – is a mark of how seriously Ridley Scott took the task. The results of Mead’s work on those vehicles, principally the Spinner but including a taxi, a van and Deckard’s own car, confirmed the sense of Scott’s decision.

Completion should have seen Mead’s relationship with the production end, but in fact this proved merely a jumping-off point for a much wider involvement in the shaping of a believable world for Blade Runner.

Mead’s working method included painting a context for anything he designed, whether a vehicle or consumer electronics product. The backgrounds that he drew for the Spinner and the other vehicles attracted Scott so much that Mead was immediately retained as a consultant to assist with settling the overall look of the entire film.

Although some understandable tension appears to have existed between the design department heads and Scott regarding Mead’s precise role and the level of public recognition he received in comparison to their own contributions, something not helped by his non-unionised status and high private sector fee, the importance of Mead’s work is obvious. He illustrated ideas for fire hydrants and parking meters, the Voight-Kampff machine and Zhora’s pleasure system (never filmed after budget pressures led to the abandonment of her snake dance scene), and Sebastian’s lab and Deckard’s apartment.

It was Mead’s richly coloured and highly detailed conceptions of the streets of near-future Los Angeles, though, that became essential to forging Blade Runner’s milieu.

A key entry in Mead’s resume by the time he joined the Blade Runner team was the series of paintings he had made for the giant United States Steel company some years previously. Entitled A Portfolio of Probabilities (note the subtle period optimism in that last word), they explored future trends in housing, vehicles, communications and leisure. Powerful in themselves, remarkably one of the images from this pack had actually already informed the design of the AT-AT Walker in The Empire Strikes Back a year or so before, and so it is difficult not to believe that another, in which a sea of streamlined cars navigate a vast freeway system in a rain-washed, neon-saturated evening rush hour, influenced Mead’s own thoughts for the new film he found himself working on.

It is also appealing to muse over whether Mead was aware of the work of artist Charles Schridde. Although best known for his pictures of the Old West, Schridde also produced a superb range of paintings for Motorola in the 1960s featuring glamorous people in ultra-Modernist architectural settings. The deep-focus, vertiginous night-time city awash with light in one particular work is astonishingly similar to Mead’s Blade Runner imagery.

By suggesting what a retrofitted, commercialised, over-populated Los Angeles might look like and why, Mead’s paintings gave the film and its characters an instant background story. They not only defined Blade Runner but also a generation of speculative fiction cinema to come. And beyond their crucial practical purpose, the quality of Mead’s gouache-rendered paintings as works of art in their own right is undeniable.

BR - Mead USS (Michael Stoll, Dennis Bille)
BR - Mead Schridde
BR - Mead - LA1980(visualnews.com)
Mead - Deck's apt (muttprop.com)

Influences internal and external? A vision of a future highway by Mead, and one of Charles Schridde’s Motorola advert paintings.

The image of a mega-skyscraper 200 storeys tall rising up behind Los Angeles City Hall was created by Mead in the 1980s for a never-produced TV series called 'LA 15'.

Mead also did interiors for Blade Runner, here Deckard's appointment (Michael Stoll, Dennis Bille; unrecorded; visualnews.com; muttprop.com)

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