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Syd Mead Documentary DVD Review

By TronFAQ on Sunday, July 01, 2007 at 12:03 AM
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.
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7 comments so far.

  1. TronFAQ July 01, 2007 6:34 PM
    I just wanted to say thanks to Director Joaquin Montalvan for posting the review on his site! I'm flattered that he considered it worth mentioning, and I hope that the DVD sells extremely well.

  2. Anonymous July 02, 2007 11:38 AM
    As i read your comment about Blade Runner on DVD: as i own it, i wonder what different kind of DVD this is, as the film itself is available on DVD already.
  3. TronFAQ July 02, 2007 3:22 PM
    There was a version of the film released on DVD last year, but there is a new version of Blade Runner coming to DVD this year.

    The new version will have a different cut of the film (again) with more footage, and there will be more extras as well.
  4. Anonymous July 12, 2007 12:20 AM
    I was curious about the same thing, re: Blade Runner DVD. I got it on DVD a few years ago, but it was a real basic production. It has the Director's Cut, the trailer, static text/graphics production notes and actor/director/producer bio's. That's it. Anyway, good to know that a newer one is coming out. I've been waiting for one with some decent extras.

    Incidentally, I found a UK Channel 4 documentary on the making of Blade Runner on YouTube last month. Maybe that's going to end up on the DVD as an extra. One can hope. It was interesting. They had interviews with Ridley Scott, the screenplay writer, maybe the producer, and Darryl Hannah. I can't remember if Harrison Ford was interviewed for it or not. Reportedly Harrison became disenchanted with Ridley, and therefore the film, so people were doubtful he'd come back for any sort of thing that would have him reminiscing about the production.

    Re: Tron

    I found out something interesting the other day. I came upon an article on the Burroughs B5000 computer, developed in the 1960s. You'll never guess what the operating system of it was called: MCP - Master Control Program! I was a bit shocked. I thought that name was totally made up for the story. The only reason I was interested in it is I had read an interview with Alan Kay and he mentioned this computer as being one of his favorites. There might be a connection here. Kay was interviewed by Bonnie MacBird, one of the storywriters for Tron, while she was doing research for the movie. In fact the "Alan" character in the movie is named after him. Another piece of trivia is Kay and MacBird got married at some point. Anyway, it made me wonder, hey, maybe Kay mentioned the B5000 to MacBird, told her about the MCP, and that's how it got into the movie. Who knows. It seemed like quite a coincidence.
  5. TronFAQ July 13, 2007 7:36 AM
    I knew about Alan Kay being involved with writing the script for Tron, but I'd never heard that anecdote before about a program named the "Master Control Program" on an old Burroughs computer.

    Fascinating bit of trivia, if that is indeed where they got the "inspiration" for the name from. Thanks for sharing it with us. :)
  6. Anonymous July 13, 2007 6:21 PM
    Re: Tron - Burroughs MCP connection

    The article I was referring to is here, called "The Architecture of the Burroughs B-5000. Quoting from it:

    "Operating System Support

    The B5000 was conceived as a system. The hardware and operating software were designed in concert. Since the operating system (the core of which is the Master Control Program, or MCP) is written in a HLL [high-level language], ESPOL (an ALGOL variant), those features designed for HLL support obviously assist in the execution of the MCP. Other features specifically implemented for MCP use include special instructions, such as the LLLU (linked-list lookup) instruction to assist memory management, processor control instructions for multiprocessing, and unique interrupt handling mechanisms (on interrupt, the hardware automatically saves the current execution context and does a procedure call (supplying any necessary parameters) to the appropriate routine)."

    There are several other references to it in the article. Overall it's pretty technical. I only understood a little of it.

    Of course it's much more benign than the evil MCP in the movie, but I still thought this was cool. :)
  7. Ellick March 28, 2010 5:16 AM
    There is an inspirational connection between TRON and the Burroughs mainframes. Burroughs (now Unisys) had two development plants close to Disney in CA (Pasadena and Mission Viejo - the latter still exists today, and so does the MCP). There are more links with the MCP, although I don't remember them. Does anyone else know?

    There was also a TRON attraction at Disneyland, until it was replaced by Michael Jackson's Captain EO in the early nineties.

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