Futurist Syd Mead on Smart Cars, Elon Musk and ‘Blade Runner’

At the second annual Trojan Horse conference in Portugal, Oscar winner Andy Jones said "we are closer" to creating convincing digital humans
Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

Syd Mead — the visual futurist behind the iconic look of Blade Runner — had praise for Tesla founder Elon Musk, calling him “endlessly inventive” at the Trojan Horse Was a Unicorn VFX, game and animation festival, which recently wrapped in Troia, Portugal.

“I have to give Elon enormous credit,” said Mead, once a designer for Ford and Philips, who also went on to visualize the looks for such iconic films as Aliens and Tron. “Now he’s building a factory in Reno. He is putting charging stations across the country.”

Mead was also asked his thoughts on Smart cars. “They say the ultimate compliment is plagiarism,” he chuckled. “I have been doing tiny little cars for decades. The Smart car—I would never want to be in one on a freeway. I like a car with about a meter in front of me at least.”

Speaking to the enthusiastic crowd, which gave him a standing ovation, Mead emphasized that young artists need to focus on the concept at the core of their work. “The [production] tools will change, what is most valuable is the idea,” he said, adding that when it comes to designing the future, “science fiction is reality ahead of schedule. If it's a good idea it will eventually come true.”

This year, THU, which has become an annual event, was held for the second time. With roughly 600 participants representing 45 countries, it nearly tripled in size. And organizers are already working to attract speakers for its third year. The format included speakers who discuss their work as well as how they got into the business, their inspirations, and their views. Additional components of the event included mentoring sessions, training and plenty of networking time.

This year's speakers included Andy Jones, an Oscar winner from the Avatar VFX team whose digital character work has also included I, Robot. Asked about developments toward overcoming the "uncanny valley" and creating synthetic humans, he said, “we are closer …if there enough time and effort [and budget] a show can get there.”

He added that facial capture in particular needs work, but he sees progress. “I think in the next two to five years you'll see facial capture that gets us there," he said. "But you always miss something. The skin around the face and right under the eyes is so complex. It’s a different thickness that behaves differently. There are hundreds of details in the face.”

He emphasized that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should create CG humans as a matter of routine. “I don’t see a reason for it, unless at project warrants it," he said.

Another highlight was industry vet and THU ambassador Scott Ross, co-founder of Digital Domain, who explained the difficult VFX business climate to the international audience; he also reflected on his own career.

Email: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com
Twitter: @CGinLA