Visual Futurist Syd Mead Discusses 'Aliens: Colonial Marines' and Video Games (Q&A)

Sega and Gearbox Software have enlisted Syd Mead to further explore the USS Sulaco and Aliens mythology in new video game.

Syd Mead worked closely with James Cameron designing the USS Sulaco for the Aliens movie. When Sega and developer Gearbox Software signed a licensing deal with 20th Century Fox to create a virtual sequel to the film, Aliens: Colonial Marines, for PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii U, they enlisted Mead to further explore the ship. The visual futurist has worked in games before, designing a new light cycle for the TRON 2.0 game after working on the original film and creating the aliens for the PC game Wing Commander: Prophecy. Mead talks about how video games are opening up new opportunities for Hollywood film franchises in this exclusive interview.

The Hollywood Reporter: What are your thoughts on Aliens migrating to video games?

Syd Mead: As in current movie productions, now they do a parallel production. The gamers’ expectations are so high, it practically drops into theatrical. There’s no surprise that they would take the franchise with Gearbox Software working with 20th Century Fox and come out with a game. They did sequels of the original movie in the first place, so why not? The game market is at least as big, or bigger, than the theatrical release part. So it makes sense for business reasons and stylistically. Who knows, if this goes well maybe they’ll make another Aliens movie.

THR: How did you work with Gearbox Software on this game?

Mead: We were approached after they got the got the agreement with Fox. I got the assignment of doing the interior. Obviously, I designed the exterior of the Sulaco, and for the movie, some of the interior sets like the drop ship bay. They wanted to recreate the mechanical mood of the Sulaco, interiors that I’d already done, which is one of the reasons why they contacted me.

THR: This Aliens: Colonial Marines game is very cinematic. What are your thoughts about how far gaming has progressed over the years?

Mead: A lot. My first video game was with the Don Bluth Studios in Toronto back in four-bit days. We only had seven VGA colors; the pale blue and pink. Then I worked with 989 Studios/Sony in San Diego on what was going to be the Jet Moto 4 for PlayStation 1. Then they changed all the coding for PlayStation 2. They got a phone call from Tokyo and said, “Stop everything. Dump it.” So they dumped it. We only got to Jet Moto 3. Working with games now, it’s not the limitation of the technique, it’s the limitation of the ideas, the demographic it’s aimed at, the quality of the gameplay, the scripting, runtime, and all that.

THR: Where do you draw inspiration from when it comes to creating things like what you’ve done with this game?

Mead: From the story. I don’t write the story. I can do a good outline for my presentations, but I’m not a narrative storyteller. I read the story, or the script in the case of a film, and that starts the creative process. I work one-to-one with a director. In this case, one-to-one with the guys at Gearbox and that starts the process.

THR: What was it like working on the original Aliens with Jim Cameron?

Mead: This was fairly early in Cameron’s career. He was living in his house up on Mulholland Drive, and I drove up there. I first got the script sent to me Federal Express. I was one of 12 judges for that year’s Miss America contest in Florida. These are all pretty women; there are no dogs at that stage. I stayed up all night reading the script. On the way back on the plane I started drawing the Sulaco. I get back, and I envisioned a huge ball, and he said, “No, we can’t do that. It’s got to go past the lenses. We don’t want to pull focus, so it has to be flat.” That generated the design for the Sulaco.

THR: How have the advances in technology influenced what you’re able to do today?

Mead: I still draw in pen and ink on paper. I shade it with felt-tip markers. I scan it, colorize it, and add graphics. That satisfies the creative demands very well because the client is the production company, whether it’s a game or a movie, and they have guys that do 3D modeling all day long. They do it fast and very well. A good designer who does 3D—I have a young friend who’s a genius with Aliens. He can take my design and sketch and do a 3D model in about a day and a half, and it’s perfect. I don’t worry about the end-use technique, because that’s the client’s business. What they need from me is starting at zero, and then it filters down in due process and technique.

THR: What’s it liking seeing your creations in video game form?

Mead: It’s fantastic. Like in the movies, video games are so cinematic. I’m thinking of them as movies. Of course in video games, there’s nothing there; it’s data. In the movie, it could be a prop made of foam cardboard. You add a soundtrack, and it’s a five-ton concrete door. When you see your design go through that transformation, it’s very exciting.

THR: What do you think it is about Aliens that has stood the test of time over all these years?

Mead: It has danger and weird creatures. It’s a monster movie, essentially, and monster movies have never faded. We love monster movies, because it’s a kind of catharsis. They’re scared; I’m not, because I know this is a movie. Now, if we go further with this chip in the brain or new technology that replicates the theatrical experience, I don’t think they know yet what’s going to happen to people that are playing that game. I’ve seen 3D dome projection technology. That’s so submersive, you don’t need drugs anymore. That immersive technique is astonishing.

THR: The most recent Ridley Scott movie, Prometheus, was stereo 3D. What are your thoughts about what 3D is doing for movies today?

Mead: You still have the concept that you’re watching on screen. I saw it in IMAX up in San Francisco. You still have the screen edge. I was watching how the movie progressed, obviously, the story. In my opinion, I don’t think you can do fast horizontal pans in 3D. There’s something upsetting about that, because our brains are processing at several petaflops, and there’s no blur. Out of focus objects in the foreground in 3D look strange, because you don’t have an edge for parallax. Our brains are wired to very accurately process parallax. That’s how you know how far away something is.

THR: We’re seeing a lot of video games now going to stereo 3D as well as auto stereo 3D. What are your thoughts about what that adds to the interactivity?

Mead: It’s an optical illusion that duplicates what you see normally; that’s the marketing appeal of it, I’m sure. It’s an illusion and it’s entertaining, but never the less, if it’s not a good story, I don’t care if it’s in 3D, 2D, or no D, it’s not going to work as well as a good story in a normal projection or playback technique.

THR: What are your thoughts about the advances in special effects in movies and what they can do today?

Mead: It’s fantastic. You can literally do things you can’t do in a practical model or any other way, because you’re not dealing with reality in that visceral touch and feel sense; you’re dealing with technique duplicating a desired visual result, and that’s the magic part of it. It’s like when you’re dreaming; your mind puts stuff together very fast. It’s not logical when you think about it later, but when you’re in the dream, it works perfectly. That, to me, is the genius of good scripting and making a movie that’s that riveting. When you think about it later you think, I don’t think they should be allowed to do that.