On 'Elysium,' Syd Mead and science-fiction production design at the Oscars

Posted by · 10:00 am · July 16th, 2013

I’m pretty well stoked for Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium,” which looks to put a bow on the summer spectacle season next month. And with Comic-Con around the corner, I’m reminded of that first screening of “District 9” four years ago and how much of a knock-out the experience was. I’m still shocked it managed to navigate the season and end up with Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay nominations. It’s such an anomaly to me for that, even in an expanded Best Picture scenario.

Will “Elysium” be so fortunate? Time will tell. Starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, it certainly has more A-list talent on board to get AMPAS members to take notice. Or it could just be another fantastic entry in sci-fi cinema, which has of late become mired in the same high-gloss franchise-mongering that manages to ruin just about everything. And that would be fine, too.

Over at Wired, Mark Yarm has cranked out a wonderful profile of Blomkamp in advance of the film’s release. It’s a thorough consideration of the young filmmaker, tracing his relationship with actor Sharlto Copley, his eventual partnership with Peter Jackson and the failed “Halo” project, the complete opposite mentality that went into “District 9” and “Elysium”‘s likely place in a socio-political conversation. What caught my eye, though, was the involvement of futurist designer Syd Mead in the project. Sue me, I wasn’t aware.

It seems almost obvious that Mead, who helped usher in the worlds of “Blade Runner, “TRON” and “Aliens,” among others, would have a hand in “Elysium.” And indeed, as it turns out, his work managed to inspire the new film a great deal. From the Wired piece:

Growing up, Blomkamp had three major haunts: the Midrand Snake Park, the Museum of Military History, and Estoril Books, where he first saw the work of Syd Mead, the futurist designer who contributed to two of the director”s favorite movies, “Aliens” and “Blade Runner.” Young Blomkamp fixated on one image in particular: Mead”s National Geographic-commissioned illustration of the Stanford torus, a ring-shaped, rotating space habitat first proposed during a 1975 NASA conference. That design and, to a lesser extent, “Halo””s titular ring-shaped worlds were the basis for “Elysium””s orbital space station — in fact, Mead, now 80, designed sets for Elysium.

That NASA conference, which was held at Stanford University, was all about proposing and speculating on designs for future space colonies. The Stanford torus design in particular, Mead’s designs seen below, consisted of a doughnut-shaped ring (a “torus”) that was 1.8 km in diameter and would house 10,000 people. It would rotate once per minute to provide between 0.9g and 1.0g of artificial gravity on the inside of the outer ring via centrifugal force (which can’t help but conjure images Stanley Kubrick gave us seven years before the conference in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey”).

Syd Mead's design for the Standford torus

I would love it if a film like this could get some traction with the designers branch. I was similarly adamant in 2009 when “District 9” was in play. The two films share the same production designer, Philip Ivey (who cut his teeth on the “Lord of the Rings” franchise), but the presence of Mead in the art department makes it all the more special.

Granted, “Avatar” won the Oscar for Best Production Design (formerly known as Best Art Direction) the very same year “District 9” was released, but it seems the rare occasion. And ultimately, we can probably chalk that up to a combination of the film being a strong Best Picture contender and boasting a gorgeous landscape, rather than attention being paid to the nuts-and-bolts design of the material world on display.

Fantasy and, of course, period work always seem to do well with the branch, but “Avatar” is the only sci-fi film to have received a nomination in the category in the last 15 years. You have to go back to “Men in Black” for the last one, which was coincidentally recognized the very same year as “Gattaca”‘s sleek, stellar work. But movies like “Pacific Rim” (whatever one may think of the script or characters), “Prometheus” (ditto), etc., they deserve a fair shake here.

Mead’s colleagues on “Aliens” and “Blade Runner” managed nominations in their day, so maybe there’s hope.

“Elysium” arrives in theaters on August 9.

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