The spaceships of Syd Mead, by Syd Mead

The design genius behind Blade Runner, Tron, Aliens and many other SF classics, tells us about the movie spaceships he has worked on...

The Sulaco, by Syd Mead (Aliens, 1986)

True sci-fi movie fans need no introduction to the man for whom the phrase ‘visual futurist’ seems to have been invented. Blade Runner, Tron, Short Circuit, Star Trek The Motion Picture, Aliens…and movies aren’t even all he does. There may be no-one who’s so influenced the cars that now whiz by us daily – Syd Mead is firmly in the ‘A’-list of people with a handle on how our future will look. In support of Top 75 spaceships in movies and TV, I asked Syd if he might give us some background on the space vehicles of his movie career, and luckily he obliged. So here, in his own words, is the background on some of the space vehicles of Syd Mead…

2O1O: Director, Peter Hyams.


The script had the LEONOV already to ‘go’ which then prompted the somewhat reluctant U.S. Space whatever to cooperate for the trip to Jupiter and IO  and  the crippled DISCOVERY. I envisioned the LEONOV as visually clumsy ‘inside-out’ design, with the vessel  as a pressure vessel with all the feeds, conduits and manifolding on the outside of the shell. This would facilitate EVA maintence and trouble location.

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The bridge at the  front  end was a flat, faceted affair in keeping with the general parameter of FLAT  panel construction.  (NASA now has curved pressure portals in pre-production) I deliberately made the ship look sort  of ‘clumsy’ as a comment on Russian design, and  the idea that it had been built in orbit. Originally I had the bridge as an off-shoot of the linear axis with the docking port as an extension of the linear axis to allow people in the bridge to observe direct sight line to the docking port. Peter wanted to simplify the look, which in retrospect was a judicious move.

The rotating dual cabin section was a deliberate effort to produce minimal centrifugal ‘gravity’ to  avoid floating everything on set, an expensive process.  (The movie was made before elaborate computer-generated effects came along) The only scene where stuff was ‘floated’ was the pen scene where what’s his name’ had to place the pen prop exactly into the thread loop. It  took several takes before he did this without obviously ‘lining up’ the prop in the live shot.

Originally (and according to the first script) I designed an elaborate folding ablation shield mounted on the front of the ship. The technical advisor from JPL said  ‘you wouldn’t carry all the weight and go into the orbiting slow-down front end’d turn the ship  around and use the onboard engines to  de orbit. And so I had to retrofit the ship design with the shells that would contain the carbon fiber BALOOTS that soaked up the heat of re entry into the Jovian atmosphere for braking.

I designed the interior bridge, the navigation table set, the small personal cabins, the control  area  from which the lander down to Europa was monitored, the lander itself,  the bridge that connected the LEONOV to the DISCOVERY (with it’s trolley fixture), the hand-held thruster and the one-man EVA pod that  vanished when it approached the surface of the monolith. Working with Peter Hyams was a pleasure. I got along very well with the production designer and all in all enjoyed the process very much.

ALIENS: Director,  James Cameron

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The NOSTROMO was a masterpiece of design in the ‘new’ genre of rocket ships that didn’t look like they could ‘go fast.’ It was, in fact, a lumbering commercial inter-whatever facility.

I was one of twelve judges for that year’s Miss Universe competition in Floriida. By that time I’d done STAR TREK:TMP (the V’ger entity), BLADERUNNER (all the vehicles, street set proposals, various artifacts and post –productiono matte preliminaries) and TRON. (all of the transport vehicles except the ‘butterfly’  ship at the end of the film, designed my Moebius.) I read the script FedExed to me by Jim and on the way back to Los Angeles on the plane sketched my visual interpretation of the script saying…’a forest of antennae comes into frame followed by the mass of the SULACO.’ So, I drew a ‘forest of antennae’ on the front end of a massive  ‘ball-shaped’ mass. I drove up to (then)  Jim’s and Gale Ann Hurd’s ( Jim’s wife at the time and also the line-producer) house on Mulholland Drive and Cameron saw my sketches. I paraphrase;

“Syd? I’m going to have the SULACO move past the camera and a sphere will require pulling focus. Here’s sorta how it  should be’ and he drew a quick sketch of a flat kind of thing, sort of like a huge, flat  submarine. I  went back to my studio and produced the final design in the next two days.

The SULACO, in my mind, was again basically a commercial freighter with a military contingent onboard to confront the ALIEN threat. I  designed the overall  exterior of the ship with its row of LOADING DOORS down the side replete with a gantry that supported a traveling loading crane, the power plant at the rear end and two HUGE gun-like fixtures on each side that could be for defense, whatever.

It  combined a utilitarian, functional look with an overlay of surface detail articulation and a suggestion of being a well-armed ship. Inside, I designed the drop bay for the drop ship, the assault de-orbital craft which contained the  assault vehicle and started on two other design jobs. Here’s what happened. The production moved to Pinewood pretty early in process.

The drop ship was first designed as a full-sized prop piece inside my drop ship bay set (using every inch of Pinewood’s largest sound stage) and the model was made to look like it. The drop ship prop only had to be  photographed from the left side as the shot looked down the length of the set.

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The assault tractor was a dressed 747 towing tractor with the lead removed. I also was asked to start designing the look of the off-world installation; pressure exterior doors and some of the interior laboratory sets that had originally been started by Ron Cobb. That never happened. I also designed a start on the hospital room  where Sigourney Weaver’s character was being revived. That never happened either.

The sequels got progressively worse with each one. I received a request from the director of the first sequel to design the ‘lifeboat’ thing which was supposed to be one of the exterior hull freight doors I mentioned earlier. I quoted them a fee and heard  nothing more, typical Hollywood lack of business manners.

TRON: Director, Steven Lisberger

I designed all the vehicled for TRON except the aforementioned SOLAR SAILOR. I’d designed that as a kind of wild, ‘futuristic’ derivative of the medieval galleons. However we didn’t have nurbs or Bessier curve capacity with imagiing computers then, only primitive volumetric contructs. So, I designed the’hero’ ship, Sark’s command ship, the AIRCRAFT CARRIER, the TANK, the LIGHT CYCLE and other graphics and character dressings. I also designed the final release ‘TRON’ graphic logo.

I designed the interior of the SOLAR SAILOR which became the interior set for the TANK, the interior of the already designed RECOGNIZER, and the interior bridge of the AIRCRAFT CARRIER. I designed the TRAINING CAMP PIT, the LANDSCAPE of TRON LAND, the HOLDING CELL and the rotating CPU and its approach plain. Working with Steven was a pleasure and we are still good  friends and I see him infrequently at retrospectives and some of my parties.

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AND SO, KIDS, that’s my story of ‘SYD’S ROCKET SHIPS for the movies’!

Syd Mead, thank you very much!