Sci-Fi Art Directors Who Predicted the Future

They thought of it before anyone invented it.

Giphy/American Film Institute

A colonel in the army of warm bodies that is a film set, the art director or production designer marshals the creative forces responsible for making a film reflect both the directors vision and a cohesive view of an imagined world. Their job is to set the scene on which to place the mise, from the little details (robot insects! futuristic tablets that end up looking like iPads!) all the way up to the sky and the cars flying across it.

And few have done it better than these three artful prognosticators.

Facebook.com/Blade Runner

Lawrence G. Paull

Blade Runner production designer

Blade Runner works as a piece of futuristic fiction because designers like Paull took Ridley Scott’s vision, constructed it, and trusted Scott not to pull it apart. As Paull said in a rare interview:

Ridley really knew how to appeal to the art department, he was very wise about it. What he would say, up in the art department: ‘If you build it, I’ll shoot it.’ And who could resist the temptation of that? Because we’ve all suffered, making films with gigantic sets, and beautiful sets, and all that is shown are talking heads. And that was disappointing. But because [Ridley] was an art director, he knew he could hook us with that bait. And he did it – if we built it, he shot it.

Part of Paull’s frugal brilliance was to dress old-school crime sets, including ones used on The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, in a gritty sci-fi coat and punctuat that with Syd Mead’s giant neon ads. The future might pop with new tech, but infrastructure is always infrastructure, which means if you go down deep enough, you’re gonna find some grime.

Facebook.com/2001: A Space Odyssey

Ernest Archer, Tony Masters, and Harry Lang

2001: A Space Odyssey

Sure, the pastels uniforms and bright orange displays of 2001 might be showing their 50 years, but it was simply reflecting the high culture palate of 1968. As Piers D. Britton and Simon J. Barker write in their book Reading Between Designs, that compared with the whimsy precursors (your Forbidden Planets and your Days the Earth Stood Still) the designers “built their vision of future space travel on contemporary technologies, and 2001 introduced textural richness into the imagery of space travel.” Space odysseys would never be the same. Right, Interstellar?

Alex McDowell

Minority Report production designer

Just like the precogs it features, Minority Report is a fantastic predictor of future. The iconic gestural computer? McDowell recruited MIT grad student John Underkoffler, who years later would make the device real. McDowell and Spielberg wisely chose to keep the large bones of USA in 2054 — we don’t simply tear down hundred-year-old buildings because we’re now in the Future (“I love decay,” he told Fast Company) — but updated advertisements, weaponry, and consumer tech. Like Blade Runner, Minority Report feels lived-in. Unlike Blade Runner — androids capable of dreaming are a ways off — we’re starting to feel like we live in Minority Report. Self-driving cars, insectiod robots and targeted ads? Welcome to now.

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