Syd Mead’s First Mobile Suits

In the spring of 1985, Japanese publisher Kodansha released Oblagon: Concepts of Syd Mead – a gorgeous, Japan-exclusive artbook collecting artwork over the lauded visual futurist’s career from 1971 to the present. Within the pages of this volume, two pieces – simply called “Opening scene: movie treatment” and “Closing scene: movie treatment” – would reveal Mead’s involvement in what had been a previously unknown, canceled American live-action Gundam movie project from two years earlier. Mead even alluded to the issues that caused the American Gundam and projects like it to fall through in the pages leading up to these pieces:

“Some of the financing schemes for major features are more interesting than the films themselves, which may account for the high mortality rate of proposed screen candidates.”

Syd Mead’s Gundam artwork as seen in the pages of Comic BomBom.

Despite the scenes appearing in the pages immediately following Mead’s official Zeta Gundam poster from that year, and him referring to the “familiar mobile-suit” later in the previously quoted introduction, the actual origin of the images is left vague within the book itself. This, however, was not the case when Oblagon was promoted in Kodansha’s own Comic BomBom. Gundam was a consistent feature of the monthly manga magazine, and a brief write-up as part of its April 1985 “SF Plamo Magazine” column featured thumbnail reproductions of the concept art with text explicitly linking them to the production of a live-action American film adaptation. If Japanese fans first heard about this project anywhere, this was probably it. Curiously enough, this was not the only area where Comic BomBom offered up more information than Oblagon. While Oblagon lavishly reproduced Mead’s artwork in a large format (frequently in extra-wide two-page spreads), the reproductions in the magazine column were actually less vertically cropped and showed parts of the image the book didn’t.

When I was first researching my article about the canceled Gundam movie from Lion’s Gate some seven years ago now, scans of these two concept renderings had already been floating around the internet for some time. In the process of gathering materials and acquiring a badly beat-up and re-bound copy of Oblagon for myself, I was frustrated to make the aforementioned discovery that, compared to ones online, the images within didn’t show the whole picture! Where, then, did those scans come from? When I eventually came across the Comic BomBom blurb years later via Japanese Twitter posts, I could see they seemed to match, but I knew there was no way something printed that small could have been scanned to look as good as the images I’d previously found. Newly motivated, not only was I eventually able to finally find what is likely the source of those images online, but still more art I’d not come across before.


In December 1991, Bandai released a comprehensive and ambitious new collection of Syd Mead artwork entitled Kronolog. Beyond a typical artbook, this once-more Japan-exclusive box set was built around the concept of the artist’s process taking an idea from sketch to final piece. Kronolog consisted of three volumes:

  1. Kronovecta: Concept Designs of Syd Mead – a 328-page softcover book consisting entirely of rough sketches and design studies.
  2. Kronovid: The Technique of Syd Mead – an hour-long feature spread across three single-sided 20cm laser discs that document the creation of the piece “Entering Stargate” from scratch with additional commentary by Mead.
  3. Kronoteko: Art of Syd Mead – a 144-page hardcover book compiling Mead’s finished artwork going as far back as the late ‘50s.

Not only did Kronoteko republish Mead’s previous Gundam artwork uncropped and properly titled, but for the first time Kronovecta reproduced his sketches for those same pieces! Much like previous (and future) publications of artwork related to the Lion’s Gate project though, Kronovecta still plays things a bit coy: while in the preceding pages Mead writes about his process creating his Gundam Mk-II poster for the promotion of Zeta Gundam, his movie sketches go unremarked upon.

Now that we can see them side-by-side, in the spirit of Kronolog let’s take a look at what’s changed from the sketch to the final artwork.

For additional context on the film’s plot, please see my original article or the script’s first draft by Chip Proser.

"Zak Attacks Gundam World" sketch where the Dom mobile suit can be seen filling in for the "heavy weapons Zak."
“Zak Attacks Gundam World” sketch where the Dom mobile suit can be seen filling in for the “heavy weapons Zak.”

Zaks Attack Gundam World

Here the composition remains largely similar, but right away we can see some major differences between the sketch and the finished piece. The attacking “Zaks” in the final piece are predictably based on the iconic Zaku II, while in the sketch they are clearly based on the Dom. The Dom is also seen in the opening scene’s storyboard portraying the “Heavy Weapons Zak” as named in the script, so it’s safe to assume suits based on Zeon designs were being called that as a generic term. The mobile suit in the upper right is a little harder to pin down, but what looks like a shoulder shield suggests this one may actually be based on the Zaku II after all.

The environment of the sketch’s colony interior is markedly different as well, with nothing that could unambiguously be called a building. The script describes the O’Neill 7 colony as having culturally diverse architecture and landmarks, including “a tranquil Swiss chalet,” “a French village,” and even a “classic Japanese seascape.” The final piece adds European buildings among the trees on the left and traditional Japanese buildings in front of the attacking Zak.

Another of the most significant changes is what’s happening with our hero, Amaru (the script’s name for Amuro). In the sketch, he has been knocked down as he observes the attack, while in the final version, he is preparing to escape on a personal one-wheeled vehicle, called the “Gyr-Uni” in the script. One of the benefits of seeing Mead’s Gundam pieces via Kronoteko is it allows the reader to see them within the context of his whole career – and so it’s made clear the Gyr-Uni added in the final piece is a repurposed vehicle concept Mead had thought up years earlier.

Syd Mead’s original Uni-Pod artwork.

The Uni-Pod

Amaru’s Gyr-Uni first appears as the “Uni-Pod” in “The New Bland!,” an article Mead wrote for the Spring 1969 issue of Automobile Quarterly1. Here Mead bemoaned the stagnant, unsustainable design trends of the family sedan and called for the automotive industry to rethink their approach in radical new ways that could ultimately alter the organization of modern living altogether. While not referred to explicitly in the body of the article, the Uni-Pod appears at the end in a two-page spread as a “suggestion for maximum personal mobility in a dense ‘pedestrian’-type traffic mix, envisioned for the coming mega-structure environments and multi-level commercial areas.”

What’s more, the unknown storyboard artist for the film’s opening scene seems to be aware of Mead’s original piece as well. When shown from angles not depicted in “Zaks Attack Gundam World,” it’s clear the details of the Gyr-Uni are based on the reverse view seen in the foreground of “The Uni-Pod.”

Gundams Attack Zak World

Less detailed than the opening scene, Mead’s sketch for the film’s climax is limited to the design of the enemy base in the background. A note in Mead’s handwriting calls it “Zak Asteroid Base” – in the film’s script this is Farside, one half of a binary asteroid system described as “a surface of irregular, deadly forms – as if ancient battle machines had been welded into the surface with interlocking fields of fire.” The sketch certainly lives up to this description (though Mead would apparently never see a script himself), and if anything the final version is toned down. In addition to the battling mobile suits, Mead’s final piece also depicts Farside’s twin behind it: the sparkling city asteroid of Nightside, where much of the film’s second act takes place.


It’s probable that with Kronolog the last of Syd Mead’s Lion’s Gate Gundam art has now been accounted for. At the time of its original release, Mead’s contributions to Gundam likely weren’t considered much more than an interesting footnote in a long career of industrial and sci-fi artwork. By the end of the decade, Mead’s convention-breaking design of the eponymous Turn A Gundam (among other MS) would make him an indelible part of the franchise’s history and a singular contributor to its design lineage2. Thanks to the publication of those early sketches in Kronolog, we can sneak a look over the late artist’s shoulder and appreciate the first time Mead’s pencil ever produced a mobile suit.

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  1. Kronoteko erroneously attributes the Uni-Pod’s publication to 1974 and calls it the “Mono Pod.”
  2. In fact, the first domino to fall towards this eventuality was Mead meeting Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino for the first time in 1984 when Mead was in Japan for the release of an artbook, likely Oblagon.