Warning: Please be advised that spoilers are mentioned in the text and also occur in some of the images shown below.
Blade Runner 2049 is set three decades after the action in Ridley Scott’s original film takes place, but as the sequel progresses it becomes clear that – as dark as its forbear was – the world has experienced some even greater upheaval in the intervening years.
In the new film, Ryan Gosling plays ‘K’, an LAPD ‘blade runner’ who uncovers a secret that threatens to destabilise the already fraught relationship between humans and replicants. His discovery leads him to tracking down the former blade runner ‘Rick Deckard’, played once again by Harrison Ford who starred in Scott’s 1982 film.
Part of what makes Denis Villeneuve’s incarnation of this world seem all the more believable is both the sheer scale of its realisation and also its ability to convince the audience on a micro level. There are the swooping aerial shots of the LA cityscape peppered with lights – a key aspect of the Blade Runner visual heritage – but we also notice details like the edges of paintwork on a door, the scuffs and scratches on a computer screen; while interfaces routinely glitch and blur.
There’s a grubbiness to the visuals that roots the action as firmly as it can in its speculative time and place. A lot of this is down to Roger Deakins’ beautiful cinematography and the work of production designer Dennis Gassner, which saw a wide range of sets and props physically created to realise Villeneuve’s vision. The VFX teams’ work then established this environment even more fully – the whole thing blending together seamlessly.
This visual approach of course ties in with one of the wider themes that both Blade Runner films address: the notion of what it is to be human in a world where the existence of bioengineering means that the very definition of humanity is no longer fixed.
Territory Studio came on board early in the film’s production and were responsible for creating all of the screen graphic concepts and several on-set assets – over 100 of them across 15 sets, in fact. “Most of the screens are shot on-set but a few concepts were delivered to VFX vendors Dneg and Cantina, to inform their work in post,” says Territory’s Creative Director, Andrew Popplestone.
Here, we talk to Popplestone and Territory’s Creative Lead, Peter Eszenyi, about how they helped to make this brutal vision of the future a cinematic reality.
CR: Blade Runner 2049 is a sequel to a film celebrated for its aesthetic as much as its storyline. How much influence did the look of the original 1982 film have on the visual direction of your work for this one? Did the ‘thirty years on’ act as a starting point, or was there more freedom than that?
Andrew Popplestone: There was much more freedom! [Director] Denis Villeneuve’s brief was clear that the ‘blackout’ event had wiped out much of the technology from the original film, so we were to approach this as a technological ‘reset’ and reinvent technology, staying away from what we think of as advanced technology in 2017.
Essentially, digital capability had been wiped out. Keywords were ‘abstract’, ‘organic’, ‘optical’, ‘physical’. Having said that, there are elements of familiarity – the ‘Spinner’ (hovercar) still has quite physical, mechanical displays.
And the market screens (some shown above) reflect a rich mix of ‘kanji’ and other languages that highlight how multicultural the world is.
[Here], we were responsible for the brand and logo generation of the tiled graphics on the vending machine and signage. Again, this riffs on the original multicultural society perhaps dominated by kanji, which we see in the original.
CR: What were some of the requirements that Denis Villeneuve wanted in the creation of the Blade Runner world of 2049? Did ideas as abstract as ‘identity’ and ‘reality’ – which make up big themes in the story – come into play here?
AP: Instead of a specific brief, Denis outlined what the film was about thematically and what his vision for the Blade Runner universe (30 years after the original) was about in terms of progression and context.
We talked about how technology fit into the film as a supporting narrative device and how he felt that technology should look and feel in the context of the larger themes – what makes us human, the role of memory and data in a world where a breakdown of digital technology means that much personal and civic information is lost, and how to reflect the world ‘order’ through technology.
For example, K’s Spinner technology reflects his low status as a second class citizen – his Spinner is old and worn, dilapidated and recycled, the technology glitch and ghosty, with screen burn and colour fade (shown above).
Contrast that to the Wallace Corp’s advanced wealth as reflected in the black and white minimalistic purity of its interfaces (shown below).
In the end, the technology interfaces plays a role in conveying these cultural differences and distinctions that separate human and replicant, LAPD and Wallace Corp.
CR: What was the R&D process like for 2049? With Ghost in the Shell, I know you looked at lots of non-filmic influences and materials. Did the same apply here?
Peter Eszenyi : Yes, definitely. To really create distinctive new technology concepts, we researched and gathered information about how tech that is not reliant on digital can look and behave. This led to an extremely experimental approach – we were never reliant on CG so were free to experiment.
We avoided all sci-fi references in our creative development work. To that end we didn’t touch CG or even sketchbooks for the first R&D phase. Instead we explored and experimented with how to achieve the abstract / organic / optical / physical in our concepts.
For two weeks the studio felt like an art school – we looked at organic alternatives to interface tech – ways to generate bioluminescence using bacteria cultures, the microcapsule tech used in e-ink displays, etc.
And to achieve the physicality that Denis wanted we explored textures, layers and effects that blended organic and mechanical – we experimented using fluids, fruit, raw meat, optical lenses, projections, scanners, etc.
We also looked at the physical interaction with products [and] devices and approached them more as musical instruments than data systems.
CR: Which of the sequences or elements proved to be the most challenging?
PE: The baseline scan was challenging (shown above and below) because it was the new updated version of the ‘Voight-Kampff’ test. We designed the new system – a brainscan technology that looks at the brain through the optic nerve.
In our creative work we were interpreting neural connections without using any physiological references. Instead Denis wanted a high degree of abstraction and to achieve that, we used the flesh of a dried grapefruit in macrophotography. That was a bit nerve racking.
As part of that we also visualised the neural connection in process, and again, organic abstraction was key to that. These screens are seen in Joshi (Madam)’s office, when K is assessed after he comes back from the Memory Lab where he realises his memories are authentic.
Another challenge were the morgue screens where we designed the system to scan the bone fragment (shown above) – this is a key reveal scene and our screens needed to tie into the performance and storybeat.
Again, we experimented with organic abstraction to achieve this and designed the interaction system to drive the story – the shunting of the lenses to increase magnification was a great narrative device that built tension and drama, like clues in a detective story. We were thrilled to see that made the final edit and worked so well in context.
Blade Runner 2049 is in cinemas now. See territorystudio.com.
Blade Runner 2049 VFX credits: Double Negative (VFX Supervisor: Paul Lambert); Framestore (VFX Supervisor: Richard Hoover); MPC (VFX Supervisor: Richard Clegg); Atomic Fiction (VFX Supervisor: Ryan Tudhope); BUF; Rodeo FX; UPP (VFX Supervisor: Viktor Muller); Territory Studio