Over the last 50 years of filmmaking, there are very few films that have influenced modern filmmaking like Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.” Unlike other landmark films that changed Hollywood – ranging from “Easy Rider to “Jaws” – Ridley Scott’s 1982 film was a box office disappointment. Of course, the lasting impact of “Blade Runner” was also quite different than these films that became instant cultural phenomenons.
“‘Blade Runner’ is simply one of those cinematic drugs, that when I first saw it, I never saw the world the same way again,” said Guillermo del Toro told one interviewer, when describing why “Blade Runner” was one of his five favorite films of all-time.
Del Toro wasn’t alone. For a whole generation of filmmakers – including the cinematographers, productions designers and visual effects artists – a direct line can be drawn between “Blade Runner” and the imagery of modern sci-fi movie. In the 35 years in which “Blade Runner” has gone from “cult classic” to the most anticipated franchise sequel of the year, it’s hard to find a futuristic film in 2017 that isn’t in some way rooted in the visual world building of this seminal film.
Here are five ways Ridley Scott’s masterpiece changed the look of Sci-Fi movies forever.
The Cyberpunk Look
“’Blade Runner’ changed the way the world looks and how we look at the world,” science fiction author William Gibson told Wired. Gibson’s books, specifically “Neuromancer” — which came out a year after “Blade Runner” — are viewed as being the defining stories of what became known as the cyberpunk movement. The popular science fiction sub-genre juxtaposes a technologically-advanced future with the breakdown of social order (in other words, a technological dystopia).
The exploration of the moral and philosophical quandaries that would come with computers and artificial intelligence was present in science fiction books dating back to the ’60s and ’70s – including Phillip K. Dick’s 1968 novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” which “Blade Runner” is based on. What made “Blade Runner” groundbreaking was it created the visual look, atmosphere and world of cyberpunk. Ridley Scott and his team of incredible technicians built a futuristic Los Angeles that was the perfect extension of the near-future dystopia sci-fi authors were writing about in their books.
As the role technology plays in our daily lives has grown exponentially since the ’70s and ’80s, the themes of the cyberpunk movement have permeated all aspects of popular culture. As a result, the international film market has increasingly gravitated toward this futuristic setting defined by technology – bleeding into genre re-defining superhero movies (“Dark Knight”), action movies (“The Matrix”) and anime (“Ghost in the Shell”) – for which “Blade Runner” is the visual touchstone. It’s a connection that filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, The Wachowskis and “Ghost in the Shell” visionary Mamoru Oshii readily acknowledge.
“When you create a film dealing with humans and cyborgs, you have no choice but to refer back to Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner,’ as this movie is probably the foundation of movies with this theme,” said Oshii in 2004 interview.
A Recognizable Los Angeles
© 1982 The Blade Runner Partnership, All RIghts Reserved
Often one of the first things that is written about “Blade Runner” is that despite its cold, emotionally distant future, the film feels nostalgic. There’s an element of melancholy incorporated into the story, one that’s deeply rooted in its visual design. A great deal of this is credited to the unique approach of visual futurist Syd Mead (that’s his official credit on “Blade Runner”), who collaborated closely with Scott and his artisans for months before production.
“I do not claim to ‘define the future,” said Mead in interview with Design Trophy about his influential work. “What I do is to think about why things are the way they are now, combine that awareness with how things were, are now and may be brought into reality. This defines the look’ of ‘future’ stuff. My scenarios are fanciful guesses that are the result of combining several layers of awareness and supposition.”
The idea of technology changing the look a world was nothing new to sci-fi, but Mead’s early sketches and work with VFX artist Douglas Trumball and production designer Lawrence G. Puall projected a vision of the future on top of Los Angeles – showing how the recognizable architecture, buildings and history of Los Angeles would provide a base that the future was built on. The widely copied “Blade Runner” aesthetic is often referred to now in rather reductive terms of “trash-chic” – that sense that the antiquated artifacts of the world we know would become the crumbling facade or urban decay of the future. It’s not only that we recognize Los Angeles, but ingrained in the production design as the backstory of how the world has changed.
Neon Asia is the Future
Scott and his collaborators embraced neon colors as a key aspect of the “Blade Runner” palette. Although the film was set in Los Angeles, it was very clearly touching upon a recognizable future based on the abundance of neon that dominated commercial districts of ’80s Asian cities like Hong Kong. The strong connection between cyberpunk movement and urban areas of Japan, Korea and Hong Kong – which is now our accepted visual understanding of urban living in the future – was solidified in “Blade Runner.”
Unorthodox and Unmotivated Light Sources
Fitting with this neon world, cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth embraced unorthodox light sources that hadn’t been used in films before. Xenon lights – at the time more closely associated with large boats – became a key lighting source on a major Hollywood movie for the first time. The appearance of these untraditional lighting sources came to signify the futuristic look in many movies going forward.
The unusual source lighting, which created areas of light and shadow, were often unmotivated, meaning that they did not imitate real light sources. Cronenweth’s lighting design served to activate a layer of the unknown that laid beyond the set. These lights lent credence to the sense that control was in the hand of unknown forces in a chaotic world. The cinematography alone conveyed the cyberpunk idea of technology leading to social decay.
Texture and Atmosphere in Vast Sets
Cronenweth’s lighting was noir in the sense that its strong, directional source light created sharp areas of darkness in the frame, but there were many more light sources than was typical of noir. The result was that it created numerous pockets of light and shadow in a single setting. The textures emerge from thick smoke, rain and neon glow.
The same concept was incorporated in the enormous “Blade Runner” sets and matte backdrops. From a distance, the world looks impressively vast, but once the camera got tighter at moments of drama there were little nooks that could feel intimate in the production and lighting design. This gave Scott the ability to create incredible atmosphere and detail with longer lens compositions so the world didn’t simply look empty, but could contain dramatic scenes.
In later years, as the pressure to create digitally-enhanced worlds increased, “Blade Runner” still serves at the model of how to create atmosphere and make these backdrops seem real.
“From a pragmatic point of view, ‘Blade Runner’ is actually one of the most successful films of all time in terms of constructing that reality using sets,” said Nolan in a Forbes interview, talking about he made the massive sets on “Batman Begins” seem real. “We started to throw [elements of ‘Blade Runners’ visual style] into the mix of how you can help the look of something, how you can create texture, as Ridley Scott has always been the absolute master. Creating a texture to a shooting style that maximizes the impact of the set, and minimizes the artifice – the feeling that this world has edges to it that you would see at the edge of the frame… really envelop your audience in the atmosphere of the world you’re trying to create. We definitely tried to emulate that style, and I think in doing so we actually created homage.”
He wasn’t alone. It’s safe to say that the bulk of modern visual effects in big budget sci-fi filmmaking owes a great debt to “Blade Runner,” and with the sequel opening this week, that’s not changing anytime soon.