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‘Blade Runner 2049’: The Most Difficult Craft Challenges for Director Denis Villeneuve

He reveals the challenges of "Blade Runner 2049” — the lighting, sound, score, VFX, and pleasing master cinematographer Roger Deakins.

Denis Villeneuve on the set of “Blade Runner 2049”


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Blade Runner 2049” offered the most complex set of craft challenges yet for director Denis Villeneuve. He had an ambitious vision for picking up where Ridley Scott left off 30 years later, exploring dystopia, humanity, and memory in a way that was linked personally, emotionally, and intellectually. And that entailed a much more involved collaborative process with master cinematographer Roger Deakins, production designer Dennis Gassner, and the rest of the below-the-line team.

But it first began with lighting, and, for the first time, Villeneuve worked out a thematic visual plan with Deakins that drove the narrative about Ryan Gosling’s blade runner/replicant K becoming “more human than human.” And this visual journey enabled the movie to have a hypnotic, dream-like quality. It began with the opening of Ana’s eye (the memory designer played by Carla Juri) and concluded with K’s last waking, cathartic moment in the snow.

A Silver/White “Blade Runner”

The Montreal native began with the concept of frozen snow defining a more brutal future in LA. “What kind of light would be in this world?,” asked Villeneuve. “There was the idea that it would be a silver/white ‘Blade Runner’ instead of the black color of the original. From there, was the idea of the atmosphere.The world would’ve evolved from a climate point of view, a pollution point of view. All this atmosphere would have an impact on the light. I started the project with Roger and then Dennis joined us, but along the way what I loved is that the sets were designed to give Roger all the tools and space to create what we were dreaming of. I was amazed at the end that what I had in mind at the very beginning was on the
screen.”

"Blade Runner 2049"

“Blade Runner 2049”

The Color Yellow

K’s journey is linked to the color yellow, inspired by the yellow brick road metaphor from “The Wizard of Oz.” But what Villeneuve hadn’t revealed until now was that it leads to replicant Rachael (Sean Young) as a bridge between the two movies. “The first thing you see is that Sapper Morton [Dave Bautista] goes through a yellow door and then the flower [picked up by K],” said Villeneuve. “And that story you feel is linked with the idea of creation and childhood and mad desires. It’s like a thread that K follows all the way through until the very end. Slowly, it becomes red when he goes to Vegas, but the edges are still yellow. It was the first time I had the chance to work with color like that, but I wanted to be careful not to fall into the trap of clothes or props. I wanted to be focused on the light more specifically.”

"Blade Runner 2049"

“Blade Runner 2049”

Pleasing Roger Deakins

The most atmospheric use of yellow came from the artificial sunlight effect inside the Wallace Corp., the lair of the nefarious replicant creator played by Jared Leto. This was the best example of the interface between design and lighting. The wooden walls and floors were a perfect complement to the warm yellow glow, and the pool of water in Wallace’s office allowed Deakins to further play with eerie caustic lighting effects.

“Blade Runner 2049”

Stephen Vaughan

There was only one problem: It wasn’t always logical. “There’s a shot in the movie that’s very powerful and beautifully theatrical, a shifting [ring] of light on Wallace and Deckard and the other characters where it’s rotating around them,” Villeneuve said. “It created a different kind of tension and I used it with Roger on the actors. But it was important for Roger that the audience see the source of the light. He’s not fond of light that is not justified, even in such an unnaturalistic setting. I didn’t need to see it. I accepted the idea that it’s rotating. But I told Roger that I would do it for him. So we showed it as a trail of light in the air from unknown technology that creates that kind of a source.”

The Blurring of Sound and Score

Like the original “Blade Runner,” Villeneuve wanted an organic blurring of sound and score in an unusual way that was very musical. Sounds from nature or from technology that we have never heard before. His favorite sound was the revving up of a motorcycle engine as we approached Bibi’s Bar or the police station.

“I was able to fulfill an old fantasy of mine, which was to work on sound very early and to hire a crew of sound designers as we were shooting,” said Villeneuve. “We started making sounds looking at the props and made a library of sounds for this world. We recorded sounds for a year. So, at the end, when I was doing the sound mixing, the sounds were mature. There was no improvisation. There were a lot of ambiences that sounded very musical, and, at the same time, music that sounds like sound design.”

Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049

“Blade Runner 2049”

Warner Bros.

After letting go of his favorite composer, Jóhann Jóhannsson, because his score was too far afield from the iconic original by Vangelis, editor Joe Walker arranged for Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch to collaborate on an entirely new score.

“After watching the movie, Hans turned to me and said, ‘It’s a very beautiful movie but it needs something.’ And he started to play a theme on the keyboard and I was really moved and started to cry,” Villeneuve added. “It was exactly what the movie needed. It was delicate, very heartfelt and a poetic comment on how the world is hard and dystopic.”

The VFX of Rachael and Joi

In replicating the original Rachael as a digital human, Villeneuve wanted to convey her confidence, longing, and rejection when confronted by Harrison Ford’s Deckard. Overseen by production visual effects supervisor John Nelson, MPC scanned Young and body double Loren Peta, who played the part on set with Ford and Leto, and then hand-animated the entire character.

“I put a lot of pressure on the VFX crew,” he said. “It has to look real. I didn’t want the audience to doubt it was her. If it didn’t work, there would be no movie. What I liked was the way she was revealed through his reaction. From a cinematic point of view, it’s interesting to see the character coming out of the [past].”

“Blade Runner 2049”

By contrast, there was more of an analog feel to the creation of K’s holographic girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas). Nelson worked with Double Negative, recording the actress with a batch of small cameras and then creating a frontal transparency effect with a back shell. Then, for the merging sex scene with prostitute Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), DNeg shot de Armas, Davis, and Gosling separately and composited them together. But the merging of the two female characters was unusual.

“I wanted them to join and become a third woman,” Villeneuve said. “When we did the test, I loved that this third face had an erotic presence. And what was interesting for me was that when they were off sync, the women had different emotional experiences. They were there for different reasons, and, at the end, both were linked by the idea of love. The prostitute gets touched in a lovely way and receives the emotion from K, and, for the first time, Joi gets the impression of being real.”

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