Cinematographers of modern sci-fi often capture future dystopia through a specific hue, a restrained color palette that gets further stepped on and over-emphasized in post production. It establishes a mood, but also becomes a shorthand to give this future world a specific, unified look.
For example, this still from the new “Blade Runner 2049” trailer captures the desaturated feel of a world gone wrong.
However, this represents just one of a dozen distinct looks of the new “Blade Runner.” While trailers can be misleading, often picking the most dynamic shots, the new “Blade Runner 2049” trailer released today showcases many different worlds within the Blade Runner universe. And while the film certainly has a look of its own, it is would appear that this might be Roger Deakins’ most ambitious work. He’s utilizing a far-reaching and wide-ranging lighting and color palette that’s unlike any sci-fi film we’ve seen in recent memory.
“This time, Roger is alway focusing on the logic of light and naturalism,” said director Denis Villeneuve in the Facebook Live Q&A that followed the trailer’s unveiling. “But this time — and this is an expression Roger will hate — he went wild.”
This will mark the third collaboration between Villenueve and Deakins, and in recreating one the most visually influential future worlds in film history, they did not play it safe.
Light as Space
In the film, Jared Leto’s villain is in some way farming human replicas (clones?) to become his workforce. Leto’s space stands in contrast to the cluttered, dense dystopia — both desert and urban — that defines much of the film. His vast, shapeless environment is defined by Deakins’ light, which literally becomes the architecture defining this otherworldly space.
A key visual theme in “2049” will clearly be water. From the water birth of Leto’s human replicas, to rain that obscures multiple characters from seeing, to the rain-soaked streets, water plays a stylistic, thematic, and story role the new “Blade Runner.” It’s clear Deakins embraces this in his bold lighting. From a waviness of light reflecting off water, to obscuring how we see characters — like this shot of Robin Wright, who we watch talking through the streaming water.
From German Expressionism to the 1940 Hollywood film noir, cinematographers have always done some of their best and most showy work when dealing with high-contrast, single-source light with no fill. “Blade Runner 2049” has created a future noir look and one of the remarkable things about it is how Deakins creates a futuristic, halogen-like light source — much different than the direct, hard light source needed to create the classic shadows of noir — for his own twist on genre lighting.
The original “Blade Runner” took the modern neon an Asian metropolis and made it a far-off future. Deakins continues this tradition, but is pushing the color without losing the dystopian feel — not an easy task. The candy-color nightclub, which appears a few times in the trailer, is just one example.
Dense, Foggy Compositions
What’s remarkable is how Deakins is able to push the color, the clutter, and density of the urban landscapes, and the smoky haze that defines “Blade Runner,” and balance them so perfectly. Look at this frame below and take in how much is visually going on, with multiple kinds of light and space — yet it is perfectly balanced, and doesn’t overwhelm the intimate moment of two characters that takes place far from the camera’s lens. There aren’t five cinematographers alive who could so elegantly bring these things together into a well-composed shot.
Finding definition with light in the dense smoke and dust of “Blade Runner” is a paradox, yet one Deakins seems to have little trouble managing with well-defined contrast. For example, here Deakins puts his own spin on the orange-dust world of the original 1982 film.
Harrison Ford’s Clarity
Contrast that to this to the crisp images on Harrison Ford’s world. The detail is sharp, our connection with character is unvarnished, the depth of field shallow. The hazy, density of “Blade Runner” surrounds Ford’s world, but is soft and in the background. Based on the trailer, Ryan Gosling’s Officer K turns to Ford’s character for clarity and answers, and Deakins finds a matching visual scheme that brings it to life.
While Dennis Gassner’s production design plays a big part in the new “Blade Runner” — and it’s clear he and Deakins collaborated closely — the trailer shows off a number of wide processed shots that establish the world. There’s also a number of holograms that appear in the urban backdrop. To make these key “fake” elements feel real is an enormous part of the lighting design and how the process shots are actually filmed. In pausing on some of these key establishing shots, it’s jaw dropping to see how vivid and seamless Deakin’s work is here.
Modern blockbuster lighting has become boring and safe. Here, Deakins is taking one of the most distinct-looking franchises in film history and stretching its boundaries. To have naturalistic images like the one below and have it feel like the same film set in a stylized 2049 goes to show that Deakins won’t be lighting a Marvel movie any time soon.
You can watch the new trailer below: