April 25, 2011

The Cinematography of “Blade Runner”

This is my all time favorite film, and I'm happy to finally showcase it here.
I highly recommend the Ultimate Collector's Edition DVD, it has soooo many extras on it that it took me a week to go through them all, they are informative and fantastic. Also, I could not believe the BluRay version of this film, they cleaned it up so well, it completely blew my mind, you would not think this was filmed in 1982. Incredible picture and audio quality and even a few short scenes inserted in that were not in previous versions.

The film's cult status truly soared once the Ridley Scott-approved the Director's Cut version was made in 1992. Significant changes from the theatrical version include: removal of Deckard's voice-over, insertion of a unicorn sequence and removal of the studio-imposed happy ending. Ridley Scott's Final Cut (2007, 117 minutes), also known as the "25th Anniversary Edition," released by Warner Bros. on October 5, 2007 and subsequently released on DVD, HD DVD, and Blu-ray in December 2007.  This is the only version over which Ridley Scott had complete artistic control and was not rushed during the restoration process. In conjunction with the Final Cut, extensive documentary and other materials were produced for the home video releases culminating in a five-disc "Ultimate Collector's Edition".

Misunderstood when it first hit theaters, the influence of Ridley Scott's mysterious, film-noir-style Blade Runner has only deepened with time. I found some intriguing information about the man who filmed this movie from The American Society of Cinematographers.

Jordan Cronenweth, ASC's photography for Blade Runner, with its use of strong shafts of light and backlighting, immediately evokes images from classic black-and-white movies, and it is not accident that it does. Cronenweth explains, "[Director] Ridley Scott felt that the style of the photography in Citizen Kane most closely approached the look he wanted for Blade Runner. This included, among other things, high contrast, unusual camera angles, and the use of shafts of light." 

David Dryer, one of the special photographic effects supervisors, worked with black-and-white prints of most scenes in the film for one reason or another, and almost wishes the film could be released in black-and-white. He thinks it seems to have even more depth and style in black-and-white. Needless to say, this would not do justice to Cronenweth's work, but it is an indication of the way in which the photographic style of the picture harks back to classic movies. 

Like every other aspect of the film, Cronenweth's photography takes the classic conventions one step further, and not the least of his tools in doing this is the use of color, or even the absence of color where it might normally be expected. "We used contrast, backlight, smoke, rain and lightning to give the film its personality and moods," the cameraman says. "The streets were depicted as terribly overcrowded, giving the audience a future time-frame to relate to. We had street scenes just packed with people. . . like ants. So we made them appear like ants — all the same. They were all the same in the sense that they were all part of the flow. It was like going in circlesÉ like going nowhere. Photographically, we kept them rather colorless." 

If the people on the streets were colorless, the Los Angeles Street set was anything but: "The character and consequently the lighting of the street was achieved through the use of dozens of neon signs. We rented a number of them from One From the Heart. In order to achieve a photographic reality, the on-camera neons were often on dimmers set at a level just above where they would start to flicker. At the same time, the off-camera neons were used as the primary source of light whenever possible by leaving them at their brightest level. When the existing neons weren't sufficient for either illumination or dressing, we would create new ones on the spot and place them wherever we wanted. An example of this was placing letters on the side and strips along the interior of a bus that Deckard [Harrison Ford] runs through in one scene. At one point, we had a seven-man crew doing nothing but overseeing the neon signs. There were many more neons than there were dimmers, so we had to rob Peter to pay Paul at various times." 

Cronenweth would supplement the neons on occasion: "What we needed was some accent lighting to make the range stand out, to glisten the street if necessary and to highlight objects or people. Lighting the set was a simple matter of using backlight in conjunction with the ambient light."
However, the neon lights were bright enough to enable Cronenweth to do some high-speed photography: "In the sequence in which Deckard is chasing a replicant named Zhora, the 'Snake Lady' (Joanna Cassidy), the script calls for her to run through a series of plate glass windows. The art director built a storefront situation appropriate for the action, but when it came to dressing it, Ridley was very unhappy with the first attempt. They tore all the dressing out and a week later presented a new interpretation, but he still hated it. Ridley himself finally had the wonderful idea of taking the neon signs off the street set and placing them in the windows of the stores. 

What developed was something that really worked. We then photographed the chase with multiple cameras running at various frame rates — normal and above normal. This created a pulsating effect in the neon which doesn't occur when photographing at normal camera speeds, but definitely does when shooting at higher frame rates. We lived with it by using the pulsing as an element of the chase." 

Another example of the striking use of colored light is the scene in Sebastian's toy room, during which Deckard encounters another replicant, Pris (Daryl Hannah). She is made up with white makeup, and the scene is lit with rose-colored light. 

Colored lights were also occasionally used to create a special effect for the replicant's eyes: "One of the identifying characteristics of replicants is a strange glowing quality in their eyes," Cronenweth notes. "To achieve this effect, we'd use a two-way mirror — 50 percent transmission, 50 percent reflection — placed in front of the lens at a 45-degree angle. Then we'd project a light into the mirror so that it would be reflected into the eyes of the subject along the optical axis of the lens. We'd sometimes use very subtle gels to add color to the eyes. Often, we'd photograph a scene with and without this effect, so Ridley would have the option of when he'd use it." 

In discussing the photography of Blade Runner, however, Cronenweth emphasizes that technique was not the most important consideration. "The thing that was unique was not the equipment or the gels or the intensity or the hard or soft light," he stresses. "It was the concept behind each situation telling the story. Since the film is set in the future, unusual sources of light could be used where one would not accept them in a contemporary setting. For example, many of the people on the street set carried umbrellas that had fluorescent tubes incorporated in their shafts, providing a light source which could create a glow on their faces." 

Cronenweth is particularly emphatic about backlight and contrast. "I can never use enough backlighting," he says. "It's just that some directors want to see the actors' faces. I keep telling them that the audience only goes to see the sex." The cinematographer is as interested in creating mood or an effect as he is in lighting an actor's face. He tends to use soft frontlight with a hard backlight, although, he adds, "I love hard light in the face if it is overexposed. I think that's beautiful. It's different; it's unusual. It's exciting; it's violent.

"Blade Runner is a piece that calls for extremes. It's naturally a wonderful vehicle for this kind of lighting. It's theatrical, but it will be very real in the film. In this film, I think you'll just accept it. It transcends theatricality."


In addition to using soft frontlight, Cronenweth often lit faces from below. In addition to the glowing umbrella handles, he often made use of water or other reflective surfaces to provide uplight in several scenes. The combination of warm soft uplight in the foreground with hard backlight and smoke in the background is probably the most characteristic feature of the lighting style for Blade Runner.

The other key ingredient in the photography of Blade Runner is the use of shafts of light. "That was an idea that both Ridley and I happened upon independently and had talked about," Cronenweth reveals. "We shared that concept, and it became one of the major themes of the film photographically. We used it over and over again in different applications. One way we justified their constant presence was to invent airships floating through the night with enormously powerful beams emerging from their undersides. In the futuristic environment, they bathe the city in constantly swinging lights. They were supposedly used for both advertising and crime control, much the way a prison is monitored by moving search lights. The shafts of light represent the invasion of privacy by a supervising force; a form of control. You are never sure who it is, but even in the darkened seclusion of your home, unless you pull your shades down, you are going to be disturbed at one time or another. 

"After many tests with various units, gaffer Dick Hart came up with the most effective light to do the job, a Xenon spotlight commonly used for night advertising at sports events. This concept gave us some wonderful opportunities. For example, there's a late-night scene in Deckard's apartment kitchen which was played with the lights out. He has just had a hell of a struggle with one of the replicants. Having barely survived, he is now standing near the refrigerator. Rachel [Sean Young] is standing by the sink, which has a window above it. She is illuminated by a soft backlight through the window and the last traces of light filtering across the room from the refrigerator. Occasionally, one of those strong beams of light cuts through the sink window and glows the room just enough to read her face.
"Naturally," Cronenweth continues, "to create shafts of light, one must have some medium, which necessitated the use of smoke. The story lent itself very well to it, in the context of a highly polluted environment. It was very interesting to work with this constant atmosphere. Smoke is wonderful photographically, but not without its problems. It's hard to control, mainly due to drafts, and a lot of people find it objectionable to work in. Beyond this, it's important to keep the smoke level density constant, as a very subtle change in this density can result in dramatic changes in contrast. The only practical way to judge smoke density is by eye." 

He jokingly adds, "I find that a good density is achieved just before I lose consciousness."
Cronenweth wanted to maintain the same texture even in situations where smoke wasn't used as heavily, and accomplished this by using low-contrast filters. He details, "We changed filters in conjunction with the angle of light and density of smoke. The stronger the backlight, the lighter the filter."

All of the sets for Blade Runner had ceilings in them, and some were built very low to enhance the feeling of containment, a motif particularly well-suited to the anamorphic format. "We had to light from the floor or through the windows," Cronenweth describes. "There is a lot of night photography lit through windows. The sources would vary. They could be anything including searchlights, signs, direct light, indirect light, colored light, or lightning. In Deckard's apartment, we created zones of light that automatically illuminated when one walked in — an energy-saving device of the future perhaps. As the depths of the apartment were penetrated, more lights went on until finally the entire place was lit. This effect was mostly lost, however, in the final cut of the film." 

Perhaps the most interesting set was replicant creator Dr. Tyrell's cavernous office. According to Cronenweth, "This was one of the most exciting to work in. It was very large — approximately 60' long by 30' wide — with three huge windows along one side and structural ceilings supports rising from a shiny black marble floor. The walls were gray cement and the room was virtually colorless.
"The scene called for the room to be illuminated by sunrise. Outside the windows, we had a front-projection screen upon which was projected an 8" by 10" plate of the futuristic city at sunrise, which [special photographic effects supervisor] Doug Trumbull had created. This enabled us to photograph the players walking in front of the lower part of the screen, and gave Doug the opportunity to create a background with movement in it for the upper portions of the screen area. We had to coordinate the color of the set to match the color of Doug's sunrise. Sunlight was created through the use of arcs outside the windows and amber gels. 

"At a certain point in the scene, in order to reduce the light level in the room for Rachel's Voigt-Kampff test, Tyrell [Joe Turkel] presses a button to cause enormous tinted shades to descend over the windows. The 'shades' were actually put in later optically; however, the lighting effect of the shades being lowered had to be created while photographing the scene. To accomplish this, Carey Griffith, the key grip, built a rig that would allow a very large .6 neutral density filter to slide down over the six arcs being used to simulate sunlight." 

The set for Tyrell's office was also redressed to serve as two other spaces: Tyrell's bedroom, which was photographed in flickering firelight, and the Tyrell Corporation interview room, which was photographed with bright white shafts of daylight. According to Cronenweth, "That set looks totally different in each situation, and yet it's the same set. The flickering for the firelight was created by arcs shooting through torn strips of silk for transmission and torn strips of Duvateen for shadows." 

The most unusual set for the film was the "Ice Room," which was built in a meat storage locker in order to create the effect of a refrigerated genetic-engineering laboratory. The ceilings were repeatedly hosed down over five days to form icicles, and then the crew shot for two days at minus 7°F while it was 98°F outside. Cronenweth started out using arcs to light the set, but soon discovered that they were using more oxygen than was coming into the room, except when the door was open. This necessitated changing to HMIs. The set was translucent along one side, allowing Cronenweth to light the scene through the wall. He added smoke to the scene to compliment the effect of cold breath. 

Another interesting photographic problem on Blade Runner was shooting the interiors of a flying police car — a "Spinner" — in order to create the illusion of movement. The Spinner was capable of moving in any direction and traveling at very high speeds. Cronenweth explains his approach: "In order to create a sense of the vehicle traveling at night, we used several techniques. We built two sets of programmable strip lights, each about 8' long and each containing 12 Photofloods wired individually and dyed different colors. We placed them on the exterior of each side of the Spinner cockpit. The bulbs were then flashed at assorted intervals in conjunction with each other and individually. Additional movement was created with set lights activated by keyboard, so the lights were literally 'played.' Moving the camera on both axes by using double gear heads, and using wind, water and smoke enhanced the illusion. To create additional movement for day scenes, we'd use clear globes in the strip lights and a moving arc mounted on a Chapman crane to simulate a change in the Spinner's position relative to the sun." 

Although most of the picture was shot on a stage, some notable Los Angeles landmarks were used as locations. The exterior of Deckard's apartment was Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis-Brown house, designed in 1924 using a Mayan block motif. The Bradbury Building, designed by George Wyman in 1893, was used for the violent final showdown between Deckard and replicant leader Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), as well as for a scene in which Sebastian (William Sanderson) takes Pris to his apartment. The downtown Pan Am building was used for a scene in which Deckard and Gaff (Edward James Olmos) search a hotel room for clues. 

However, one of the film's most striking "exteriors" was actually shot at the studio. "The rooftop sequence at the end of the picture was planned to be photographed on real rooftops in downtown Los Angeles," says Cronenweth. "It turned out to be impractical to do it there, however, because of the scope of the shots and the difficulty of achieving some of the effects. We decided to film the sequence on the Warner Bros. backlot. This required building a couple of moveable rooftop units approximately 30' high. In order to show extreme height, we worked very closely with photographic effects supervisiors Doug Trumbull, Richard Yuricich [ASC], and David Dryer in order to make certain key matte shots, using our rooftop sets as the foreground. Overall, it was an incredible experience filming Blade Runner, immensely challenging and rewarding."


Won the 1982 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Cinematography

Won the 1983 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation

Won the 1983 BAFTA Film Award for Best Cinematography

Won the 2008 Saturn Award for Best DVD Special Edition Release: 5 Disc Ultimate Collector's Edition


Współ.dzielnia said...

great post! thanks.

Bailey Skerst said...

Haven't really seen this movie, but from what you have written, it is a worthwhile film to watch! However, judging from a film aficionado's perspective, the cinematography is supreme granting it has been produced before the era of superpower video cameras and other film equipment. This is a comprehensive review, by the way. Keep posting.

patokon said...

Also one of my favorite movies. Great info here. Thanks!