In 1982, Blade Runner presented a vision of Los Angeles that would excite early technologists and horrify urban planners. Set in 2019, this distant L.A. was filled with holograms, flying cars, and robots that made it a futurist’s dream, but it was also crammed with rows of towering skyscrapers, beneath which a teeming underworld of crime flourished, making it an exciting nightmare.
Though overlooked at first, Ridley Scott’s film would ultimately set the tone for three decades of futuristic science fiction design. So it was a bit ironic that, for Blade Runner’s long-awaited sequel, Blade Runner 2049, new filmmakers stayed faithful to Scott’s work by toning down the technology and creating a world that, in some ways, has already been surpassed by reality.
“We've seen a million copies of Blade Runner that have been not poorly done, but I would say done with a ‘let's just have a big city with a lot of junk in it’ approach, and that doesn't quite have the emotional resonance,” John Nelson, the Oscar-winning VFX supervisor for Blade Runner 2049, tells SYFY WIRE. “We wanted it to feel like it's a used world, an analog world. It's not really a digital world.”
The production team included director Denis Villeneuve, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and Nelson’s VFX team, which was comprised of several vendors for different segments of the movie. When Nelson says that their 2049 isn't really a digital world, he's not suggesting that the movie wasn't filled with digital effects. Blade Runner 2049, he says, has over 1200 visual effects shots, making for an hour and 38 minutes of VFX in the 2-hour-and-43-minute movie. But they were used judiciously, to help build a future that looks like it exists in the same universe and timeline as the original film.
“It was an echo back to future noir, old and new all at the same time,” Nelson says. “And that's why I think it feels like the original movie. You'll get a modern or flying car, and then you'll get a 1950s bus driving through.”
What Nelson really means by the film not existing in a digital world is that the technology on screen depicts a retro-future, in which there are sentient robots and free-standing hologram people, but also a distinct lack of cell phones and digital screens. That’s because the filmmakers took their cues from the original movie, which came out long before PCs went mainstream, let alone iPhones and LCD screens filling everyone’s pockets.
“There are no 16x9 screens in the movie, they're all 3x4,” Nelson reveals, noting a subtle yet significant anachronism that lines up with the 1982 movie. “And all of the graphics in the film, we wanted it to feel not like they were electronic graphics, but more like they were a picture of something, a picture of a negative. You see that in the database when K [played by Ryan Gosling] goes through the records, it doesn't look like it's just a bunch of lines and numbers zipping out of something, it's like looking at microfiche.”
The records scene to which Nelson refers is a direct echo of a key scene in the original movie, in which Deckard (Harrison Ford) scans a photo to find evidence during his hunt for replicants. The only difference in 2049 is the speed at which a machine can scan a photo. In a movie that lingers on most every action, it’s one of the few elements that’s sped up.
In most other ways, the sequel expands and builds on the original film, quite literally when it comes to constructing the new future Los Angeles.
Already famous for being a wide network of small cities and towns, L.A.’s length was extended up the California coast. Villeneuve told Nelson that he envisioned both a gigantic city center and continuous sprawl that extended from L.A. to San Francisco, filled with house after house, uninterrupted by trees or wildlife. He showed his VFX supervisor a photo of a favela in Mexico City, which sent Nelson first down a research rabbit hole, and then up into the skies.
“I scouted Mexico City on Google Earth, and arranged all my flight patterns, and gave them to our aero-cameraman, Dylan Goss, who had worked with Roger [Deakins] before,” Nelson explains. “We searched through locations for when it would be cloudy, because we wanted to get the soft light. And then we went and shot one helicopter trailing another helicopter.”
They shot the city from above, and then used those plates as the building blocks for something far more massive and moody. The VFX team darkened the prints, removed all the cars and trees, and then added 3D atmosphere like mist, fog, and rain. There are layers and layers of that added atmosphere, creating moody dystopian nights over the sprawl and the booming downtown.
As for the skyline and massive downtown, Villeneuve decided to supplement and extend the slick architecture of the original with a cold and brutalist vision. A big part of Blade Runner 2049’s retro-future was inspired by early Soviet design.
“It was like a 1940s city, and Denis wanted more brutalist architecture, so then we started doing these heavy top buildings,” Nelson explains. “If you look at Soviet brutalist architecture, it's all about the weight of the building is up on top and it almost looks like it's gonna fall over. So we put those into a design of the city, then we put it in multiple scales.”
Some of the downtown was practically built, as well, including the LAPD building, which was constructed in a 1/48 miniature on set. To the naked eye, all the buildings look massive, far bigger than anything we see in most modern skylines. But that effect was achieved not by creating impossibly tall skyscrapers in CGI, but by lowering the streets, creating what Nelson calls a canyon effect.
And then there were the endless details that filled the screen, minutiae that added up to create such a massive, encompassing world. In some ways, 2049 continued the traditions set out by the original, most notably by returning the massive Atari and Coca-Cola billboards that were stand-outs back in 1982. The logos largely stayed the same as they were back then, justified by the fact that they were operating in an alternate universe.
Outside of those two iconic ads, Nelson and his team had to design every single sign in the sequel, a massive task given the endless horizon made possible by CGI. The first Blade Runner reflected the rise of Japan as an economic giant in the early '80s, with Japanese signage scattered throughout the city. The sequel had a noticeable shift, with Chinese and Indian influences filling the architecture, corporate signage, and advertising.
There was also Chinese influence in the environment, as Villeneuve asked to incorporate the infamous Beijing smog. Meanwhile, the snow in L.A. is a nod to his Montreal roots, made feasible by projections for climate change. In fact, Nelson met with futurists from NASA and USC early in preproduction and incorporated some of their predictions and suggestions.
Look closely and you can see some of that advice in action. In Blade Runner 2049’s L.A., there is a massive seawall where the 405 freeway stands today. Which means that the traffic in this future Los Angeles is even worse than it is today, making it truly dystopian.