The master of naturalism ignored the original "Blade Runner," and might win the elusive Oscar for his legendary aesthetic.
The subject of “Blade Runner” never came up during any of cinematographer Roger Deakins’ discussions with director Denis Villeneuve about the sequel, “Blade Runner 2049.” Although the two movies obviously share the same world, and there’s a mysterious connection between Ryan Gosling’s K and Harrison Ford’s Deckard (current and former L.A. blade runner detectives) when the story picks up 30 years later, the only thing that mattered to Deakins was grounding the lighting in reality. Which makes perfect sense: he’s the master of naturalism and “Blade Runner” was grounded in expressionism.
“It was more of a film noir detective story, but we just went by our script,” said Deakins. “We needed to get the settings straight and then storyboarded it all for the concepts of the world and the spaces.”
However, the one imperative that Montreal native Villeneuve stressed was snow. “Right from the get-go, Denis said, ‘I want it cold, wet, and snowing. I want it to really feel atrocious,'” added Deakins. And that harshness as a result of severe climate change was conveyed throughout the production design by Dennis Gassner (who worked with Deakins on the Bond film, “Skyfall”) in the form of Brutalist architecture, emphasizing blocks of concrete and sharp angles.
For Deakins, “Blade Runner 2049” offered the most diverse set of environments to play with. But despite the sci-fi trappings, which sometimes veered into surrealism, it was important for the cinematographer to ground the lighting in reality. That mean shooting nearly everything in camera (with both the digital Alexa and Alexa mini) on stages in Budapest, and finding real-world geographical reference. As a result, cityscapes were generated from aerial footage of Mexico City, Las Vegas, Iceland, the Mojave desert, and Spain.
“The other early model was Beijing smog [at dusk] where you get this completely gray haze, and every now and again you see a point of color coming through,” said Deakins. That proved to be his eureka moment for capturing L.A. through the perpetual winter of snow and rain. And then when shooting a scene on a rooftop between K and his companion, Joi (Ana De Armas), Deakins added misters onstage to create a real fog.
A more colorful atmospheric effect was achieved later on when K gazes at an enormous holographic image of a nude, pink-figured Joi (who’s more than meets the eye). This was achieved with the aid of LED screen projection and digital manipulation of footage shot of the actress.
For the first time, Villeneuve wanted to use color as a visual journey. In this case, he suggested playing with yellow. The director never mentioned why to Deakins, but, given the presence of so much artifice and planetary destruction, it’s safe to assume that yellow represented nature and love. There are hints of yellow everywhere, from a flower that K picks up next to a tree to the interior headquarters of Zen-like inventor Wallace (Jared Leto).
“It was about trying to find Wallace’s character and Denis and I spent a lot of time talking about the look of the interior,” Deakins said. “We looked at a lot of references of the way architects use light in modern buildings, and especially the way light falls on some of these big concrete structures.
“There was one particular cathedral that’s a big concrete block with two skylights that lets light in a most interesting way. We thought about an artificial world in which lighting moves like sunlight. I went with that and little patterns. Denis wanted the main space to be a big platform in the middle of a pond (based on an architectural design we’d seen). And the idea was to play with water with caustic patterns to evoke different emotions.”
Later, when the trail leads K to Deckard in Las Vegas, yellow turns to red dust in the desert wasteland. “The idea of the red dust initially came from a conversation where Denis thought we should have dust, and then another conversation where it was decided to be red, and I got reference from a dust storm in Sydney a few years ago,” said Deakins. “We took those kind of images and used them as a template for Las Vegas.”
But shooting in Budapest didn’t provide enough stage space to build the entire hotel structure where Deckard lives, so they gradually pieced the whole journey together with different sets. And once you’ve got the theme of the light, it becomes a technical challenge making it all fit. This included matching the reddish hue coming from the windows of Deckard’s penthouse apartment and then reducing the amount of red throughout the rest of the hotel.
For a showdown in a club featuring holographic images of Elvis Presley and showgirls, Deakins created a darker, more surreal vibe. They built a showroom and Deakins made it look larger by making it fall off into black. It was first prevised with lighting and then choreographed for maximum action potential.
As always, for Deakins, the trick was trying to make it hold together as a unified piece, with the additional challenge of experimenting with a sequel to Ridley Scott’s cult classic. “For me, the first movie didn’t relate to what we were doing,” Deakins said. “Obviously it’s in your head because it’s part of your culture, ‘Blade Runner,’ but I didn’t refer to it in any way like that. I can’t light like Jordan [Cronenweth] could light. It’s stylistically different. You’ve got to do your own thing and hope it works, really.”
In the case of “Blade Runner 2049,” it works like a visual summary statement of everything Deakins represents stylistically with his storied naturalism. After 13 nominations, he may finally win the Oscar.