What I Learned From Watching: Blade Runner (1982)


There is a reason that Blade Runner is often the first thing that comes to mind when considering the Cyber Punk genre. Few films define a sub-genre as perfectly as this film. You voted for it and here it is— this is what Blade Runner teaches us about filmmaking. Let’s get started…

Blade Runner is based on Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in which a bounty hunter named Rick Deckard must track down and kill six escaped androids (known in the film as replicants). They were called replicants in the film in order to escape the preconceived notions that come along with the word “android.”

Ridley Scott: “Yet the word android is, in a way, is really a man-made development on, let’s say, robots… a robot? Bio-mechanoid android. And android may actually be human- I mean, may actually be flesh and blood, genetically structured, okay? So, we simply decided to not use the word because it’s been over used and misused and so we developed our own word, which is the word “replicant,” which is essentially a human being.”

It was actually one of the screenwriters, David Peoples, who came up with the idea of calling them replicants after having his daughter, a chemistry major in microbiology at the time, explain the process of replicating cells (Starlog58 23). One of several substantial differences between the book and the film is that Deckard’s main reason for taking on the mission is so that he may save up enough money to buy a live animal. Just like in the film, real animals have become an extremely rare and expensive commodity.

What makes Blade Runner such a unique film is how it mixes and transcends several established genres. Blade Runner is often classified somewhat broadly as a ‘neo-noir’ film. Neo-noir uses a lot of the same elements as those in film noir— crime, the dark seedy parts of society, moral ambiguity, and so on— but it implements those elements in an updated setting often with more contemporary themes. A subsection of neo-noir that Blade Runner is more specifically classified under is ‘tech-noir’ or ‘future-noir’ (wiki). Tech-noir blends science fiction with classic noir and what you end up with is a sub genre that allows for the exploration of some very thought-provoking subjects.

Deckard: “Implants. Those aren’t your memories, they’re someone else’s. They’re Tyrell’s niece’s.”

That said, the sub genre and style that Blade Runner is most linked to is Cyberpunk, which consists of a setting with advanced technology, but there is a great deal of glitch, grime, and decay or the phrase “high tech, low life” as it is often described. This also refers to the social order of the society depicted. For example, in Blade Runner, the elite members of the city live on high floors of the mega buildings and the poor inhabit the dingy decrepit structures at street level.

Blade Runner went on to provide inspiration for many films including such anime classics as Akira and Ghost in the Shell. You can even see some direct connections between these films and Blade Runner including the children in Akira having a similar accelerated aging condition as Sebastian does and as for Ghost in the Shell, there are plenty of thematic connections, but we get a more direct reference to the implanting of memories similar to those implanted in Rachael.

“All your memories about your wife and daughter are false. They’re like a dream. Someone’s taken advantage of you.”

Philip K Dick got the idea for the concept of the novel while researching another book called The Man In The High Castle that takes place in an alternate reality where the Nazi’s won World War II. He saw the replicants as being similar to the supermen that the Nazi’s were trying to create with the Aryan race (Starlog#55 22). And as you can see in this picture of Rutger Hauer, it looks like the design of Roy Batty wasn’t too far off.

When asked about the themes of the novel, Dick had this to say: “The first is what constitutes the essential human being and how do we distinguish and define the essential human being from that which only masquerades as human… And the second theme is the tragic theme that if you fight evil, you will wind up becoming evil, and that this is the condition of life. There is a quote from the novel which I think really is the basic theme of the novel. This line doesn’t appear in the film because it’s spoken by Mercer, a character in the book who wasn’t transferred over to the film: ‘You will be required to do wrong no mater where you go. It is the basic condition of life to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow; the defeat of creation. This is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life everywhere in the universe” (Starlog #55 22).

So what can we learn?

First, Design and detail.

The city in Blade Runner, which was at one time called Gotham City (no joke), is only believable because of all of the structures, vehicles, props, costumes, and so on that were created for the world of the story. This is true of many films (especially science fiction films), but why does the world of Blade Runner feel more real than most?

One of the main concept artists behind the look of the city is an artist named Syd Mead. Syd Mead had done a lot of styling work for the Ford Motor Company and was originally hired by Scott to design the cars of the future for the film (Syd Mead Interview). However, Mead isn’t one to simply illustrate a car on its own. In an interview he said, “I’ll toss in background settings. I had read the script to Blade Runner and wanted to give the city a shot. After some discussions with Ridley and art director Larry Paul, I began putting in backgrounds that fit the tone of the picture.

Ridley liked them. He had me expand on them and sketch a few street sets and, then, some interior sets. Before it was all over, I wound up working on the look of almost all the articles in the film from hand-held hardware to more elaborate articles” (Syd Mead Interview).

Mead has plenty of experience in industrial design, so it is no wonder why every tiny detail in Blade Runner appears to be functional.

Ridley Scott wanted the atmosphere of the film to evoke the same feeling as the artwork in Heavy Metal magazine as well as the painting “Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper. With the Nighthawks painting in particular, we can see the parallels in the overall look of Blade Runner— artificial light, perpetual night, and a kind of retro influence on Blade Runner’s depiction of the future. But the main aesthetic is a futuristic world that is lived-in.

Syd Mead: “As I’d started off with very clean, designed concepts and then successively layered on top of those initial ideas sort of a accumulation of detail and repairs and extra pieces of equipment that weren’t the original equipment idea.”

This principle goes for every fixture in the film to the point where it isn’t only functional, but changed, broken, fixed, and improved.

Syd Mead: “This parking meter is a kind of miniature example of the whole visual concept of accumulation. You start with a recognizable parking meter inside all this stuff. When you no longer can accept coins or metal disks or whatever you had a electronic register that accepts a magnetic card. The post-mechanical case becomes electrified so that if you touch it or try to attack it, you’re electrocuted which is a very brutal attack on your- you as a human.”

And the same principle was implemented in all of the signage that is seen (and sometimes not seen) throughout the movie. Everything was designed then altered several times to show a kind of progression of change. On top of that, Ridley wanted every sign, billboard, badge, magazine, and logo to look as if it was designed by a different person (Signs of the Times).

Tom Southwell: “I would say that half the stuff I did isn’t on camera, I mean, if I could point- I could find 150 things in the movie that I did and designed graphics for, but there is 150 things that I did that didn’t show up.”

If a production can swing it, it seems like a great idea to go a bit overboard on the details, so that you are really free to put the camera anywhere and still maintain the integrity of the world. And this isn’t even as overboard as some other filmmakers have been. In his film Red Beard, Akira Kurosawa had a clinic set that included drawers that were filled with real medicine, yet were never opened on camera (Yoshimoto 332).

Of course the models play a major role in the overall design of the city as well. There are actually substantially less effects shots in Blade Runner than in a lot of popular movies around at this time and still, the shots blend so seamlessly with the shots on set that we truly believe in the connection between these megastructures and their interiors. These effect shots are used at very precise moments in the film and are peppered throughout to make it feel like more were used. Here we can see them shooting the front of the Tyrell building. This is one of my favorite models in the film— let’s take a look at it up close…


I’m in the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York. This right here was actually the real screen-used section- the front section of the Tyrell building that you can see in the beginning of the film. This was done by Douglas Trumbull’s production company. And as you can tell, it’s not very big. This was because they didn’t have a big enough budget to accommodate such a huge model. So this actually made it very tricky to shoot because the smaller the model is, the more they have to stop the camera down in order to get the correct depth of field to make it look real.

They also shot in a relatively small soundstage so, to get the angle from above the police headquarters, they had to tilt the model at an angle because they couldn’t fit the camera above it (making).

The models were also a bit tricky to shoot because Scott wanted the atmosphere in these shots to have a smokey haze, so when they were shooting exposures of over 5 seconds a frame, they had to make the smoke look like it wasn’t changing frame to frame. In order to do this, they rigged up a smoke detector that would trigger the smoke to start and stop based on how much it was detecting.

What’s really cool about this model, is if you look behind it, you can see all of the wires they installed to make the model light up. There is so much great detail here. If you look closely, you can see the little elevators that would move up and down the outside of the building and this area on top where the spinner would land.

They used all sorts of things to add to and help fill out the cityscape including an old Millennium Falcon and even a kitchen sink (Making).

Douglas Trumbull (who worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey) did special effects for Blade Runner as well.

Here he is talking about the most complex shot in the film.

Douglas Trumbull: “And we’re gonna have wind effects and rain effects on the canopy of the vehicle from outside, lighting from outside, and a lot of practical lighting from inside. And then what we do in post-production is superimpose into these screens a lot of little movies of the readouts, which will be made later. Outside the window we’ll pull matte lines off the edges of the window here and all around the side doors and then superimpose the city outside, trying to keep a balance between the natural light on the window, the rain on the window, and the city outside the window. So it’s a pretty complicated- this is one of the most complicated composite mattes in a picture, because even the city outside will be a number of elements. It’ll be the city, foreground miniatures, which are one inch to the foot scale, it’ll be half inch to the foot scale miniatures beyond that, quarter inch to the foot scale miniatures beyond that, a painted backing beyond that, and then between you and it, maybe six or eight other spinners all maneuvering that are all optically superimposed together. So the plate that’ll be out the window here, alone, will probably consist of maybe a dozen film elements all composited together.”

Next is Shooting Close.

In order to create the world of Blade Runner, all of the design elements had to fit into the broader structure of the city. They shot most of the exteriors on the same back lot and, in order to make it look like several different locations, they moved things, painted things, and simply turned things upside down in order to create the illusion of the locations being different (Commentary). They also implemented a few real locations to help create a variety and a believability to the setting. The main real locations they used were: Union Station (which was used as the police headquarters), the tunnel that Deckard drives through, the Ennis House, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Bradbury building.

As detailed as some of the sets were, they were still very limited, which influenced the cinematography and, in turn, made the spaces feel more real. You’ll notice that a great deal of shots in Blade Runner are close-ups or medium close-ups and many are in places where you’d usually see medium or medium-long shots. And shooting closer makes the set feel larger in a way because you aren’t getting a sense of the limits of the space. This also works well for highly populated areas. You shoot all of the scenes with lots of extras a little wider and then do the closer shots without all the extras— maybe just a few passing in front of the camera.

Ridley Scott: “Scale is always difficult in backlots and I think we pulled the scale off. The trick about scale is: don’t go too wide—it’ll give yourself away. So everything was kind of like set on long lens to make a sense of, ‘we could be around the corner on 2019 of 42nd Street and Broadway or, you know, Wall Street and how it stood out and how it’s evolved with the occasional big wide-shots, we’ll say, ‘this is the city.’ That’s the premise, I stuck too it because it was all I could afford to do.”

The Complete Collector’s Edition Bluray affords us the opportunity to see this principle at work by including deleted alternate takes. Let’s take a side-by-side look at two versions of the sequence that introduces Deckard.

There is something about the wider shots that make it really obvious to be a set constructed on a backlot.

I think what’s happening here is that, as long as the shots make sense spatially, the audience is going beyond the frame in their own imaginations to fill in the connections between the shots much in the same way that the scariest monster is the one that you don’t actually get a good look at. And, the details of the closer shots stick in our minds, so that we are much more aware of them than if we had to try and pick those details out of wide shots.

And this concept isn’t just used for backlot exteriors. On my most recent viewings, there was a particular scene that stuck out to me that hadn’t in the past. It was the scene of Deckard and Rachel at Deckard’s apartment following the shooting of Leon. There is something about the way this scene is shot that I found fascinating in how things are treated spatially.

With the small space that is Deckard’s apartment, they were, in a way, forced to shoot close unlike the choice to shoot close on the backlot. However, this scene is shot even closer than you’d expect based on the confined space and it does something very interesting. First, it brings Rachael and Deckard together in a two-shot and after a short exchange of words, it splits them apart with Deckard in the bathroom and Rachael watching from the kitchen, then Rachael follows into the bathroom, linking them together again. Then they are split apart again when Deckard walks into another room, leaving Rachael behind. Deckard can’t deal with the fact that a replicant who he is technically supposed to kill, but has become close to and who is blurring the line between the artificial and the human is asking him to tell her how long she has left to live. This exchange happens with Deckard and Rachael in two different areas of the apartment.

And it is here where we get our first hint that Deckard might be a replicant himself.

Rachael: “You know that Voight-Kampff test of yours? You ever take that test yourself?”

They are no longer linked together in two-shots or even over-the-shoulder shots and when Rachael finally enters the room that Deckard is in, they remain separated as if they are different rooms. Deckard sleeps and Rachael has a personal moment at the piano. These shots get incredibly close to Rachel and her and Deckard finally become linked again in a subtle reaction shot when Deckard spills his drink. And then they end up in a two-shot once again.

Ridley Scott did a lot of storyboarding, but he wanted to do stuff on the spot as well because it is more visceral. He said, “You have to leave yourself room to use your imagination even when you are shooting” and this lead to shooting things a couple of different ways in order to discover what worked best as we saw in the alternate takes of the noodle stand (Commentary). He shot Zhora’s death scene only once and waited until he saw the rushes to decide whether or not he wanted to try it again (Commentary).

Every shot is composed with the design elements in mind and, the design elements used specifically for shot composition, also make practical sense in the world. For instance, look at this shot. We have neon lighting to decorate storefronts, a glass storefront left of center reflecting light, and fake falling snow as part of a storefront display directly in front of the camera. What we get in this composition is a smattering of bright neon color, light patters reflected in the window, the textured movement of the snow in the foreground, and occasional dark figures passing in front of the camera to maintain the presence of crowds without needing many extras in the shot. And when the focus is shallow, we get a sense of how abstract these elements register in our minds.

Which brings us to number three: Dynamic Light.

Cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth said in an interview with American Cinematographer that “technique was not the most important consideration” and that “[s]ince 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” (American Cinematographer).

Cronenweth also used a great deal of soft front light coupled with hard backlight, which he says looks “violent” (American Cinematographer). The article goes on to say that “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” (American Cinematographer).

Every single shot has something going on it that gives volume to the light and therefore the space itself. Most often it is smoke and rain that are used the catch the light and link shots together.

The noodle stand scene uses a combination of rain in the background and steam in the foreground and in the closer shot of Gaff, the foreground steam takes on a neon hue that creates an interesting ‘moving haze’ effect, which brings the noodle stand into the shots that don’t show it.

Ridley Scott wanted the cinematography in Blade Runner to be similar in style to Citizen Kane, mainly for its use of “shafts of light,” which Cronenweth says was meant to depict an “invasion of privacy.” (American Cinematographer). Light from outside always seems to find its way into nearly every interior. Even in Deckard’s home, there are what almost looks like searchlights beaming in through the blinds. Cronenweth says, “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” (American Cinematographer).

A lot of the neon signs were borrowed from film One From the Heart by Francis Ford Coppola and they reused them in several places.

What’s really cool is that, when they used slow motion to show Zhora crashing through the windows, the neon lights had a “pulsing” effect due to the higher framerate, which happened by accident, but they liked the way it looked and went with it— they had to convince themselves that they liked it because there was really nothing they could do about it if they wanted both slow motion and the neon signs (American Cinematographer). A side note is that this shot (from the Final Cut version) was fixed up and they superimposed the original actress’s face in the shot fairly recently specifically for this version of the film.

There is something to be said about the difference between the Final Cut version of the film and the theatrical version, in that the Final Cut does away with the Phillip Marlow-style narration. There are plenty of great films that use narration well and Scott actually wanted to use narration because of how well it worked in Apocalypse Now a few years earlier. Now, in my opinion, cutting the narration out is what makes this a brilliant film rather a decent film and I believe this is for two reasons.

The first reason is similar to the principle of making a space seem bigger by shooting close and limiting the view. If everything is spelled out for us, we lose what our own imaginations add to the world. And I’m not just talking about plot points. Listen to this:

Deckard: “That gibberish he talked was city-speak, gutter talk, a mish-mash of Japanese, Spanish, German, what have you.”

We don’t really need to know this and it doesn’t add very much to the world outside of what we just experienced without the narration (especially when Deckard’s narration later says that he was lying about not being able to understand Gaff).

And the second reason is that the narration makes the film too close to film noir and almost like a parody instead of transcending the genre like it does in the Final Cut.

Some people enjoy the narration, but I would argue that it works much better in another medium. Marvel adapted Blade Runner into a comic in 1982, which includes the narration and it actually works really well in the comic book medium. User Future Noir uploaded a copy to issuu.com. Thanks to EyesOnCinema for bringing this to my attention. There is a link in the description—check it out.

Just one more thing: After watching the movie over and over while making this video, I realized that I had never noticed that Rachael is in the background of this shot right before Bryant tells Deckard that Rachael ran away and he has to hunt her too. She shows up to save Deckard in about a minute, but look at how Gaff just walks past her even though she really sticks out in her big fancy outfit at street level. Maybe this explains why Gaff left her behind at the apartment at the end.

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Thanks again for watching!

This video is on The Final Cut version of the film.

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This video essay was written, edited, and narrated by Tyler Knudsen.

Blade Runner Comic: http://bit.ly/1UFWeVj


Convention Reel: http://bit.ly/1TYNuKA

Starlog #52

Starlog #55

Starlog #58

Starlog #150


The Electric Dreamer – Remembering Philip K. Dick

The Look of “Blade Runner” – An Interview With Visionary Designer Syd Mead by Ed Naha

American Cinematographer Interview with Jordan Cronenweth: http://bit.ly/1RYUZPy

Wallpaper textures by: designmag_dm and AF-studios (freaky665.deviantart.com)


“Blade Runner Theme” by Vangelis

“RSPN” by Blank & Kytt (https://blankkytt.bandcamp.com/)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

“Backed Vibes Clean” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0