How the world of Blade Runner 2049 was created | Production Design [No Spoilers]

Hello Cinephiles! Well, here it is– an R-rated 150 million dollar sequel to one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made. When I heard they were making a sequel, I was like, ‘The only way that would work is if they got Denis Villeneuve, Roger Deakins, Hampton Fancher, Harrison Ford, and Ryan Gosling.’ Well here we are.

I think what’s most exciting about revisiting the Blade Runner universe is the universe itself. What does Los Angeles look like 30 years after the events of the original film? What do people wear? How has the culture changed? And most importantly, how did the crew make this future seem real on film? This is the production design of Blade Runner 2049 on Making Film…

Now, a sequel to Blade Runner was in development as far back as 1999, as well as a prequel, but let’s skip ahead a bit. It was just before Ridley Scott was about to begin production on Prometheus in 2011 that he had a three-hour dinner with Broderick Johnson and Andrew Kosove, the heads of Alcon Entertainment, a production company that had spent the previous year securing the rights to a Blade Runner sequel (Wired). Scott had reportedly said that he had been waiting for a meeting on a Blade Runner sequel for “35 years” (Wired).

Shortly after, Scott contacted Hampton Fancher— the first screenwriter for the original film— and asked him if he would like to meet with Scott in London to discuss ideas. Fancher had been writing a short story that he would eventually turn into a treatment for a possible Blade Runner follow-up. The protagonist of the short story was very similar to what would eventually become Officer K, played in the film by Ryan Gosling. The treatment was given to a writer named Michael Green, who would later work on “American Gods, Logan, Alien: Covenant, and Murder on the Orient Express” and he, Hampton Fancher, and Ridley Scott wrote the screenplay (Wired).

When it became apparent that Scott would be unavailable to direct the film, Johnson and Kosove went to Denis Villenueve, who had directed some of the greatest films this decade including: Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, and later, the Best Picture Nominee Arrival. Kosove had worked as a producer on Villenueve’s abduction thriller Prisoners and thought that he would be best suited to evoke the mood that 2049 would require. Kosove said, “Blade Runner is always put in the sci-fi genre, but we really think it’s more of a noir movie… and if you look at Prisoners and Sicario, you know there isn’t a filmmaker today doing better noir than Denis” (Wired).

Villenueve passed on the job because he had just finished Sicario and would be starting Arrival shortly after and he was hesitant to jump into yet another film directly after Arrival. He also wasn’t sure about the idea all together citing that trying to make a sequel to one of his favorite films would be [quote] “a super-bad idea,” but he reconsidered after Kosove and Johnson offered to work with his schedule.

Villenueve stated in an interview, “I said to myself, ‘If there’s a moment where I’m going to do a movie of this scale, it needs to be something that matters to me” (Wired). He thought that the only way to make the movie was to accept that it was just a gesture of love toward the original, but he knew that it would always be compared to the one that came before it (GMA).

Seeing as Blade Runner 2049 takes place thirty years after the original, what needed to evolve the most was the world that Blade Runner is set in. In the original, we can already see an extreme class separation, the dirt and grime of the city, the pollution, but what would happen to Los Angeles thirty years from this? And how would this reflect on our current world?

The script was a good start, but it could only go so far. They still had to come up with every little detail of the world that would appear on the screen to make us believe the story.

Roger Deakins: “I mean, I think the look of a film is an organic process. It’s not something– you can’t read a script and then something just comes into your head, I think.”

Ridley Scott had said, “Science fiction is a very special form of auditorium… It’s a theater, a box, within which anything goes— but you’d better draw up the guide lines and the rule book before you begin. Otherwise, you end up with nonsense” (Wired). Villeneuve says that it was good working with Ridley Scott because he was far away. Scott met with Villeneuve and told him his inspirations for the first movie, the ideas behind it, but he stressed that it was Villeneuve’s movie and that he would only be there if Villeneuve needed him (Comic Con Panel).

Denis Villeneuve, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and two storyboard artists spent weeks closed off in a hotel room in Montreal dreaming up the world of 2049 and how to display it. Villeneuve had said that it was in these meetings that the style of Blade Runner 2049 was born. Villeneuve was fond of using a pencil for concept art over a computer, because this way, he could simplify the process to a few people in a room discussing and drawing ideas. Together, they created a bible of storyboards, sketches, and aesthetic concepts that they would use to make the movie (GMA, AFI).

They hired Dennis Gassner to do the production design for the film. Gassner actually has an interesting connection to the original Blade Runner. In 1981, he had worked on Francis Ford Coppola’s film One From the Heart that created an opulent musical version of Las Vegas. The film used many many neon lights for the production and, after production had wrapped, Gassner met with Ridley Scott who was looking to use some neon lights for Blade Runner. Scott was blown away by the sheer amount of lights that were available and this access is largely responsible for a realization of the neon noir feel that would cement itself in the cyberpunk aesthetic (WSJ Dystopian Future).

Before starting on the production design, Gassner asked Villeneuve if there was a single word he could use to describe the essence of the film. Villeneuve replied, “Brutality” (WSJ Dystopian Future). With that in mind, Gassner created a wall that would be the visual story of the film’s narrative (WSJ Dystopian Future). They wanted to make sure that the production design both reflected and expanded upon the original film while maintaining a natural progression of its cinematic world. Villeneuve said, “We used elements from the first movie with humility and tried to find a strength in them. But this movie has its own personality” (LA Times). And aside from story, this was the biggest challenge of the film. Art director Paul Inglis mentioned that they tried to evoke something familiar for the audience and then slightly diverge into new territory (Featurette). There are several allusions to other parts of the world in the original Blade Runner despite never seeing them.

“A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies.”

I’d imagine you’re like me and wondered what the off-world colonies look like or what lies beyond the city. This is an opportunity to imagine what about the world is different than what we’ve already seen.

Denis Villeneuve: “It’s a huge challenge because you don’t want to cut and paste otherwise, why? And at the same time, you have to respect what was done, so you’ve got to find the right equilibrium.”

And it wasn’t just the new blood expanding this world, Villeneuve managed to bring back the legendary Syd Mead who did much of the concept art for the original Bade Runner. There is a scene where K is walking toward the city ruins draped in a yellow-orange dust that Syd Mead was responsible for. Villeneuve said, “For me, it was important to have one moment where Syd Mead would express himself… I had the chance to meet the master and ask him to give me the gift to create a specific place. And when I saw his drawings, I was so moved” (LA Times).

In an interview, Syd Mead said, “Working on Blade Runner 2049 was a completely new inventive challenge, which I relished. I mean, having worked on the original with Ridley Scott in pre-production and post-production, this new involvement was a professionally thrilling way of ‘bracketing’ my Blade Runner design history. It was an entirely new project” (filmschoolrejects).

Society in the Blade Runner universe doesn’t seem to have gotten any better in the past 30 years. Ryan Gosling said, “The power of science fiction, and what’s positive about it… is that you’re able to experience the worst-case scenario without actually having to live it” (Wired). We get a certain catharsis in seeing this bleak future, because it makes our world seem like it isn’t so bad and it helps us process what upsets us about our own surroundings (Wired).

The question is: are we getting closer? In 2049, many people live in box-like homes that were inspired by Hong Kong’s real-life housing units called “coffin cubicles” (LA Times). These pictures from National Geographic are of real life living spaces in Hong Kong. Tech is ramping up and we already have some of the futuristic devices we’ve seen in the original film. And with much talk of the direction of Artificial Intelligence we can see the themes of these films having possible literal interpretations as well. Pollution and climate issues depicted in the film also seem to give a certain validation to the predictions based on the current trend of climate issues today.

We see a massive seawall to prevent rising oceans from flooding LA– something that is being debated even now (Wired). The rain is a defining feature of the original Blade Runner and one that has had a widespread impact on later films. Ridley Scott said, “At first I was amused by the fact that Blade Runner was an influence… Then I got fed up with seeing pouring rain onscreen” (Wired). The crew of 2049 couldn’t just take the rain from the first film and apply it to the sequel for the sake of getting that “Blade Runner look.” The progression of climate issues and pollution over 30 years has had an effect on the weather and the film reflects that. We see an LA strangely covered in snow. This also has its roots in the personal experience of Denis Villeneuve. The Canadian director said, “As much as the first movie had an atmosphere of constant rain, in this one it would be colder… Basically, you could say that the first movie was made by a man from London, England, and the second one was made by someone from Montreal, Canada” (LA Times).

Denis Villeneuve: “When you are- when I’m working with someone else’s story, I always try to find an intimate way to get into the story. I have to create an intimate link. And one of them, it’s going to sound trivial for you, but it was huge for me aesthetically, it was the climate and the screenplay was different than the first movie. It was more like there was the idea that there will be snow. There will be- winter will be present. And I mean, as a Canadian, there’s one thing I know about.”

Villeneuve grew up in a small rural town in Quebec, Canada where they would often get [quote] “six or seven months of snow” (Wired). He felt that the weather was a good starting point for the creation of Los Angeles in 2049 and it also very much reflected on his aesthetic theme of brutality. He said, “The only violence I got in my life was winter… and weather helped me figure out this movie a lot. I started from the premise that the ecosystem has collapsed, and I started to build a new Los Angeles.” (Wired) He also had a nuclear power plant visible from his parents’ kitchen window growing up (Wired).

According to Villeneuve, snow has a such a strong impact on the light and atmosphere.

Denis Villeneuve: “To approach Ridley’s universe through the lens of something that is so familiar to me, it helped me to define what I will keep from the first and what I will end and what create different to make it my own.”

Ridley Scott had shot much of The Martian just outside Budapest at the Korda Studios and suggested the location to the 2049 crew. The nearly 100-day shoot started in Budapest during the summer of 2016 where the production had control of ten sound stages (Wired). If you’ve seen my video on the original Blade Runner, you might remember that much of it was shot on the same backlot causing the crew to move things around and use clever angles to make it appear like more than one location. Here, it seems that the 2049 crew had much more room to create and Korda Studios is home to one of the world’s biggest sound stages at 6,000 square meters and a height of 20 meters (kordastudio).

The scale is pushed to such an insane degree that, the original Blade Runner seems more like a familiar home-like place, whereas the city in 2049 feels like you can easily get lost in just the sheer scope of it.

Outside the large studio facilities, Budapest itself had several interesting locations to shoot the world of 2049. There were many [quote] “long dormant power stations” that were used in the film and the “Vintage Casino” K finds Deckard in was actually shot in Budapest’s famous Stock Exchange Building (WSJ, welovebudapest). Villeneuve said, “It’s a world that is quite bleak and dark and claustrophobic, but I tried to find an equilibrium with explosions of color that would express some emotions and some themes… The color yellow is very important in the movie and is linked with different aspects, story-wise.” (LA Times).

If I had to guess just after seeing the movie once, I would say that the color yellow represents K’s quest for truth. Yellow seems to show up whenever he makes another break-through in the mystery of who he is. I don’t know, I need to think on it more. Let me know in the comments what you think yellow represents in the movie.

Villeneuve wanted the look of the film to feel like a natural progression from the original, which is why they used limited computer animation (WSJ). Roger Deakins said, “So many science fiction films all look the same, because the effects are done by rote… We were desperate to create our own world” (Wired). In fact, some of the most stunning special effects didn’t use computer animation at all. For example, we see a progression in the advertising that littered the city in the original film in the form of a giant holographic woman that seems to interact with K. On the effect, Villeneuve said, “We constructed the bridge on the set, filled the stage with rain and fog, and we projected the actress on that gigantic screen… So the impact of the light is all real — it’s not something created by a computer”(LA Times). It’s things like this that caused him to admit that 2049 was by far the most difficult shoot he has ever done (GMA). Looking out Deckard’s windows, the hazy high-rises are actually [quote] “towering illustrated backdrops that wrap around the stage” (Wired).

Villeneuve said, “We were constructing an apartment, and we constructed the buildings on the other side of the street. We constructed the city landscape with models. Fantastic light patterns that would imitate the lights of buildings in the fog… I can count on one hand how often I saw a green screen on set. Because the way we worked, we tried to enhance the images with CGI, and trying to use as little as possible the green screens. They’re there, sometimes, but not a lot. It’s really what’s in the background, far away, that is computer generated most of the time. There are shots with prominent CGI, but I tried to avoid that as much as possible – even the aerial shots, I tried to have real elements, real landscapes” (denofgeek).

The sets were meant to be as real for the actors as possible. When first approached, Ryan Gosling had asked if the whole movie was going to be shot in front of a green screen. Green screen has its place if needed, but when possible, it’s always better for everyone working on the movie if the set can be as physically real as possible. As Villeneuve puts it, “you need to allow the space for the actors to find new ideas on the set” (LA Times).

Villeneuve said, “We had a lot of technological challenges during this movie, but we also had the power of computers. I wanted this power — the technicality of the movie — to be in the background, not in the foreground. In the foreground I wanted humanity. I wanted the actor in the center of my focus. I wanted to give them everything as much as possible to inspire them. So we built all the sets first, constructed all the vehicles, did all the rain and the snow and the fog with practical effects. All the streets, all the exteriors — we constructed everything. There’s a scene where you see a Spinner … inside a penthouse — that was real. It’s a nice blend of a very old passionate approach and high-end technology. I feel that CGI is very strong when it’s helping reality, helping real shots. But to start just from CGI is a challenge and not something I wanted to do” (Time).

Ryan Gosling: “You know, these sets were fully functioning worlds. I think trick for me was just to not be impressed by it on camera.”

Gosling can fully interact with the space because the space seems real and I imagine this must help the cinematography as well. New ideas can arise on set and you can roll with it instead of being bound to something that happened during pre-production. Villeneuve had said that some of his favorite moments in the film are from ideas that Gosling had during the shoot (Talks at Google).

When it came to action, the aim was to keep from being [quote] “too Marvel” in that it shouldn’t be flashy and fun, but as Villeneuve puts it: “more simple, more brutal” (Wired). We can see this in the opening scene, which was actually written by Fancher for the original Blade Runner.

Villeneuve approached the production design more as a period movie than a science fiction movie. In the age in which we live, so much is happening, as he says, “in the abstract” (Talks at Google). So much is happening within cyberspace and outside of physical space, but you can’t really have a noir film in which the protagonist just sits at a computer. Fancher devised a way to set the film further in the future while still removing this aspect— before the events of the film, an electro-magnetic pulse would destroy much of the digital and force the protagonist back out into the world to meet people, find clues, and travel to new locations (Talks at Google). The charm of the original was in all of the analogue grit. The wires, the weird sounds and clutter of it all evokes that special feeling.

“Hello?”

Between Alien and Prometheus, this certain charm was lost. You could explain it as being a blue-collar vessel versus a sleek high-expense vessel.

I must say, I’m loving all of these new weapons and devices. We can see how the idea of brutality can be applied to familiar pieces of the original Blade Runner. Just look at the update to the Spinner, which was actually the first thing they designed (WSJ). Production designer Dennis Gassner said, “We wanted the vehicles to have a more chiseled, angular, graphic strength… It’s a harsher world than the first film, both environmentally and stylistically” (Wired). They made several versions of the Spinner 2.0— some were drivable and some were exclusively for flying effects (LA Times).

It’s interesting that, in a world where animals are extremely rare, a lot of the costumes use furs, feathers, and leather. The cultural reason is likely that, since animals are rare, clothes would seem more high-end or expensive if they appeared to be fur, feathers, or leather, whereas it is obvious that it would have to be artificial. Renée April designed the costumes for the film. She said that she had started by sketching a lot of crazy outfits for the people of the future, but Villeneuve had her pivot and stated that the costumes had to be more simple (NY Times).  April recognized how the brutality of the world would have an impact on the outfits of its inhabitants saying, “It’s snowing, freezing, pollution everywhere. There is no fashion. We had to be humble” (NY Times).

She’s a big fan of the original and had also mentioned to keep an eye out for a few nods to the original costumes— like a transparent raincoat (NY Times).

The new Blade Runner faux leather and faux fur-lined coat that April designed was actually [quote] “made of cotton fabric laminated before construction;” April said, “so the rain would not kill it.” She then used paint to add texture and weather it (NY Times). We can see in this sketch how it shares similarities to Deckard’s original Blade Runner coat.

Mariette is most similar to Pris and evokes an image of a wilted flower with her feathers and hat degraded by the weather. April said, “The oversized hat and coat are just another reflection of that world, everybody hiding themselves… they wear big masks, big collars to hide their faces. The sleeves are long and hide the hands. I don’t know, maybe it’s a reflection on our world today” (NY Times).

Continuing the Japanese influence is Joi— seemingly influenced by manga and sometimes a geisha style. Joi has about 25 separate costumes in the film (NY Times). Niander Wallace wears a Kimono and his fitting was much easier than the 25 for Joi. Jared Leto did only one costume fitting for the character and it was just a couple of days before shooting. April said, “I put it on him, I loved it, and that was that” (NY Times). The idea behind Wallace was that he does not go out, so April designed a pajama-like uniform that she imagined he’d have several of hanging in his closet. She wanted the design to reflect the design of his home, simple and empty (NY Times). Villeneuve initially wanted David Bowie for the role before he died in early 2016. He had said that Bowie had an influence on the original Blade Runner and wanted to [quote] “acknowledge that legacy” (Vice). Jared Leto wears contacts in the film, which adds a very interesting take on the eye motif of the franchise. These contacts made Leto completely blind on set, which he says helped his performance, but he never saw the actors he was performing with (Tonight Show).

Luv, Wallace’s right hand, was designed to contrast the gray filth of the world. She wears [quote] “off-white suits with clean lines” making her look angelic (NY Times). But, as April says, the gray makes its way into her outfit over the course of the film— her wardrobe begins to fall apart as her composure does. April designed the outfits from stretchy material so that, when Luv fights, the outfits maintain their clean lines and again, the outfits are very simple and modest— as April says, “no details, no frills” (NY Times).

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