The original Blade Runner was a milestone in sci-fi cinema, production design, and visual effects. Continuing it from a story point of view was tricky – but living up to it from a visual standpoint was damn near impossible. And so everyone was delighted when Blade Runner 2049 turned out to be even more of a visual feast than the original movie.
John Nelson, the film’s visual effects supervisor, was more than aware of the weight of the challenge. “This was the sequel to a film that we all loved and I think any science-fiction fan really holds in high regard and certainly any special effects geek like myself loves it. We have a tremendous amount of respect for the first movie,” he tells us when we catch up with him. He describes working on the film as “a labour of love,” and has nothing but admiration for the vision of director Denis Villeneuve. But they were all aware that they had a lot to live up to. According to Nelson, there were three main VFX challenges on Blade Runner 2049, and he talked us through them.
The original Blade Runner’s design of a dystopian future Los Angeles was iconic. “We wanted to extend the first movie but not over-do it,” Nelson explains, saying that both Villeneuve and Roger Deakins, the cinematographer, wanted to keep things reality-based. “We looked a lot at heavy fog and heavy smog, smog in China, anywhere where the atmosphere made things feel really claustrophobic. And for the design of the buildings, Denis was very adamant about them being Brutalist architecture.”
Although the LA of Blade Runner 2049 is entirely fictional, and often entirely CG, it is based in fact – with aerial shots of Mexico City providing the basis. “We would do things like extended the city down by cutting deep canyons in the streets while at the same time extending the city up by putting in these Brutalist buildings of multiple scales, some a little bigger than what you can see and some hugely bigger and then we added tonnes of atmosphere to choke it off,” Nelson explains. His goal was to keep things “gritty and grimy. Very tactile, as opposed to glossy. Glossy was not good. It was more like dirty, wet and lived in, and extremely atmospheric.”
Nelson and his team kept the continuity from the first film – those famous Atari and Pan Am holographic logos, for instance. “We wanted to make the film feel very analogue and not digital, we wanted to feel like everything, even the visual effects, even the characters that were holograms, could have been photographs and not created by a computer. If you look at the movie there are no 16:9 screens in the movie, they’re all 3:4.” While the environments of the film are amazingly detailed, Villeneuve was keen to keep the effects minimal. “In a lot of effects movies there’s just so much going on and there’s so much stuff that’s been added to it that it can be overwhelming and confusing... we tried to restrain it so that your eye has an easy way of following shots through, and it’s the restraint, I think, that makes the shots look more real.”
The holographic Joi, played by Ana de Armas, posed the other big challenge. She had to be believable both emotionally, and visually. “We didn’t want her to appear like a ‘normal’ hologram, really glitching and fritzing, so we tried to make that look real and subtle,” Nelson says. They did this by adding a ‘back-shell’ to her, which Nelson describes as “almost like when you hold up a glass of water and you turn it around and you see through the front side to the back side.”
The biggest individual challenge with Joi, though, was the scene in which she merges with Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) in order to sleep with K (Ryan Gosling). “When the two women merge, it’s a really magical moment when their eyes line up, it was a really important moment,” Nelson says. “But we wanted to keep their performances. The women were shot separately with Ryan and then we mapped them onto a CG geometry, but they look real because they are real, we were keeping the performances of the real people, just mapping them onto a geometry so we could put in a back-shell... I’m very proud of that, because it’s like you get one actress’ performance, then you get the other actress’ performance, then they merge and it is a merged third women, they are still acting and when she looks at K – that was just real magic for us. So that was one of my favourite parts of the movie.”
The scene that caused the most gasps in cinemas was the surprise cameo by a copied Rachael replicant, modelled perfectly on Sean Young. The whole process of creating Rachael took about a year, and a LOT of effort and ingenuity. On set, Rachael was performed by British actress Loren Peta, but everything from the neck up was replaced with CGI. “We modelled these small imperfections into her skin to make it look more real, she actually has blemishes, you know. I learned so much about make-up,” Nelson laughs, talking about the detail that went into getting her 80s lipstick and hair right, even down to having some fly-away strands.
But the real challenge was nailing the performance. “I really felt we needed to match Sean as she was as Rachael, not as she was in say No Way Out, or Dune, and actually get her the way she performed in the original Blade Runner as that character.” After months of working and re-working her, he was ready to show off the results. “What I did to make sure I matched the model was I went and I took three scenes from the original movie and I replaced one shot in each scene [with a CG Rachael] and I showed that to the producers and I said ‘okay, take a look at this’ and they said ‘why are we looking at this? It’s the old movie, it’s not our movie’ and I said ‘because one of those shots in each of those scenes is a Rachael double’. And they went ‘whoa’. They had not noticed. Then I knew that I had matched her.”
Creating Rachael was, like every aspect of the film, a challenging labour of love. “It was a long thing and very hard to do. But we were all completely geeked out and we loved it, so we spent all our Saturdays working on it,” Nelson laughs. And that level of love, passion, and, well, geekiness paid off, creating one of the most visually arresting movies of 2017.
Blade Runner 2049 is released on DVD and Blu-Ray today.