The VFX team behind Blade Runner 2049 reveal how they stayed true to the world created in Ridley Scott’s original film, while also giving the sci-fi sequel its own vivid and unique identity.
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) has proved a template for three decades of futuristic science-fiction design, from Minority Report (2002) to Ghost In The Shell (2017). Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve’s instruction to visual-effects supervisor John Nelson was to make the sequel “tonally the same, but visually different”.
“We wanted it to feel like it’s a used world, an analogue world, and for the effects to appear as if they were photographed,” Nelson explains. “Denis was quite clear he didn’t want the flames that appear in the opening sequence of the original, but instead the look of a heavy industrial complex, brutalistic architecture and snow.”
While principal photography had been completed at Origo Film Studios and Korda Studios in Hungary due to UK studios being at capacity, the bulk of the film’s 1,200 VFX shots were created by facilities in Montreal and Vancouver to take advantage of local tax credits. Nelson hired eight vendors including Double Negative (DNeg), Framestore, MPC, Atomic Fiction, BUF, Weta Workshop and Rodeo FX, plus an in-house team.
The conceptual breakthrough came when constructing the future Los Angeles. “Denis gave me a picture of a favela in Mexico City as his vision for a continuous sprawl that extended from LA to San Francisco,” explains Nelson. “I searched Google Earth for flyovers of Mexico City that would match our storyboard and, from weather patterns, judged when the city would be most cloudy because we wanted to capture it with soft light. Using those co-ordinates, [aero-cameraman] Dylan Goss shot overheads of the city from one helicopter trailing another helicopter.”
From those plates, DNeg’s VFX team darkened the prints, removed all the cars and trees, and added 3D atmosphere such as mist, fog and rain.
“We eliminated most mid-sized buildings so you have normal and giant-sized buildings, and dropped the street level down to make a canyon,” explains Nelson. “We steered clear of creating traffic jams in the skies or populating the city with thousands of signs.”
Along with production designer Dennis Gassner, Nelson researched Soviet-era architecture for the look Villeneuve wanted. “A common trait of the buildings we found was that they tended to be thinner at the bottom and overhanging at the top, as if society is looming over you,” he says. “We put that into our design and created it in multiple scales.”
A CG recreation of the Rachael replicant played by Sean Young in the original film was perhaps the most challenging individual sequence, as the character was required to have an emotionally stirring reunion with Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard. “It would require full CG on top of a real actress’s body, but figuring out exactly how to achieve emotional subtlety was tough,” says Nelson.
Loren Peta doubled for Young (who acted as adviser) on set, with her facial performance captured digitally and used as a reference by artists at MPC. The facility also worked from photos of Young in the early 1980s and a scan of her skull to gain a clearer idea of the proportions of the bridge of her nose, cheekbones and jawline.
“We fully retraced all of the eye caustics and scattering,” explains MPC VFX supervisor Richard Clegg. “When the eyes moved even a fraction, we simulated the tissue wobbling in the eyeball itself.” The early goal to merge Peta’s performance into a perfect digital replica had to be shelved, however. “Loren’s work was great but we just couldn’t transfer the soul behind her eyes into digital,” explains Nelson. “We went back to Sean’s original performance and found mannerisms that matched with the 2049 script for emotions which ranged from confidence to longing then rejection. We used that and the reference data to hand-animate the whole scene.”
DNeg Vancouver was behind the creation of Joi, the holographic virtual assistant played by Ana de Armas. For the three-way love scene also involving escort Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), the intent was to show Ryan Gosling’s K physically with Mariette while mentally connecting with Joi. “Both actresses were filmed doing the same moves on set, one after the other. Then, using their necks as a common point, we carefully realigned Joi on top of Mariette,” explains DNeg’s supervisor Paul Lambert.
The aim was not to perfectly replace Mariette, but blend between them. “Some ‘errors’ of misalignment were needed for the audience to see what was happening, while others would need to be removed or hidden as they got in the way of the performances,” says Lambert.
“When shooting on set we weren’t exactly sure how this was going to look,” he continues. “It was when we saw a mix of Ana and Mackenzie on a monitor that Denis said this was what he wanted. It was a conventional transparency but getting their eyes in sync at certain points creates a third woman in the scene, and that is what we played on.”
A backlot in Hungary covered with dirt and scrap metal, and backed by greenscreen, was the basis for Trash Mesa, where Ryan Gosling’s character K experiences his first flashbacks to his childhood. Photographs and aerial footage of Bangladesh were used by Framestore to build a beach strewn with shipwrecked tanker ships.
Montreal’s Rodeo FX handled the bulk of the scene, including a giant derelict satellite dish-turned-orphanage. “Our [VFX DoP] Robert Bock was on set to film around 100 children on greenscreen, which we then duplicated into thousands of orphans,” explains Rodeo FX founder Sébastien Moreau. “We used lidar [infrared scan technology] captured on set to create the ceiling of the orphanage, and placed a variation of our 3D model of the satellite dish with numerous holes added into each shot to give the impression of decay.”
David Lean’s Great Expectations was inspiration for the adjoining scene in which K walks between the orphanage to an abandoned ship. “The characters are small and surrounded by massive structures,” says Moreau. “Denis liked all establishing shots to be quite simple and easy to read.”
In order to turn the neon lights of Las Vegas into a deserted, post-apocalyptic version of the city, Framestore’s art department produced an array of concepts based on the work of artist Syd Mead. “Roger [Deakins, DoP] dictated the look of the Vegas sequence by how he shot the plates on stage,” explains Framestore VFX supervisor Richard Hoover. “He provided one reference for how the sun should appear through the sandstorm atmosphere. There was a very fine line between creating depth in the shots, and only allowing the audience to get a hint of what was out there.”
The overall look of the environments was based on the Sydney sandstorm of 2009, and compositing supervisor Anthony Luigi Santoro rendered the shots with lens distortion to complement Deakins’ photography. “We wanted to make people’s jaws drop,” says Santoro.