“When it comes to science fiction, the devil is in the details” — Blade Runner director Ridley Scott.
Director Ridley Scott’s visionary science fiction film Blade Runner shows his implacable attention to detail, and proves that when it comes to creating believable science fiction worlds, “the devil is in the details”, as Scott says.
“Most art directors are reluctant to design things in great detail, because they know the director won’t show it. But I told them, ‘if you build it, I will show it'” Ridey Scott during the director’s commentary track of Blade Runner: The Final Cut
In addition to Scott’s vision, three other people had a key role to play in creating Blade Runner’s stunning visuals: cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, Art Director David L. Snyder, and Production Designer Lawrence G. Paull. What the visual effects team did to the massive cityscapes and flying cars, these artists did to interiors and street life, breathing life into a futuristic world.
There is a stunning level of detail in Blade Runner, from the interior sets, to the exterior street life, to the costumes — the movie was imagined and designed down to the smallest of details, and as we’re about to find out, it’s the little details that make the big difference when creating a believable world from scratch.
Blade Runner is a study in set decoration and art design. Every single set and location in the movie is filled with props and art decoration, resulting in a dense frame with little to no “blank space” — or “white walls” as they’re called in the industry. The street life is dense with people, and likewise, the sets are dense with props and items. Every aspects of the world in Blade Runner is overcrowded, which makes it that much more enticing to leave for one of the off-world colonies, as the massive blimps advertise throughout the film.
Even sets that were used only once, such as Bryant’s police office (filmed at Union Station in Downtown Los Angeles), is jammed with details, from the items on his desk, to the background, to the walls, which have a texture of their own. The set design of Bryant’s office tells us that Bryant, despite being above Deckart and most city dwellers, is not immune to the overcrowding.
But there is a fine line between a frame dense with details, and a frame that distracts from the actors. Blade Runner continuously walks this fine line, always giving the eye something interesting to look at, without being distracting. The sets look full and detailed, but don’t distract the eye from the main action.
Just as Bryant’s police office, J.F. Sebastian’s apartment at the run down, dilapidated Bradbury building is packed with details and various props. Just like Bryant’s office, the set decoration tells us something about the character who lives there. J.F. Sebastian’s apartment building is dying, and so is J.F., who suffers from a premature aging disorder.
Costume designers Michael Kaplan and Charles Knode also deserve recognition for dressing not just the main characters, giving each character a unique color and style, but dressing the hundreds of extras that are seen in the movie.
From Zhora’s see-through rain-coat, to Priss’ outfit, to the average city dweller in Los Angeles in 2019, the costumes are just one of the many details that make Blade Runner so timeless. Most of the inspiration for the costumes in Blade Runner came from old film noirs, as costume designer Michael Kalpan puts it, “We definitely felt that Blade Runner was of that film noir genre, and we looked back to the films of the 1940s for inspiration. Deckard was as much a Gumshoe as Sam Spade”.
The costume designers and their workers spent months creating hundreds of unique costumes and outfits for the characters in the film, from Rachael’s stunning dresses, to the dirty and disheveled outfits of some of the many pedestrians on the streets. In order to give the costumes a futuristic spin, Kaplan and Knodes added sharp and exaggerated angles, mostly seen on Rachael’s outfits. The sharp angles were added “so that it was a bit of a whacked-out take that pushed the clothes into the future”, as Kaplan puts it.
The costumes are futuristic and daring, but not so much that they seem unrealistic for the world that’s created (unlike in other science fiction movies, such as The Fifth Element).
Scott and his collaborators wanted Blade Runner’s street life to not only be vibrant, but packed. Most of the street shots were filmed with a long lens, which compacts the elements in the frame, giving it an even denser look. But there was a more practical reason to film mostly on long lenses with tightly framed shots: the Blade Runner exteriors were shot on the Warner Bros back lot, and were mostly limited to a single street. In order for it not to look repetitive, the shots had to be tight — there are very few wide shots of the streets in Blade Runner.
“I had to keep it corner to corner, nook to nook, and only occasionally use a wide shot”, says Scott. Long lenses compress the image, bringing the background and foreground closer together, resulting in a dense frame — perfect for street scenes in a world that’s supposed to be overcrowded. With the long lenses, “you get a real sense of density and population overkill” says Scott.
Using the long lenses and tight shots were of the utmost importance for Scott and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth. Says Scott:
“Don’t get too wide or you’ll give yourself away”
The Bradbury building has a character of its own in Blade Runner. The famous Los Angeles landmark has been used in movies since the 1940s, and this concerned the producers when Scott said he wanted to film there. However, Scott had this to say:
“I wanted to film at the Bradbury building, they [producers] told me that the building was a cliche. I said, ‘Not the way I’m gonna do it.’ – Ridley Scott
The Brandbudy building has since been featured in numerous movies, commercials, music videos, and television shows. But none made it look as interesting as Blade Runner.
But it took a lot of hard work and effort to give the Bradbury building its Blade Runner makeover. To make it even more challenging, the production team could only use the building at night for a total of 10 hours at a time.
During those 10 hours, the building had to be transformed into a crumbling, dilapidated structure with water flowing everywhere, then all of it had to be cleaned up and turned back into normal the next morning when tenants arrived. The tenants who occupied the building at the time had no idea what their place looked like just hours before.
Blade Runner’s art department went to great lengths to fill the world with little details. From the street signs, the the various billboards, to street restaurants — the key to to everything was detail. As Ridley Scott puts it, when it comes to science fiction, “the devil is in the details”.
To see just to what extent the art department went when they created the world for Blade Runner, one only has to look at the handful of frames where a newsstand is seen. The art department not only designed the stand to be unique and futuristic in its own way, but they designed all of the magazines that are shown on display (see image right).
The magazines have a screen time of less than a second, yet each was designed by professional cover artists to look like the real thing.
“There’s a lot of reused stuff in Blade Runner, which I think is the secret of maximizing beautifully detailed shots” – Ridley Scott
The art department recycled several of the sets throughout the film. For example, Tyrell’s office, where Deckard interviews Rachael, was later used as Tyrell’s bedroom — to save money and time, Scott told the art department to re-dress and re-paint the set, as seen below:
Blade Runner was a medium-budget film, and Scott was very aware of that. Money had to be spent wisely, and there was no room for waste. Most directors would have scaled down their vision order to fit the budget, but Scott wasn’t one of them. Luckily, he knew how to make a great looking film and how to do it on a decent budget. His main approach was to recycle as much as possible.
“You move objects around, and you can disguise things in two seconds. You turn something upside down or backwards or repaint it, and it looks different”, says Scott. Several sets were recycled, and props and items were reused from set to set, often repainted and turned around or flipped upside down. The production team saved a lot of money on props and set design this way.
This wouldn’t be complete without mentioning three other key Blade Runner collaborators: futurist Syd Mead who envisioned many of the key elements (such as the flying “Spinners”, the Void-Kampf machine, and many of the futuristic skyscrapers). Additionally, visual effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull, who brought it to life, and finally, composer Vangelis and his moody score.
Despite Blade Runner’s status as a classic and one of the best science fiction movies of all time — certainly one of the best looking science fiction movies of all time — Scott says he’d probably do it differently if he was making the film today.
“I look at Blade Runner today and think ‘it looks pretty damn good, but what would I do if I shot the movie today?’ I’d probably change it a lot.” – Ridley Scott