Revisiting Cinefex (9): Blade Runner

Cinefex 09 BladerunnerThe glowing lights of a police spinner illuminate the cover of Cinefex issue #9. The still is from Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s seminal adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? Two years into its life, the Cinefex cover design retains the classic simplicity established in issue #1, although the price has jumped to $4.75.

The inside front cover features another shot of the iconic spinner, this time one of the full-size practical vehicles used on the set. This whole issue is dedicated to Blade Runner, with a single in-depth article spanning 72 pages. In the introduction, the article is billed as ‘one of the most thorough accounts ever of a major special effects project’. Is that true? Let’s find out.

  • Blade Runner – 2020 Foresight (article by Don Shay)

Blade Runner

One of the chief attractions of a Cinefex reread is the immediacy of the text. The journal’s unspoken mission statement has always been to publish first-hand accounts, rather than rehashing marketing blurb. When it comes to Blade Runner – a film about which a lot of people have said a lot of things over the years – that immediacy comes into its own.

rc09brSometimes this comes through in the little things. Like director Ridley Scott commenting that the city featured in the film was originally intended to be a west-coast metropolis called San Angeles, but that the location was ‘moved to the East Coast because it’s raining so much.’ Every fan of the movie knows the story ended up taking place in Los Angeles. Ridley obviously changed his mind.

Mostly though, the immediacy is apparent in the detailed transcripts of the many interviews Shay conducted with the movie’s key players. There’s Scott himself, of course, summarising his philosophy about the film’s look-and-feel in the simple phrase ‘futuristic without being silly.’ Designer Syd Mead talks at length about his concept of ‘retrofitting’, by which buildings and vehicles are clogged with multiple layers of detail, so as to give every item on the set its own unspoken history. Then, of course, there’s the formidable effects team headed up by Douglas Trumbull, Richard Yuricich and David Dryer.

It’s hard to know where to start with this article – it’s so packed with detail. But then detail is what Blade Runner is all about. For example, we learn that the model cityscapes featured tons of etched brass filigree, a technique devised by Tom Cranham to give the impression of almost infinite depth and texture. A similarly exacting approach was applied to the opticals, with countless passes of smoke, rain and moving lines of traffic being layered into the wide shots.

All the major effects sequences are covered here, with extensive analysis of the construction and photography of the Tyrell Pyramid (exterior and interior) the surrounding ‘Hades’ landscape, the flying vehicles and the city models and matte paintings designed to transform the Burbank backlot into a vast futuristic metropolis. It’s all wonderful stuff – and so deliciously authentic – but what intrigues me personally about this article (just as it intrigued me when I first read it all those years ago) is the coverage given to latent image matte painting, a process akin to witchcraft.

Shay describes this distinctly old-school compositing process with more clarity and depth than I can muster in just a few short words here. Suffice it to say, the latent image technique means you shoot your live action, but delay fully processing it until you’ve created the matte painting you want to add to it. Only when the painting’s ready do you take the live action out of its latent state and put the whole thing together. Sounds simple – and there’s no doubt the resulting image quality is the best you’ll get with traditional optical techniques – but this is basically a terrifying thing to do. Apart from anything, it means the poor matte artist has to mix his colours to match something he can’t even see!

Matthew Yuricich has this to say on the subject: ‘Nothing photographs the way it looks. Your darks are not very dark; and your lights have to be way down because they’ll pop up. And you can end up with some really garish-looking colours.’ Shay observes that, for all Yuricich’s grumbling, he displays ‘unconcealed pride for the fact that only he and those he has trained have been able to cope with the exasperating unpredictability of the duping stock’s response to color.’

Not that it was even that simple. Rocco Gioffre describes how ‘in lots of cases, seven or eight – or nine – different painting tests will have to be shot on the matte stand before we get it just right.’ This process took weeks. Then there were all the extra layers of atmosphere and animated effects. By today’s standards, there are relatively few matte shots in the film, but the workload must have been phenomenal.

Even photographing the paintings was a trial. Because of the slowness of the duplicating film stock being used, the team had to flood the paintings with light. And I mean flood. Virgil Mirano calls the level of illumination ‘just extraordinary … four banks of thousand-watt quartz lights, and each bank has eight to ten lights.’ Excessive light meant excessive heat, to the point where they had to bring in a specialist company just to create a substrate for the paintings that would hold up under such extreme conditions.

As well as dealing with all these technical trials, Yuricich was also fighting to create imagery that was both beautiful and realistic. ‘The tough part,’ he says, ‘was all these standard old buildings … then, all of a sudden, you have this futuristic-looking stuff looming right up behind. It’s difficult trying to make those two elements fit together.’

Whatever he did, it worked. Shay says, ‘the sheer virtuosity with which two- and three-dimensional subjects are blended together represents what is probably the most bravura use of matte paintings in years – perhaps ever.’ I’m inclined to agree. I suspect you are too.

As well as detailing all the painstaking toil involved in bringing the matte paintings to life, Shay’s article also rewards us with lots of lovely trivia. The explosions featured in the opening scenes were lifted from Zabriskie Point. The city models were built to doll’s house scale so that off-the-shelf furniture could be used inside them. One of the model buildings was built round a Sparkletts water bottle; another was a heavily retrofitted Millennium Falcon originally built by Bill George.

(A quick aside here: it’s impossible for me to read an article like this without remembering what it was like to be a teenager with an 8mm camera. There isn’t a technique described here that I and my friends didn’t try to emulate at some point. Latent image mattes? Let’s shoot some live action, rewind the film and double-expose something crazy over the top. Flying cars? Let’s grab that Airfix kit, hang it on some cotton and swing the camera underneath it. Atmospheric haze? Let’s put a boiling kettle between the camera and the model railway landscape.)

Towards the end of the article, Richard Yuricich asserts that Blade Runner ‘was Ridley Scott’s movie all the way – even more so, I think, than Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.’ It’s true, and nowhere is Scott’s vision more apparent than in the visual effects scenes. Scott himself is uncomfortable with the idea of the ‘special effects movie’. He suggests that (in 1982) he’s working at a turning point, remarking that ‘directors are certainly beginning to realize that effects are just part and parcel of making a film.’

Was 1982 really such a turning point? It’s arguable. The debate still rages today about how too many films are just dumb eye-candy with great effects and no storyline. Blade Runner‘s different though. Memorable though its visual effects are, what actually sticks in the mind is the overall vision of which the effects just a part. In that respect, Blade Runner marks the coming-of-age of the science fiction film – and the visual effects industry. It’s the first film of its kind in which the effects were integrated so seamlessly – and sympathetically – that they enhanced the story without dominating it. It’s a legacy today’s film-makers can choose to take up or ignore, as they see fit.

The pictures

Cinefex #9 features pictures galore of the Tyrell Pyramid under construction, and various behind-the-scenes shots of model buildings and matte painting breakdowns. There’s a great image of the Hades landscape on its side with about a zillion fibre-optic cables sticking out of the bottom. My favourite photograph shows an unnamed artisan sticking white tape all over the hero spinner model in preparation for the matte pass (the flying vehicles were shot motion-control, but using frontlit matte passes rather than relying on a bluescreen). For me, the picture sums up the glorious collision of high- and low- technology that defines the entire pre-CGi visual effects industry.

So was that opening claim true? Is Shay’s article ‘one of the most thorough accounts ever of a major special effects project?’ It’s certainly a strong contender. Indeed, it found new life when it was reprinted in hardcover by Titan Books under the title Blade Runner: The Inside Story. If you haven’t read the complete article, find yourself a copy. You know you want to.

Did you enjoy this Cinefex retrospective? If so, click here to read the others in the series.

6 thoughts on “Revisiting Cinefex (9): Blade Runner

  1. Hi Graham —

    Another terrific entry in your “Revisiting Cinefex” series.

    Of the articles I wrote for Cinefex over the years, the one on “Blade Runner” remains easily in my top five, partially because the film itself was, and is, a landmark in visual effects and science fiction filmmaking and partially because I immodestly believe it’s pretty damn good reporting. I credit that to Douglas Trumbull and the open-door policy he extend to me during the making of this film. I can’t even remember how many days I spent wandering around the densely smoked stages at Entertainment Effects Group, as his company was then named, but it was a lot. That unfettered access was essential to my understanding of the work being done there.

    I smiled at your comment about Ridley’s changing the setting from San Angeles to the East Coast to Los Angeles. He also changed the date. In the script, and throughout the shoot, the story took place in 2020. Only when I saw the finished film did I realize that he had bumped it up a year — making my clever (I thought) title utterly meaningless. I wonder how many readers scratched their heads over that one.

    I’m glad you found my discussion of latent-image matte painting of lingering interest. That was tough one to understand and explain. I credit Matt Yuricich and Rocco Gioffre for patiently walking me through the whole methodology. It was a truly arcane process — and a miracle that it worked at all, let alone as well as it did.

    Thanks again for taking time away from your novel to continue your series. Much appreciated and much enjoyed.


  2. Thanks Don. It’s terrific as always to get your take on the article – which is indeed pretty damn good reporting. I’m sure there are many envious folks out there (like me) imagining what it must have been like wandering those smoke-filled stages.
    The latent image technique stuck in my mind, I think, because of its sheer bravery. Yuricich’s team clearly believed sufficiently in the process to put themselves through hell to make it work – and work it did.
    The only problem with doing these articles is that, as soon as I start one, I want to watch the movie(s) all over again. I’ve resisted the urge with Blade Runner so far, but I don’t think I’ll be able to last out much longer!

  3. Grear article – great film. Would love to see something in cinefex magazine about the final cut version. As the tweaks and changes including head replacement and new lip synching with Harrison Ford’s son are fascinating.

  4. I had the great pleasure of meeting Douglas Trumbull at a masterclass held during the 2011 Adelaide Film Festival. He was very gracious. I was thrilled to tell him how much of an impact Silent Running had on me as a third-grader. He is a true visionary in every sense of the word. I enjoy your blog very much. Great stuff!

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