Blade runner 2049: How Territory studio designed future technologies in the film
London-based Territory studio was brought on board in the very early stages of production. The artists delivered over 100 assets across 15 sets, which almost all were implemented live and shot on set. In some cases the assets were finished in post, but the studio’s design direction was carried through the entire process. Peter Eszenyi, Creative Lead, told RENDERU.COM how Territory worked closely with Director Denis Villeneuve and Supervising Art Director Paul Inglis to create screen graphics for the sequel to Ridley Scott’s iconic film.
RENDERU.COM: How did the brief sound? What did Denis Villeneuve want to see in the movie?
Peter Eszenyi: There was no brief to begin with. Instead we (me and Andrew Popplestone, Creative Director) went to Budapest to speak to Supervising Art Director Paul Inglis and Director Denis Villeneuve who outlined what the film was about thematically and what the Blade Runner universe (30 years after the original) is now all about in terms of progression and context.
We also talked about how technology fit into the film as a supporting narrative device and how Denis felt that technology should look and feel in the context of the larger themes of social polarisation, status implications of human / non-human, and a technological ‘blackout’ event that destroy digital capability, data files and archives.
The screen graphics were all to be original and story specific – there were to be no superfluous decorative screens on the sets, and that allowed us to concentrate on supporting story beats.
RENDERU.COM: Did you have a chance to look at the script?
P. E.: There was a high degree of secrecy around this film and we were only able to spend two hours with the script in a secure room. Andrew read one half and I read the other half. Then we tried to compare notes on what we understood. But it was really difficult – so much information to take in without any real context about who said what and why and where. We relied heavily on Deni’s initial thoughts and his feedback to our concepts and on Supervising Art Director Paul Inglis, who was our day to day contact.
RENDERU.COM: You had to design many things ‘from the future’. Which of these technologies were the most new, unusual and challenging for you?
P. E.: We were asked to create the interfaces and interactions for a lot of very different technologies – the display screens in the Spinner (flying car), the surveillance scans from the pilotfish drone that belongs to that Spinner, a facial recognition scan and monitors in LAPD offices, the Baseline test images, the Denabase (DNA) archive, and the Morgue scan.
The Morgue scan was one of the most challenging – the images tied into a pivotal storybeat that included a complex sequence of carefully choreographed dialogue, images and action. We needed to create the images, animated loops and trigger points to drive the entire sequence. And we wanted to create a system that felt technologically advanced but still physical. Using the art department’s pelvic bone reference images, we created a sequence of optical lenses that presented bone tissue at different levels of magnification. It was ultimately shot on set, with the actors triggering the different animated loops. It was a stressful but very exciting and rewarding to see our work as part of such an integral story point.
RENDERU.COM: How did you create the complex interface graphics at the LAPD when K undergoes a baseline test, which monitors and visualizes his brain activity? Did you turn to scientific knowledge to do this?
P. E.: Well there was science, but not as you think! Intended to be a more precise version of the ‘Voight-Kampff’ test from the original film, we wanted to show technology progression in the 30 years since Deckard first used it. Rather than showing an iris, as in the original, this new test shows the view through the optic nerve, suggesting neural activity in the replicant.
We wanted to recreate the organic feel of neural activity without having to use MRI references. During our R&D phase, we experimented with a lot of different materials and when we found a dried out bit of grapefruit in the studio we decided to see what we could do with it. We found that macrophotography and photogrammetry of the fruit flesh let us achieve a highly original level of organic abstraction that Denis loved. We refined the screens and applied a green tone that tied in with the LAPDs visual language and the final monitors can be seen on Joshi’s desk.
RENDERU.COM: How did you find a balance between functionality and the right look while creating the screens in the movie?
P. E.: We were given all the storybeats for each image sequence so we knew what the content and functionality needed to support and tie into. From that point we experimented to achieve an original look and feel to the interfaces and interaction systems.
Denis had talked with us about the plot and how a ‘blackout’ event had largely destroyed digital capability and the environment as we know it from the original film.
The event was significant for us as we were asked to develop new technology for the film. Denis described what he was looking for – he wanted to move away from electricity / digital technology to more organic, tangible / physical / optical products and interfaces.
With Deni’s references to physical / organic in mind, we spent quite a lot of time researching and experimenting with alternative methods could replace LED screens ( bacteria etc) and developed some interesting effects by combining physical (optical lenses / fruit) and graphic techniques.
Roger Deakins DOP really wanted the screens on set for lighting purposes, adding more depth to the shot, so lighting was also an important factor and we carefully considered how a screen could contribute to the overall shot.
In terms of the screen UI concepts, these reflected economic and social status. Most of those people on Earth don’t have access to digital technology but have to rely on old gritty / dirty / glitchy technology products. But, the super rich / powerful of Wall e Corp do have access to sophisticated digital wireless technology.
To create the level of originality that Denis was looking for, we didn’t design interface ‘overlays’, but the whole system for each type of technology, from the creation of footage, optical effects, projections, etc. Such highly original screens were very challenging to create, but we’re proud of what we achieved.
RENDERU.COM: Overall, how important is the project to you personally?
P. E.: It’s a career highlight – Blade Runner is an iconic film that inspired and shaped me as a designer and to work on 2049 with Denis Villeneuve has been amazing.