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The Most Compelling Character In “Blade Runner 2049?” The UI

Here’s the story behind the film’s spectacular vision of technology.

When Blade Runner hit theaters in 1982, it painted a vision of 2019 that was as horrifying as it was artful. Concept designer Syd Mead’s bleak dystopia, bathed in neon and perpetually drenched in rain, was filled with artifacts and futuristic tech alike. The movie’s sets were imaginative and detailed, immersing us in its utterly foreign yet familiar world. Blade Runner 2049 does the same. The film itself is visually sumptuous–compensating for the comparatively shallow story line–thanks to a small army of visual effects artists and designers responsible for realizing director Denis Villeneuve’s vision of the future, which includes an absurdly real CGI rendition of Rachael, a replicant from the 1982 original.

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But any time you see a screen in the film? That’s Territory Studio‘s work.

The London-based studio has designed visual effects for many recent sci-fi films, including Avengers: The Age of Ultron, Ghost in the Shell, and Guardians of the Galaxy. But when Territory Studio founder and executive creative director David Sheldon-Hicks, creative director Andrew Popplestone, and creative lead Peter Eszenyi first received Villeneuve’s brief and saw the concept art for the movie, they knew they weren’t just designing screen dressing. They were creating analogues for every single character in the film through the technology the characters used. K is a working-class replicant with a beat-up spinner to match, complete with a buggy dashboard user interface. Even in a fictional world filled with amazing technology–like growing artificial humans–sometimes you still have to hit a screen to get it to work.

“We tried to do something different, something that fits into the universe,” Popplestone says. “So often you can just swap around the graphics in a bunch a films [about  the future].”

[Image: Blade Runner 2049 © 2017–Alcon Entertainment, LLC]
In the time period between Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, the world has experienced a technological meltdown where all digital data was either erased or compromised. That plot point grounds K’s entire journey in the film, as he pieces together various clues to track down Decker and figure out who and where the replicant offspring is.

The film’s datapocalypse served as the starting point for Territory’s creative process. The design team imagined a future that wasn’t just about a singular version of technology that everyone had access to. Screens and dashboards differ depending on the character; some people have access to better and newer tech than others–much like our own world today.

Territory Studio photographed actual organic matter to come up with an image of K’s brain during a scan. [Image: Blade Runner 2049 © 2017–Alcon Entertainment, LLC]
“We were thinking about functionality and how technology might operate, not just how it looks,” Popplestone says. “It’s quite tricky because [the digital meltdown] is all we know for this generation’s tech. We had to think about all the wonderful ways technology might work if it was powered by something else, be it cellular or chemical or more organic. We spent a couple weeks coming up with concepts and presented them to Denis. He loved anything that had a human element that created imperfection and tangibility. We started to define our different worlds–whether it’s the LAPD or Wallace Corp.–and constructed styles which visually summed up this film. You have this uber, uber technology [at Wallace] versus the rest of the world, which is living in dystopia and has dilapidated old technology.”

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As Eszenyi points out, the film’s UI wasn’t “fixed in post”–or added during post-production after filming. Villeneuve and production designer Dennis Gassner were meticulous with Blade Runner 2049‘s sets and insisted that the actors perform in physical environments, not on a green screen. The same went for the screen graphics developed by Territory. Most of them were projected on actual screens so the actors could feel more immersed in the technology.

[Image: Blade Runner 2049 © 2017–Alcon Entertainment, LLC]
The movie is about the leftovers, the remnants, and the waste in the Blade Runner universe. Anything optimistic or positive or ideal exists off-planet, where those with means have fled. So, for the designers at Territory, the tech that wasn’t featured in their world was almost as important as what you see in the film.

“This is a world where they can create replicants that look exactly like humans,” Popplestone says. “That’s super, super advanced yet everyone is walking around with less advanced tech. They’ve invented amazing stuff, but it’s only available to a specific set of the population.”

[Image: Blade Runner 2049 © 2017–Alcon Entertainment, LLC]
So while there are incredibly refined digital displays in some scenes, most of what we see is crude and feels dated in comparison. Sony and Coke and the makers of AI girlfriends have the means to make interactive holographic ads tall as a skyscraper. Advertisers get crisp, colorful, high-resolution graphics in the marketplace. But everyone else? They’ve hacked junk CRT screens, are making due with cast-offs, and are fighting for scraps.

For instance, one of the movie’s first scenes puts us inside K’s spinner. Yes, it’s a flying car, but it’s also worn out, mottled, and rickety. The interfaces inside are glitchy. You see screen burn. The graphics are basic and monochromatic. It’s like MS-DOS in an iOS 11 world. This all communicates K’s status. As a replicant–one that kills his own kind, no less–he occupies a low social rung. “He’s a second-class citizen,” Eszenyi says. “He has access to less technology–like it is today for some people–so it was important to look like it was used, second-hand, and cobbled together from other parts that had seen better days.”

[Image: Blade Runner 2049 © 2017–Alcon Entertainment, LLC]
In the LAPD headquarters–these scenes primarily take place in Lieutenant Joshi’s office and the morgue–technology becomes more advanced, but it’s still less sophisticated compared to Wallace Corporation, the omniscient enterprise that produces replicants. Territory Studio imagined all the tech at the LAPD  still lagging at least a decade behind the rest of the world–as it so often is with today’s police stations, which are struggling with outdated technology. They wanted the screen graphics to be functional, utilitarian, and abstract.

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[Image: Blade Runner 2049 © 2017–Alcon Entertainment, LLC]
Meanwhile, Joshi’s desk is a collage of computer screens, which let her monitor K and keep an eye on her city. While they’re old, they’re still equipped with biometric logins (there’s a particularly gruesome scene where she’s killed and her dead face is still able to unlock the system). In the morgue, the medical examiner is able to create a very detailed 3D model of bones that let K zoom into a microscopic serial number, revealing that it’s actually a replicant. At the DNA bank, K analyzes records in a machine that looks like a microfilm projector, something that will be familiar to old-school researchers who had to look up articles before newspapers digitized their archives. There, the graphics were “physical, mechanical, and functional,” according to Territory Studio.

[Image: Blade Runner 2049 © 2017–Alcon Entertainment, LLC]
We see one of the most complex interface graphics at the LAPD when K undergoes a baseline test, which monitors and visualizes his brain activity. To create this effect, Territory Studio used photogrammetry and macro photography to make the graphics look realistic. They weren’t all computer-generated: Territory Studio photographed actual organic matter–like fruit and meat–to come up with the image. “We didn’t want it to look like a traditional MRI brain scan,” Eszenyi says. “It should depict another way of showing how brains react.”

Throughout the movie, I was struck by how much of its technology–outside of a few moments at Wallace Corp.–didn’t feel like much of a stretch today. Snap is already making enormous augmented-reality installations. Apple is about to put facial recognition software in the hands of iPhone X users. While we don’t have flying cars, we do have drones, a la K’s surveillance tool that ascends from his spinner.

The science fiction of the past–like Star Trek–gave us transporters and tricorders. Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t give us the same sense of wonder and excitement about the future of technology–but it might give us pause to think about the trajectory we’re on right now. Our world is deeply unequal and companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon like to frame their innovations as things that will bring society closer to a utopia. But in reality, how many of us will get to enjoy that luxurious, off-world version of tech? Or is it more likely we’ll get something closer to the grimy, gritty world that K experiences?

I asked Territory Studio–which also develops games, VR experiences, and graphics for actual real-world use today–about the through lines between our world and the film. Eszenyi pointed out that what Territory does as visual effects designers for movies is similar to what technologists in the real world are doing. While the motivation is different–building products for a fictional world versus making products people consume–historically, they often end up in the same place.

“It all comes down to imagining ‘what if,'” Eszenyi says. “Futurists, directors, and tech companies are all in the business of imagining ‘what if’ and posing those questions and answering them . . . The difference in films versus the real world is films get there quicker.”

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About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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