A film pro dissects sci-fi F/X unsurpassed after 25 years.
Twenty-five years ago, the Ridley Scott film became an instant science fiction classic. Set in a sodden, squalid Los Angeles of 2019, the neo-noir masterpiece influenced a generation of filmmakers and video-game designers. Long before I teamed up with Jamie Hyneman to form the , I was a special-effects model maker, and Scott’s cyberpunk gem almost instantly became the most important film in the canon of movies I love.
I’m still such a big fan that I watch it at least once every 18 months. I also own pretty convincing replicas of the “blade runner blaster” wielded by Harrison Ford’s world-weary former cop Rick Deckard. The source material was a Steyr Mannlicher .222 target rifle magazine cover, with a Bulldog .44 carriage underneath. I can’t get enough of this prop. Now, I want a working one.
In dystopian near future, replicants, or genetically engineered humanoids, do the hard work on off-world colonies. After a bloody mutiny, the androids are forbidden from coming to Earth – on pain of death. So when six rogue replicants return home, they must be “retired”- hunted down and killed – and Ford’s Deckard, once a top replicant hunter, or “blade runner”, is pulled out of his own retirement to do the job.
I worked on and , on the films, on and ; yet 25 years later there are ways in which surpasses anything that’s been done since. Watching the theatrical release DVD at home with PM reminded me of Scott’s genius for creating stunning effects with simple technology.
Watch the opening pan across the Los Angeles skyline – there’s nearly nothing else like it. This is something I think Ridley Scott does better than almost any other director. Whether he’s shooting a fantastical movie like (1979), or a realistic one like (2001), you always know where you are in the movie’s physical space. is unmatched by any other sci-fi film in terms of feeling like you’re in an environment you understand. This isn’t the kind of sci-fi where everyone wears silver suits. It’s lived-in science fiction – a workaday world.
You have to remember, was made years before digital effects became common. Today, CGI (computer-generated imagery) is becoming a mature art form, but even now there are times you just can’t beat doing some effects like these “in camera”. Most of these cityscapes are a combination of models and traditional matte paintings. For the aerial shots they used a set about 3,6 m wide, and those towers you see belching fire are about 30 cm high. They’re made of etched brass and model parts and use thousands of tiny, grain-of-wheat light bulbs like you’d find in a dollhouse. They filmed some of the fire- balls in the parking lot behind the studio, and for others they used stock footage from the 1970 Antonioni film, .
I love the scenes where you’re moving through the city and see video billboards the size of buildings. (Today we have billboards like that in Times Square – so, the movie wasn’t far off!) The normal way to create these effects would be to build a miniature, shoot it, and then composite in the billboards and other elements in post-production.
But they did all of these effects in camera, which even back then was a much more complex way to execute them. The key to this is a motion-control camera – a smart robot, basically – that moves through the city on the same track, over and over again. It’s accurate to within fractions of a millimetre. They did separate passes, rewinding the film each time and then re-exposing it to add each new element. So they did one pass for the lights on a building, another for the video projection, then a pass for the rain lighting, and so on – as many as 16 passes in some cases. And all that layering is what makes you feel you’re in a totally complete world, yet one that’s completely alien.
Scott hired an incredible art department, including Syd Mead, who started out designing cars for Ford. Some scenes have almost a 1930s look to them, while others are totally futuristic. But all the technology they designed – such as flying cop cars they call “spinners” – meshes perfectly with your idea of this world. It’s one of the reasons this movie has stayed at the top of my list. It just doesn’t date.
* Reporting by Thomas Hayden