When Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner released in 1982, it forever changed the visual effects landscape. There were no computers to generate a dystopian, futuristic Los Angeles. Green screens existed but were rudimentary compared to today’s “anything you can imagine” visual bonanza. Yet, thanks to Douglas Trumbull, Blade Runner’s director of special effects, and his team, 2019 Los Angeles came to dark, foggy life. Using a veritable sea of models, forced perspective, and other tricks of the trade, Trumbull’s work inspired generations of filmmakers.
It’s a legacy Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve is paying homage to in the long-gestating sequel. While many would assume Villeneuve would turn to cutting-edge computer-generated effects to bring his vision to life, it appears the filmmaker has a strong aversion to relaying on post-production to fill in the blanks. In a recent interview with Variety about his Oscar-nominated film Arrival, talk turned to Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve’s next project (before he moves on to even more ambitious pursuits with Dune).
“I’m very old school. I wish I had the chance to do my ‘Aliens’ [in Arrival) as animatronics. I hate green screens. It sucks out all my energy. I get depressed. [Cinematographer] Roger [Deakins] was insanely impressive in how he was able to create landscape with tricks. For me it was beautiful. I think I can count on one hand how many times I saw a green screen in all of those months of shooting. There will be CG enhancements, of course, but as much as possible it was in-camera.”
For Blade Runner purists, this is surely good news. It should hearten those who aren’t fans of actors standing on small squares soundstage surrounded by bright green walls. When used as an enhancement (as in Mad Max: Fury Road, CGI can lift a film up to a visual smorgasbord. When used as a crutch (such as in the Star Wars prequels), it pulls the audience out as their brains try and reconcile actors who are clearly not interacting with their surroundings. After the early aughts love affair with completely replacing sets with post-production effects, it seems Hollywood is finally finding a way to balance the practical with computer-generated to create the best end product possible.