In light of the recent release of Blade Runner 2049, I wanted to share my own relationship with the original Blade Runner movie. Firstly, I warn you now, this is the closest I get to full-on ‘geekdom’…
The year is 1985. I’m ten years old, sitting in the lounge with my brother – four years my senior – who is about to load a pirate copy of the futuristic neo-noir science fiction movie ‘Blade Runner’ into our top-loading VHS player. My brother was a big fan of science fiction. He regularly bought 2000AD comics and was nuts about Star Wars (as we all were back then). But I knew nothing of the film – no expectations. My brother didn’t even bother to tell me what it was about. I think his only comment was along the lines of “just watch.”
I remember clearly the slightly dodgy sound of the pirate copy and having to tweak the tracking on the video to get a better picture. And then a little green tree formed on the screen – the logo for The Ladd Company, who were part of the Warner production group. I don’t know if it was intentional but the way that logo built on the screen – in an 80s digital, futuristic way – kind of set the tone. Building against complete silence, the tree forms and then fades. Next, red typography builds on screen, setting the scene and painting a background picture of a future in which synthetic humans known as ‘replicants’ are bioengineered to work on off-world colonies.
What happens next is probably one of the most beautiful scenes ever committed to celluloid. From the darkness we see a cityscape emerge, with twinkling lights and epic structures, as Vangelis’ score chimes in. Suddenly a plume of fire erupts from one of the structures, then another, and at once you’re transported to a futuristic vision of a metropolis that takes your breath away. If there had been a camera on me at this moment, it would have captured a wide-eyed, jaw-dropped face, transfixed in amazement at the visceral onslaught playing out before me.
Put simply, this was the moment in my life when I realised that I had to be involved in creativity. I was so completely absorbed in the world that Ridley Scott and his production team had created that when the film finished, I immediately watched it a second time. Even at that young age I was in total awe, utterly immersed in the detail of this dystopian vision of LA in 2019.
There are almost too many reasons to mention why I loved (and still love) this film. The way it captured a dark, foreboding, dirty, neon vision of a city that was so diverse in its influences – part Tokyo red light district, part Parisian avant-garde burlesque. A melting pot of influences that’s a visual assault of pure genius.
To understand this vision is to understand the visionaries behind it, not least director Ridley Scott, who was fresh off the success of Alien. But also – and in my view – the man who should take most credit for the visual masterpiece – industrial designer and visual futurist, Syd Mead.
Over a long and illustrious career, Syd had been commissioned by the likes of U.S. Steel, Sony, Honda, Philips and Ford to create futuristic ‘visions’ for their products and innovations, and had famously called science fiction ‘reality ahead of schedule’. For Blade Runner, Syd’s brief from Ridley Scott for the tone of his dystopian 2019 LA was heavily influenced by the painting ‘Nighthawks’ by Edward Hopper and the French science fiction comic magazine ‘Metal Hurlant‘ (‘Heavy Metal’).
The concept art that Syd created for Blade Runner is simply breathtaking, the attention to detail and thought poured into it, staggering. The neon advertising, the typographic treatments on store fronts and the way he lights the scenes and captures the atmosphere, are nothing short of astonishing.
His work went on to influence another masterpiece of Futurism. The animated manga film ‘Akira’ (directed by Katsuhiro Otomo in 1988) and the influences from Blade Runner are clear to see. Thanks to Syd Mead’s work on Blade Runner, the task for Ridley Scott wasn’t, ‘what the hell is this going to look like?’ It was more a case of, ‘how the hell am I going to recreate this?’
Which leads me to the truly impressive part of the Blade Runner story. The funding was extremely pressured and the team had to create the special effects and set build on an extraordinarily tight budget. Ready-made LA ‘backlot’ street sets – usually used to film dodgy 80’s TV – were transformed with clever set design and creative use of lighting, smoke, a lot of rain and beautiful matte painting.
It was also an incredibly unhappy shoot. The amount of smoke and water Ridley was using was a constant source of annoyance to cast and crew alike, and there were tensions between the UK and US production crews, fuelled by Ridley’s unfavourable comparison of the respective quality of each. This led to the ‘T-Shirt Wars’, with the US crew donning ‘Yes Guv’nor, My Ass’ tops and the UK replying with ‘Xenophobia Sucks’. It was a tense, fraught, unhappy and at times mutinous atmosphere. But testament to Ridley and the commitment of the unbelievably skilled creatives working on the film, the result is something truly special.
Anyone in the creative field will understand the pressures of tight budgets and will know that creativity is always challenging. It’s difficult, it can be frustrating and a ‘vision’ can have a tough birth. But ultimately that’s why we do it. It’s why ideas will always win, and it’s why execution should only ever be the manifestation of the idea, never the sole driver. As Honda says, ‘Difficult is worth doing’. If it’s easy, it’s likely to be mediocre.
In terms of Blade Runner as a movie, Rutger Hauer – who plays replicant leader Roy Batty – said it well: “Blade Runner needs no explanation. It just [is]. All of the best. There is nothing like it. To be part of a real masterpiece which changed the world’s thinking. It’s awesome.”
Thirty two years later my love and appreciation for Blade Runner has grown and grown with every remastered ‘Editor’s Cut’ and documentary released, and I urge anyone involved in creativity to watch ‘Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner’ (2007) – it’s a truly inspiring demonstration of the creative spirit.
At the time of writing, I haven’t yet seen the newly released sequel ‘Blade Runner 2049’. Apparently early reviews are very positive, but in true geek style I’ve refrained from watching any trailers or reading anything about it.
I’m both excited and nervous to see how the team have built on perfection.
Blog written by Tony.