Cinematography for Blade Runner

by Herb A. Lightman and Richard Patterson

Jordan Cronenweth, ASC's photography for Blade Runner, with its use of strong shafts of light and backlighting, immediately evokes images from classic black-and-white movies, and it is not accident that it does. Cronenweth explains, "[Director] Ridley Scott felt that the style of the photography in Citizen Kane most closely approached the look he wanted for Blade Runner. This included, among other things, high contrast, unusual camera angles, and the use of shafts of light."

David Dryer, one of the special photographic effects supervisors, worked with black-and-white prints of most scenes in the film for one reason or another, and almost wishes the film could be released in black-and-white. He thinks it seems to have even more depth and style in black-and-white. Needless to say, this would not do justice to Cronenweth's work, but it is an indication of the way in which the photographic style of the picture harks back to classic movies.

Like every other aspect of the film, Cronenweth's photography takes the classic conventions one step further, and not the least of his tools in doing this is the use of color, or even the absence of color where it might normally be expected. "We used contrast, backlight, smoke, rain and lightning to give the film its personality and moods," the cameraman says. "The streets were depicted as terribly overcrowded, giving the audience a future time-frame to relate to. We had street scenes just packed with people. . . like ants. So we made them appear like ants — all the same. They were all the same in the sense that they were all part of the flow. It was like going in circlesÉ like going nowhere. Photographically, we kept them rather colorless."

If the people on the streets were colorless, the Los Angeles Street set was anything but: "The character and consequently the lighting of the street was achieved through the use of dozens of neon signs. We rented a number of them from One From the Heart. In order to achieve a photographic reality, the on-camera neons were often on dimmers set at a level just above where they would start to flicker. At the same time, the off-camera neons were used as the primary source of light whenever possible by leaving them at their brightest level. When the existing neons weren't sufficient for either illumination or dressing, we would create new ones on the spot and place them wherever we wanted. An example of this was placing letters on the side and strips along the interior of a bus that Deckard [Harrison Ford] runs through in one scene. At one point, we had a seven-man crew doing nothing but overseeing the neon signs. There were many more neons than there were dimmers, so we had to rob Peter to pay Paul at various times."

Cronenweth would supplement the neons on occasion: "What we needed was some accent lighting to make the range stand out, to glisten the street if necessary and to highlight objects or people. Lighting the set was a simple matter of using backlight in conjunction with the ambient light."

However, the neon lights were bright enough to enable Cronenweth to do some high-speed photography: "In the sequence in which Deckard is chasing a replicant named Zhora, the 'Snake Lady' (Joanna Cassidy), the script calls for her to run through a series of plate glass windows. The art director built a storefront situation appropriate for the action, but when it came to dressing it, Ridley was very unhappy with the first attempt. They tore all the dressing out and a week later presented a new interpretation, but he still hated it. Ridley himself finally had the wonderful idea of taking the neon signs off the street set and placing them in the windows of the stores. What developed was something that really worked. We then photographed the chase with multiple cameras running at various frame rates — normal and above normal. This created a pulsating effect in the neon which doesn't occur when photographing at normal camera speeds, but definitely does when shooting at higher frame rates. We lived with it by using the pulsing as an element of the chase."

[ continued on page 2 ] © 1999 ASC