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The other key ingredient in the photography of Blade Runner is the use of shafts of light. "That was an idea that both Ridley and I happened upon independently and had talked about," Cronenweth reveals. "We shared that concept, and it became one of the major themes of the film photographically. We used it over and over again in different applications. One way we justified their constant presence was to invent airships floating through the night with enormously powerful beams emerging from their undersides. In the futuristic environment, they bathe the city in constantly swinging lights. They were supposedly used for both advertising and crime control, much the way a prison is monitored by moving search lights. The shafts of light represent the invasion of privacy by a supervising force; a form of control. You are never sure who it is, but even in the darkened seclusion of your home, unless you pull your shades down, you are going to be disturbed at one time or another.
"After many tests with various units, gaffer Dick Hart came up with the most effective light to do the job, a Xenon spotlight commonly used for night advertising at sports events. This concept gave us some wonderful opportunities. For example, there's a late-night scene in Deckard's apartment kitchen which was played with the lights out. He has just had a hell of a struggle with one of the replicants. Having barely survived, he is now standing near the refrigerator. Rachel [Sean Young] is standing by the sink, which has a window above it. She is illuminated by a soft backlight through the window and the last traces of light filtering across the room from the refrigerator. Occasionally, one of those strong beams of light cuts through the sink window and glows the room just enough to read her face.
"Naturally," Cronenweth continues, "to create shafts of light, one must have some medium, which necessitated the use of smoke. The story lent itself very well to it, in the context of a highly polluted environment. It was very interesting to work with this constant atmosphere. Smoke is wonderful photographically, but not without its problems. It's hard to control, mainly due to drafts, and a lot of people find it objectionable to work in. Beyond this, it's important to keep the smoke level density constant, as a very subtle change in this density can result in dramatic changes in contrast. The only practical way to judge smoke density is by eye."
He jokingly adds, "I find that a good density is achieved just before I lose consciousness."
Cronenweth wanted to maintain the same texture even in situations where smoke wasn't used as heavily, and accomplished this by using low-contrast filters. He details, "We changed filters in conjunction with the angle of light and density of smoke. The stronger the backlight, the lighter the filter."
The cameraman particularly enjoyed photographing Sean Young, the leading lady in Blade Runner. "Sean has a wonderful, light, creamy, highly-reflective skin, among other beautiful features," he attests. "She also wore her hair up for a good part of the picture, enabling me to light her neck with hard backlight while lighting her face with soft frontlight. My favorite close-up in the film is the shot on her while Deckard is giving Rachel the Voigt-Kampff test. [See Best-Shot Films 1950-1997 #9 Blade Runner] She is holding a cigarette in her right hand, and the key light was at such an angle so as to strike only her hair, neck and hand and the smoke of the cigarette."
[ continued on page 4 ] © 1999 ASC