After a stint of more recently released films, I wanted to focus again on a classic for One Shot. Not as way-back as The Third Man (1949), but the early eighties, specifically 1982. Which, by the way, is the year I was born. Another great release in that year was the Sci-fi classic Blade Runner from director Ridley Scott. Since its muddled release it has slowly been recognized as a modern classic and a visionary production which inspired many, if not all of the dystopian sci-fi movies released afterwards.
Blade Runner is to be admired as a great film for many reasons. It’s most famous ones are its production design and set building, realizing a fully inhabited chaotic and dark city filled with cultures, details, dirt, rain, depth and dimension. Given that the film takes place in the far future, those details become even more impressive.
Secondly perhaps it is hailed because of its non-verbal storytelling and memorable performances by, amongst others, Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer. The story, about a cop who hunts human-like robots and slowly begins to doubt his own humanity, is told in broad strokes, with little in the way of exposition or explanation. There is no voiceover (at least not in the official director’s cut released in 1992) to guide us along with the solemn detective Deckard (Harrison Ford). Most of his thoughts and feelings have to be distilled from his body language. Blade Runner is unique in that it actually is a rather slow-paced detective story with very little real onscreen action. At times it feels more like an arthouse film, not a tentpole major motion picture.
Of course, in this blog, I want to focus specifically on the cinematographic merits of the film. And those are seriously worthy of mentioning. Blade Runner was filmed by cinematographer Jorden Cronenweth, the father of current master-cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (who filmed classics such as Fight Club, Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).
With his work on Blade Runner Jordan Cronenweth, in my mind, created one of the most amazingly filmed Sci-fi films I know. Yes, it’s hard to distinguish the cinematography from the other visual arts when we judge Blade Runner visually, but it is worth doing so. To ignore the extensive set-design, miniature work and other visual effects, and focus purely on the cinematography.
A symphony of darkness
Cronenweth bathed the screen in darkness for most of the film. Which is understandable given the nighttime setting, but even in the interiors Cronenweth avoids clear and bright lighting. Cinematographer Gordon Willis is often called “the prince of darkness” because of his usage of shadows and the absence of fill light in his compositions, most famously in his work on The Godfather (1972). But Jordan Cronenweth, with Blade Runner, achieved a similarly powerful aesthetic of darkness. And where even The Godfather had moments of light and brightness, Blade Runner never escapes its oppressive mantle of darkness.
So what does he achieve with this darkness, besides the obvious atmospheric gain? To me, it creates depth. And that works because the darkness is complimented by very specific light sources that move through it. Rarely does a scene in Blade Runner feel two dimensional. There is a constant awareness of depth, of perspective.
Four dimensional lighting
Jordan Cronenweth and Ridley Scott decided to create these shafts of volumetric light and make them a recurring element in many shots. Related to this idea of searching lights shooting out of hovering blimps above the city, the shafts penetrate many scenes in the film and shoot straight through the darkness.
These shafts of light illuminate very specific parts of the sets and enhance the depth of the scenes because of their three dimensionality. They have volume, enhanced by the thick layer of fog which penetrates most of the scenes in the film. These shafts of light guide our eyes along the z-axis and push us to feel the layers of depth of the composition.
But the lighting fills even more than three dimensions as I see it. Because the shafts are always moving. So in a way they fill a fourth dimension; time. This movement of light across the frame in a certain amount of time really creates the rich depth and sense of detail that is so unique to this film. Would the lighting have been static, you’d lose a certain perception of depth and spacial relation between parts of the scene, especially since the dark sets give little framing and visual guidance. The lighting scans the environment for us.
But it also creates this sense of off-camera space. The shafts of light rarely reveal their sources, but they suggest life and activity beyond the darkness of the frames. Which is so essential to the aesthetic of Blade Runner. Not many films that I know share this sense of taking place in a real, living and breathing environment which expands way beyond the corner’s of the frame.
And in addition, the light shafts push forward this theme of dystopian oppression, suggesting a world where privacy is marginalized and no place is completely dark and isolated. I always felt it gave the film a kind of tension and urgency, which is quite important considering the fact that the script is kind of light on real physical action.
There is one moment in particular where I really, really like the combination of volumetric moving lights and darkness. It’s a shot in which two characters are taking an elevator up to their apartment. The shot pans up in tandem with the rising elevator, which is emitting these bright shafts of light. Secondly, there are these searching lights penetrating downwards from the top of the frame.
The whole composition is very narrow because of the absence of light. Only the middle part of the frame has any sort of illumination in it, and then only vaguely. It gives the whole shot such a strong atmosphere of solitude and oppression, at once feeling the isolation of the location, but also feeling the threat and activity from outside the frame.
A great thing about the shot is also the way it starts with these silhouettes of two dolls. As the film is so strongly focused on simulated humanity I found it to be a nice touch that the shot starts at these two fake human figures and then travels up.
Blade Runner remains an amazing film just to watch. It’s visual style is still gorgeous and only feels dated in that it references 80s technology in its designs (TDK advertising still exists in the future!). A lot of its visual power can be contributed to the way it has been filmed by Jordan Cronenweth. The way darkness and light mix, how the camera finds these great angles and how miniatures and real sets seamlessly blend. I’ve seen films in the past 10 years which feel less real that the 33 year old Blade Runner.