Picture this: a dark and gloomy city scape covered with a thick layer of smog. Flames from nearby buildings billowing into the air next to you as you are high above the city, seeing towers so big that humans look like bread crumbs. Off in the distance headlights float in the air and zoom past you. On the horizon stand two monumental structures towering over the whole city, and as you get closer you realize these are buildings. (Image 1). This is the opening scene of Blade Runner, an American neo-noir cult science fiction film released in 1982 and directed by Ridley Scott. Blade Runner is a thought-provoking movie, originally created as an adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.
The story takes places in a dystopian version of Los Angeles, the year is 2019, and earth’s climate and way of life have rapidly changed due to toxic pollution and technological advances. Four rogue artificially intelligent robots return to earth from their assigned slave labor on the planet colonies to seek their creator and extend their lifespan. A blade runner, the protagonist is hired to find the AI-robots and “retire” them.
The future represented in this movie is ultra high tech, featuring artificial intelligent robots, flying cars, and unimaginable weapons and architecture. Blade Runner is known for having some of the best special effects, using the most of the available non-digital technology, according to Popular Mechanics (3. Popular Mechanics, 14 Nov. 2017). Some of the most successful effects Blade Runner used were monumental miniatures models, matte paintings, and image compositing.
The way these effects were used became iconic for the sci-fi movies, and many others, that were filmed following the release of Blade Runner. Recently a follow-up to Ridley Scott’s iconic cult-science fiction film was released in October of 2017 titled Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve. The plot is similar to the original Blade Runner, except this story takes place 30 years into the future. Since the setting is the same, the miniature model crew of Blade Runner 2049 was tasked with representing decades of aging and development the dystopian city of Los Angeles had undergone, while also staying true to the original Blade Runner miniature models.Both films feature monumental physical miniatures models, built and filmed outside of the regular studio lot. However the way these models were constructed is different due to technological advances in our own world; rapid prototyping practices like 3D printing, laser cutting, and better 3D modeling and image processing software systems have now become crucial to making movies like Blade Runner. Given that handcrafted model making takes far too much time and too many resources, the practice has been in huge decline. This paper seeks to examine the similarities and differences the Blade Runner movie series used in creating their miniature models, and how these practices create a completely different dystopian reality set in the not-so-distant future.
From the earliest films created, miniature models have played a major role in the production of motion pictures. Miniatures are one of the oldest special effects techniques in the film industry. A model in its simplest form is an assemblage of materials, put together to create something bigger and when added to other models, creates a unique environment, created only for the purpose of the film.
The implementation of models as replacements for full scale objects allow the director to create spaces and places which may not exist or would be too expensive to build (2. Miller, Ron. Special Effects: An Introduction to Movie Magic Pg. 3). These miniature models offer a way to create a unique narrative which is within budget and highly customizable. Steven Saunders, the art director and lead standby at Weta Workshops, describes miniatures as, “a giant composition of tiny little vignettes, tiny little stories, tiny little places that all need to work together to make the whole miniature work” (4. Weta Workshop, 1 Nov. 2017).
Weta Workshops is a special effects and prop company based in Miramar, New Zealand, producing effects for television and film. They recently completed all the models in Blade Runner 2049. The opening scene in Blade Runner (1982) (Image 1) is cutting edge for its time. To achieve this shot, a forced perspective model was created to film this opening scene.
The site model was 15′ feet wide and had towers the size of empire state buildings, in human scale, only standing 12″ high in this model (1. Kohn, Eric (29 September 2017) Indiewire).The opening scene shows a sea of chemical fracking plants, which represent the cities harsh polluted environment. The directors needed a way to represent this decay, while also reducing the models’ size and still maintaining the nitty-gritty aesthetic.
A silhouette from an actual chemical plant was cut-out by hand and painted with acid etched in brass using a lithography process. When these cut outs are lit properly the result is a tremendous amount of photo realistic detail. Learning from previous science fiction films, Ridley Scott used a photographic technique learned from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) (5. Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner. 2007). The technique was adding a high density of smoke in the studio room which would then blur out differentiation between the the horizon and foreground. The success of this smoke technique was only made possible by the miniature models of towers, tubes, and cut-outs of buildings.
The layer of these graduated into the foreground and created an immense amount of layering. The city scape model in this opening scene also had a unique lighting system. Thousands of fiber optics lights were positioned in the model, strategically placed to mimic windows, street lights, glare and urban glow between the layering.
This contrasted well with the dark city scape and created directionality. The wiring for the thousands of fiber optic lights was run through the base of the model and hidden under the base. Even though fiber optics are known for having a lower temperature, the density of lights created an enormous amount of heat and a fan system had to be added in later (5. Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner. 2007).The flames and explosions billowing into the air were created by using propane torches in the studio parking lot at night. The camera person would film this flame burst at about 72-96 frames per second. They also used some stock footage from Antonioni film, the 1970s Zabriskie Point (5.
Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner. 2007). Representing fire in a film using miniature models is often quite difficult without computer aided graphics. The scale of fire is hard to match and when done wrong makes the flame look unnatural and too big. The flames were shot with a black background and then superimposed into the footage (5.
Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner. 2007).One of the most important things to control says Douglas Trumbull, visual effects supervisor for Blade Runner (1981), is the smoke in the air and ambient lighting.
The smoke and light is important to control because the goal is to blend the horizon line in with foreground models, almost to the point of disappearance (5. Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner. 2007).The smoke effect also aids the aesthetic of the model which represents the toxic, dark, and cold environment Los Angeles has become in the year 2019 – a dystopian wasteland. Adding all of the techniques together allows for the feeling of a world gone wrong with polluted air, harsh visibility, and chemical polluter plants in every view.The release of Blade Runner 2049 comes at a time when CGI and digital effects are becoming a mature art form. The use of practical effects like miniature models is rare in a film created in today’s times. The story is set decades into the future, and the city of Los Angeles depicted in the original Blade Runner has been built up quite a bit.
In Villeneuve’s Blade Runner future, the Los Angeles of 2049 is populated with monumental buildings at a scale so grand it would be inconceivable in today’s times (Image 2). Under the direction of Weta Workshop’s senior art director, Ben Milsom, and production manager, Holly Beals, the Workshop crew used precise 3D modelling and laser-cutting techniques combined with traditional model-making craftsmanship, to create many standalone structures; some so big that when shrunk to as little as 600th scale, they still overpowered the artists and staff who worked on them (Image 3). According to Ben Milsom, there are about 37 miniature models created at a scale of 1 inch to forty eight feet, with each building taking approximately one week to make (4.Weta Workshop, 1 Nov. 2017).The process of creating these models is much different than the original Blade Runner miniatures.
The entire city model was first created virtually using 3D modeling programs. This allowed for the staff to review the design first and collaborate on how the building design should look. Then, upon approval, the staff could send over their 3D models to their physical model making team.
These 3D modeling programs allow for hours of time to be saved since a physical mock up model does not need to be created first, which would take much longer. Once the 3D virtual model is complete, most programs allow you to take line work outlines, then load into programs like AutoCad, and submit those files to a laser cutter which cuts each model piece precisely in half the time as regular hand modeling. 3D Printed models can still take a considerable amount of time to actually print, but the startup process is relatively fast and allows the production team to work on other tasks while the print is going.
3D printing gives designers the ability to make complex structures that would be impossible to make by hand. The designer is also able to achieve a precise amount of detail and duplicate if needed with 3D printing. After each piece is laser cut or 3D printed, the finishing process begins. Many layers of paint were applied to the models’ materials to create distress on the buildings, which reflected the extreme weather caused by pollution in the Blade Runner version of Los Angeles. The staff even went so far as to add graffiti and rust stains.
As in the original Blade Runner, the models of Blade Runner 2049 all had fiber optic lighting. Except this time around the lighting could be controlled by the computer. The most practical way to do this was by creating a set of elements. The crew would shoot the sky lights, the internal lights, and finally the clearance lights. Alex Funke, Miniatures Directors of Wex Workshops describes the lighting control as such:”When it’s time to build the shot you have complete control. This way if you want to change an individual light, say red lights, you can adjust them without affecting anything else. Essentially you are building a very huge and complicated sandwich that becomes the finished shot” (4.
Weta Workshop, 1 Nov. 2017).The end product is beautiful. A dystopian reality created all by real miniature models, with real light and real shadow, dealing with all the issues of tiny, specular reflections and material aging. The Blade Runner movie series is quite complex and has sparked much debate and discussion since its release.
The miniature model effects, yet simple in form, can also produce complex and different realities. The Blade Runner reality is one of a world gone wrong: postmodern dystopian society, no sense of nature, dark, and polluted. These models create a different connection to the audience members, one which portrays a grim future based on human expansion into technology, space, and the consequences that ensue. This reality probes self-reflection and forces people to wonder if this grim future could be a foreseeable reality.
The movie itself asks what it means to be human, and demonstrates what living in this reality might be like. The miniatures representing the reality of Blade Runner tell its own complex story, hidden behind many layers of time, energy, and work. The story behind what it takes to make these models is known by few but the models themselves are seen by many, being mistaken for the dystopian city of Los Angeles. Since miniature models are one of the oldest special effects technique (2. Miller, Ron. Special Effects: An Introduction to Movie Magic Pg.
3) when used in contrast with a movie like Blade Runner, believing that something so simple could create something so complex and beautiful seems all the more impossible. The future of model making lies in rapid prototyping practices.