From our Depsters October 05, 2018
Wait, where was the fruit in Blade Runner 2049?
David Sheldon-Hicks is one of those people that you would just love to run into for a chat. His studio is credited for screen graphics for critically-acclaimed films such as The Martian (2015), Blade Runner 2049 (2017) as well as Ghost in the Shell (2017), and hence, David always has a story to tell. And tell he does, at this year’s edition of Dept’s annual Festival, to both film and graphics enthusiasts. Given the visual graphics in modern films, one cannot help but wonder how people like David make them. Curious to find out whether organisations such as NASA are involved in the design process? Well, we are about to find out.
Specialising in motion, digital and graphic design, David co-founded London-based Territory Studio back in 2010. As the creative studio’s Executive Creative Director, his team was behind both the design and development of Blade Runner 2049’s screen graphics. And he is about to tell us all about it.
Story meets design meets technology
You might be wondering how a creative director like David Sheldon-Hicks undertakes the sequel to an all-time classic such as Blade Runner. Where do you start when the whole world is watching? When it comes to the process, David states: “It’s all about starting from scratch. It is almost blank sheets of paper that we’ve got. We go through the script with the director and tease out all those moments where technology can be used to say something about that world and that story. Or to be more precise, about those personalities really.” It’s all about focussing on how the film’s technology is going to resonate with the actors and be aligned with the performance.
Depth of context
David quickly follows up by giving us an important piece of advice that he’d learnt within the industry: “One of the important things that we’ve discovered while working on films and the craft that goes into it is that, so much of what people do gets deep into layers of meaning.” He continues by explaining that: “If you think about costume designers, for example, they really care about the weave and about the weight of the fabric that they use. They ask themselves ‘how that fabric might change the performance of an actor’.”
When Territory was designing screen graphics for The Martian with Ridley Scott, his team turned to NASA consultants to understand layers of meaning in technology and how they relate to to certain personalities and contexts. That’s right, the company that is responsible for space programs and aerospace research. “We had NASA on the phone every week. We chat with them about a lot of things such as how they send people into space, the significance of certain data values, what various control systems do, etc.” By doing so, it gave our designers profound knowledge, which enabled them to do a great job. “As we get deep into it, the design starts to bleed through. It sort of informs the whole process.”
The Blade Runner
The silent and attentive crowd comes to life when David introduces his following topic: “Now we’re going to talk about Blade Runner 2049. Spoiler alert if you have not yet seen it though. Because I’m going to talk about the story. The production of this film was quite intimidating, in terms of our clients.” For those who are not familiar with the cultural classic, Blade Runner is Ridley Scott’s neo-noir science fiction film which depicts an apocalyptic vision of technology, and Blade Runner 2049 is the recent sequel that evolves the original story.
Humanity and Technology
There were three pillars within the creative brief: brutality, scale, and power. These were the core values that underpinned the director, production designer and director of photography’s vision of the film and made us consider what technology says about those three core values.
For Blade Runner 2049, Territory worked with director Denis Villeneuve and the Art Department under production designer Dennis Gassner. They wanted technology that felt more physical and organic than what we are used to today, meaning less computer involvement. Nowadays, one could wonder how you create visuals while stepping away from the computer.
On Blade Runner 2049, David’s team created film visuals and pictures in what the industry calls the ‘organic way’. It is not fully digitally reproduced, but more manual organic with the use of materials. During the development stage, they play with natural substances such as fruit and bone. Stepping away from computer generation, photographs and hand-drawings were being used. This way of producing imagery is more familiar to twenty years ago when you were hand sketching graphics.
Let’s say that they want to create an image of a certain body part, in this case neural activity in the brain, which fruit do they pick to do so? There is no ‘what type of fruit are you’ test for this branch. Where do you start? David explains: “You look for fruit or other substances that have a similar texture.” Have you ever wondered what a grapefruit looks like from the inside? The team photographed a cross-section of both a melon and a grapefruit to create an image of a brain scan, and only then began developing the graphic sequence using their CG toolset.
In Blade Runner 2049, the screen graphics were actually implemented live on set, with no green screen which is a real advantage when creating imagery. He explains: “They are not put in afterwards.” Which means that the Cinematographer can get a real sense of the interplay of props and light on set. “And you know, everyone can really immerse themselves into that environment.”
Scale, brutality, and power
Territory used design to show power structures and to distinguish different social classes. For some scenes, they used modernist, clean graphics, and for others grimy, analogue and imperfect graphics. All of this has to do with layers of meaning – suggesting emotion, humanity or brutality. Adding a touch of humanity into technology is quite a job, but it’s an important one for the production of the film.
Given David’s innovative approach to creating visuals, one could only wonder what the future holds. Remember to always start with a clear understanding of what your client wants to create. And don’t forget the fruit.