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Let’s all move to LA, in 2049

Los Angeles in 2049 is an over-populated metropolis, threatened by rising sea levels, and featuring vastly different scale buildings, from sprawling favelas to mile high pyramids. That’s how the city is presented in Blade Runner 2049, which had to show a location 30 years into the future from the original Blade Runner and had the benefit of using modern visual effects to make it possible.

Overall visual effects supervisor John Nelson was tasked with helping to realise much of that imagery. He and director Denis Villeneuve would push for LA views to be crafted via a combination of real photography, miniatures and CG. Some aerial plates were filmed in Mexico City, miniatures were crafted by Weta Workshop, and most of the CG shots and visual effects for LA were completed by Double Negative.

Here, Nelson tells vfxblog about the philosophy behind that approach and some fun details about combining real, miniature and digital.

Designing the future

John Nelson: Los Angeles in that big opening from the film is really based on, well you know, Denis is from Montreal. I’m from Detroit. Denis said, ‘I want this to feel like sort of Montreal on a bad day in February.’ I said, ‘I get it. I know. I’ve lived through that. I know it.’ And he told me, ‘I want it to feel like it’s one solid city.’ Basically from San Francisco to Los Angeles so there’s no negative spaces there. It needed to feel completely packed and carpeted with buildings.

I wanted to shoot as much as I can shoot. I come out of the camera department so I really like shooting as much as I can shoot. I know Denis and Roger Deakins, the DOP, feel the same way. What we did there is Denis had a picture of Servile in Mexico City. We took a look at Mexico City and then we scouted when it would be cloudy, which is only at a certain time of the year. We planned our shoot around when we had the highest probability of clouds. Then what I did is I completely scouted through Google Earth all the flight tracks that I wanted to fly on. I pumped that over to Dylan Goss, our aerial camera man who had worked with Roger before. He went down and scouted those areas and some others.

We shot Mexico City. At that point, we shot one helicopter following another helicopter in Mexico City. We got overcast skies and really what we were going for is back-lit overcast. It was a far cry from the final shots – if you see what those shots are before what we did to them and after what we did to them. It’s a far cry. The balance there is that we tried to really make our cities look like Beijing. You know, where atmosphere’s completely even and just really, really choking. The design of the buildings themselves are brutal. In design, in pre-pro, when we were going through art for the cities, generating the art because Denis did the work on the cities. This is me working with Dneg art department.

We started with 1940’s architecture because we were going for a film noir look. Then we put in more brutalistic architecture with what Dneg would refer to as heavy top buildings where buildings would come up and be heavier at the top, like sort of a slab at the top and then a vertical column going into it. He wanted the feel for the cities to be very brutal. What we did is we added into our concept art, we started with 40’s architecture, then added in more brutalistic buildings, then added more snow and more snow and more snow. Then finally, what we did is we went in and sort of jump the scale. Normal cities have one scale and then another little higher scale, then a higher scale. We had one scale, then a medium scale that would be a lot bigger than that. Then one that would be a lot bigger than that.

So we would have these leap frog scales with the streets lower down. That gave us more depth. Then we shot Mexico City. We added a tonne of CG to it. Then added a tonne of re-lighting to it. We were taking what was not in fog and then putting it completely in fog. And having atmosphere only go so far. The holograms also had these layered effects in them, actually, the director ended up calling that the ‘Patented Dneg holographic process’.

When you look at what we started with and what we ended with, it’s really an amazing difference. What we were striving for, of course, what every visual effects person wants is to strive for is for it to feel natural when you look at it. That’s how we did the first scene going into the cities. We built in the sea wall on one side, which was sort of where the 405 would be in Los Angeles.

Going miniature

On this movie too, I wanted to use matte paintings and miniatures to also broaden the scope of the look of the film. It would be a mixture of different media. So going into the city as you fly up to the LAPD building, the LAPD building is actually a 1/48th scale miniature that is about 15 feet tall. With a tonne of CG, again, a tonne of CG put on top of it. Of signs and whatnot and smoke coming out of it.

Alex Funke, via Weta Workshop’s Facebook page.

What I tried to do with a lot of that stuff was I would use miniatures of the destination. I’d start with CG over an aerial plate and then move into a miniature plate. So as you’re going into it, it would all change. It would change from one field to the next. We’ve seen, in other movies, with the legacy of Blade Runner, there’s often been a thing where, ‘I’m just going to keep adding signs and signs and colours and junk.’ We tried to be restrained on that because after a while, it just gets to be visual annoyance.

When they shot the miniatures at Weta Workshop – which was led by Alex Funke – I wasn’t there. They shot them with a Canon still camera on a motion control rig. They shot it on a computer controlled smoke room. There was an infrared beam used to analyse the level of smoke and constantly reinforce the level of smoke when they were shooting it.

Image via Weta Workshop’s Facebook page.

When you shoot miniatures, you shoot the lights separate but the move is repeatable so you can do it again. You’re able to shoot with different lights – the white lights and coloured lights – and then a smoke room to get different levels of smoke, which I think is really important.