Teaming with Denis Villeneuve on Blade Runner 2049—a well-received sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi classic—cinematographer Roger Deakins took on what the director has called “the most expensive art house movie in cinema history,” seamlessly recreating the aesthetic of the original film while building out its world. Back in the running at the Oscars this year with his 14th nomination—and looking for his first win—Deakins was compelled to take on the ambitious project not because of any specific affinity for the original Blade Runner, but because of Villeneuve, a director with whom he’d collaborated previously on Prisoners and Sicario. “The idea of working on a sequel to the original, it’s kind of daunting, really,” the DP says. “In many ways, I’d have rather not done that.”
In regards to visual effects alone, filmic storytelling has evolved a great deal since the 1980s, when Oscar nominee Jordan Cronenweth shot the first Blade Runner with limited exteriors and a sophisticated use of models, acting out of creative necessity to create something timeless.
In taking on the sequel, the process was interesting in one sense, given the persistence of vision required with a franchise, and the contrasting techniques that were inherent to the two Blade Runner films. “Although  carries on from the original film, I don’t think any of us were saying, ‘Well, it’s got to be like the original film,’” the cinematographer explains. “I was certainly never going to light it like the original film. I couldn’t if I wanted to.”
Seemingly found within himself from a place of intuition, Deakins’ take on the Blade Runner visual language would be defined by sharp, distinctive geometric patterns and bold, organic lighting design that would make the film’s environments feel alive.
Apart from the original Blade Runner, were there particular visual inspirations when it came to the sequel?
The script was a continuation of the original storyline. That lent itself to a particular kind of world that was similar to the original, but Denis very much wanted to open it up and see what the city would be like if the weather had changed. We took real references from places like Beijing—the smog of Beijing, or the landscape of Southern Spain, with its agricultural green housing and stuff.
I always look at photography and architecture. In this case, I looked at quite a lot of architects’ work, and the way they used light in buildings. But we didn’t reference any other movies, actually. We just came up with a whole selection of different ideas of architecture and patterns of light—images of the haboob in Saudi Arabia, the dust storms they have, and the dust storm they had in Sydney a few years ago. There’s images of Sydney Opera House in this kind of red dust. We took things like that as inspiration for how the world was going to look.
Why did you decide to go the digital route with this project?
I’d worked with Denis twice, and both films were with the Alexa, with Master Prime lenses. We both felt, why change? We were both quite happy with that way of working and that image quality.
Was digital ideal given the low-light scenarios you were working with?
It’s partly that, but I think for me, the transition from film to digital has happened. I don’t think there’s the backup with film; I don’t think there’s the laboratory work. I don’t think there’s the expertise anymore in the printing and development.
I just don’t have confidence, frankly, in the backup you get for film now, and there’s so many advantages to shooting digitally. The fact that you can shoot in lower light is just one of them. I think it’s also important that the director can see exactly what I’m exposing on the set. I think that’s a big advantage.
With regard to darkness, how did you define how far you would push scenes with this film?
It wasn’t just for the sake of going dark, but some places are built wanting to be dark, and some were more interesting. We had a whole discussion about the action scene in the storm at the end, on the sea wall. You think, “Well, how much do you want to see? What’s interesting, and what can we practically do?”
I talked to Denis about it and said, “I don’t think we want to see very much. They’re flying. They don’t really see the water below until they crash.” When they’re on the sea wall, the waves come at you, and suddenly they’re revealed in the light coming from the vehicle. But you don’t have another light that’s showing you all the depth of the background.
So it’s the idea of the darkness, and really pushing that—pushing the fact that there’s large areas of blackness in the frame. But you’re not necessarily saying something is very dark overall. You just have pools of light.
You continue to work with some longtime proponents of film. It doesn’t hold a certain sentimental value for you?
Sure, yeah. I shot film with the Coen brothers on Hail, Caesar! That’s fine. I’m sentimental about film; I’ve shot film for forty years or something. What I’m saying is, I would love to be shooting film, but I don’t think the infrastructure is there anymore. There’s too many uncertainties. I never had any problems with the lab, or film stocks in the past, but I’ve had some recently. All those sorts of things count up.
What was your approach to lighting Blade Runner 2049? What kinds of lights were you working with?
It all comes from discussing the feel of each scene, and the environment that Denis wanted to create. You choose the look, and you choose the tools depending on that discussion really. We used everything in the book—a lot of moving lights—and that had to be done with some quite large rigs where you’re doing computer-controlled programming of light to chase, so it felt like there was a single moving light. We used a lot of LEDs, but we used a large amount of quite old-fashioned lighting, because it was cheap. Even on a film like this, you’ve got to be aware of cost all the time. It just depended on the situation. We’d go from shooting with enormous amounts of space lights, to LED ribbons. Some sets were literally lit with a bare bulb.
Did you use smoke and tools of this nature to bring added texture to the frame?
Yeah, we had some. I’ve done a couple of films where I’ve used atmospheric mist, literally creating a fog on the stage. I got together with Gerd [Nefzer], our effects supervisor from Germany. He’d done this, but he hadn’t done it on the scale we were talking about, so we did some tests, and filled the stage with really thick mist. It’s really hard to work in, but it gave you what Denis wanted, which is this very heavy, smoggy atmosphere. Then we would put rain on top of that, and sometimes snow effects and stuff. Another set, we filmed with very heavy smoke, so you could hardly see past 20 feet.
How did you arrive at the film’s color palette?
We storyboarded the whole film together from very early on, and during that time, we talked about what each scene should look like, the kinds of colors. Denis wanted the Las Vegas sequence to be this very red, dusty atmosphere, and he wanted the opening to be a much colder feel. We actually shot plates for the opening in Iceland, under cloudy weather.
Could you give a sense of how you arrived at some of the lighting patterns we see in the film—for example, the geometric, dynamic lighting seen in Niander Wallace’s space?
I wanted the interior of the Wallace building to be a counterpoint to the exterior. You’ve got this very gray, blue, smoggy exterior, where it’s raining and everything, and you go inside this characters headquarters, and it’s just ironic. He’s kind of blind, but I thought, maybe he’s created this interior world of sunlight, and patterns, and moving lights. I looked at a lot of architectural references as to the kind of light that I could create, and that’s it. Later on, I thought, “Well, yeah, but it should all be moving as well.” I wanted it to feel alive. So it just sort of evolved.
I talked with Dennis [Gassner], the designer, about how the space could have skylights, or whatever I could use for the lighting patterns, and the sets were very much designed with the lighting patterns in mind. In the character Luv’s office, her ceiling is glass, and it’s got water above it, so I could do the patterns of light over the floor. It was all that kind of thing.
There’s one shot where K’s taken to the records office, and there’s this big wide shot of this vaulted ceiling. We shot that as a sort of model. It was about a five-foot high maquette, and I lit it with this moving light coming down the wall. Then, we shot the characters on set as an element to insert into that model, and in effects, they just combined the two. They used the real pattern of the lights that I’d lit the model with in the final product. So you come up with ideas, and then it’s like, “Okay, but how do we achieve it?”
What went into the creation of the holographic Coke can and other blown-up advertisements that litter the cityscape? Did second unit shoot those materials?
We had a second unit, but the second unit was basically doing elements for us. Everything was really shot by the first unit. Obviously there’s some CG work, but the adverts were elements that we shot as a first unit with the actress who appears in them. Denis was very specific about the adverts, and what he wanted, so we shot very specific things that could then be used by effects.
Most of the cityscapes are places that we shot in Mexico City on really foggy, rainy days. The helicopter crew was amazing, how they shot in these really pretty awful conditions. The light is real. That’s what it was actually like. Obviously, some of the cityscape has been altered in effects, but the bulk of it is actually a place shot in Mexico City.
Our effects supervisor, John Nelson, actually had aerial shots shot in Las Vegas, although the Las Vegas we have doesn’t look anything like what was shot. He changed all the buildings around, but it’s all based on real movement, with a real vehicle flying through air around buildings. It has a certain reality that you don’t if you just created it in the computer from the start.