Long awaited sci-fi sequel Blade Runner 2049 is an epic, futuristic feast for the eyes – and we have a Canadian director and visual effects artists to thank for much of that.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve, the movie tells the story of mysterious cop K, who lives in a dystopian Los Angeles with his hologram girlfriend Joi.
Joi was played on set by Ana de Armas, but it was Vancouver visual effects (VFX) company Double Negative (DNEG) who translated her performance into hologram form.
In one groundbreaking sequence, that even included synching de Armas with another actress to create a threesome sex scene with K, played by Ryan Gosling.
To discover the secrets of bringing Joi to life, Daily Hive spoke to Paul Lambert, VFX supervisor at DNEG, and John Nelson, Blade Runner 2049‘s overall VFX supervisor.
LA-based Nelson, best known for his work on Gladiator, was responsible for every visual effect in Blade Runner 2049. He said working on the movie was a fantastic experience.
“In life you don’t get opportunities to do something special very often, this was a great director, a great team, and I was going to bring it,” he said.
Meanwhile, Lambert, in Vancouver, is best known for his work on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and was responsible for all DNEG shots in Blade Runner 2049.
“The production value of this was staggering,” said Lambert. “Everyone was super excited about it and because of that, everybody goes the extra.”
An ‘incredibly complex, simple visual’
Overall, there are 1,190 VFX shots in Blade Runner 2049. Nelson gave these to companies around the world, with DNEG Vancouver selected to create Joi.
“We set out to create Joi the hologram without really knowing what she was going to be,” said Lambert.
“We had done hundreds of early tests with different approaches, trying to get this hologram look and Denis didn’t like any of it.”
Eventually, Lambert’s team came up with a “back shell” effect, which was “incredibly complex to actually pull off, but it’s a simple visual.”
The effect imagines that Joi is completely hollow and transparent, with only her skin and dress visible on the outside.
“When you look through her from the front, you see a little bit of her behind, through which you then see the background,” said Lambert.
Nelson compares it to looking at – and through – the back surface of an empty, clear glass bottle through the front of that bottle.
We were ‘terrified’ of the amount of work
But what of that sex scene? Well, the Joi holographic effect was just a part of a year-long process that began with weeks of “tense” filming.
On set in Budapest, Lambert and Nelson helped shoot Gosling, de Armas, and fellow actress Mackenzie Davis, who plays a human character called Mariette.
“We knew that somehow we were going to be combining two performances,” said Lambert. “We started work on that straight away, because everyone was terrified of how much work that was.”
On a very small set representing K’s apartment, Nelson and Lambert set up five cameras to capture the actors’ performances from every angle.
“We’d shoot Mariette usually first, and Denis would pick a take of Mariette that he liked,” explains Nelson.
“Then we would go through the tape with a stopwatch… At two seconds, she lifts her hand, she reaches for him at four, she grabs his hair for six, she’s taking off her coat.”
Then De Armas would try to replicate the timing and movements of Davis.
With footage of Davis on an iPad, Nelson would line up the womens’ eyes, roll the cameras, and give de Armas cues to help her mimic Davis accurately.
“We would get incredible beautiful pictures of the women and we knew we really had something,” said Nelson.
‘It is an art, and I’m really proud’
Editor Joe Walker double exposed the women’s performances together, but it wasn’t a synced up cut.
That job fell to Lambert’s team in Vancouver, and as he explains, that entailed a huge technical procedure and months of work.
“It was such a fulfilling sequence, because it doesn’t look CG,” said Lambert. “The actual complexity behind it is just outrageous.”
That complexity included using footage from all the cameras to create CG versions of both actresses, and sometimes Gosling too.
Lambert said this would usually be done with motion capture, covering the actresses in dots to more easily track their movements.
“But there’s no way… Denis or [cinematographer] Roger Deakins would want to work with actresses on set covered in dots, it’s just not going to happen,” said Lambert.
Instead, Lambert’s team had “a mountain” of manual tracking to do, plus removing and replacing de Armas in some shots, and adding different levels of transparency.
“It is an art, and I’m really proud. I had some fantastic artists working on it,” said Lambert.
Beautiful magic of the ‘third woman’
Nelson describes the final sequence as “magic.”
“When you look at the two women, there’s a third woman. She looks beautiful, but she looks different than the other two, she’s a blend of them, so that was very exciting.”
The whole sex scene of 40 shots lasts less than four minutes, but took a year to create, with 35 artists in Vancouver working on the “labour of love.”
“It was one of the hardest things we did, and it’s probably my favourite, especially when their eyes line up,” said Nelson.
Overall, DNEG Vancouver’s team, which peaked at 316 visual effects artists, completed 260 shots in the movie, more than any of the other VFX houses hired by Nelson.
Their other work on Blade Runner 2049 included huge hologram street ads, K’s Spinner flying car, the waterlogged movie climax, and a smoky, grim Los Angeles.
“We never wanted to have a shot where it is an obvious, outlandish kind of visual effects shot,” said Lambert. “I’m pretty proud that we achieved a certain realism.”
Blade Runner 2049 on VFX Oscar long list
Both Lambert and Nelson say working on the movie was a highlight of their careers.
“I’m proud of what everybody did…I think it feels very analogue, it doesn’t feel very digital,” said Nelson.
It’s worth nothing that both Gladiator and the Curious Case of Benjamin Button won the best VFX Oscar – and now Blade Runner 2049 is on this year’s long list.
“I thought I couldn’t top that, but this one, just … how well it was received and just the whole experience of the shoot,” said Lambert. “You can’t beat it!”