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Blade Runner 2049: Sci-fi’s neo-noir cityscape gets an update

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Dennis Gassner explains how he visualized an update on one of film’s most famous urban landscapes

K (Ryan Gosling) navigating the dreary, gray streets of Los Angeles in Blade Runner 2049.
Warner Bros.

Production designer Dennis Gassner’s history with Blade Runner, the famed Ridley Scott sci-fi noir of the early ‘80s, began well before he took on the monumental task of designing sets for its long-awaited sequel, Blade Runner 2049. When Gassner was starting out in Hollywood, working for Francis Ford Coppola in the art department of the director’s American Zoetrope Studios, he recalls being introduced to a man who needed neon.

The man, director Ridley Scott, wanted to see all the used neon signs from a recent Coppola film, the Las Vegas musical flop One From the Heart. Gassner gave him all the old signs for free, unwittingly adding a key element to the Tokyo-inspired streetscapes of the original Blade Runner, routinely cited as one of the most gorgeous, inspired set designs in cinema. An update of a Philip K. Dick novel about androids and artificial intelligence, featuring a bold imagining of the future by artist Syd Mead, Blade Runner birthed its own visual language, a striking vision of a future Los Angeles.

When Gassner began working with the sequel, directed by Denis Villeneuve, he took a darker turn. When asked about the one word that would describe the Blade Runner 2049 universe, set after world-altering crises and ecological collapse reshape the future, Villeneuve simply replied, “brutal.” Curbed spoke to Gassner, a Hollywood veteran responsible for the look of The Truman Show, Skyfall, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, about the thought process behind updating a sci-fi touchstone.

The roof of a Los Angeles apartment in Blade Runner 2049.
Warner Bros.

There’s not one single way to be brutal

The city in Blade Runner 2049, where K (Ryan Gosling), an LAPD detective and replicant (engineered android), tracks down and “retires” more rebellious robots, is a more monochromatic, desperate, place than the rain-soaked, neon-lined city of the original. Since the first film, the world has seen an ecological collapse, leading to bio-engineered crops, gray skies, and overcrowded cities.

Gassner captures this feeling of darkness, desperation, and dreariness, perfectly evoking the ‘brutal” nature Villeneuve intended. He used the forms, shapes, and facades of Brutalist architecture, such as the Barbican in London, to inspire a colder, more brusque environment. Overhead views of the city, shot with models, not CGI, truly evoke scale and texture.

The interactive holographic ads give the gray, crowded streets occasional flashes of life.
Warner Bros.

Neon, and the occasional holographic ad, provide occasional flourishes of color and life, but much of the vast cityscape, which K soars over in his flying car, evokes the feel of concrete. Gassner also drew inspiration from the the streetscape of Budapest, where the crew filmed interiors within a series of large studios. Russian-built factories, as well as the Hungarian city’s colorful Secessionist architecture, provided some of the visual language that informed the darker vision of Los Angeles.

“I had a story to tell,” says Gassner, who spoke of the narrative as the central concern of all his designs. “Syd’s story was a different one than mine. My job as a designer was to be influenced by that world, to a certain degree, and to continue that world.”

The serene, temple-like home of Niander Wallace.
Warner Bros.

A tech temple inspired by Japanese craftsmanship

The original Blade Runner was dominated by the Tyrell Corporation, the all-powerful company that created the high-tech replicants at the center of the story. In the sequel, Tyrell has fallen, but has been replaced by Niander Wallace, played by a menacing Jared Leto, a blind industrialist and technologist who bought out the old Tyrell Corporation and resumed creating replicants. He lives and works within a huge temple complex, a play of sorts off the original Tyrell building, that features the film’s most striking interiors. Set pieces rest amid large indoor pools, and backlit stone hallways flicker and glisten with waves of light.

Gassner drew inspiration for these imposing sets from a temple he had visited in Kyoto, Japan. He remembers walking across a floorboard, a vision of handcrafted Japanese perfection, and hearing a loud creak as he stepped on a loose joint. He inquired with staff about the unexpected noise and was told it was an old-fashioned alarm system. That incident experience influenced his decision to create a multi-sensory world for Wallace, who, lacking one sense, would seek an interior that heightens the others.

The layout, an office-sanctuary which looks more Egyptian than high-tech, also needed to convey the businessman’s vast power and total control.

“He could control the sunlight, which moved with him across the room,” Gassner said. “For him, it has to be a god-like experience.”

The Strip of 2049 beckons.
Warner Bros.

Leaving Las Vegas alone

Later in the film, K explores beyond the boundaries of Los Angeles, encountering a city-sized trash dump where San Diego used to be, as well as venturing across the desert to an abandoned Las Vegas. If any city would be fun to dig up and explore in a almost archeological fashion, it’s Sin City. Gassner’s vision of a faded Strip, shrouded in red dust, had many inspirations, including images of a dust storm that swept across Sydney in 2009. But within the updated grand lobbies and empty bars, a touch of current Vegas comes through.

“We wanted it to be futuristic, but keeping with the current Vegas mentality,” he says. “It had to be receptive to what exists today,” especially in the mind’s eye.”