The Impact of ‘Blade Runner’ on Visual Art in Popular Culture

One of my favorite films is Ridley Scott’s masterpiece “Blade Runner“. I rewatched the movie following news of the death of the story’s villain, Rutger Hauer.

I was sad to hear of his passing and realizing that this will be, as of this November, a movie set in the past, joining such futuristic visions as “2001: A Space Odyssey“, “2012“, “Back to the Future II” (set in 2015), and “Escape from New York” (set in 1997). The book on which “Blade Runner” was based was set in 1992.


Released June 27, 1982, “Blade Runner” was not a commercial success, earning $1 million less than its estimated $28 million budget. Opening the same weekend as a little movie called “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” might have had something to do with that. John Carpenter’s “The Thing” suffered the same fate.

But “Blade Runner” has become a cult classic and produced a sequel last year.

The final scene was shot literally hours before the producers were due to wrestle creative control away from Ridley Scott because he went over budget. He didn’t like the lighting for the scenes in Tyrell’s office and ordered that everything be reshot from scratch, which put them two weeks behind.

He also had many unused takes printed at considerable costs. I remember how much more expensive it was to shoot film than video. Scott’s first cut of the film was reportedly 4 hours long!

Scott was also frustrated by American film crew members, financers and producers who kept questioning him about his artistic choices. His perfectionism caused shooting days that often lasted around 13 hours. There was also tension over Scott not being allowed by the American crew to step behind the camera to see the viewfinder himself, which does seem absurd.

In the 2007 “Final Cut” version, we finally got to see his version of the original film, minus the hokey narration that Harrison Ford was forced to record by executive producers Jerry Perenchio and Bud Yorkin after two disastrous preview screenings of the workprint resulted in the audience claiming it was too difficult to follow. Scott was not opposed to a voiceover, but he said he would have preferred it be dialogue reflecting philosophically rather than a literal explanation of the story to the audience.

It was based on a book by Philip K. Dick called “Do Androids Dream of Electic Sheep?” Dick reportedly came up with the story after reading about Nazis striving to create a master race. He wondered if the word “human” could really be applied to a group of people so emotionally flawed as to engage in such horrors in World War II.

Dick only saw the first 20 minutes of the film before dying that March, but said the film caught the world he imagined perfectly. Initially, Dick had denounced the film after reading a version of the script that turned it into a comedy, but a publicist for the Ladd Company convinced the studio to let him be involved in the project. Dick and Scott did not meet until after the shoot ended.

The term “Blade Runner” came from a book by Alan Nourse and referred to someone selling illegal surgical instruments. It was also the title Rutger Hauer gave his yacht purchased with his earnings.

Pre-production lasted nine and a half months. More than 400 carpenters worked on the sets, for 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 5 1/2 months due to an actors’ strike affecting Hollywood.

A Rose By Any Other Name

blade runner cinema art

It’s always interesting to consider how a classic movie could have turned out differently.

Some fun facts:

  • “Blade Runner” was almost titled “Dangerous Days”, “Mechanismo” and “Gotham City.” Scott initially turned down the project, as did “9 ½ Weeks” Director Adrian Lyne. Scott returned to the film after a lack of progress on the adaptation for 1984’s “Dune” that would go on to be directed by David Lynch. Animator Ralph Bakshi was considered for an animated adaptation of the book but declined.
  • Scott reportedly took it on to take his mind off his brother’s death, pouring his feelings into the movie’s dark atmosphere and story about facing our mortality.
  • An early screenplay had a scene where dead replicants were disposed of in an off-world colony dump. The scene was used in the 1998 movie “Soldier” that is supposed to occur in the same fictional universe.
  • An early script for “Blade Runner” also had Batty finding out that the Tyrell he kills is merely a mechanic android and the real Tyrell had been dead for 4 years, his body being preserved in a Mayan-like sarcophagus; the corporation maintained the illusion that Tyrell was still alive in order to keep the company’s stocks from devaluating. That might have been interesting, but it also might have gotten in the way of the story.
  • The character of Rachael was almost played by actress Nina Axelrod, who appeared in the films “Cobra” and “Firestarter”. Victoria Principal, Grace Jones, Stacey Nelkin, and Barbara Hershey were also considered. Scott fought to use Sean Young despite her performing poorly in screen tests.
  • Debbie Harry and Dutch actress Monique van de Wen almost played the pleasure android Pris, who was ultimately played by actress Daryl Hannah, a relative unknown whose first star turn would be in “Summer Lovers”, a movie about a threesome in the Greek Islands released the following month. She went on to become a superstar after playing a Mermaid in “Splash” a couple of years later.
  • Dick had envisioned Gregory Peck playing Deckard and Grace Slick as Rachael. Dustin Hoffman was originally sought to play Deckard. Other actors considered included Martin Sheen, who was still exhausted from filming “Apocalypse Now”, as well as actors Tommy Lee Jones, Gene Hackman, Sean Connery, Jack Nicholson, Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Pacino, Burt Reynolds, Robert Duvall, Peter Falk, Nick Nolte, and Christopher Walken. Joe Pantoliano was considered for the role of J.F. Sebastian.
  • Greek musician Vangelis composed the atmospheric synthesizer-based score after Pete Townshend declined the job. The previous year, he’d won an Oscar for his score for “Chariots of Fire.” His music captured the isolation and melancholy of Harrison Ford’s character. It simply wouldn’t be the same film without it. I was thrilled when the soundtrack finally became available in 2007.

The Impact of Blade Runner on my Photographic Style

blade runner movie“If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes!”

I like to think that Scott’s images have influenced my creative work as a visual artist on a nearly subconscious level.

I want to do a photo shoot based on the visual aesthetic of “Blade Runner”.

Scott has influenced a whole generation of filmmakers since his days directing stylish TV commercials like the Apple spot based on the novel “1984”.

Among those citing him as a major inspiration are Christopher Nolan and Guillermo del Toro. Credit for the look of the film’s sets and practical effects must be shared with Cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (whose Parksinson’s disease had him in a wheelchair by the end of the shoot), Art Director David Snyder, futurist Syd Mead, and the hundreds of professionals who contributed to the production.

model in seductive lighting

This image of Alix Bresler reflects a low key lighting style I enjoy creating.

A movie like this not only stimulates the senses but reminds photographers that there is a difference between constructing a photograph with deliberate lighting choices versus merely capturing the light and stylistic elements naturally found during a process of improvisation.

It’s challenging for me as a photographer because I do tend to be reactive rather than proactive, but it pays to occasionally put more forethought and planning into executing something truly special and expressive while pondering concepts for a photoshoot.

Much of the look of the film was out of necessity.

Existing buildings on the studio backlot were modified to give them a bleak futuristic appearance. To disguise the set and sell the illusion, Scott used abundant portions of darkness, rain and smoke to conceal the cheap materials used.

It wasn’t like today where you can computer-generate the fantastic out of thin air. Just like we used to do it when we hand-painted pieces of film or prints, practical effects were the reality prior to Photoshop. Interestingly, there were a lot of technical challenges they addressed with matte paintings back in the early 80s.

The opening sequence is iconic, with explosions erupting from oil refinery flare stacks in downtown Los Angeles as thunder and lightning share the sky and flying cars zip past. The Tyrell Pyramid lies in the background. It was a 2 ½ feet high Plexiglass miniature, which ultimately melted due to the heat from the backlighting. Scott used smoke to create the illusion of depth.

Director Ridley Scott used Edward Hopper’s painting ‘Nighthawks‘ for visual inspiration, as well as the French comic strip ‘Métal hurlant’, especially the artwork of Moebius in the story, ‘The Long Tomorrow’. “This film was honestly resurrected by the advent of MTV,” Scott says. He began noticing numerous videos inspired by the film’s look and “an evolution that started to happen with filmmakers and rock ‘n’ roll bands.”

beautifully lit photoshootWhat constitutes “Blade Runner”-ish style?

  • Smoke and rain fill empty spaces.
  • Strongly directional beams of light that probe even the private interior spaces.
  • Urban yet isolated.
  • Familiar yet alien.
  • Futuristic yet vintage.
  • Branding iconography is ubiquitous.
  • Dystopic Los Angeles is full of people, yet it feels isolated and lonely.
    Polluted with excess, we only see blue sky once, so it feels like perpetual night.
  • Dreary rain is pierced by the dynamic colors of glowing neon.
    Social structures are illustrated as the upper world is crisp, clean and Caucasian. The street-level world is chaotic and multicultural. The skyscrapers are built on top of the decaying structures.

How Accurately Did Blade Runner Portray the Future?

Blade Runner opening

So 2019 is now.

We don’t have flying cars or human-like replicants, but the movie did accurately predict that we would talk to our computers and be besieged by digital billboards screaming at us to promote consumerism.

In the movie, Deckard uses a technology that lets him choose a camera angle and focus from a seemingly 2-D photograph, which has become somewhat possible with the recent introduction to cameras like the iPhone that take multiple photos simultaneously and allow the editor to dial in the focus and desired depth of field.

The Movie’s Impact

The movie engages us with an avalanche of ideas such as what it means to be human, how our memories create who we are, themes like love, exploitation, post-colonialism, social hierarchy, and social decay.

Eyes are so prominent in the film, from the opening sequence to the machines using eye movements to determine empathetic responses, Batty visiting the scientist who created his eyes, the reflectiveness of eyes suggesting they do not merely see but also reveal, and the death of Tyrell by having his eyes crushed by Batty’s thumbs.

Identity is also central to the story. Deckard struggles with living outside of his past role as a cop, he drinks to compensate for his lack of empathy, the isolation of modern life where a man is surrounded by millions and the means for which to connect and communicate more easily than ever, yet he lacks any family or relationships.

In one scene where he aggressively seduces Rachel, he tells her to say the words “kiss me” and “I want you” because he needs her reciprocation (consent during what arguably feels like a near-sexual assault) and seeks a new identity from romance. In the sequence, he’s also testing her “human-ness” by asking her to do what is arguably the most natural thing human beings can do, have sex.

Given the issues that we still struggle with between the sexes and finding intimacy among too many choices, I’d say the film was pretty spot-on in that aspect.

© Blog 2019 Steven Stiefel | Stiefel Creative