Communicating the abstract: the user interfaces of Blade Runner 2049
Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is a visual masterpiece. While it takes its cues from Ridley Scott’s dystopian LA of 1982/2019, it casts this vision of ziggurat-like monoliths and urban overpopulation in the midst of an endless winter twilight. The colossal, bleak cityscapes, stretched out to IMAX scale, are smothered in neo-noir dread, suggestive of a world where the lines between authentic and artificial, truth and deception have all but collapsed.
It’s a world with impressive scale, too. Aerial shots witnessed above and alongside Officer K’s spinner are juxtaposed scenes that swoop down to intricate detail: the tools and software that run through the bureaucracy of this off-kilter future.
London’s Territory Studio stepped into Villeneuve’s LA to give life to this tech, building computer systems that, like the world they inhabit, commingle synthetic with organic.
“There was a really interesting idea in Blade Runner 2049 around the concept of technology being reset,” says David Sheldon-Hicks, founder and executive creative director at Territory Studio. “If this happened and electricity didn’t exist, what would that mean for the visual language? What would it say about society? How would society use that technology?
“We were trusted to distill that brief for Blade Runner 2049, making it applicable across design and animation across the developing narrative. cineSync played a key part in making that happen.”
BladeRunner ConceptReel from Territory on Vimeo.
Technology as statement
Territory Studio has an impressive legacy stretching back seven years, with its team of 70 now working across London, San Francisco and New York.
Although the studio started as a general creative agency, it has grown into a series of specialisms, one of which is fictional user interfaces for films.
“For a film like Blade Runner 2049, the UI work is integral to building out that universe – a universe that people have been invested in since 1982,” says Sheldon-Hicks. “That’s a really interesting challenge because you’re sitting somewhere between nostalgia and a complete adoration of the film that’s come before. But how can you become relevant to making a film in the now?
“Even when working on something as ambient as UI, you need to think about the technology or design statement of the film. What cultural influences are playing out here? What are we saying about where we are now as a society, and what are we saying about the future? All of that was particularly relevant to Blade Runner 2049.”
Designing for a new world
“Blade Runner 2049 moves away from what you might class as traditional UI and film graphics in general,” says Andrew Popplestone, creative director at Territory.
“The brief initially was quite broad: to conceptualize the technology of the world. We went to meet Denis in Budapest and he said he wanted to create an alternative universe, separate to the last film. There’s been a cataclysmic event that affected the entire world and technology as we know it is non-existent. Denis wanted technology that was abstract, tangible, and optical, with an organic feel to it.”
In meeting this brief, Territory focused on three stratums of tech – the LAPD’s, seen in such instances as Officer K’s intense baseline tests; the super slick technology of the Wallis Corp; and the dilapidated, near-obsolete tools used by the the 99%.
“We had to throw out the rule book – when you think about it, there’s almost no experience in our lifetime of how this technology could work without electricity. We had to go right back to when things were more mechanical and physical. We utilized various treatments and wacky ideas, like playing with macro photography of fruit, which we’ve never done before.
“The scene in the morgue – a narratively pivotal moment where Office K finds a DNA tag on human remains – saw us zoom into the bones in a very mechanical, optical kind of way. It wasn’t just about the visuals, but the rhythm and movement of the technology.”
For Sheldon-Hicks, an open mindset is vital when working on something so abstract: “Sci-fi UI is often criticized when everything is just turned blue, so we like to think beyond clichés when coming up with ideas. We’ll develop mood boards that draw from opera, dance choreography, luminous sea life and more. It allows us to be more playful with the palette and more impressionistic with UI design. We took those ideas even further in Blade Runner 2049.”
Communicating the abstract
Designing for such abstruse concepts can be a challenge when it comes to creative collaboration – especially on a global project like Blade Runner 2049, where Territory was in constant communication with the production’s on-set team in Hungary.
“Directors like Villeneuve are visual people, and when discussing UI they’re often thinking deeper than just the design of it,” says Sheldon-Hicks. “They want to explore abstract ideas – the story they’re telling, its relationship to the characters and how the world develops. There are these layers of ideas that come through in UI, which are about more than just color or shape. Directors can be great at expressing those more abstract, layered ideas, but they can’t do it in an email.”
To enable effective creative collaboration, Territory relies on cineSync, which enabled Villeneuve to visualize feedback over frames of the movie.
“If you enable directors with video, you can see diagrams being drawn up and written on screens – there’s a sense of emotion in those remarks that comes through. That connection can only happen with a video toolset. It allows for a looser brief that enables everyone to run with their own ideas, which is key to doing fresh new work.”
“Everyone looking at the same screen in lots of different locations creates a focus and an energy around the feedback,” says Popplestone. “It’s not just the director or the producer or the production designer focusing on that shot in that moment. You’re thinking about it in the wider context and how it fits into the film. You’re all in it together. It builds a team around that shot or that asset or that design in the moment.”
A cohesive world
One of the reasons that the original Blade Runner remains so entrenched in our collective conscious as a pivotal moment in sci-fi cinema was that it felt so cohesive. The world flowed from one environment to the next: the people, the tools they used, the bars they drank at, and the dilapidated housing blocks they lived in felt part of a consistent, realized universe. No detail was spared in cultivating this sense of a real space.
In this context, Blade Runner 2049’s greatest achievement is perhaps that its own take on LA’s barren future is just as complete in its realization, while also infusing it with a new thematic language: a desolation that echoes beauty.
Every element plays into this – from the foreboding architecture to the displays witnessed in the neon-drenched alleyways. Territory’s futurist thinking gives the world a foundation that spills out of the frame, the result being a coherent vision that can stand proudly alongside its enduring inspiration.
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