Why 'Blade Runner 2049' Cinematographer Roger Deakins Cut Back the Light for a Key Scene

Blade Runner: 2049 BTS - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

British-born cinematographer Roger Deakins, 68, is a more than familiar face at the Academy Awards. From The Shawshank Redemption and Fargo through Skyfall and Sicario, he’s been nominated 14 times — without ever taking home the gold. This year, his work on Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic Blade Runner 2049 has put him back in contention (he won the BAFTA and the American Society of Cinematographers Award for the film) raising the question, Will the most nominated living cinematographer without a win finally take home an Oscar?

The thoughtful Deakins doesn’t like to make a fuss when talking about his work — in fact, he describes the creation of his inspiring images as matter of factly as the rest of us would describe making a cup of coffee.

But he will admit that one of the trickier scenes in Blade Runner comes when a flying vehicle transporting a captured Decker (Harrison Ford) crash-lands on a sea wall in a storm on an inky black night, and K (Ryan Gosling), arriving for a fight, must ultimately rescue Decker as breaking waves drag the vehicle into the open water.

Deakins creates what he calls a “frightening reality” by limiting what can be seen of the characters’ surroundings. “I thought back to when we did Fargo and that night scene out in the open space in Minnesota in the snow. You start to think, ‘How do you light it?’ and then you think, ‘Actually, you don’t want to light it.’ It was much more interesting with the vehicle surrounded by blackness.

“I thought in the same way for Blade Runner,” he continues. “You don’t need to see much of the ocean; you just need to see the odd reflection of the water and the headlights until it crashes. Then it’s just the lights from the vehicle that are lighting the small area where the action takes place. It’s the feeling of being surrounded by blackness — the idea of these waves coming out of the blackness. That’s what makes the scene suspenseful.”

It was all shot in a 1 million-gallon tank on a backlot in Budapest, with the primary lighting coming from the vehicle — its interior lights, headlights and taillights, which were built into the vehicle design for Deakins by Oscar-nominated production designer Dennis Gassner. Explains Deakins, “I tried to shoot [the action outside the vehicle] in a way that it was more backlit and side lit [by those lights]. The headlights are quite cold, and the interior light actually starts warm and dull while it’s flying, but then when it crashes, it turns into an emergency mode, and it becomes much brighter and colder, so you get much more a feeling of this pool of light coming from it. The taillights were very orange; I enhanced that to bring some vivid color into it. At one point, K and Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) are fighting in the water in the back of the vehicle, so they are bathed in this orange light.

“In the sequence when Harrison’s and Ryan’s characters are swimming from the sinking vehicle, I used theatrical spotlights panning overhead as though they were flying vehicles passing by to get a little bit more definition in the water and a bit more life to the scene. The waves were crashing over them, and every now and again, there’s a little pulse of light going by.”

The scene was shot in late fall, and the cold night air resulted in a happy accident. The water was heated for the actors, and “by 7:30, as the daylight temperature fell away, the water started steaming,” recalls Deakins. “Sometimes it was too much, so we had to get wind machines to soften the effect.” In fact, he even found himself delaying the start of each night’s filming “because the steam didn’t start working until a bit later in the evening.”

This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.