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Blade Runner And Fifth Element Cityscapes Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 1590 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Blade runner greets the viewer with a fascinating opening scene where the camera hovers over a vast industrial mega polis called Hades. The year is 2020 and overpopulated Hades is trying to reinforce itself. The place is filled with corroded skyscrapers which shoot flame and gases into the environment creating a sense of hazy and polluted atmosphere. Also, in this shot and in subsequent shots flying cars, called spinners, are seen moving around the cityscape.

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The entire Hades cityscape was a forced perspective miniature set with larger miniature elements in the foreground which get smaller and smaller as we approach the horizon. Special photographic effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull and his crew constructed the whole set on a plywood table which was about 20 feet wide at the back and 5 feet wide in the front. The actual horizon on the screen is just 15 feet away from the camera. They designed the table according the focal length of the camera, which provided them the base in accordance to field of view of the camera. This sort of careful planning enabled them to build the miniatures just inside the field of view without wasting valuable production time and money.

Chief model maker Mark Stetson relied primarily on etched brass cutouts as elements to create buildings in the shot. But because these cutouts were two-dimensional, they had to stack a number of them together and stagger them across randomly to create depth in the whole shot. <1> states that by using this technique Trumbull was soon posed with a problem:

“But as we got into putting the thing together, we realized quickly that the etched metal stuff would have given away the trick if we’d use it too close to the foreground.”

They overcame this by building foam cast models and put them in the foreground. Those models were highly detailed and separately mounted using C-Stands. They were positioned carefully so that the camera could fly right in between creating depth.

Another hurdle was creating the atmospherics in the cityscape. Director Ridley Scott wanted smoke and haze in the distant background to add to the drama of the whole scene. Douglas Trumbull created this effect using studio fans and smoke detectors. He first contained the set using black cloth all around it and set up the smoke detectors to trigger the fans. So when they fed smoke into the contained set, fans powered up and pushed the smoke around creating a natural progression of smoke in the environment.

Describing his perception of the Hades cityscape, Mark Stetson <2> states:

“I just had this scheme, I just wanted to do it as a series of silhouette and smoke. I wanted the smoke to really be the light and the light to light it up. Everything about that miniature had to be lights.”

The way light was used in this shot to create volumetric effects and reflections played a major role making it look real and credible. About 20,000 fiber optic cables (about 7 miles long) were used to light the Hades cityscape. The light cables were threaded up from beneath the plexi glass, on which the brass etched cutouts were mounted. They also mixed and experimented with a lot of interactive lights like axial, blinking, etc which created variety and helped improve the overall aesthetics of the shot.

The flying cars (spinners) were a central impression throughout Blade Runner. Model maker Gene Winfield made four scale versions of the spinners, ranging from an inch to a gigantic forty-four inch long model, for different shots.

Each model had its own light rig which could be tweaked to match the lighting of the shot. In order to integrate the cars into the shot, they had to shoot them as separate elements in four different passes and later on put them in using optical methods.

Flying car model moves were created by Baker and McHugh using a Universal Hartland motion control unit. It is a hybrid method where they program simple motions like track and tilt and later on manually chart other controls such as pan, pitch, roll, etc. This enabled them to have a greater control over the placement and path of the move.

For every spinner movement a corresponding matte was created to help composite it onto the environment. They created the mattes using front lit technique where the spinners were photographed as white shapes on a black background instead of vice versa. They shifted to the alternate in order to avoid the streaks caused by the motion control rig while shooting the mattes.

<1> discusses about the insertion of the spinners against the Hades cityscape:

“One of the most challenging aspects of the optical involvement was the insertion of spinners and other miniature elements into appropriately smoke-laden background plates-without having them come out looking like cutouts”

After great deal of testing and experimentation special photographic effects supervisor David Dryer got around this issue by generating a balance between the holdout and cover mattes. They are then lined up separately using the EEG system and fit onto the spinners onto the backplanes.

In an establishing shot of New York cityscape in Fifth Element, female lead Milla Jovovich who was reconstructed from an alien DNA escapes from the lab and exits onto a narrow window ledge hundreds of floors above the ground. In consecutive shot, New York City in the year 2259 is portrayed as a towering urbanscape with huge buildings and heavy flying traffic. The lanes are parallel as if they were on a grid with old mid-fifties architecture all along and they extended until the horizon.

<3> states that Director Luc Besson vision was to show the 23rd century New York City in full detail and broad daylight unlike Blade Runner which is more dark. To produce this effect Special visual effects supervisor Mark Stetson used model photographs in conjunction with 2-D Matte paintings.

Explaining about why they opted to not use computer generated imagery for the cityscape <3> states that Mark Stetson states :

“We could have done it entirely in the computer but as large as Digital Domain is, with its several terabytes of disk space and hundreds of CPUs, there was still a practical limit. A totally CG New York would have been prohibitive in terms of time, storage space and processing power. For that reason, we chose to construct a big set of models.”

Stetson now made use of the advancement in technology which was missing back then when he was working on Blade Runner. He used computer pre-visualization and prepared models in different levels of details based on the camera lens, motion path, proximity of the miniature to the camera, etc.

For the cityscape shot, about twenty-five buildings 25 feet high and above were built. Several CAD and town planning artists were invited to make plans for the layout of the city and the miniatures were placed accordingly. This helped them make the illusion of the vast mega polis more real and believable.

To create a more natural look of sunlight hitting the vast cityscape, Supervising director of photography , Bill Neil developed a new technique called “Fractured Sunlight” which is a hybrid of direct and indirect illumination. They used a strong light source from one direction to mimic the sunlight which caused a lot of shadows on the other side. To minimize the effect, they had to use reflectors and spotlights to create an illusion of light bouncing back on the darker areas on the buildings.

In order to add depth in the shot, they separated the cityscape into different parts with their respective mattes and then added atmospheric effects and made changes to the overall lighting. Also, they relied heavily on 2-D matte paintings to mix and create the effect of endless row of buildings which ultimately imposed depth in the shot.

Flying cars were the crucial element in cityscape shot which left viewers in awe. Stetson initially planned to use miniatures for the effect. But due to development of technology, an effective CG pipeline was generated which allowed them to move to computer generated imagery.

They first created primitive models of cars and rough patterns of the traffic flow to pre-visualize the shot. In order to distinguish between the traffic at various levels of the city, Digital effects supervisor Karen E. Goulekas created a weave pattern where traffic would travel in different directions at different levels.

In order to create variation among the pattern of traffic flow, they keyed the cars to move at different speeds and stop at random points. Also variation of color and nature of the cars was accomplished by using special Renderman shaders. These programmed shaders allowed the artists to quickly tweak and create new variations of models easily.

Once the traffic flow and detailing of the vehicles is completed, they would then run a script which replaced all the dummy models with fully detailed ones which they would then send for final rendering.

Compositing supervisors Jonathan Egstad and Bryan Grill then carefully planned the allocation of resources which finally enabled them to generate the effects work in time. They used compositing packages (mainly Nuke, Flame, etc) to put together all the elements. Finally, color corrections and grading was done to complete generating the final imagery for the shot.


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