Blade Runner: How Long Lenses Can be Used Cinematically

Image result for blade runner poster

Note: As I will be analysing several key shots from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, spoilers should be taken as a given.

Although the official definition of “cinematic” is

“1. relating to the cinema,

2. having qualities characteristic of films”,

I’m going to be bold and add in:

“3. adj. describing visual media that contains great contrast between movement and stillness, and elements of different scale”.

By this definition, films that employ wide lenses (32mm and below) are inherently more cinematic than films that employ long lenses (50mm and above), as wide lenses accentuate the distance between foreground and background elements, and emphasise motion. By contrast, long lenses compress space so that foreground and background elements appear to be more or less on the same plane, and motion is de-emphasised to the point that, on a long enough lens, an object can be moving but not actually change relative size to any other elements in the frame. As an example of the two types of lenses in action I’ve highlighted some clips from Martin Brest’s fantastic-but-rarely-seen Midnight Run.

1:07 is a good example of a wide lens in action. The foreground, middle ground and background are clearly distinguishable, there is a wide field of view, and the motion/progress of the characters is easily perceptible. 3:28 is a prime example of a long lens in action. The image feels flat, the background and foreground appear close to one another, and even though the characters are clearly moving, they don’t appear to be making progress.

Bearing this in made, I was very surprised when I saw that Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (lensed by legendary cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth) was filmed almost entirely on long lenses, as it is one of the most cinematic films ever made. In this article, I’m going to illustrate how Ridley Scott overcame the limitations of the long lens to make a dynamic movie of remarkable scale.

  • Massive Sets/Locations:

It doesn’t hurt that the sets of Blade Runner are among the largest and most detailed you are likely to see. By having large sets and shooting in grand locations, Scott could afford to use long lenses without risking his shots feeling cramped or cheap.

Image result for bradbury building blade runner

An exterior shot of JF Sebastian’s apartment building (the Bradbury Building in real life). Although this shot was clearly done on a long lens (note the visual proximity between Deckard, the sign behind him, and the columns of the building), the sheer scale of the set compensates for the compression of the lens.

  • Light and Shadow

Part of the reason the Midnight Run example of the long lens feels flat is because the shot appears to have been taken about noon, so the lighting is completely consistent and no shadows are visible. Scott, however, favours deep shadows in his frame, and will often use shafts of hard light like spotlights, highlighting certain elements while obscuring others, and also as a means of splitting up the frame. This combination of strong light and deep shadows give his shots a strong internal energy, and a sense of depth that counteracts the long lens (his use of the same techniques in Alien earned Scott the nickname “Rembrandt of Light”).

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  • Objects Breaking Up the Frame

There are no empty shots in Blade Runner. Each plane has something in it, thus making it easier to distinguish one plane from another and creating a sense of volume, even if the planes are compressed by the long lens.

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Image result for blade runner holden

In the first picture, the presence of the gun marks out the foreground, Deckard’s face the middleground, and neon lights the background.
In the second picture, the VK Machine establishes the foreground, Holden occupies the middleground, and the striped wall takes up the background.
Note that none of the three elements in either picture are of the same size or shape, allowing the eye to distinguish them more easily, and that overexposing one side of the actors’ faces/hair clearly separates them from the background. Also note that the sense of space is accentuated in the first picture by adding rain, and in the second by cigarette smoke. This filling of the frame, be it with rain, smoke, dust, or fog, is a trademark of Scott’s, and make his shots feel deep, tangible, and active.

But while all these techniques work just as well in photography, Scott exploits one more technique that is particular to the medium of cinema…

  • Movement Between Planes, Across the Frame, and Into the Frame

Movement is the one thing that separates film from all other visual arts, and Scott beautifully utilises movement to make his shots feel cinematic.

One of the advantages of the long lens is that, by reducing the field of view and compressing planes, it leaves plenty of “hiding spaces” within the frame from which objects can disappear into and appear from, and Scott uses these hiding places constantly, giving the image a sense of scale that extends beyond the frame itself.

Scott also juxtaposes movement with stillness within the frame, emphasising the moving object, and creating an internally dynamic image.

There are very few times in the film where objects move directly towards or away from the camera, as compression would de-emphasise their movement. Scott instead has objects move laterally, diagonally or vertically across the frame.

Also, to truly capture the scale of the frame, Scott employs a particular technique several times throughout the film: A character will enter frame in one visual plane, heading in one direction, and leave the frame heading in the same direction; they will then re-enter the frame, nearer or farther away from the camera, heading in the opposite direction. This beautifully simple piece of blocking makes the frame much larger than what is actually seen by the audience. All of Scott’s techniques of movement and blocking are on display in the two clips below (which are, without a doubt, two of the finest individual pieces of filmmaking in cinema history).

0:02 Rachael moves into frame from background to middleground from behind furniture, left to right. 2:15 Deckard moves into frame from middleground to foreground, out of frame, left to right. 2:24 Re-enters frame, foreground, right to left.

0:23, Batty leaps from foreground to background, right to left, and out of frame; 0:29 re-enters frame from background to middleground, left to right. 2:54 dove rises out of extreme foreground, and at 3:18, spinner rises out of previously hidden middleground , giving shot even more volume.

Though I have merely scratched the surface of Blade Runner with this analysis of its cinematography, it is testament to the quality of the film that it’s surface alone is so rich in detail and technique.

* * * * * (Great Movie)

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