There's a scene in Blade Runner 2049 that takes place in a morgue. K, an android "replicant" played by Ryan Gosling, waits patiently while a member of the Los Angeles Police Department inspects a skeleton. The technician sits at a machine with a dial, twisting it back and forth to move an overhead camera. There are two screens, positioned vertically, that show the bony remains with a light turquoise tinge. Only parts of the image are in focus, however. The rest is fuzzy and indistinct, as if someone smudged the lens and never bothered to wipe it clean.
Before leaving the room, K asks if he can take a closer look. The blade runner -- someone whose task it is to hunt older replicants -- dances over the controls, hunting for a clue. As he zooms in, the screen changes in a circular motion, as if a series of lenses or projector slides are falling into place. Before long, K finds what he's looking for: A serial code, suggesting the skeleton was a replicant built by the now defunct Tyrell Corporation.
Throughout the movie, K visits a laboratory where artificial memories are made; an LAPD facility where replicant code, or DNA, is stored on vast pieces of ticker tape; and a vault, deep inside the headquarters of a private company, that stores the results of replicant detection 'Voight-Kampff' tests. In each scene, technology or machinery is used as a plot device to push the larger narrative forward. Almost all of these screens were crafted, at least in part, by a company called Territory Studios.
The London-based outfit is known for developing on-set graphics. These are screens, or visuals, that the actor can see and, depending on the scene, physically interact with during a shoot. They have the potential to raise an actor's performance while creating interesting shadows and reflections on camera. Each one also gives the director more freedom in the editing room. If you have a screen on set, you can shoot a scene from multiple angles and freely compare them during the edit. The alternative -- tailoring bespoke graphics for specific shots -- is a time-consuming process if the director suddenly decides to change perspective in a scene.
Territory has worked on a bevy of science-fiction films including Ex Machina, The Martian and Guardians of the Galaxy. One of its earliest and most prolific projects was Prometheus, the divisive Alien prequel directed by Ridley Scott in 2012. The team was hired to design the computers and screens inside the titular spaceship, which is ultimately overrun by an alien virus. You can see its work in various sets including the bridge, the medical area, and the ship's escape pods. In post, the company also handled the crew's hypersleep chambers, medical tablets and the HUD system that wraps around their POV helmet-cam feeds.
During the project, Territory worked with Paul Inglis, the film's senior art director, and Arthur Max, the production designer. Years later, David Sheldon-Hicks, co-founder and creative director at Territory, was talking on the phone with Max about Alien: Covenant. Instead, Max suggested that he reach out to Inglis about Blade Runner 2049. "So I dropped him an email," Sheldon-Hicks recalled, "and said, 'If you're on the project I think you're on, I will give you my right arm to put us on there.'" Inglis laughed and told him that unfortunately, Territory would have to go through a three-way bid for the contract.
It was a big moment. The original Blade Runner is considered by many to be the greatest sci-fi film ever released. Directed by Scott in 1982, it stars Harrison Ford, fresh off The Empire Strikes Back, as retired police officer Rick Deckard. He's forced to resume his role as a blade runner, tracking down a group of replicants who have fled to Earth from their lives off-world.
Blade Runner is a beautiful noir film filled with rain and neon lights. Based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, it explores some heavy themes, such as what it means to be human, the importance of memories and how our obsession with technology could lead to societal and environmental decay. Critics had mixed reactions upon its release, but over time, the film's reputation has grown to the point where it's now considered a classic.
Blade Runner 2049 was, therefore, a huge creative gamble. Territory was awarded the contract in March 2016, before director Denis Villeneuve had released his award-winning sci-fi movie Arrival. The French Canadian was highly regarded, however, for his work on Prisoners, Enemy and Sicario. He had proven his ability to make powerful, thoughtful and visually stunning movies. Still, the stakes were enormous. So much time had passed since the original Blade Runner, and so many movies had riffed or expanded upon its ideas. To succeed, Blade Runner 2049 would need to be something special.