“Lighting is an element of mise-en-scene because it illuminates the set and the actors and can be designed to create certain moods and effects…lighting furthers the audience’s understanding of characters, underscores particular actions, develops themes, and establishes mood.”

(Pramaggiore & Wallis 2008, p.107)

Lighting has different features including quality (hard or soft), placement, source and colour.

As with most films, Blade Runner uses lighting to create certain moods and feelings.

As it borrows heavily from the genre of film noir (see the section on genre), it frequently uses similar types of lighting as found in those films – especially hard shadows and a stark contrast between light and dark regions in a shot – an effect known as ‘chiaroscuro’. In fact the whole film has a distinct lack of bright lighting. Of course, this suits the dystopian theme and helps to emphasise themes such as confusion, isolation, loneliness, unhappiness, social breakdown and so on. Let’s have a look at some of the examples of this kind of lighting in the film:

Opening shot – Holden facing the wall in the Tyrell office

This opening shot of Holden standing up facing the window in the office uses lighting to create a strong effect (insert picture of the shot). The shot has a very old-school noir feel to it. Look at the way Holden is almost completely silhouetted, with the harsh white rim lighting creating an outline of the shape of his body. We cannot see his face or any defining feature of his body – he is at this point a character shrouded in mystery. The smoke trailing upwards from his silhouetted figure interacts with the light coming diagonally downwards from the window, so that it is clear to see. The quality of lighting in this shot would be considered hard with low-key illumination. It works to create strong shadows and a contrast between light and dark within the frame. The light is also seems to be different shades of blue – very light (almost white) at the top window, then light blue on the right of the frame, and a darker blue on the left. In the next shot of the same room (insert picture of shot 4:33mins), we see it from a different angle. The look of the room has changed considerably due to the lighting. There is less darkness, revealing the look of the room and showing Leon walking up the corridor to the office. Throughout the rest of this scene, the two characters are sidelight by the light coming in from the window, creating a white rim around the side of their figures, with strong shadows on the other side of their bodies/faces. This works to create a somewhat sinister effect of tension and mystery.

Bryant’s office

Again, low-key light is used in this scene to create an effect whereby the characters faces are half-covered in shadow. This is another example of Blade Runner using a film noir lighting technique, and it goes well with the setting and character interaction. The darkness on the side of the faces may indicate that these characters are not pure or complete, and that they are part of a world of violence and corruption.

Now look at the lighting in the scene where Bryant shows Deckard the video of Holden testing Leon (show picture). The colour of the lighting is blue, similar to the colour in the initial shot of Holden standing up smoking in the office. There is the same hard backlight on the characters that creates a strong white rim effect around their figures. It also works well to show the effect of the cigarette smoke trailing through the air. Again, the lighting creates a sinister mood, which serves to emphasise the task that is being given to Deckard.

Eldon Tyrell’s Office

The light source in this scene seems to come primarily from the massive window in the office, where the sun is shining in (obviously this is not a real sun or window, and the lighting in fact would be coming down from a light behind and above the characters). This again creates deep and long shadows, silhouettes, and white rims around the figures of the characters (show pictures). Further into the scene the chiaroscuro is heightened when Tyrell closes the window and further diminishes the light source. By the end when Tyrell explains to Deckard the nature of Rachael it is at its most obvious – of course this is appropriate at it reveals the truly dark nature of Eldon and the Tyrell Corporation and signifies that fact that Deckard has just learnt something about the world that he probably didn’t want to know.

Eye Works

In this cold, sterile genetic engineering environment light comes principally from blue neons and lamps inside the workshop. This creates a combination of white and blue lighting. Notice how in one of the first shots Roy and Leon are almost completely silhouetted as the camera pans up from their feet as they walk inside to centre on their figures (picture). This seems to be a very apt way of introducing the ‘bad guys’. The lighting here (or lack of it) serves to show them as dark, intrusive figures. Another highly noticeable lighting effect in this scene is seen when Roy sits down below a strong blue backlight (picture). The right side of his face is dark with a shadow while his hair is lit up to be a brilliant white/blue colour. This does appear to make him look almost ‘otherworldly’.

Deckard’s apartment

Again, an example of low-key lighting than serves to create strong shadows and rim lighting on the sides of Deckard and Rachael’s faces. Shadows of bars are seen across Deckard’s face when he is sitting down explaining to Rachael that her memories are not hers (picture). Is this a possible reference to Deckard’s confinement (both physical and mental)? After Rachael runs off we get to see a shot of Deckard’s face that is very shadowed (picture) – darkness fills almost the whole frame, and we can only see the left side of his face. This is a reference to his uncertainty about his feelings for Rachael – he is a divided man. When Deckard is standing on his balcony he is backlit and we again see the shadowed bars on his face. At the same time a red light comes in from the front (somewhere out in the city – possibly from a police spinner), so we get this interesting effect (picture). The red may indicate danger. In other scenes in Deckard’s apartment we also see prominent lighting coming from outside in the form of spotlights that scan slowly around the apartment. These are police spinners, and this lighting serves to create an effective noir effect while also indicating that nowhere is private in the city.


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