Essays & Theses

A Visual Analysis of Lighting in Blade Runner - by Jonathan Willbanks

Willbanks 1 Jonathan Willbanks Professor Drew Casper Introduction to Cinema September 28, 2007 Blade Runner: A Visual Analysis In Blade Runner (1982), director Ridley Scott employs juxtaposition of light and dark to represent the conflict between man and that which is man-made -- between humanity and artificial life. One of the film’s central thematic conflicts, Rachael’s identity struggle between her presumed human self and the revelation that she is a “replicant,” a machine, is conveyed throug
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  Willbanks 1Jonathan WillbanksProfessor Drew Casper Introduction to CinemaSeptember 28, 2007Blade Runner: A Visual AnalysisIn  Blade Runner  (1982), director Ridley Scott employs juxtaposition of light anddark to represent the conflict between man and that which is man- made --  betweenhumanity and artificial life. One of the film’s central thematic conflicts, Rachael’sidentity struggle between her presumed human self and the revelation that she is a“replicant,” a machine, is conveyed through the use of lighting. As the film begins,Rachael, confident in her humanity, is bathed in light. But as soon as her humanity iscalled into question, the lighting of her character shifts to a scheme of extreme low-key/high contrast. Scene by scene, the light disappears until, coinciding with theacceptance of her true replicant identity, she is bathed in shadow, a visual metaphor for the lonely darkness she feels at the realization that all of here life has been a lie. As if quarantined by shadow, no direct light hits her character once she accepts this fact, untilshe falls in love with Deckard, finally reawakening her soul, the true source of humanity.Through the strategic use of high/key low-key lighting, Scott achieves a visual designthat evokes the recurring conflicts between light and dark, most significantly to representthe battle between Rachael’s identity as a human and her realization that she is aReplicant.The pervasive simultaneous presence of both light and dark, achieved through theheavy use of low-key/high contrast lighting is emblematic of the dichotomy underlying  Willbanks 2nearly every thematic element of the film, and serves to visually intensify the centralconflict between humanity and artificial life.   Foreshadowing this coming conflict,  Blade Runner’s massive exterior opening shots are low-key. Alone, the behemoth smokestackstowering over Los Angeles are lost in shadow, blending into the dark of the night. But asthe warm industrial fires of the Los Angeles industrial underbelly glow deep orangeagainst the dark, twinkling sprawl of the futuristic skyline, the smokestacks areilluminated, bringing them out of the darkness and placing them in stark relief against the backdrop of the black cityscape. With each burst of flame they are reemphasized, and aseach flame dies they fade again into blackness, the light and dark in never-endingstruggle for dominance. This use of visual foreshadowing in the film’s opening hints atthe broader thematic and visual motifs of light versus dark that underscore the rest of thefilm.Far beyond the classical analogies of good and evil,  Blade Runner’s visualconflict between light and dark assumes many meanings throughout the film. For Rachael, the light is her humanity; the darkness is her identity as a replicant. As her humanity is slowly lost at the growing realization that she is in fact a machine, she becomes progressively bathed in shadow. With no reason to question her humanity,Rachael’s introduction in the Tyrell Corporation building is warm and well-lit. Thegolden California sun has a strong, radiant impact on her fair skin. This flattering lightserves to convey her sense of confidence and satisfaction. Very subtle backlighting,nearly faint enough to be the ambient light of the sun reflected off the walls of the room,serves to separate Rachael from her surroundings by creating a subtle halo effect aroundher. Though shadow and contrast are still present on her face and body, she is lit with a  Willbanks 3soft key light that soothes the contrast caused by the bright sun out the window from theright. Deckard and Tyrell in comparison are lit with far less fill, and whether due to their naturally darker skin tone or because of a directorial move, they receive far less sunlightthan Rachael. Not blessed with Rachael’s naivety, Deckard and Tyrell are at this point perhaps less human than she – far more jaded toward the world - and are thus generallydarker characters subject to Scott’s withholding of light.Once the blinds come down however, Rachael herself becomes cloaked inshadow. Though she does not yet realize it, this is the first step toward the destruction of her perceived humanity. When she arrives at Deckard’s apartment to question him abouther growing suspicions, the sunlight still finds her, but there is little or no fill to balance itout. Leaving dramatic, dark lines on her face and body, this harsh shadow conveys thegrowing dichotomy within Rachael. Once again, the parallel between darkness and her Replicant identity is emphasized as she asks Deckard, “You think I’m a replicant don’tyou?” For the first time in the scene, she is completely out of direct light, hiding in thedarkness. There is a glimmer of hope as she presents Deckard with a picture from her childhood. “It’s me with my mother,” she says as a ray of light reaches her face. AsDeckard tells her that her past is a lie, he destroys her last reserve of hope. She stepsforward and nearly out of the light, only a small bit reaching her now. She is under veryminimal, if any fill. But by now even she must admit to herself what she really is. AsRachael takes a final look at the picture in her hands, the symbol of her false self, she iscompletely dark, devoid of key, fill, or backlighting. She is visible only by the ambientlight of the room, her silhouette both striking and sad against the sunlight, standing instark contrast to the ultimate source of brightness behind her. Visually separated from the  Willbanks 4 background she stands out and demands attention, unconsciously emphasizing this pivotal moment to the audience. Not only does this emphasize her acceptance that she is areplicant, it serves to convey the acceptance of the darkness inside of her and thedarkness of the emotional void into which she finds herself descending.With the exception of some minor overhead lighting from the innumerable neonsigns of the Los Angeles streets, the light reveals itself to her again only after she hassaved Deckard from Sebastian. Through the window of Deckard’s apartment, lit by thelights of passing cars, fleeting streaks of light flash across her face. By killing Sebastian,a replicant like her, she reawakened something human inside of herself. Though brief and passing, much like the flashing lights of cars passing by outside the window outside, the primal foundations of humanity are flickering to life insider of her. Once again though,she teeters precariously on the side of an emotional abyss, ready to once again relinquishher identity and accept her fate. “I’m not in the business,” she realizes. “I am the business.” It is at this precise moment however that Deckard sees her humanity, and the brightest burst of light yet fills the screen, blinding the entire frame. From this pointforward, the light begins to return to Rachael.As Deckard spits blood into the sink, a sharp reminder of his own perceivedhumanity, the first signs of her feelings for him become evident. As she approaches him,Deckard passes through warm patches of morning light shining into the apartment.“Would you come after me?” she asks, stepping into both a soft key and fill. She is inlove with Deckard, whether she fully realizes it yet or not. “No,” he replies, “butsomebody would.” No longer broken and with something to live for she begins to think of her survival, a sign of humanity if ever there was one.
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