Blade Runner: The Cinematography of Jordan Cronenweth

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Last Friday, I did my second entry in a weekly feature I started on the work of cinematographers. That entry covered Jeff Cronenweth, who is known for his work with David Fincher in films like The Social Network, Fight Club, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I wanted to write a follow-up to that today, because I think it’s called for in this case. Jeff Cronenweth is the son of the late Jordan Cronenweth, and he learned quite a bit from his father. This article will go over one film by him that ultimately, along with his son, became one of his life’s most impactful legacies: Blade Runner.

This is a film that I consider to be in my all-time favorites list. Its cinematography is now considered a milestone in the progression of film, winning awards from the British Society of Cinematographers, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and BAFTA. In 1993, Blade Runner was even chosen for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. It’s needless as well to say that this film’s cinematography influenced not only science fiction films, but movies of all genres up to today.

That’s because Blade Runner isn’t just a science fiction film. It’s not a Star Wars by any stretch of the imagination at all. Blade Runner was a noir; and just as the film took its cues from classic noir narratives in Hollywood cinema, so did the ways in how it was filmed.

Director Ridley Scott wanted the film to mimic the cinematography of the 1937 classic Citizen Kane. So when you watch Blade Runner, you’ll notice how it utilizes strong backlighting and light shafts. That’s something black-and-white cinematography is well recognized for, and that’s something intentionally brought over to this film by Jeff Cronenweth and implemented into color.

“We used contrast, backlight, smoke, rain and lightning to give the film its personality and moods. The streets were depicted as terribly overcrowded, giving the audience a future time-frame to relate to. We had street scenes just packed with people. . . like ants. So we made them appear like ants — all the same. They were all the same in the sense that they were all part of the flow. It was like going in circles- like going nowhere. Photographically, we kept them rather colorless.” – Jordan Cronenweth (ASC, Mar 1999)

You’ll see the backlighting come up quite a bit in the film.

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Or you can take a look at some of the facial contrast that Cronenweth implemented. You’ll notice how hard both hit.

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If you’ve read about Digital Bolex’s newly announced D16M, you’ll remember the advantages that were given for black and white sensors: the strong presence of texture, contrasting, and light, with little detail being sacrificed at all in low light. This is one of the biggest highlights of black-and-white cinema in general, and considering it was all Hollywood used up until around the 1960s, it’s a medium that’s still going strong in popularity today because of its timeless style. David Dryer, a photographic effects supervisor for Blade Runner, even stated once of how he almost wishes the film could be released in black and white.

When you examine it closely, you’ll realize that pretty much all of it was filmed to mimic a classic manner; it didn’t just stop at black-and-white. In other words: I’ve always considered Blade Runner to be a noir before a science fiction film. To me it’s The Maltese Falcon with a Ghost in the Shell-style future set as its background. With how well the film achieved its goals of emulating classic noir imagery, it made me completely forget that it was set in the future in the first place.

But that future.

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That future was envisioned through painstaking set development. Along with the goal of maintaining classic elements within the film itself came the goal of creating a futuristic city that audiences could believe in. Naturally, the set designs for a post-modern film like this called for a heavy use of neon lights- lights like the ones in nighttime Tokyo, except amped up to achieve the cyberpunk look that Blade Runner ultimately helped inspire. One of the most important and prevalent tools used in the photography by Jordan was the use of shaft lighting. Smoke was used as the medium that light was shown off with. And that smoke was perfect for the setting of this film: this future was polluted, ghetto, urban, and ridden with crime.

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“We used it over and over again in different applications. One way we justified their constant presence was to invent airships floating through the night with enormously powerful beams emerging from their undersides. In the futuristic environment, they bathe the city in constantly swinging lights. They were supposedly used for both advertising and crime control, much the way a prison is monitored by moving search lights. The shafts of light represent the invasion of privacy by a supervising force; a form of control. You are never sure who it is, but even in the darkened seclusion of your home, unless you pull your shades down, you are going to be disturbed at one time or another.” – Jordan Cronenweth (ASC, Mar 1999)

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Future Los Angeles. The neon lights, the thick fogs, the orange fire-fueled police vehicles flying in line with air traffic, the Coca-Cola advertisements glowing off of buildings with lit projections for walls- the setting of this film served as a direct contrast to the classic noir feel that was ultimately its heart and soul. Blade Runner is a timeless story beating within the exoskeleton of a setting beyond time itself. And it’s because of the visions of people like Jordan Cronenweth that a film like that could come to fruition that beautifully.

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Jordan Cronenweth passed away in 1996. He is survived by his wife Carol, and their children: Christie, Tim, and Jeff Cronenweth.

Further reading

  • Aankhen

    This article makes me want to rewatch the movie just to observe the cinematography. Thank you!

  • Kay O. Sweaver

    A beautiful classic.

  • Rostislav Alexandrovich

    One of, if not the