Blade Runner Design


Of the design philosophies behind Blade Runner’s indelible visuals, retrofitting was the one that remained in my mind’s eye. Blade Runner’s visual futurist, Syd Mead explains, “Things are “retrofitted” after the fact of the original manufacture because the old, consumer-based technology wasn’t keeping up the demand. Things have to work on a day-to-day basis and you do whatever necessary to make it work. So you let go of the style and it becomes pure function. The whole visual philosophy of the film is based on this social idea.

The city was getting very dense. Buildings 3,000-3,500 feet high would have old, ten and twenty story buildings underneath, functioning as service accesses to the huge megastructures. Cables and generator tubes, delivering air and waste, would go up outside of the old buildings because they were still there. The street level becomes a service alley to the megastructures towering above.”

It was as if the city’s underground infrastructure had risen out of the bowels of the Earth to adorn buildings. Like the roots that sometimes swallow the architecture of ancient civilizations. It’s a seemingly antithetical philosophy for a film of such visual splendor. Yet these purely functional elements create a convincing reality and atmosphere amidst neon signs, lit umbrella handles and other alluring lights. At its essence, Blade Runner captures the photogenic nightlife of dense modern cities and pushes it to new extremes.

“The idea [in Blade Runner] was that basically it was going to be unpleasant to be at street level in the cities.” These unpleasant and retrofitting themes have historical precedent. Centuries ago, narrow streets in Edinburgh featured tenements seven stories high, the ground level piled with waste from above. Known as Mary King’s Close, the street level was changed in the 18th century, leaving several stories and residents underground while the City Chambers building was built above. Even in modern times, new buildings are built atop the old; recently highlighted by the Hearst Headquarters in New York, designed by Foster + Partners and Adamson Associates.

The retrofitting philosophy also reflects consumerism, a societal attribute particularly connected with the excess of the ’80’s when Blade Runner was made. As Mead stated, consumer based technology couldn’t keep up with demand resulting in jury rigged solutions, mirroring a problem we will face in the decades to come, as natural resources dwindle and new products are released at an ever increasing rate. Even now massive aircraft graveyards litter deserts, waiting to be cannibalized for irreplaceable parts. In the Blade Runner universe this was precipitated by the massive Off-World exodus as signified by the advertising blimp. According to Mead, “The social theory was that the consumer delivery system had become interrupted, and the larger energies in the system were being collected at the top by big corporate conglomerates and were being syphoned off into off-world explorations. As a result, the capital delivery system to the populace was short circuited. So if you had a car, you’d just have to keep it working.”

This retrofitted approach was first applied to the most universally remembered design of Blade Runner, its flying cars or Spinners, a term coined by writer Hampton Fancher. The retrofitting philosophy even carried over into production as Spinner designer Syd Mead notes, “I set up the design format for each vehicle type and then let the draftsmen and builders make changes as they went along… …we ended up with a curious accumulation of detail, a heuristic growth of odds and ends that the original concepts didn’t include.”

In Cinefex 9, July 1982, Director Ridley Scott delved into his thoughts behind the Spinner. “Anyway, it seemed to me that in such a proscenium there would be a lot of air traffic. I picked that up from the fact that I used to fly in and out of New York a lot over a period of about five years, back before they stopped the helicopters landing on top of the Pan American Building. It was seven minutes from the airport to the roof, and I could remember coming in in January or February - in blizzards and high winds - and landing on the Pan Am Building. We used to drift in over the city, very close to the buildings and it felt like the way of the future.” “But when we started working on this film, it seemed logical to me that there’d be a lot of air traffic - probably with a hands-off fail-safe system of some sort - and every building would have a landing platform on its roof. Forty years may be a bit soon for that, but if some had projected in 1910 - or whenever it was the first Model T was built - that you’d come into the office every morning with ten thousand other cars driving fifty-five miles an hour, fifteen feet apart, you’d probably have said, ‘You’re fuckin’ crazy!’ So, from there to some future city where the World Trade Center might be half the size of some other buildings, and where rotorless jump-jet platforms are on every rooftop, is not terribly far fetched. In fact, it’s a totally logical process the way the world’s going now.”

Flying cars, the perennial subject of science fiction visions, ironically have yet to be realized despite a modicum of concerted effort in the area. NASA has committed research into automated air traffic systems for this purpose and Moller has spent decades developing the Skycar.

Safety concerns are a primary obstacle, a notion not lost on the Blade Runner design team as indicated in the Tom Southwell designed faux magazine cover for KILL. One feature story declares, “98 Dead in Spinner Dive.” KILL was among numerous magazines designed to fill a newsstand set that included MONI and KROTCH.

In Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, author Paul M. Sammon elaborates on the Spinner design. “Scott had originally conceived of the Spinner as a fairly compact coupe. However, Mead himself subsequently designed a larger “Chevrolet scale” model, which would lend itself to visually impressive full-scale takeoffs… …”Instead of unwieldy folding propellers or H.G. Wells-like appendages,” Mead said, “I suggested designing the Spinner as an aerodyne, which is a heavier-than-air craft with an internal enclosed lifting system built into it, like the British Harrier jumpjet.”

“In addition to incorporating hydraulic sections which allowed the police Spinner’s front wheels to fold up inside the craft… …Mead’s most unusual Spinner detail was a hydraulic, “twist-wrist” steering device. The traditional automotive steering wheel was replaced with two in-dash holes into which operators placed each hand.”

The sheer size of Los Angeles 2019 in Blade Runner demands flying cars. “The city we present is overkill,” Ridley Scott admitted, “but I always get the impression of New York as being overkill. You go into New York on a bad day and you look around and you feel this place is going to grind to a halt any minute which it nearly does all too often. All you need is a garbage strike or a subway strike or an electrical blowout and you have absolute chaos. So we took that idea and projected it forty years into the future and came up with a megalopolis - the kind of city that could be where New York and Chicago join, with maybe a hundred million people living there. Or maybe San Francisco and Los Angeles. In fact, at one point we were going to call the city San Angeles, which would of course have suggested that the eight-hundred-mile-long western seaboard had been transformed into a single population center with giant cities and monolithic buildings at either end and then this strange kind of awful suburb in the middle.”

This type of megalopolis isn’t far fetched anymore. Greater Tokyo has a population of 35 million and is part of the Taiheiyo Belt, a continuous stretch of Japan devoid of rural areas with a population exceeding 80 million. Some surmise that Hong Kong (pop. 7 million) and Shenzhen (pop. 8 - 12 million) will eventually merge, the first combination of two prominent megacities. From Hong Kong Central, the two cities are only separated by 18 miles and since 2004, the borders between southern mainland China and the special administrative region have opened further.

The claustrophobia instilled by such density, was also conveyed in Deckard’s apartment as noted by Blade Runner’s Production Designer, Lawrence G. Paull.

“For the exterior of Deckard’s one-bedroom apartment, we used a 1920 Frank Lloyd Wright house [Ennis House] up in the Los Feliz hills of Los Angeles. But we didn’t just use it as a house. Two matte shots were painted to make it look like a 20-50 [later 100] story condominium complex.

This apartment was the first major interior done for the film. the whole interior was designed for Panavision. The ceilings were very low - only 6′8″ - and it felt very claustrophobic inside. The walls were all textured concrete block.”

The textured concrete blocks were based on those within the Ennis House, their inspiration culled from the relief patterns of Mayan buildings at Uxmal. The Tyrell Corporation ziggurats were also styled after their Mayan counterparts.

Lawrence G. Paull continues, “The living room was designed with a couple of sets of glass windows; one set leads to the outside balcony. In the film, when you stand up and look out the balcony from the living room down on the entire city 100 stories below, you’ll see the little flashing lights that simulate vehicles, little, tiny pin dots way out there. the detail that went into this matte painting shot was incredible.”

Apartment buildings 100 stories high are becoming reality. Trump World Tower in NYC is 90 stories and was quickly surpassed as the world’s tallest all residential skyscraper by Tower Palace Three in Seoul and 21st Century Tower in Dubai earlier this decade. The all residential Calatrava designed Chicago Spire is slated to reach 150 stories and the Burj Dubai, currently the world’s tallest freestanding structure despite still being under construction, will include residential units.

The extremes that permeate Blade Runner’s design aren’t so extreme after all.

The 25th anniversary Blade Runner: The Final Cut, is now playing in theaters with continued rollout into the new year. This restored and enhanced cut is being shown exclusively via 4K digital projection at the Landmark in LA.
This final cut along with previous versions of the film (theatrical release, director’s cut and workprint), plus extensive extras arrives on DVD, HD-DVD and Blu-Ray in North America, December 18th.

Excerpts from:

Cinefex #9: Blade Runner - 2020 Foresight. By Don Shay.
Reprinted in 2000 by Titan Books as Blade Runner: The Inside Story.

Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner By Paul M. Sammon.

Blade Runner Souvenir Magazine: Official Collectors Magazine by Ira Friedman, Inc. Reprinted online at