How Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 Perfected the Art of Color Theory
In this cinematography breakdown we look at how Blade Runner 2049 used color to tell a story through light and sound.
Cover image via Warner Bros.
Casual friends and inspiring collaborators Denis Villeneuve and Roger Deakins have made something special with Blade Runner 2049. This film is so dense with visual and auditory delights that filmmakers will be picking it apart and replicating its tricks for years.
Part of the reason the film has won so many awards and received such acclaim is the incredible attention to detail and plot development. Whether it’s the use of certain colors to evoke certain emotions or simply knowing how the audience’s eyes move, these filmmakers have definitely brought a new approach to dystopian science fiction. So, let’s take a look at how the contributions of world class production design, virtuous directing, and innovative cinematography can create one of the most visually stunning films ever made.
Villeneuve uses yellow as a source of information and enlightenment for our hero, K. Anytime a major plot point gets revealed or a new twist happens, yellow is in the composition somehow. Whether it’s a fire, a light in the background, or a simulated cake, the color acts as a subconscious cue for the audience — and our hero. Notably, the information bank and Niander’s lair are golden, representing their importance — and the importance of the characters that dwell therein.
Color can be an incredibly powerful tool for telling subtle stories and conveying meaning. The beauty of Villeneuve’s color use is that he did this not as a stunt but to advance his story. Find your own style that reflects your personality and fill your projects with it. Have fun with the form, and don’t be afraid to use colors in different ways.
For a deeper dive into how Deakins shot and lit these scenes, check out our article on the cinematography of Blade Runner 2049:
Once K gets to Vegas, the entire city is bathed in a mysterious orange fog that continues until he leaves this setting. Using this color as a backdrop creates a sense of warning and caution. Often associated with transformation, this scene acts as a transition between act two and three as our hero meets Deckard, leading to another big reveal that K has been searching for.
Villeneuve uses green almost every time Joi, K’s robotic companion, is on-screen — as well as anytime we see one of Wallace’s creations. Green typically connotes life and vibrance, which only plays to how the Blade Runner franchise explores the idea of “life.” You could also take the above scene as an example of using green to convey discovery. K is looking for answers, as his lifeless girlfriend helps from his side. Even though every aspect of his life is artificial, it’s under the disguise of appearing real.
Another example of using the color to convey life. When K visits “Dr. Ana Stelline,” she’s literally recreating life with her tool. Surrounded by lush forest brings forth an immediate gut reaction to what our eyes are seeing — life. As the story progresses we learn this is by design as her character is revealed to be something extraordinary (I won’t give anything away if you haven’t already seen it).
Pink and Purple
Pink and purple are often associated with extravagance, ambiguity, innocence, romance, and overall…harmlessness. So it’s fitting that Villeneuve uses this color to represent the romantic interests to K. (Even if the romantic aspect is clearly manufactured by the world around him.) These hues serve as an almost ethereal break from the horrors happening to him. It’s only in these moments towards the end of the film that K realizes his true purpose or calling. One could look at this use of color as a way to bridge the gap between the orange hue of Vegas, to the brutal blues and white of whats to come.
White, representing truth and information, appears in any scene when K comes close to figuring out who he really is. The girl child and her home are bathed in white, representing a beacon for K. Toward the end of the film, K and Deckard approach the building where all the answers will come to light, and what do you know, it’s snowing outside and the building is white.
Sprinkled throughout the film, K finds himself engulfed in a drab, white environment that he seemingly blends into. Whether it’s the office at the police station, the snow, or at the beginning of the film, this use of white establishes K as an almost camouflaged being, making his way through a world that doesn’t want to recognize him.
These are just some of the innovative ways the Blade Runner 2049 team changed the sci-fi game by creating an original, breathtaking sequel worthy of repeat viewings. If you’re interested in more on the franchise, check out our past coverage: