How Territory Studio created 'tangible' screen graphics for Blade Runner 2049

From the LAPD Brainscan to scanners in Deckard’s Penthouse, see how the 'future UI' studio crafted the VFX Oscar-winning film’s "tangible" technology systems.

We’ve revealed how MPC created a digital double of Replicant Rachel for Denis Villeneuve’s VFX Oscar-winning ;Blade Runner 2049, but here we explore the work of Territory Studio in the film.

The motion, digital and graphic design studio crafted three intricate screen graphics for the film and technology 'systems', such as the optical lenses for the morgue scene, at the LAPD office and Deckard’s Vegas penthouse. The screens are never "eye catching or dominating", yet small and subtle, serving the story, explains Territory.

Blade Runner 2049 is a visually exceptional film, enhanced by the hard work of VFX houses MPC, Double Negative (Dneg), Framestore and Territory Studio, which has also created screen graphics for Ghost In The Shell, Prometheus, The Martian, Ex Machina ;and Guardians of the Galaxy to name a few.

Supervising art director Paul Inglis approached Territory in pre-production. Having worked with Paul on Prometheus and MI5, and with Ridley Scott on Prometheus and The Martian (Territory recreated what NASA’s screens would look like in 2035), the studio was invited to create on-set screens for the project. Territory delivered concepts to production, who distributed them to VFX vendors. Territory worked on Blade Runner 2049 from March to the end of November last year, creating more than 100 original shots across 15 sets, amongst a team of six core members scaling up to 10.

Image: LAPD lockscreen

The screen graphic designs were created using Photoshop and Illustrator, animations in Cinema 4D, After Effects, and XParticles – and compositing and bespoke tools in After Effects.

There was no specific brief for Territory to begin with, but the studio visited Budapest to speak to director Denis Villeneuve about the thematics of the film, and what the Blade Runner universe was going to look like 30 years on from the original. Territory was also given concept art as a reference.

Image: LAPD records

The role of technology as a supporting narrative device was discussed, and how memory and data in a world where a breakdown of digital technology means much personal and civic information is lost.

Territory was asked to develop new technology for the film, moving away from electricity to more tangible, physical and optical products as interfaces, as described by Denis.

The screen graphics were all story specific – there are no "superfluous decorative screens" on the sets, which allowed Territory to concentrate on supporting story beats.

Image: Screen in K's spinner (flying car)

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The studio gathered concepts about how technology that isn’t reliant on electricity or digital can look and behave. Ideas were given in open discussions with Denis, and from there a refined brief and concept was created.

An extremely experimental approach was forged. The R&D process involved looking at alternative interface technologies, such as the microcapsule technology used in E-Ink displays, bacteria based display screens, for example.

To achieve the physicality and organic aesthetic that Denis wanted, Territory added layers of physicality to its work – from optical lenses, projections, fluids and even fruit matter to get a feel of organic synapses.

Image: Screen in K's spinner

As the project progressed, Territory worked with Paul on a day-to-day basis. The studio was given only two hours with the script, so it worked with only a broad understanding of the plot.

There is no reference to the original Blade Runner film, as a "massive apocalyptic event had changed it beyond obvious recognition", so technology had to be reinvented beyond what we know it as today.

Image: Memory Lab

Every display of this "tangible" technology was presented as a sequence – a kit of parts – that the actors would 'trigger' on set, as though they were playing an instrument, rather than a touchscreen.

Territory worked with the playback company and used a lot of “old school” 4x3 CRT computers.

Image: Taken from the Blade Runner 2049 trailer

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Director of photography Richard Deakins used the tech screens as a light source to add texture and depth to the shot, according to Territory.

Image: Face recognition

Projectors were used to test the light effects before going on set so that everyone was confident they would deliver the right light, shadow and emission effect. The DENA base is a great example of this (seen here). K is searching through DNA on this scrolling database and that provides an optical effect.

Territory says its biggest challenge was to maintain the quality and storybeats. The studio says its approach was never tied to CG, so experimentation led to using optical lenses, old-fashioned projector technology, fruit and coffee.

Image: DNA base

Territory’s UI helps to tell the story, but the screens are never dominating. 

The studio didn’t design interface ‘overlays’, but instead the whole system for each type of technology, from the creation of footage, optical effects and projections.

With Denis’s references to physical and organic technology in mind, the studio spent a lot of time researching and experimenting with alternative methods could replace LED screens – and developed some interesting effects by combining physical and graphic techniques.

Image: Baseline scan

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Richard really wanted the screens on set for lighting purposes, adding more depth to the shot, so lighting was also an important factor and we carefully considered how a screen could contribute to the overall shot. 

The screen UI concepts reflected economic and social status. Most of the world doesn’t have access to digital technology but rely on gritty, dirty, glitchy technology products in Blade Runner 2049, says Territory. The rich and powerful do have access to digital, as does the LAPD’s top echelon.

Therefore, Wallace Corp has access to the best tech, with a super slick, clean and pared back tech (seen here).

In Las Vegas, where Deckard lives, Territory designed a radar system, jukebox and elevator interfaces.

Its video link entry system – grungy footage based system with distortion and warping – sat within a visual language that takes references from LAPD.

Image: Deckard's Penthouse scanner

For the LAPD, ‘Brainscan’ was created. It’s a more precise version of the ‘Voight-Kampff’ test, Territory explains.

K searches the library using an orb that brings up the VK recording of Rachel’s eye. Territory designed the new system – ‘brainscan’ technology – to look at the brain through the optic nerve.

Image: Niander Wallace Limo

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For the morgue scene – Territory created an effect that blended an electron microscope. It used an art department reference of pelvic bone. The whole thing was shot with the screen on set. You can see these elements come together in this image.  

Image: Treatment imaging at the clerk's office