THE REPLICANT UPGRADE OF BLADE RUNNER: BLACK LOTUS
By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Alcon Entertainment, Adult Swim and Crunchyroll.
As part of the marketing surrounding the release of Blade Runner 2049, a trio of shorts were produced to explain the significant events that occurred between the sequel and the original Blade Runner, which was set in 2019. Alcon Entertainment partnered with Sola Digital Arts for the anime installment Blade Runner: Black Out 2022. The two studios have reunited and are working with Warner Bros. TV, Adult Swim and Crunchyroll to produce Blade Runner: Black Lotus, which revolves around a katana-wielding amnesiac attempting to uncover her past and the reason why she is being hunted.
“Alcon picked Sola Digital Arts to work with, as they had had a great experience with them previously on the Black Out 2022 anime short, directed by Shinichiro Watanabe,” states Jason DeMarco, Senior Vice President of Anime & Action Series/ Longform for Warner Bros. Animation and Cartoon Network Studios, who was the development executive overseeing the project. “Watanabe suggested that if Sola were onboard for the series, he would like to be involved. And I don’t say ‘no’ to Watanabe!”
“Alcon took their time building the story over many months and several writers,” explains DeMarco. “The intention was always to create an animated TV series. Everyone involved in the creation of the show are huge fans of both of the films. Honoring those [involved] meant putting our blood, sweat and tears into making sure the world of Los Angeles in 2032 felt like Blade Runner. In terms of creating something distinct, we thought the opportunity to center on a female character and bring some of the existing ‘cyberpunk’ tropes that derived from anime and manga that were produced in the wake of Blade Runner, would be an interesting new addition.”
“The idea for the Black Lotus series was to take advantage of this profound setting of the Blade Runner universe, which has captured the imagination of many fans, and place the spotlight on someone else who may have lived in this world that we haven’t seen before, expanding the worldview. We also made sure to keep certain connections with the films so all the fans would be able to enjoy.”
—Kenji Kamiyama, Co-director
Blade Runner: Black Lotus serves as bridge between the two films. “Blade Runner: Black Lotus takes place in 2032, after the original film, after the Black Out 2022 anime short and before Blade Runner 2049,” notes DeMarco. “Thematically, it fits within the same wheelhouse of larger philosophical discussions about what makes us human, especially in a world that consistently devalues what that means on every level.”
Going beyond the restraints of a theatrical run-time meant that co-directors Shinji Aramaki and Kenji Kamiyama, who previously collaborated on Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045, were able to expand the narrative over 13 episodes. “Both Blade Runner stories were theatrical films, the story being about a certain individual, Deckard, and the events that happen around him within this universe,” explains Kamiyama.
“The idea for the Black Lotus series was to take advantage of this profound setting of the Blade Runner universe, which has captured the imagination of many fans, and place the spotlight on someone else who may have lived in this world that we haven’t seen before, expanding the worldview,” observes Kamiyama. “We also made sure to keep certain connections with the films so all the fans would be able to enjoy.” Aramaki relished the episodic opportunity. “Since we had the pleasure of creating this anime as a 13-episode series,” says Aramaki, “we were able to take the time to depict other parts of this world and fully create the lives of these characters that live within, which can be hard to do with a single movie. We were careful during this process so that nothing would deviate from the imagery that fans, including myself, have of this world.”
Even though Joseph Chou, CEO of Sola Digital Arts and Executive Producer of Blade Runner: Black Lotus, has been responsible for creating anime for Halo and The Matrix, working on the cinematic franchise established by Ridley Scott was a different experience. “Black Lotus came with a heavy sense of duty and responsibility, not just because the original film is a revered classic [which it is], but also because of the impact Blade Runner had on the anime industry. We would not have titles such as Akira, Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell without it. Everyone approached the project with absolute reverence and respect – and a healthy sense of fear that we cannot screw up!”
The visual aesthetic evolved. “There was a long period of visual development with a ton of concept art created as we dialed in the look of the show,” remarks DeMarco. “We originally started in a very different place visually, and all of that exploration was necessary to get a look we all felt excited about. We expected it to be hard to match the quality of animation we wanted with a budget that wasn’t huge. We did not expect our entire production having to shut down for extended periods of time, or for people to have to figure out how to create the show remotely, thanks to a global pandemic.”
“Black Lotus came with a heavy sense of duty and responsibility, not just because the original film is a revered classic [which it is], but also because of the impact Blade Runner had on the anime industry. We would not have titles such as Akira, Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell without it. Everyone approached the project with absolute reverence and respect – and a healthy sense of fear that we cannot screw up!”
—Joseph Chou, Executive Producer
Breaking away from firearm tradition of Blade Runner, a katana is the primary weapon for the protagonist Elle (Jessica Henwick/ Arisa Shida). “That was something that was present from the earliest design phases,” reveals DeMarco. “All of us felt it was a different element than one would maybe expect to see in this world, in a good way. It also helps the series lean into the essential Japanese quality of this show, which is firmly an ‘anime’ in every sense of the word.” The iconic Japanese sword fits into the visual aesthetic. “One of the things that particularly struck me when I saw the original Blade Runner was how the city looked: night, rain, fog, steam, neon lights,” remarks Aramaki. “What surprised me even more so was how that overall coolness was combined with these Japanese-character neon lights, Asian characters and commercials to create this unique mood. We both had thoughts of extending an additional Japanese element into this and happened to think a female replicant with a Japanese sword could fit into this world very nicely, along with bringing in a new source of action into it.”
For Aramaki, there has been a blurring between the capabilities of animation and live action. “Nowadays, since it’s possible to create great CG characters that are highly indistinguishable from the real characters in live action, I don’t think there are many things that only animation can do anymore. Maybe with anime it’s a little easier to convince the audience that this non-macho female lead is taking down these tough-looking men with her amazing fighting skills and sword battles.” Kamiyama believes in reverse engineering approach. “There’s really not anything I can think of that is unique in that way to the animation,” says Kamiyama. “Rather, I approached it the other way around, trying to really move towards a more realistic representation of the world by creating a heightened sense of reality and a presence to the characters.”
Layout movies were created for every scene and shot for each episode. “In Japan, the production team makes precise cuts to the storyboard before moving on to animatics,” explains Kamiyama. “Since the motion capturing process is done in between the storyboarding and animatics, there ends up being more cutting that happens there. Although the storyboard is an important guideline in creating the animatics after the motion capture process, we ended up requiring many more additional images for the layouts, which may have been the opposite of how animatics are used in live-action titles.” Sola Digital Arts excels in utilizing motion capture with drama and action performances done separately.
“We thought CG animation would be the best way to reproduce the Blade Runner world as much as possible,” states Aramaki. “Since the original is a live-action film, we wanted to keep that look and feel to the best of our ability through animation, which helped us decide to utilize motion capture as our animation base. And also, simply because this style is something I’m used to the most.” The technology required some creative assistance. “We made full use of motion capture but as everyone in the industry knows, motion capture still needs the hands of animators,” observes Chou. “It was used more or less as a guide in our case.”
An older technology proved to be the answer when it came to rendering. “We initially thought the only way to do this on time and on budget was to utilize real-time engine rendering,” explains Chou. “We soon found, however, that we were unprepared for the challenge. We then tried GPU render, which had its own problems because it’s not something yet ready for a large-scale production. Eventually we moved back to the good old way of CPU render – our main software was Maya and Houdini. However, we are taking the lessons learned during this production and will continue to try developing ways to utilize real-time and GPU rendering in the future.” Look development tests were not possible because there was not enough time. “Things were happening real time based on the production flow that we established with series work that we’ve done previously,” comments Chou.
“Nowadays, since it’s possible to create great CG characters that are highly indistinguishable from the real characters in live action, I don’t think there are many things that only animation can do anymore. Maybe with anime it’s a little easier to convince the audience that this non-macho female lead is taking down these tough-looking men with her amazing fighting skills and sword battles.”
—Shinji Aramaki, Co-director
Central to the success of the series is the ability for viewers to empathize with Elle. “Even though Elle’s a replicant and has these amazing combat skills, her memories are vague and she doesn’t really know much about herself or the world around her,” states Aramaki. “The key to having her become a compelling character was to have her keep facing the world head-on and be this positive force of energy that continues to move forward towards a better life, no matter how hopeless things may get.” In many ways, the journey to uncover the past is a shared experience. “I thought that if we focused only on the problems that replicants have, the fans of the films may understand these issues immediately, but the newer audience may not,” observes Kamiyama. “That’s why we came up with the idea of having her lose her memory and go on this adventure, which would put her in the same perspective as the audience. I think those watching will empathize with her that way.”
Unlike previous productions that were originally recorded with Japanese voice cast and then dubbed in English, the process was reversed for Blade Runner: Black Lotus. “Once we completed the script, we moved on to the main cast recordings,” remarks Aramaki. “After we had that in hand, we then requested the motion capture actors to try and convey the emotions and speaking styles of the main cast recordings while filming. The performances the English voice cast provided us were the basis of the animation [although we still had to go back and re-record some areas after the animation was completed, for certain reasons]. Jessica Henwick and Will Yun Lee [Joseph], in particular, gave us so much more than just their voice-over, and influenced us even in the creation of their characters. For the Japanese voice actors, we selected most of them ourselves. We were able to cast them in a way that was the closest to the image of the character we had in mind. After the English recordings were complete, we used that as a base for the Japanese recordings and we were able to direct those sessions to have the script come through. We’re very proud the finished product came out to be such a high-quality one.”
A variety of vehicles populate the cityscape. “The technology and vehicle designs of this world were pretty much already defined in the two movies, so I used that as a base,” states Aramaki. “Also, I utilized the two art books from the films and Syd Mead’s art books for reference.” A lot of attention was paid to the Spinners flown by the LAPD. “They are an iconic character to the world of Blade Runner,” notes Chou. “We needed to be consistent but also reflect the passage of time from the first film, so a lot of attention was paid to striking that balance of ‘future tech’ and ‘consistency.’” Signage is another iconic element. “The original film featured a lot of Japanese and Chinese kanji character signage, and the look and content were actually kind of funny to the Japanese audience. But it was actually an endearing feature to Japanese fans, not something that was looked on derisively. Recreating that signage was actually a challenge to the creators, because it was now Japanese creators actually having to create that same awkward but endearing signage in their own language. It was an interesting challenge, but we had a lot of fun doing it and populating the city with them.”
Los Angeles is central to the storytelling. “A continued refrain from the directors was that ‘the city is the other half of our cast’ – meaning pedestrians, signage, buildings, vehicles all combine to create the look and feel of Blade Runner,” remarks Chou. “We needed to create the look of the city that the audience can look and say right away, ‘that’s Blade Runner.’ Blending and integrating the characters with all these elements and lighting them properly was a big part of our job on this production.”
DeMarco recognizes the importance of the urban setting within the franchise. “The city itself, which is always a main character in any Blade Runner, took the longest,” observes DeMarco, “particularly recreating some of the buildings that were in the original film, like the Bradbury Building or the Tyrell Corporation ziggurat. Beyond that, we spent the most time developing the character of Elle. As the main character of the show, it was important to all of us that we got her right.”
“The entire journey of the show from reaching an agreement to make the show, to releasing it, was five years,” explains DeMarco. “A year to make the deal, a year or so on pre-production, a year and a half of production, a year and a half of post.”
The biggest challenge was the tight production timeline. “Each process was moving simultaneously at times,” observes Chou. “If I am being honest, it was not a ‘controlled chaos’ situation but a real chaos. Producing a series at this level – not a short or a movie – was a real challenge that really taxed our system and pushed us to our limits. We’ve done a series before, but this was a whole other level of challenge, especially accounting for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic to the running production. I often talked with our directors and supervisors that this is not a planned military operation. We were commandos who parachuted into a battlefield and needed to shoot our way out. Which we did!”