Blade Runner, among its many other achievements, stands as quite possible the only 35-year-old science-fiction movie whose visual effects still hold up. Director Ridley Scott and his collaborators’ thoroughly realized vision of 2019 Los Angeles rewards a seemingly infinite number of viewings, revealing something new to the viewer each and every time. Yet the sheer amount to look at can also distract from all there is to listen to. For a visual medium, movies stand or fall to a surprising extent on the quality and design of their sound, and if Blade Runner remains convincing and compelling, it does so in large part not because of what see when we watch it, but what we hear.
This in addition to all it makes us think about, some of which the video essayist Evan Puschak, better known as Nerdwriter, explained in “Blade Runner: The Other Side of Modernity.” Apparently as big a fan of the film as we here at Open Culture, Puschak has also made another video essay focusing on the masterpiece’s aural dimension, “Listening to Blade Runner.”
As everyone interested in its making knows, Blade Runner wouldn’t quite have been Blade Runner without its music by Vangelis, a composer who used synthesizers (especially the legendary Yahama CS80) in a way seldom if ever heard at that time. But as Puschak points out, “the score isn’t laid on top of the visuals. It’s not a guide or an addition” but “baked into the DNA of the movie itself.”
Every piece of audio in Blade Runner, “including score, sound design, and dialogue,” is tightly integrated: “each blurs into the others.” Puschak shows us how, as in the scene above, the film keeps the audience unaware of “where the music ends and the world begins,” by matching the qualities of the music to the qualities of the space and light, incorporating “faint computer-y noises,” and applying still-new digital reverberation technology Vangelis uses on both the music and the dialogue to “fold separate audio sources into one master track,” creating a “cohesive acoustic environment” that emphasizes different dimensions of sound at different times in different ways — in service, of course, to different elements of the story.
Though still active as a composer, Vangelis, alas, hasn’t returned to do the score for Blade Runner 2049, Dennis Villeneuve’s much-anticipated sequel coming out later this year. But the sonic world he created in 1982 has had a more recent tribute paid to it in the form of the unofficial so-called “Esper edition” of the Blade Runner soundtrack. The existing editions, say the two fans who assembled it, “never ‘got it right’ in terms of chronology‚ or thoroughness,” so, “like taking pieces from a puzzle‚ we decided to simply ‘cut and paste’ from all the exciting releases…‚ 1982 video‚ 1992 directors cut… and construct something fresh.” The nearly two-hour listening experience will underscore just how much putting in the right music and sound can do for a movie.
Conversely, watching the five minutes of Harrison Ford’s now-excised voiceovers from the original theatrical release below will underscore how much taking out certain sounds can do for one as well:
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.