All-seeing eye Entering picture space with the Esper
Broadcast television is not depicted in Blade Runner, yet the display screen appears everywhere – on video phones, electron microscopes, at the precinct, as advertising. In one of Blade Runner’s most absorbing and copied scenes, a screen also holds the key to a mystery, revealed in a wholly original and mesmerising manner.
Deckard feeds a photograph taken from Leon’s apartment into a machine, which scans it and displays the result on a screen. Deckard then uses voice commands to not only sharpen, zoom into and move around the image but also, breathtakingly, to actually enter it: objects in the photograph cease to remain fixed in their relationship to each other and instead separate. At the climax of the scene, this allows another individual to become visible as they appear from behind an object.
Such manipulation is possible because the photograph is in fact a hologram and the machine is a terminal of the police department’s Esper super-computer. An arresting piece of text written for Blade Runner’s publicity campaign describes how the Esper – a brand name, it is clear, like Spinner and perhaps influenced by the real-life super-computer producer Cray, founded in 1972 – allows a user to “isolate individuals in crowds, read license [plate] numbers and even search a room without being there.” The Esper was intended to play a much larger role within the film. Another terminal would be seen at the precinct during Bryant’s briefing, whilst a third was to be fitted in Deckard’s car. The car terminal was eventually dropped and the screens on which the replicant profiles appear in the briefing are not easily understood as Esper displays.
The Esper has a clear filmic resonance with HAL’s ‘eye’ units in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which give the artificial intelligence omnipresence aboard the ship it manages. The telescreen in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, used by a totalitarian state to observe and oppress its subjects, is an obvious literary precedent. The word ‘esper’ appears in Alfred Bester’s superb 1953 novel The Demolished Man – itself something of a proto-Blade Runner, with its high-tech devices, off-world colonies, post-apocalyptic urban landscape and societal tensions – to describe telepaths.
At a philosophical level, it is possible to connect the Esper, HAL’s eye and the telescreen to the panopticon (‘all-seeing’) theory of social control and conditioning advanced by Jeremy Bentham in the late eighteenth century and realised in a range of buildings over the following decades. Prisons, hospitals and madhouses were constructed in such a way as to allow a single warden to see every inmate simultaneously, careful alignment of windows and lighting ensuring he could not himself be seen and so also preventing the watched from knowing when they were being observed.
The image analysis ability of the Esper was conceived initially as a simple magnifying lens set above a conventional photograph. A later script, with the Esper sequence present in close to its final form, signalled the move to more sophisticated holographic imagery and a concomitant increase in layers of meaning. Via a command to ‘seesaw’ we now move into and around inside the photograph, a candid shot of Batty sitting at a desk. The picture on screen “begins a horizontal yawing motion. As it swings back and forth glimpses of things previously obscured by the foreground figure are revealed. Slightly at first, but the opening grows as the process picks up momentum.”
As filmed, the Esper, Deckard and the viewer together penetrate a hypnotically beautiful series of spaces – actually at least two adjoining rooms – lit to resemble a painting by Vermeer or Van Eyck. The camera caresses Batty’s shoulder, moves past it, through a connecting door and into the next room. There, a convex mirror in a Baroque frame throws a reflection of parts of the room that can’t be seen directly – but which room, the first or the second? Then a wardrobe, in which a sequinned dress hangs. The wardrobe has mirrored doors. In the doors – in front of them? – is a bed, and on it, a woman asleep, a snake tattoo visible on her neck. She is Zhora. The animal scale from Leon’s bath is explained and the next replicant Deckard will find is introduced.
Nothing like the Esper sequence appears in Dick’s novel, though he would certainly have appreciated its brilliant flirtation with unreality. Whether originating with Hampton Fancher, who wrote the first drafts of what would become Blade Runner, David Peoples, who wrote the later versions, or Ridley Scott, its interior world of image, reflection and optical deception is but the latest iteration of a game played by artists throughout the centuries. Velazquez’s painting Las Meninas plays tricks with reflections within a painting (and without, since the viewer is an important part of the trick), for example.
It is seventeenth century Dutch perspective boxes, however, that have a particular – indeed, extraordinary – relevance to the sequence.
These peepshows, as they were known, were simple boxes about the size of a small cupboard. They were made of wood except for one panel which was of treated paper, allowing the interior to be softly illuminated by daylight or a lamp. Peepholes were situated at each end, and the magic began when the viewer peered through one of them…
…for inside, the box would appear to contain one floor of an entire house, a series of furnished rooms set out in three perfectly convincing dimensions with each wall correctly aligned. Doors opened onto rooms, paintings hung on walls, mirrors reflected other spaces. Shadows and light added extra verisimilitude. Often a pet would be sitting on the floor.
The whole was of course a brilliant optical illusion. The interior face of each side of the box was carefully painted in such a way that would make no sense when looked at directly but, when seen from either peephole, immediately assumed the correct perspective.
One of only a handful of such boxes to survive can be seen at the National Gallery in London. Looking into A Peepshow with Views of the Interior of a Dutch House, painted by Samuel van Hoogstraten in about 1660, is a bewitching experience. The perception of depth, of seeing the interior of, say, a model house rather than a series of painted flats, is total, all the more so with the realisation that the effect still works even when one’s viewpoint moves around within the (admittedly limited) viewing angle provided by the peephole.
It is fascinating to speculate whether whoever conceived the Esper sequence was aware of such a thing. It also reflects Blade Runner’s world perfectly, with fragments that are developed in isolation coming together to form a coherent picture. And there is a further, delicious co-incidence. The wide-angle lenses used to photograph some of Blade Runner’s visual effects distort what they film. Thus, as with the elaborate efforts undertaken by Hoogstraten in painting his box, matte paintings would have distortions introduced deliberately to ensure the image as recorded by the camera would self-correct, whilst for the same reason models had often to be aligned in ways that would appear odd to an observer on set.
To create the Esper analysis effect, a film within a film was made. To simulate the Esper’s virtual path through the image, a stills camera was dollied through a small set representing the different rooms in the photograph. As the camera advanced, an exposure was made every few feet. These shots were then re-photographed on motion picture stock, with cell animation used to overlay a computer measurement grid and associated graphics. Finally, the completed film was transferred to videotape and played on the screen of the Esper prop. Harrison Ford spoke his dialogue at a speed timed to suggest the machine was reacting to his instructions.
The scene’s purpose is to advance the action, but the fictional technology with which this is achieved is introduced so deftly that it appears an integral part of the film’s imagined future rather than a crude insertion for that reason alone. Thus the presence of holograms in Blade Runner’s world is also subtly alluded to by the sub-second burst of motion affecting Rachael’s snapshot during Deckard’s brief examination of it (this is, in itself, an exquisitely subtle and tantalising moment, reminiscent of the climax of Chris Marker’s La Jetée). As Syd Mead has noted, Blade Runner’s tools and machinery “appear only when needed and fit tightly into the plot”.
And yet the Esper sequence also tells a truth (and a lie) about the characters of Blade Runner, and ourselves. Like television, Batty’s photographic image is exactly that – an image, one that conceals a reality. The image is that of a man, alone. The reality is that he is not a man, and not alone. His photograph is his memory of that moment; dissected, its falseness, too, is exposed. This reading is granted an additional level of meaning given the entire film within a film was in fact re-shot on a different set with stand-ins for Rutger Hauer and Joanna Cassidy; it is this second version which appears in all release prints of the film. It is more coherent than the original (which can now only be seen in the Dangerous Days documentary) but, ironically, introduces further confusion over the number of replicants at large since the female stand-in does not particularly resemble Joanna Cassidy, who plays Zhora.
A detective finding his next clue from a photograph is a staple of film noir, but the melancholic Esper sequence elevates this familiar action into a powerful and evocative sequence in its own right that also deepens Blade Runner’s antique, European feel. To quote Douglas Trumbull: “It was a weird, kind of voyeuristic scene, as though that one holographic image had everything in the whole building recorded on one little frame”.
Posted May 2012
This photograph, with its exceptionally rich, ‘Old Masters’ quality, was used in the original film within a film made for the Esper sequence and is still that which Harrison Ford can be seen to place in his mouth when preparing to activate his Esper terminal. It is not, however, the picture that appears on its screen seconds later nor that which Deckard picked up from the piano seconds before or Leon’s apartment a day or so earlier. As a result of the reshoot, the Esper sequence that appears in all known versions of the film was created with master shots of Ford but insert shots of another person playing him handling a different photograph. The Esper machine processing it is also not the same as that in the master shots with Ford. The same replacement image was also inserted into the apartment scene (Cinefex)
This is Jan Vermeer’s The Love Letter, painted around 1669. The degree to which it matches the original Esper photograph above is astonishing, right down to the shoes on the black and white chequered floor (ibiblio.org)
These photographs were shot directly through the two peepholes of van Hoogstraten’s A Peepshow with Views of the Interior of a Dutch House in the National Gallery in London. Again, the similarity of atmosphere compared to the Esper photograph is notable; note the mirror on the wall and the floor, and the room-within-room effects
Fragments of a hologram rose: Re-seeing Blade Runner
“The postcard is a white light reflection hologram of a rose […] Holding it carefully between thumb and forefinger, he lowers the hologram toward the hidden rotating jaws. The unit emits a thin scream as steel teeth slash laminated plastic and the rose is shredded into a thousand fragments […] Parker lies in darkness, recalling the thousand fragments of the hologram rose. A hologram has this quality: recovered and illuminated, each fragment will reveal the whole […] from a different angle”
- Fragments of a Hologram Rose by William Gibson, first published 1977
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