Lawrence G. Paull about Film Architecture: 'Blade Runner', 'Back to the Future', and Others

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When asked which set is the best, many designers reply by saying that it’s the one that the viewers scarcely notice and that does not draw attention to itself. On the other hand sets of movies like Blade Runner shift the audience’s attention to sheer spectacle and dominate the experience of watching the film. More so, Lawrence G. Paull says that film architecture offers an opportunity for the designer to make the architecture ‘star’ of the film and design the film for spectacle. Born in 1948 in the USA, Lawrence G. Paull came from an architecture background having graduated from the University of Arizona’s architecture faculty. Dr.Zhivago (1965) was a turning point for Paull, a movie set in the cold lands of Russia but shot in hot Spain, and it became evident to him that the conservative world of architecture was not for him and that films were his future. Paull is best known for his works on films like Blade Runner, Back to the Future, Escape to LA, Project X, and Romancing the Stone to name a few. He received a BAFTA for his work on Blade Runner together with visual futurist Syd Mead and VFX inventor Douglas. He was even nominated for an Academy Award for it. He was also nominated for another BAFTA three years later for his work on Back to the Future. Every designer has to start somewhere before working as a set designer and art director and Paull worked as a draftsman on numerous productions in the 60s. He worked as an apprentice in the art department of the 20th Century Fox and assisted Walter Tyler and John DeCuir at Paramount Pictures.

Being from an architectural background allowed Paull to have an understanding of urban environments which served him well artistically. Both Blade Runner and Back to the Future required the vision of a city planner to construct a functioning cohesive city and all the elements that go into making a city. This included government institutions, means of water and electricity, sidewalks, streets, and architecture. Paull specialized in period design. He based his period pieces on thorough research and often made references to architectural history in his designs. Starting for The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (John Badham;1976) where he recreated southern towns and locations typical of 1939.

Designing the futuristic dystopian Los Angeles for Blade Runner wasn’t a one-person vision but a collaboration of skilled professionals like Paull, the director Ridley Scott, visual futurist Syd Mead, and special effects supervisor Doug Trumbull to name a few. It was necessary to conceptualize and plan the detail of the city beyond the scope of the screenplay to be successfully able to design and construct it for the film. To accomplish the look and feel of the city as seen from the designs and illustrations by Sy Mead on a low budget Paull decided to retrofit permanent sets of New York streets at Burbank studios. He took pictures of the backlot and with together with Syd started filling it up details and texture. Paull was heavily influenced by his trip to Italy. A city built by Benito Mussolini with Albert Speer as the chief architect, Paull was struck by its fascist influence of it. The buildings in Milan were built right up to the curb. Similarly, the Warner Bros. studio back lot streets in NY were narrow and were not constructed full size. Applying the lessons and observations of Italy to the text of Blade Runner, Paull started to design the city through the process of retrofitting or layering which was the key concept for the city. A city in a state of continuous repair and adapting to changing needs. This was evident through the imagery of webs of pipes, ducts, and technological debris on the building. This city was dark, overpopulated and in despair with Asian, Mayan, and European influences. The film was shot at night, to save the cost of hiding the Burbank hills in the background and for the look. Paull found the idea for video street monitors that broadcast public information and traffic signals in one of the drawings of a French cartoonist Jean Giraud known as Moebius. There were scenarios where illustrations and ideas from Syd couldn’t be constructed and thus wouldn’t work.

Paull visualized Deckard’s apartment as a womb, a claustrophobic cave enclosure. He based Deckard’s apartment on the Frank Lloyd Wright Ennis House on Doheny Drive in LA, an American architect who believed that buildings should reflect their environment. Paull took castings of the walls, and bricks and built the set on stage. The linearly laid out rooms, walls bracketed out, a 16x16 concrete block with design work from Wright’s designs, Gothic vaults in a high-rise building, and recessed lights projecting downwards brought out the cave metaphor. Paull mentions in an interview that often he would have discussions with the director Ridley Scott and they would revise the designs which would on most occasions increase in scale and thus in cost. The Bradbury Building and the Union Station were used as locations for shooting some of the crucial scenes of the film. The police station set built in the corner of the Union Station is still there as per the agreement, this helped in cutting down the cost. The Bradbury Building in L.A. Downtown was used like never before. It features projecting stairs and lift towers and hydraulic elevators which provided access to office floors.

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“For buildings we did, I brought in all the photographs from Milan, and we took photographs of arcades, columns, classical things, and all the architecture. I brought in just about my entire architectural research library, and we went from Egyptian to Deco to Streamline Moderne to Classical, from Frank Lloyd Wright to Antonio Gaudi. We turned the photographs sideways, upside down, inside out, and backward to stretch where we were going and came up with a street that looked like Conan the Barbarian in 2020. I didn’t want right angles; I didn’t want slick surfaces.”

While the DeLorean is an important part of Back to the Future it’s not just about that. Though Paull was not responsible for the design of the iconic DeLorean he played a crucial role in designing the 80s and the 50s Hill Valley town. The producers wanted to location shoot the Hill Valley town scenes in California which would have been expensive and complicated as turning an actual 80s town into the year 1955 would just need too many changes. Instead, Paull decided to use the town hall square at the Universal backlot as Hill Valley instead and transformed the central square from 1985 to 1955 for the movie’s narrative. As mentioned before, Paull was thorough with his period research, consequently, he asked the studios to bring him all Life magazines, Look Magazines, and other photo references from the 50s. this helped in defining the mood of the whole movie. The mind-reading helmet in Dr.Brown’s lab was inspired by the 50s Life magazine’s topic on women hairdressers. San Fernando Valley and South Pasadena served as the rest of the locations.

Paull saw the poverty of third-world nations during his own travels to Beijing, Cairo, and Singapore and used this as inspiration to design the street life in Escape from L.A. The huge piles of rubble that became mountains on the sides of the road from the 1994 Northbridge earthquake in L.A., inspired Paull to research more on the aftermath scenarios of earthquakes. From The Great Hanshin earthquake or the Kobe earthquake that rocked Japan in 1995 to the tremors that shook L.A. and San Francisco in the first half of the century, Paull studied these catastrophes to understand the fallout from such a disaster. He strategically blocked the L.A. skyline with approximately 29000 lbs. of rubble by creating the Sunset Boulevard and Santa Monica Freeway. For the Sunset Boulevard scenes Paull created mile-long scrap metal sheds and crushed buildings and for the Santa Monica scenes about 200 trashed vehicles from demolition yards were thrown in a jumbled maze.

While location scouting around L.A., Paull found only a couple of useful untouched sites in Northbridge from the 94 earthquakes. Everything else they had to create because it looked too beautiful everywhere else. The art department including the art director, art department coordinator, and Paull studied the previous part called Escape from New York and screened other John Carpenter movies to get a sense of this film. Just like in Back to the Future Paull suggested using the Courthouse Square in Universal Studios for The Happy Kingdom scenes and transformed the buildings into a main street of an amusement park.

Paull was able to design and construct cities that went further from the frame of the camera and allowed the set to function as a cohesive unit. For this, it is necessary to understand the scope of the film. It is a must to study the architecture involved before recreating a place or time. It also involves research to understand the design, the techniques, materials, and tools used in the original construction, and Paull was successfully able to execute this in his designs.

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Lawrence G. Paull about Film Architecture: ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Back to the Future’, and Others. (2023, April 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/lawrence-g-paull-about-film-architecture-blade-runner-back-to-the-future-and-others/
“Lawrence G. Paull about Film Architecture: ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Back to the Future’, and Others.” Edubirdie, 21 Apr. 2023, edubirdie.com/examples/lawrence-g-paull-about-film-architecture-blade-runner-back-to-the-future-and-others/
Lawrence G. Paull about Film Architecture: ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Back to the Future’, and Others. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/lawrence-g-paull-about-film-architecture-blade-runner-back-to-the-future-and-others/> [Accessed 13 Apr. 2024].
Lawrence G. Paull about Film Architecture: ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Back to the Future’, and Others [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Apr 21 [cited 2024 Apr 13]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/lawrence-g-paull-about-film-architecture-blade-runner-back-to-the-future-and-others/
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