'Blade Runner 2049': See how they pulled off that stunning threesome scene and Sean Young's CGI return (exclusive)

Kevin Polowy
Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment

Warning: Blade Runner 2049 spoilers below.

In a film full of eye-popping effects and breathtaking cinematography, one scene stands above all others in Blade Runner 2049. Agent K (Ryan Gosling) watches as his holographic A.I. girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) “merges” with flesh-and-bone femme fatale Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) so Joi and K can consummate their love. (Watch the scene exclusively above.)

“Honestly, it was so difficult to do,” director Denis Villeneuve admitted to Yahoo Entertainment during a recent Facebook Live interview. “On set it was [done with] very precise choreography. Then I put all the pressure on the shoulders on the VFX crew.”

Creating this fluid, hybrid, “strange third woman,” as Villeneuve called her, was a perfect marriage of old-school acting technique and new-school effects wizardry. De Armas and Davis spent three days filming the scene, painstakingly mimicking each other’s movements. Then the effects house Double Negative (DNEG), lead by VFX supervisor John Nelson, spent the better part of a year digitally layering the actresses’ performances using the footage combined with 3D scans of the women. (Blade Runner 2049 was shortlisted Monday for the 2018 Oscars visual effects race.)

“I wanted the actors to be free. I said to my crew: I really want to protect the acting because I was looking for very specific emotions coming from both actresses,” explained Villeneuve, whose filmography also includes Arrival, Sicario, and Prisoners.

There was plenty of pressure on de Armas and Davis to execute the movements in exacting fashion, and they would alternate takes over the three days it took to complete the sequence. “One person would do part of it, and then the other person would take their place,” Davis explained to us (watch below).

“We were actually fighting because [neither] of us wanted to be the second one,” said de Armas, and Davis added, “Because we had to perfectly match each other’s motions.” Going second meant the actress would have an iPad screen in her sightline where she could see her body superimposed on her co-star’s in real time.

The scene marks not just a technical triumph for Villeneuve but also an emotional high point for the film. “It was important for me that the scene would be erotic but also mysterious and almost frightening,” the filmmaker said, “because it becomes almost frightening to see that ghost coming out the merge of both women. I didn’t want it to look gadgety. I wanted it to free analog and feel real.”

And like many of film’s greatest sex scenes, Villeneuve’s sci-fi spin on the ménage à trois is sensually fulfilling despite not showing any actual sex.  “I wanted to keep the sense of the scene, which is about human contact and about intimacy. And not being distracted by nudity. It needed to be poetic.” (Plus, let’s face it, it would probably have taken VFX another few years.)

In another of the sequel’s most surprising and spellbinding moments, Villeneuve and the visual effects house Moving Picture Company (lead by VFX supervisor Richard Clegg) digitally resurrected Rachael, the love interest of Agent Deckard (Harrison Ford) played by Sean Young in the original 1982 Blade Runner. (Watch the making-of clip from MPC below.)

“That also is state-of-the-art computer animation. And that took a year [as well],” the director said.

To capture Rachael’s return, Villeneuve enlisted Loren Peta, a performance double who is the same height and has the same proportions as Young. “We studied Sean’s movements in the first movie,” he said. “And then she did the scene with Harrison, because I wanted Harrison to have a real person in front of him.”

Also on set was Young, who initially had misgivings over the sequel, once even calling for a boycott of the film if she was invited back. “It was important for me, because we were bringing back Sean from the past, I wanted Sean to be there with me and to give me advice,” Villeneuve said. “And just to be there guiding me with subtle details.”

Like the threesome, the return of Rachael — who replicant technologist and tycoon Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) revives in an attempt to extract intel from Deckard — is a melding of practical and visual effects. The body is real, but the face is CGI-generated.

“It’s never been done like that. It’s a landmark scene [with] what we were able to achieve,” Villeneuve said, adding that he wanted to make sure the VFX team executed the graphics more seamlessly than Tarkin in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. “During the making of the film I saw Rogue One, and I immediately called my VFX supervisor and said we need to make it better than that. … I admire and respect the [Rogue One] filmmaker and the artists, but it took me out of the movie.”

The intense work paid off; in the end, Villeneuve was thrilled by his team’s results. “People that saw the movie don’t think it’s computer-generated; they think it’s a real human being,” he said.

Editor’s Note: Post updated to correctly identify the visual effects companies that worked on these two scenes.

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