Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Trouble With Deckard's Blaster

Thursday, August 31, 2017

I wanted to briefly illustrate a point that has been on my mind a lot recently. If you wish to carry on any kind of legacy or intellectual property, you will do your best work by retracing the influences and techniques of your forebearers. The perpetual danger is to mistake certain surface details or gloss for the essence of the thing, but if you understand how the original work was derived in the first place, you're better prepared to follow it up faithfully, but with your own influences and inspirations.

The example on my mind has been one from the new Blade Runner film. Problem: you've got to follow up on some of the greatest prop and mechanical design of all time.
Solution? Immerse yourself in the techniques that gave rise to those designs.

Deckard's blaster (above) is one of the most classic science fiction gun designs ever. Here it is going up for auction, where it may have fetched over a hundred thousand dollars. It is deceptively simple, like a lot of classic designs. The gun is the result of mating a Charter Arms .44 Bulldog, a common revolver, with a Steyr-Mannlicher .222 receiver/bolt. Look at this to get an idea of the sort of devotion that this gun inspired in replica makers prior to the original hero piece resurfacing, whose construction is detailed briefly here.

The trouble with Deckard's blaster is that the working method used to produce it is remarkably straight forward, common prop gun making. A real, working gun is disguised to look like a new gun. In this case, the gun is kitbashed with components of another real gun, plus some inspired amber grips.

Kitbashing deserves its own very heavy book to explicate completely, but in essence it is the art of repurposed mechanical detail. Suffice it to say the enduring legacy of the late 70s and early 80s prop and miniature design in film is almost entirely indebted to kitbashing.
Star Wars, Alien, and Blade Runner are perhaps the most important early standard bearers for kitbashing and remain testaments to the enduring possibilities of kitbashing's aid to conjuring a believable world.

Looking at Deckard's blaster, we see a lot of mechanical detail that looks like it works. Because it does! Or did, anyway, in its original context. But removed from that context, the Steyr-Mannlicher components still retain their air of purpose. This is the trick. To take and recontextualize various greebles, nurnies, and gubbins that had purpose, in their original context, to make something else look like it has purpose.

The human mind is an extraordinary bullshit detector. While yes, an expert on firearms can tell that Deckard's blaster doesn't "work" the way that its borrowed gun components suggests that it would, it is suggestive of purpose and function enough to believe. Most important of all, it looks very cool.

I look forward to Villeneuve's take on Blade Runner, he and Deakins have been on an incredible streak. But I think it's illustrative to compare Deckard's blaster to Officer K's in the new film, seen below:

To me it is clear this is not a design anywhere in the same league as the blaster from the original film. This is of course an extraordinary challenge. One must not be too slavish in devotion or homage, yet still remain in the same ballpark. The mistake is to backsolve from apparent surface qualities. In this case, big, possibly double over/under barrel + "unusual" grip texture or material is not a sufficent formula.
I do not know who designed this new gun nor their working methodology. But the design speaks to what in my mind is a certain lack of awareness about both firearms and the kind of alchemy that resulted in the original. The trigger guard is the most egregious offender, a broad naive slab that bears no relation to the sorts of considerations that inform modern handguns. The barrel section is over-busy with detail, the rear half of the gun disunified with the front. A vague hand-waving of shapes all over.
Critically, there appear to be no donors, in part or whole, from actual guns. The only thing that has been carried over from the original that I wish hadn't is that there are no front or rear sights.

Like the task of Blade Runner 2049 following up on one of the greatest science fiction films of all time, designing a new blaster would be a herculean effort to say the least, and one likely to fail. I'm happy I can comment safe from censure, here on an old blog. But I think the only method that would even stand a chance of competing with the original would be a similar alchemical fusing of some real working gun, plus a non-working component contribution from another gun. A simple formula with potentially endless variations.

[Addendum 1:Interestingly, Syd Mead, whose work is all over the film and well loved for good reason, had a much more unusual and futuristic concept for Deckard's blaster (seen below), which was rejected. Certain kinds of greatness can only be stolen, not willed into being or designed wholesale.]

[Addendum 2: I'm not going to touch the new Star Wars licensed content delivery transmissions that resemble "movies", but generally speaking they suffer from the same trouble; their designs are almost entirely bounded within the purview of the original trilogy and suffer greatly as a result. The exception being the rebel troopers' small arms in Rogue One, which were (not surprisingly) kitbashed following the method of the original guns in the original film and so are successful for the same reasons.]
[Addendum 3: Here's a video of Adam Savage seeing the original hero gun in the flesh, after painstakingly trying to recreate it from reference material, and largely succeeding. The funny thing here is that he wants to make his copy's finish mirror the dulled metal of the bolt on the original, when it probably has simply rusted/pitted with time. Oil your guns people, even your 100,000 dollar film prop guns.]


Anonymous said...

Lovely to see this blog lurch awake once more. I knew there was a reason I saved the RSS feed.

Johnnyburn said...

Yes, RSS ftw. Interesting article, Jack. It would probably help fake gun designers to get input from the same parties that inform real gun design -- users and a manufacturing review. But since everyone knows deep down that it is not actually a real gun and they really only have to make a few, the artistic concept goes further than it would in a real life product and viewers can tell that it doesn't look quite right.

Tom Jones said...
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