VFX Supervisor John Nelson: Looking Through the Lens for Perfection
By BARBARA ROBERTSON
John Nelson in 1982 at Robert Abel and Associates. (All images courtesy of John Nelson.)
“I was pulled to cinema and movies like a moth to the flame.” —John Nelson
Ridley Scott, Giannina Facio and John Nelson at 2018 BAFTA Awards.
One foggy night in June, John Nelson was driving near Santa Monica when he spotted a soccer game in the distance.
“I pulled over and started taking pictures of the soccer players in the fog, backlit by the lights,” he says. “That’s me with a camera. I’m constantly taking pictures. Thousands. Wherever I am. The camera is part of my body. When I look through the lens, I’m thinking but not thinking. I find the composition and go with it.”
He didn’t know then that those photos would help him land the job as overall Visual Effects Supervisor for Blade Runner 2049, which in turn would lead to an Oscar and a BAFTA Award for visual effects, among other honors.
“At the end of working on Point Blank, the producers asked me if I’d be interested in their next movie, a sequel to Blade Runner,” Nelson says. “I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ To offer that to a visual effects supervisor who loves science fiction – it’s the Holy Grail. I had to meet Denis [Villeneuve, director]. When I did, I showed him [the photos of] the soccer players that I had shot at night. We hit it off, and we made the movie.”
Foggy photos aside, Nelson also brought to the table a 35-year award-winning career as a feature film visual effects supervisor, a career during which he has received three Oscar nominations and an Oscar for supervising Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.
Raised in a Detroit suburb, Nelson was obsessed with cinema and movies as a child. He even worked as a head usher in a movie theater as a teenager.
“I was pulled to cinema and movies like a moth to the flame,” he says.
But when he enrolled at the University of Michigan, he was encouraged to enter as a pre-med student by his father, a research chemist in the auto industry, and his mother, a nurse. After two years, he told his father he wanted to change majors and study filmmaking.
“He said, ‘You’ll never make a dime. I’ll not pay for it,’” Nelson says.
Undaunted, Nelson applied for and received a full scholarship and, because the university didn’t have a film degree, crafted a program himself with art, speech and television production classes. He was on his way. Nelson became an apprentice to a cameraman in the university’s television center after graduating, and began making 16mm films.
“I submitted the films to festivals and won some awards, so I decided to go to California and look for a job,” he says. When he arrived, one of the people he called was Douglas Trumbull, VES. He somehow convinced Trumbull’s assistant to put the call through.
“I talked to him for 15 or 20 minutes, and he was very helpful,” Nelson says. “He asked me if I was in the camera union. When I told him I wasn’t, he said I should talk to Robert Abel.”
That was in 1979. Robert Abel & Associates was an innovative and award-winning production studio specializing in television commercials, and a pioneer in the use of computer graphics. When Nelson called, they happened to need a cameraman. They told him if he could show up the next day and load a particular camera, they could use him. He did, and was hired.
From left: Richard Hoover, Paul Lambert, Gerd Nefzer and John Nelson at the 2018 Academy Awards.
“I moved from Detroit to L.A. with my girlfriend, now my wife, and became a cameraman on the night shift,” Nelson says. “After two, two and a half years, I said to Bob Abel, ‘You know, I find this computer stuff interesting.’ It was just the beginning of vector graphics coming out of aerospace and architecture. Bob was a quick decision maker. He said, ‘OK. Here’s a job due in two weeks. We’ll see how you do.’”
It was a commercial for American Airlines. Nelson became the technical director, and the commercial was a success. After that, he worked on hundreds of TV commercials at Abel, sharing a cubicle with John Hughes, who would found Rhythm & Hues, and working on award-winning commercials with Steve Beck. In 1987, after eight years at Abel as technical director, animator and cameraman, Nelson received a job offer that took him to Germany for two years.
“I was asked to help set up the company Mental Images,” he says. Mental Images was a Berlin-based software company that created the Mental Ray rendering software. The company also had a computer animation division that used the software for production. Visual effects supervisors John Andrew Berton Jr. and Stefen Fangmeier also worked in the animation division at that time.
“My wife and I lived in Europe for two years,” Nelson says. “It was a wonderful experience, but a bit of a culture shock. I was used to the way we made decisions in L.A., which was pretty quick. One of the wonderful things about the people in Germany is that they’re careful, meticulous and very deliberate. I worked my ass off.”
When he came back to the U.S., he took a job at Industrial Light & Magic, first in the commercials division and then in the feature film division.
“I went from being a commercial director to an animator and technical director, but it was for features,” Nelson says. The first feature was the visual effects Oscar-winning Terminator 2, supervised by Dennis Muren VES, ASC, which released in 1991. Among the other animators working on the film was Stephen Rosenbaum, who competed with Nelson for an Oscar this year.
Nelson says, “What goes on in my mind goes on the white board and is fixed asap.”
“In all three of these movies, Gladiator, I, Robot and Iron Man, there is a big idea that visual effects has to answer. For Gladiator, you have to believe in the overwhelming technical superiority of Rome. … For I, Robot, you have to believe a robot can think and emote. And for Iron Man, you have to believe a thousand-pound suit can fly. … Every shot had to reinforce that big idea.”
Shooting boards for Blade Runner 2049 on set.
“I worked with maybe 15 or 16 people, many of whom have gone on to become visual effects supervisors,” Nelson says. “We all did just about everything – model, animate, light, render, composite. I loved working on that show.” He worked on several shots for T2, including, notably, the iconic scene in which the shotgunned head of the chrome terminator splits open and reseals.
Nelson says, “My best shot from Terminator 2.”
After T2, Nelson moved back down to Los Angeles where he spent a brief time at Rhythm & Hues. He then joined Sony Pictures Imageworks, where he stayed for several years working as a visual effects supervisor on, as he puts it, whatever they had, including In the Line of Fire, The Pelican Brief and Anaconda.
“I learned a lot, but after City of Angels it was time to move on,” he says. “So I interviewed with Ridley Scott for Gladiator. It came down to Scott Anderson, Mike Fink or me. Scott [Anderson] and I had met at ILM – he and I had been hired for T2 on the same day. He was offered Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man, so I ended up doing Gladiator and winning the Oscar along with Tim Burke and Rob Harvey of Mill Film, as well as Special Effects Supervisor Neil Corbould. ”
“There were some brilliant people at Mill Film: Tim, Rob, Grahame Andrew, Ben Morris of ILM, who I was up against for the Oscar this year, and others,” Nelson says. “But it was a small house used to doing commercials. So I helped the process of trying to get a large film done.”
The studio’s recreation of actor Oliver Reed – after he died during production – by mapping a CG mask of Reed’s face onto a body double received much publicity, but the complex work involved in creating the opening battle shot is just as interesting to Nelson.
“It’s a big pan from left to right that we shot in VistaVision late in the day,” he says. “We had 300, maybe 500 soldiers and could afford to build only one or two catapults. So we shot the left side, middle, and right side with locked off plates, shooting quickly. Then, we sewed all these into one big pan cell, took out the lens distortion, created a virtual movie inside, and then added lens distortion and a bunch of CG effects. It looks like a big moving shot. When one catapult fires, the CG takes it all the way into the forest where they hook up with Neil Corbould’s propane explosions – also shot locked off in tiles. I wanted to use many 2D photographic effects in the first act of the film to acclimate the audience with photographic realism before we introduced 3D CGI when we got to Rome.
Still of scout of Bourne Woods set on Gladiator. Nelson says, “This view was eventually done by sewing three VistaVision plates together, adding a ton of CG to them and then doing a pan across a stitched plate.”
Nelson, Ridley Scott and Production Designer Arthur Max at the Napoleonic fort used to make the Colosseum for Gladiator. (Photo: John Mathieson)
Says Nelson, “To populate the Colosseum, we shot extras against green wearing blue fabric so we could pull both the outline of the extra and the color of their wardrobe.”
After Gladiator, Nelson took time off to be with his ailing father. After his dad passed, he was a visual effects supervisor for K-19: The Widowmaker, a visual effects supervisor at CFX for The Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions, and did a stint as Visual Effects Supervisor on Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
“I also did some second unit stuff for Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which got me in the DGA,” he says.
Nelson’s next big films as overall Visual Effects Supervisor were I, Robot and Iron Man, and he received Oscar nominations for both films.
“In all three of these movies, Gladiator, I, Robot and Iron Man, there is a big idea that visual effects has to answer,” he says. “For Gladiator, you have to believe in the overwhelming technical superiority of Rome. We’ve learned so much from the Romans in terms of architecture, government, economics, and even sporting venues. Every shot had to reinforce that big idea.”
“For I, Robot, you have to believe a robot can think and emote,” he continues. “And for Iron Man, you have to believe a thousand-pound suit can fly. Tony Stark is not from another planet, he’s not magically defying the rules of physics. He’s a smart rich guy who built a thousand-pound suit with enough thrust to put him in the air.”
Following Iron Man, Nelson was visual effects supervisor for a while on both World War Z and Blackhat, but neither project went well. After the highs of the previous two films, Nelson had hit a low period. He decided to take a year off.
“My wife describes it as the best year in 20,” he says. “I think one of the several reasons we’ve made it together is that she has worked in the business (at Boss Film) and knows what it’s like.”
“Filmmaking is a really, really hard job because it’s creative, technical, political, and certainly economic as well,” he adds. “You try to balance all those things together. When people leave movies, they often say it’s for creative reasons, but usually it’s just personalities. I try to be as open and collaborative as I can be, but sometimes, for whatever reason, it just doesn’t work out. When it doesn’t, you learn from the experience and move on. Fortunately, most of the shows I work on turn out well, and sometimes, they work out wonderfully.”
Nelson on the set of Iron Man with Robert Downey Jr. and Shane Mahan.
“What gets me going is when I have a hard problem and I can marshal all the technique at my disposal and all I’ve learned from my experience to come up with an elegant, creative solution that gives a director what he wants.”
Nelson, Robert Downey Jr. and Victoria Alonso on the last day of Iron Man.
Nelson walking 18% gray and shiny balls with Macbeth chart and real zombie reference through the shot for lighting reference on World War Z.
John Nelson and Joe Wehmeyer on set shooting HDRI’s on Blade Runner 2049.
Nelson on set on Blade Runner 2049 lining up the women for “The Merge.”
Nelson on Blade Runner 2049: “This is one of the first pictures I showed Denis Villenueve when I interviewed for the job.”
Nelson in his office on Point Break. “To get it done requires the calendar with Post-its. Things can move, but deadlines remain the same.”
Extras, Nelson and Roger Deakins shoot a test on Blade Runner 2049.
And that brings us to Blade Runner 2049. After the year off, Nelson decided to work on a relatively low-budget movie called Point Break.
“I called up some friends and said that this is a small movie, but it could be cool,” he says. “We did 1,300 VFX shots for $15 million. It was absurdly inexpensive for that many good-looking shots. The producers were Alcon Entertainment, and at the end they asked me if I would be interested in their next movie: a sequel to Blade Runner.”
“It was an incredible trip,” Nelson says. “It was so difficult. It consumed my life and my being for two years. Denis [Villeneuve] said he wondered if it was a good idea to do a sequel because the first was so impressive and bold. But he was certainly the man to do it. He is a brilliant painter of cinematic visuals in the same way Ridley [Scott] is. Two master painters looking at the same original material. We tried to make a movie with an analog feel. Part of my job is to understand what a director wants, so I didn’t show Denis anything that didn’t look analog. I think we made a better film by reining the VFX in. It felt intuitive. I’m far too close to this movie to be objective, but people say it feels like I went to a place where we can feel the connection to the old place. And that felt like a high compliment.”
Now, with a second Oscar facing his first on the mantel in the living room, Nelson plans to take a little time off to enjoy his accomplishments, and his family, his wife and son Miles, who also worked on Blade Runner.
“I promised my wife that after two movies in a row, I would give her six months,” he says. “There are a couple projects out there that I would love to do, but we will see.”
As for those Oscars: “Every day we put them in different poses,” Nelson says. “I have all these action figures and wooden pose men. Recently I had a pose man put his arm around new Oscar as if he was introducing him to old Oscar.”
“I feel very blessed,” he adds. “I’m honored to work in the movie business, which I think is a privilege. People in this business really love what they’re doing. It’s not a paycheck, it’s a passion. What gets me going is when I have a hard problem and I can marshal all the technique at my disposal and all I’ve learned from my experience to come up with an elegant, creative solution that gives a director what he wants. People think visual effects is about tons and tons of detail. It’s not about that. It’s about how it makes you feel emotionally. That’s what it is for me – to find that emotional perfect zone that gives the director what he wants, and to find inside what I think is special. To craft that and make it intuitive.”
Nelson is always looking through the lens for that “special” quality. On his personal website are two strong images, a striking, abstract photograph with bright streaks forming patterns and perhaps a face against a dark background, and an image from Blade Runner 2049 of holographic Joi in a fuchsia fog.
Nelson and Deborah Gaydos at the 2018 BAFTA Awards.
Of the photograph, Nelson says, “I shot a bunch of Christmas lights in my front yard and they look like sparks,” he says. “I’m taking photographs or movies on my iPhone wherever I go. I take these runs, two miles to the beach, two miles on the beach, then two miles back. It’s my meditative place. But if I see something, I look through the lens, move through this intuitive zone to find the perfect spot, get it and move on. I do the same thing with a viewfinder. Coming from camera has been very good for me.”
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