The Illusionists — John Bruno

by Graham Edwards

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - John Bruno

CINEFEX — How did your visual effects career begin?

JOHN BRUNO — I got into visual effects through animation. I’m from northern California, and there were a lot of published cartoonists living nearby — people like Hank Ketcham and Charles M. Schulz. I was mentored by those guys at an early age, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do. I got a bunch of reference letters from them, went to Disney Studios and said, “I want to be an animator.”

CINEFEX — And they hired you?

JOHN BRUNO — They hired me and I started working in film animation for Chuck Jones. I did a film with Richard Williams, then eventually got a call from Ivan Reitman at Universal. We met and he showed me a magazine called Heavy Metal. He opened it up to this page with a character called Arzach, drawn by Jean Giraud — you know, Moebius. Ivan said, “Can you do animation to look like this?” I said, “Sure.” I moved to Montreal and we started doing Heavy Metal as an animated feature.

CINEFEX — So what prompted the move from animation into visual effects?

JOHN BRUNO — George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Richard Edlund were looking for somebody to do Poltergeist. Richard invited me to a meeting and I showed them my Heavy Metal reel. Before I knew it I was at Industrial Light & Magic, setting up an animation department.

CINEFEX — You stayed with Richard Edlund when he left ILM to form Boss Film Studios.

JOHN BRUNO — Yeah. The first film we did at Boss was Ghostbusters. I remember Richard coming into the office and saying to me, “You know this guy Ivan Reitman. You worked with him before on Heavy Metal. Well, he wants to do a kind of comedy Poltergeist with the cast of Saturday Night Live!”

CINEFEX — Did you have any idea what an iconic film Ghostbusters would become?

JOHN BRUNO — We never thought about it. There were just eight of us in the room watching dailies. We would laugh and say, “I think it’s funny, but I don’t know if anybody else will.” We did all the ghost stuff just like we were doing it at ILM — guys in suits, miniatures, animated effects — and we got the movie out in just ten months. That totally screwed up things in Hollywood, because suddenly everyone was shaving six months off their postproduction schedules. We got heat for that.

CINEFEX — A few years later, you were visual effects supervisor on The Abyss.

JOHN BRUNO — That’s right. I’d met Jim Cameron at a showing of Aliens in Westwood, and then again at the Tokyo Film Festival. That’s where we became friends, talking about favorite films like Mysterious Island, and old-school techniques like rear projection, stop-motion, puppets. We ended up using all that on The Abyss — 65mm rear screen process, full size sets underwater, miniature submarines. We used every technique imaginable, including computer animation for the water tentacle.

CINEFEX — Did it feel natural, moving from animation into visual effects the way you did?

JOHN BRUNO — Never at any time did I think it was strange or weird. Think about it. Animation has backgrounds, overlays, underlays, character elements, special effects elements. In visual effects, you have a background plate, you’ve got a character, you’ve got overlays, you’ve got mattes. You need to understand how to separate those elements, and how to manipulate time and space. A good knowledge of animation is good for any visual effects supervisor, even if you’re making a live-action film.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists