The Illusionists — John Gaeta

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 Gaeta

CINEFEX — How did you first get into visual effects?

JOHN GAETA — I went to film school at New York University. As soon as I got out of film school I found myself in Greenwich Village in the center of the arts and culture community. I decided to throw my lot in with the folks who were doing experimental animation — mostly short-form music videos and such. Everyone revered what was happening in California — the work of Doug Trumbull and Industrial Light & Magic. Those were the shining cities that someday, maybe, you might find your way to.

CINEFEX — And so you found your way there?

JOHN GAETA — No, I got lucky. They came to me, when Doug Trumbull moved to the east coast. I started working for him and that was my way into visual effects. Computer graphics were becoming introduced during that time and, for me, Doug was the pivotal transition figure. I can’t be more appreciative, or feel any more lucky, to have worked with masters in both physical and digital across the years.

CINEFEX — You started out with Doug photographing miniatures, didn’t you?

JOHN GAETA — Yeah, but Doug was always the limit-pusher, so the model work became rather sophisticated with the invention of new systems of photography and motion control. After that, we entered into the era of trying to figure out how to integrate digital things with these miniatures.

CINEFEX — You’ve made a habit of allying yourself with visionaries. Doug Trumbull in the early years, later the Wachowskis, notably with The Matrix.

JOHN GAETA — The Wachowskis came into filmmaking after participating in other platforms as young people. They appreciated the potential trajectory of things like videogames, and imagined at some point there might be flawless simulations. They allowed us to experiment in particular techniques that had not really been established yet, almost with a deliberate naiveté. That was a fairly high-risk approach, but it was the key to unlocking methods that were in fact an early emulation of the subject the story was about.

CINEFEX — You mean that, in order to make The Matrix, the Wachowskis encouraged you to develop Matrix-like techniques?

JOHN GAETA — Absolutely. We were looking at image-based rendering, new forms of capture, really trying to sketch some of the methods that virtual reality would eventually deploy. The breakthroughs we made formed the foundations that a lot of our careers built on for decades after.

CINEFEX — You’re now involved with developing futuristic immersive experiences. Does that interest spring directly from your career in visual effects?

JOHN GAETA — Well, look at it this way. Since the beginning, visions of the future have been written about, painted, acted through theatre, shown through cinema. By telling these stories in film, we’ve basically been sketching out the future. That’s the role cinema has in shaping the next era. Everything you see being produced today can be threaded back to some inspirational moment from some story that’s been told. Ask any founder of a major Silicon Valley company, and they will cite inspiration they’ve gained from folk working in cinema and visual effects.

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