The Illusionists — John Nelson

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 Nelson

CINEFEX — What’s your approach when you start a new visual effects project? Do you have an overall philosophy that you always tap into?

JOHN NELSON — I always ask the question: “What’s the big idea that visual effects is bringing to this movie?” When we did Gladiator, we wanted the audience to feel the overwhelming technological and sociological superiority of Rome. With Iron Man, the audience had to believe a 1,000-pound suit could fly. Then, what really excites me is making something visually beautiful, that looks real, and which supports the story.

CINEFEX — The opening sequence of Gladiator certainly does all that. Those epic shots of the Roman army pounding the barbarians.

JOHN NELSON — You know, we did that big panning shot with locked-off Vistavision plates stitched together. We took the lens distortion out, then added all the effects. Because it was locked off, it was a lot easier to sync everything. Then we did the camera move afterwards, and put the lens distortion back in.

CINEFEX — That’s the part that makes it look real. But it’s also beautiful, like you said.

JOHN NELSON — That’s Ridley Scott. He’s a master painter. I remember in our first meeting, he said, “I want it all to be a world of blue, and the only thing that’s warm is the fire they’re shooting out.” Denis Villeneuve, who I worked with on Blade Runner 2049, is another painter.

CINEFEX — What creative direction did you get from Denis on Blade Runner 2049?

JOHN NELSON — The ethos for that whole movie was restraining everything so the story could come forward. Denis did not want anything to look like a visual effects shot. He didn’t want anything to smell like a visual effects shot! Everything had to look like Roger Deakins had shot it. Then, whenever we found something that really worked, we would get incredibly excited. When we saw the two women’s eyes line up to form the third woman in the apartment scene, Denis and I were like, “Wow, that’s really something.” We’d created a picture that reverberates the storyline and looks really cool at the same time.

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