On Wednesday, Mar. 25, Academy Award-winning Visual Effects Supervisor John Nelson (“Blade Runner: 2049”) gave an illustrated lecture on how he and his team created some of the 1,200 visual effects shots in his most recent Oscar triumph, “Blade Runner: 2049.” The festival is something of a homecoming for Nelson, a Detroit native who attended the University. In anticipation of the 56th installment of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, Nelson spoke with The Daily over the phone to discuss the festival, his films and his career.
The Michigan Daily: So first things first, I think some congrats are in order, as you’re a recent Academy Award winner. Congratulations, that’s incredible.
John Nelson: Thank you, thank you! It has been a week, but I think our feet are finally sort of coming down to Earth now, you know? It has been a special week. You know, I won 17 years ago and I was up twice — I didn’t win — and being nominated is a true honor, it really is, but winning is really something, you know?
TMD: Yeah, absolutely, and I imagine that winning an Oscar can’t be a feeling you ever really get used to.
JN: Yeah, it’s like, the closest thing I can describe it as, is it’s like someone has come up behind you with a cattle prod and shocked you in the butt with 10,000 volts. You’re pretty electrified from the moment you hear the outcome because the whole night everyone is nervous until your award — anyone that’s up is nervous until the moment your award is decided — and you’re either gonna be really happy or you’re gonna be congratulating the winner and then going to the bar.
TMD: So just to clear the air and get my fanboy-ish doting over with, I have to say: “Blade Runner: 2049” was one of my favorite films of the year. I mean, growing up watching the original film, it was incredible to see what you accomplished with this sequel.
JN: Well thank you, thank you, it was a true labor of love for everyone because everyone had a great deal of respect for the original movie and for Ridley (Scott, director of the original “Blade Runner”). We’re doubly blessed because, you know, taking on a movie like this is a daunting task because you’re trying to do a sequel to a movie that is everyone’s favorite movie and it’s pretty difficult to do and do well, but fortunately for us we had — our new director Denis Villeneuve is pretty brilliant. So you have a master painter with the original, sort of, with Ridley, and then you have a new master painter with Denis. The reason the movie is so deeply felt and so intense is really because we have a great team — the producers put together a great team, and being led by Denis is really special.
TMD: Right, I can imagine. So on the topic of the team behind the film, if you don’t mind explaining what your role is on a project as the Visual Effects Supervisor, would you say that’s more creatively focused or more technically focused?
JN: Overwhelmingly, I think my job is to creatively keep the movie on track, visual-effects-wise, but half of my job is to technically figure out things that are either too expensive, too dangerous or impossible to do by any other means. I’m involved from the beginning of pre-production and designing the shots through principle photography and shooting the shots for what we call our plates. A plate is an element that you shoot on set and then you combine it with a bunch of other elements into a finished shot. I’m involved in pre-production in the design, in working out technically how we’re going to be fast on set because some of our (shots) are incredibly technically challenging. The whole point of filmmaking is that the technique never overshadows the creativity, right, and you try to be creatively on-point with the story, so whatever you do echoes the story and drives it forward, it doesn’t call attention to itself as a technique. So I would say my job is probably 60 percent creative, 40 percent technique, but the technical aspect of my job is incredibly challenging, and so you find a lot of people who are half-engineer, half-artist doing my work. I come out of the camera department so I like to shoot a lot of stuff, as many elements as I can get, and you try to shoot as much as you can during principle photography and then in post-production you do all the stuff that is necessary, all the other elements that are combined with the photographic plate you have to generate, and in this day and age sometimes it’s faster not to have a photographic plate at all. I tend to, again because I come out of camera, I tend to like to have photographic elements — as many as I can get — before I go the full CG route.
TMD: One thing that really stood out to me about the film is just how well the environment tells the story of what events transpired in between the original film and “2049.” How much of a role would you say storytelling plays in what you do with VFX?
JN: I think it’s a tremendous thing. I mean, everyone who works in the movie business is good at craft and technique, and they kind of channel all of that craft and technique and everything they’ve learned and everything they’re good at into the service of storytelling. If you’re stepping over the line and drawing attention to yourself, it’s probably the wrong choice, and so I think storytelling is always on my mind. I will never review a shot outside of the cut of the movie, so when I get shots back from the effects vendors that I work with — and there are eight VFX vendors on this shoot — in three or four different countries, right, and I will always look at it in the cut. The cut is how you’re telling the story, how you want (the film) to be perceived. Storytelling is immensely important, I mean you look at the cities (in the film), but also at Joi or Rachael, and it’s even more important.
TMD: So speaking of Joi, her character is involved in some of the film’s most visually unique moments, such as the merging scene with Joi and Mariette, where you have them sort of superimposed atop one another. Care to walk us through how that scene was put together?
JN: The merge is my favorite scene in the movie, and that was incredibly hard to do. It was one of those things where, like in many creative endeavors, you design it and then you say, “This is gonna be good, but we have to do it.” and then in the process of doing it you find new things that you drill into. For us, we shot both women separately, then we mapped them out to CG surrogates of themselves. Then we blended them together and we didn’t want the moment, the sequence to climax too early — no pun intended — we didn’t want the women all of a sudden to just go like this and be locked in and be perfect. So we had these moments, like shots, where it would start out of sync and at the end of the shot it would be in sync and at the start of the next shot it would be out of sync until this moment where he grabs her from behind and brings her to him and you get like three or four shots in a row where you see one woman’s performance, then another woman’s performance, then their eyes line up and they become a third woman that also is performing. Because we were using only computer graphics to supplement the photography we were filming, and we only used the CG to create a backdrop, like when you look through a glass of water you see the other side of the glass, that was the CG part. The art was in shooting and mapping and putting those performances together, and when the eyes of those women line up it is truly a magical moment. I mean, when I saw it, I jumped out of my seat and I said, “Yes! That is it,” and we have like three shots in a row where that happens and it’s really my favorite scene in the picture, so I always have to talk about it.
TMD: Speaking as an artist, are there any films you can think of that have inspired you throughout your career or influenced your work?
JN: Oh yeah, big time. You know, I grew up in Grosse Pointe Woods, and I was the head usher at the Vogue Theater on Harper and Cadieux in the East Side of Detroit. I watched “2001” probably a hundred times, “Fantasia” a hundred times, I think both of those films have influenced me greatly. As I grew up and decided to go to film school I watched a lot of David Lean movies, which still impress me — Denis and I both love David Lean’s shots which are big shots with small people for grand scale and to show the place of the human within this vast landscape, right? Plus, those shots are tremendously cinematic. John Box, the production designer, and David Lean they’re just — I mean, if you look at the films he made: “Bridge Over the River Kwai,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” all of the others, he’s just pretty fantastic. Let’s see, I’m a big Billy Wilder fan, I’m a big Preston Sturges fan, I like the movies of the ’30s, a lot of pre-code movies I think are really interesting. I like the Coen Brothers’ movies, I think they’re quite good. I like Chris Nolan’s movies, I think they’re quite good. But you know, Stanley Kubrick had a huge influence on me, and I graduated from college in 1976 so I grew up watching them. I mean, I think maybe the first good movie I saw and realized the potential of cinema was “On the Waterfront,” I saw it with my family on a black and white TV in our living room and it just blew me away. “On the Waterfront” is really the power of visuals, acting, directing and music all together. It just makes this incredibly strong, emotional, cerebral statement.
TMD: You mentioned growing up in the Detroit area, and I know you’re a University of Michigan alum, so why don’t we take a moment to talk about the upcoming Ann Arbor Film Festival?
JN: Sure, you know when I started making movies (as a young filmmaker in Ann Arbor) I submitted them and they were accepted into the Film Festival. As both a screener and a filmmaker, I was involved and I think the AAFF is a tremendously creatively fertile place because there are no rules. The films that come in there are sort of oddball films that come in at tangential angles and it’s not like stuff you’ll see anyplace else. It’s always different, and I think it’s incredibly visually stimulating, I think that if you take a lot of that experimental film — a lot of the viewpoints of experimental film have sort of leached into society. You get something that could be, you know, non-narrative storytelling that could be almost kinetic storytelling. It’s really pretty interesting. Every year I go to the festival, I always walk away going, “Wow, that movie really was great,” you know what I mean? There’s some movies I don’t like, but there’s usually many films that I think are really, really, really great, and that’s the great prize of Ann Arbor: You have these things that are so unique and unusual.
TMD: Would you say that these sort of avant-garde, experimental films may forecast what’s to come in the near future of filmmaking?
JN: I think it depends. It depends on how on the narrative cycle — like on the classic narrative cycle — how mainstream entertainment will buy into it. There certainly is, with Netflix and Hulu and whatnot, there’s more demand in other places. On HBO last night I saw one of the shorts that I voted on for the short films (at the Academy Awards). It was a 20 minute or half-hour film, and in the past those films would just get shown for Oscar things and then never shown again, but now it’s on HBO. Or you look at documentaries, like all of the documentaries were really good this year. They’re always really good, and documentary filmmaking used to be kind of a niche. When I was in film school people would know about Frederick Wiseman and other people like that, the Maysles brothers. Now there’s a lot of really good documentaries being done all the time, and they’re documentaries but they also have a real point of view. There are non-narrative, experimental films leaching into society — you want to know where you see it a lot? To be honest, you see it a lot in television commercials, in stuff like rock videos, stuff that is just off-the-wall different. Where being more visceral and kinetic is okay, you see it a lot there, and that’s really sort of cool. I remember reading this one thing on Stanley Kubrick that he used to watch commercials and some of them he liked quite a bit, and I understand that. I mean, most of them are not good, of course, but some are really interesting in the way that they approach what they’re doing and that’s where you see it too. It’s a whole new world for creative entertainment and there’s a million different places to get it. Who knows, in the future, just like there’s an old movie channel, Turner, maybe there’ll be an experimental film channel and people can go there when they want. It has an effect when something is striking and tells a story in a new and different way, there’s probably an audience for it. If you can get enough people to see it there probably will be an audience for it.