Image Conscious: A conversation with visual effects supervisor John Bruno

Trevor Hogg chats with Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisor John Bruno…

“I met Ivan Reitman who said he could get money to do this movie Heavy Metal [1981],” recalls veteran American Visual Effects Supervisor John Bruno. “We setup a facility with Gerry Potterton in Montreal; there was a tax structure. I did Taarna. Gerry showed me how to do bottom light glows and laser beams. Richard Edlund came to Montreal to talk about Empire Strikes Back [1980] at the Canadian Film Board so we all went. I met him and I said I wanted to show him this movie. He said when you get something I’d be happy to look at it. We were finishing multiplane camera shots of Taarna flying on her bird through a giant skeleton into a power plant. I had these reels and I called Richard. I ran the footage for him and he asked if I wanted to come to ILM [Industrial Light & Magic] to do ghosts for Poltergeist [1982].”

“I spent all my time with Richard out there. It was fantastic. He’s my mentor,” readily admits John Bruno. “The main thing Richard taught me was interactive light. You have to make a three dimensional spot for your two dimensional element.” An example the six-time Oscar nominee mentions involves animating an electrical beam from a magic wand which zaps somebody. “You have to have interactive light practically in the set on that character. A lot of people today add an airbrush glow to things; that’s when it doesn’t look to me real.” Filmmakers were drawn to ILM. “Everything was an experiment. Steven Spielberg would ask for things that were interesting visual effects problems to solve. George Lucas had visual effects problems to solve.” Bruno observes that demanding directors, like Michael Bay, use the facility “to create something impossible and make it look real. There’s a lot of fear involved.”

Ghostbusters (1984) reunited John Bruno with director Ivan Reitman. “I remember it being a little cheesy but that’s what made it funny. The movie from start to finish from script to release date was 10 months. What that did was break all previous rules of how long it took to make a movie.” The Marshmallow Man was a man dressed in a suit standing over a miniature set. “That’s a film we did what we wanted because we didn’t think anybody would see it. The big movie that year was supposed to be Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom [1984]. Ghostbusters became, if not the first, the second highest grossing comedy of all-time.” The picture is memorable for another reason for Bruno who served as the Visual Effects – Art Director. ‘The best experience I’ve ever had in my life was working with John DeCuir on Ghostbusters; he was the ultimate production designer.” Ghostbusters received an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects. “It’s funny stuff. I still quote from it.”

“It was mostly trying to enhance ghost effects,” says John Bruno when reflecting on his Oscar-nominated contribution to Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986). “We didn’t have an imploding house in that one.” On the subject of Tim Burton and Batman Returns (1992), Bruno remarks, “He was a little quirky. He mostly kept to himself. We worked with the producers who would say, ‘Storyboard this. He had approved this. Just shoot this.’ He’d be there. Stuff would happen. You’d be there and make sure it got shot. You’d send the stuff over. I never sat with him in an editing room. The only director I never did.” The comic book picture contended for Best Visual Effects at the Academy Awards. “We did Catwoman and a lot of stuff with penguins. That was first time I ever did digital penguins; it was a trip.”

“Renny Harlin was fun to work with on Cliffhanger [1993],” states John Bruno who got the opportunity to expand upon his Oscar-nominated work for True Lies (1994) by switching the highflying action showdown from a Harrier jet to a helicopter. “I storyboarded that sequence earlier to get the job. I added [Sylvester] Stallone. He hooks up the ladder to the helicopter and it pulls him out over the cliff. Stallone is hanging there, the engine blows, the copter swings down and they have a big fistfight on the helicopter. That was my era of True Lies; I had the bad guy fight Arnold on a Harrier spinning around.” The sequence utilized a one foot puppet of Stallone and an eight foot helicopter “all shot in camera at a high speed in a parking lot using some very big sculpted cliff face. Then all of the shots were done at practical locations in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. We had the same vertical motion control rig that we used on Batman Returns. We bolted it to the Alps and did these shots where we’re going vertical rapidly filming Stallone. It was a lot of motion-control but all at location. It was quite bizarre.”

“On Alien vs. Predator [2004], with Richard Bridgeland, we had to build a third scale set to match a third-scale puppet queen,” says John Bruno. “We were basically working together all the time. The same thing was with X-Men 3 [2006].” Asked whether the roles of production designers and visual effects supervisors will merge into a single job, the 30 year movie industry veteran replies, “I can draw. I don’t know if everybody can do that. I’m not shy talking to the Art Director or the Production Designer.” Bruno was hired to look after the visual effects for The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 (2011) and its sequel Breaking Dawn – Part 2 (2012). “I storyboarded the movie with three other guys whom I have worked with since Heavy Metal. The people I worked with there were Brent Boates from Vancouver, Phil Norwood from California, and Terry Windell. We also had John Mann.”

“I’m looking forward to Hugo (2011). I want to see that,” states John Bruno who is a frequent collaborator with Oscar-winning filmmaker James Cameron. “Jim has already said it’s as good as the 3D we did on Avatar [2009].” As for his own attitude towards the technology, Bruno says, “Done well, it’s really good.” Problems arise when the 2D to 3D conversions are rushed to meet theatrical release dates. “The one thing that bugs me is going to a small local theatre, getting a pair of 3D glasses and its two stops darker when you look through the glasses onto the screen. You go to an IMAX Theatre and on the screen it’s the full amount of luminous on the screen. It’s an issue and it makes me angry. I know what’s 3D is suppose to look like. I have experience there. They’re killing it. They basically turn the power of the light bulb down to save money because those bulbs cost ten grand a piece. It’s frustrating. I don’t want to tell everybody they have to see movies in an IMAX Theatre to have a really good 3D experience but it’s coming to that.” 3D is moving beyond cinema. “Sports are the next thing. I’m doing World Motorcycle in 3D. I’ve been filming that with Vince’s [Pace] rigs for the last three years. We’re starting next season in March.”

“I did Star Trek: Voyager [UPN, 1995 to 2001] for two seasons as a director. I directed the movie Virus [1999],” states John Bruno who may well be stepping behind the camera again. “I’ve been offered something now that I’m working on.” As for some words of guidance in handling visual effects, Bruno advises, “You have to come up with the approach. Bite the bullet and say, ‘This is how we’re doing this.’ And not change course.” Bruno believes, “The big thing as a visual effects supervisor is that he’s only as good as the director. If you’re trying something and they don’t want it or they want something that you don’t think is going to work it makes it complicated. I’ve been lucky.”

For more from this interview, be sure to check out Adventurous Calling: John Bruno talks about James Cameron.

Dawn Breaks: The Making of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1

Many thanks to John Bruno for taking the time out of his schedule for this interview.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

  • fh0wzer

    While I appreciate the time you took to interview Mr. Bruno, the piece feels very unstructured. Mr. Bruno's comments seem rather clumped together and as a result the piece has no cohesion. Perhaps you could put the next one in more context and lace it with some history on each segment? Just an example, in your final paragraph about directing, it feels like it comes out of nowhere. Why did