LSA alumnus John Nelson (left) with director Ridley Scott (center) and production designer Arthur Max (right) on the set of the 2000 film Gladiator.
This is an article from the spring 2019 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
The world of the science fiction blockbuster Blade Runner 2049 is tied together with strings of powerful, strange, and disorienting images. There’s the stolid, rain-soaked architecture of future Los Angeles and the massive LAPD tower where the protagonist works, its surface pitted and pocked, its roof flat as an anvil. There is the alien look of Las Vegas in 2049, a moonscape of irradiated orange interrupted by toppled columns and cracked statues. There are flying cars and someone who makes virtual reality memories and a tiny holographic Frank Sinatra singing “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road).” The whole movie feels simultaneously impossible and so real you can feel it rush by you.
The film includes almost 1,200 special effects shots. Its two-hour-and-43-minute runtime includes an hour and 48 minutes featuring some amount of special effects — effects all overseen by longtime visual effects maestro John Nelson (B.G.S. 1976).
“I’m really fascinated with effects work because it really requires a lot of incredible creative and technical problem solving,” Nelson says. “You have to be incredibly detail oriented, and you also need that balance between the left and the right sides of your brain if you’re going to be able to work effectively.”
Nelson has worked as visual effects supervisor on over 20 films including In the Line of Fire, Iron Man, Point Break, and Gladiator, for which he won an Academy Award in 2001. But before all of that, he was a student studying everything he could about film and film production at LSA.
Up and Over and Back Again
Nelson started as a cameraman, working as a cinematographer on student films at U-M and as a cameraman at the old University Television Center. One of the films Nelson made as an undergraduate was shown at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, where it was picked up for distribution. Using the film as a calling card, Nelson got work as a cameraman on commercials in Los Angeles at Robert Abel and Associates.
From there, Nelson worked his way up the ladder from cameraman to technical director to director. He eventually moved to Europe for a few years to work at Mental Images in Berlin, then moved back to the States to work for Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic.
Nelson working on the lighting references, including made-up zombies and 18% gray and shiny balls for comparison, for 2013’s World War Z.
Working as an animator, Nelson created many difficult and memorable effects in 1991’s Terminator 2, including an iconic shot where a cyborg’s blown-apart head stitches itself back together. Since then, he has built a reputation for artistry and excellence while tackling the multiplying challenges of organizing and executing visual effects on films that cost hundreds of millions of dollars and are shown all over the world. But for someone working in visual effects and blockbuster movies in Hollywood, Blade Runner 2049 presented its own unique pressures.
“Very early on, I realized that everything needed to look fantastic,” Nelson says, “because for two years every person I met came up to me and said, ‘Don’t screw it up.’
“We had seen so many visual effects movies that tried to copy the original Blade Runner by throwing millions of things on top of each other,” Nelson says. “Your eye didn’t know where to look, and it became more about overstimulating the viewer than being on point with the story. We really wanted to keep the visual effects supporting the story, and this restraint made the film better.”
It’s about the Work
In interviews, Nelson consistently brings up three particularly tough effects from Blade Runner 2049. The first was creating Joi, the protagonist K’s holographic companion, who had to be shot in a way that made her partly see-through, “like looking through a glass of water, where the front surface rotates in one direction and the back surface counter-rotates to create a volume,” Nelson says.
The second effect also features Joi, who in one scene merges with another character, Mariette, to create a third woman that looks like a mix of both women, seems absolutely real, and looks magical when their eyes line up. The scene also includes moments where the two original characters seem to float through each other, and the movements are so seamless that even after watching behind-the-scenes videos of how Nelson’s team created the effect, its flawless final execution still seems like some kind of spell.
The final effect that made him feel the most pressure, Nelson says, was a scene featuring an exact likeness of the android Rachael, played by actress Sean Young in the original Blade Runner film. The new movie needed Rachael to essentially step straight out of her scenes in the first movie into this one — even though Young was over 30 years older than she was when the first film was made.
The scene comes at the emotional climax of the film, and everything — from Rachael’s perfectly matched makeup to her flyaway hairs to the peculiar way that she bobs her head — had to be done perfectly.
Nelson worked closely with actresses Ana de Armas and Mackenzie Davis to complete the famous “merge” sequence in Blade Runner 2049.
Executing the effect involved a live performance from British actress Loren Peta, computer scans of an old Sean Young life cast, input from Sean Young during preparation and during shooting, motion capture shots of both Young and Peta, and lots and lots of time animating the muscles and expressions of the fully computer-generated de-aged Rachael head.
But the desire to nail an effect like this one comes as much from a creative and story-driven focus, Nelson says, as it does from the need to achieve a technically perfect visual effect. And sometimes putting imperfections into the effects make them seem even more real.
“Visual effects, even great visual effects, have to serve the story,” Nelson says. “We’re like the dessert. Story and character are still the meat and potatoes. If you have a great effects movie with no story or character, you’re going to get a sugar high and crash.”
It was Blade Runner 2049’s combined effects of digital matte paintings, miniatures, and three-dimensional computer-generated images that created the holographic companions, brutalist cityscapes, and miraculously de-aged characters that earned Nelson his second Academy Award last year.
His approach to his own career matches up to the advice that he gives to young filmmakers: It’s about the work.
“Anything in filmmaking is about the work,” Nelson says. “You have to find what is special to you in the work and then execute that at a high level over and over and over again. After you’ve done that, then you’ll know what naturally moves you and what your particular muse is. It’ll show itself if you do enough good work, like a moth moving to a flame.”