My newest interview subject, John Bruno, is an accomplished visual effects artist. He’s helped to create some of the most memorable images of the last few decades of blockbuster cinema in projects ranging from Ghostbusters and the first two Poltergeist films to Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Batman Returns to Avatar and the Twilight films. He’s even won an Oscar, taking home the Best Visual Effects Oscar for The Abyss. I spoke to John Bruno recently about his long and diverse career, and we put this together over the course of two phone calls. I hope you all enjoy getting to know this amazing talent.
Say hello to John Bruno!
Johnny: I would like to start off with this question: Had you always wanted to be in the entertainment industry, or did you initially have a different career goal in mind?
John Bruno: Different. My family is from Central California. Monterey, and when I was growing up, I was lucky. On The Monterey peninsula, Carmel in particular lived many successful newspaper and magazine cartoonists. Eldon Dedini, New Yorker and Playboy cartoonist, became a mentor, along with Gus Arriola, who wrote and illustrated the comic strip Gordo, Hank Ketchum, Dennis The Menace, Lee Holley, Ponytail, and Frank O’Neal, who wrote the comic strip Short Ribs. Most called the Monterey Peninsula, Carmel or Carmel Valley home.
When I was 10 or 12, I discovered Mad Comic Books. In them were artists like John Severin, Jack Davis, Wally Wood my favorite artists ever. Their work then was astonishing to me as a kid. Look at those pages today and you’ll understand. I tried to create my own personal comic book by copying pages from those Mad Comics. But I had to do it in secret. My mother forbade me to read comic books. Especially Mad Magazine.
Then one day, my father was making deliveries to shops in Carmel and saw Hank Ketchum getting a haircut. He said he was a fan and showed him my personal “secret” illustrated notebook. That notebook had my hand inked copies of pages from Mad Magazine. I knew nothing about creating inked drawings or drawing human figures but I did my best to copy the artwork of Wallace Wood.
My father returned home and said, “On Sunday we’re going to meet Hank Ketchum”. I showed him your book and he wants to meet you. That freaked me out because nobody was supposed to know about those drawings. I had copied someone else work. They weren’t really original ideas.
Hank Ketchum had 3 issues of Mad Comics laying on a table in his office (he had the entire run. He opened one of them and said you know he copied these pages. My mother turned red. These are really good for someone his age and said he would help me if this is what I wanted to do.
My father bought a light table from Hank Ketchum – which I still use today, so from the age of 12 on, I knew what I wanted to do. By the time I got to high school, I was doing Short Ribs for Frank O’Neil. I was what was called a “ghost cartoonist”. I was 16. Frank O’Neil would supply me with penciled daily strips. I would finish them by inking and lettering the panels and he would sign and date them and send them on to the distribution syndicate.
Johnny: This provides me with some good information. You grew up with a wide variety of cartoonists, and that helped lead you into the first part of your work. That does lead me to ask: As an animator, some of your earliest work was done at Hanna-Barbera. A previous interview subject of mine, Donald F. Glut, also worked for the studio, but was not really a fan of what they were doing. What were your opinions of Hanna-Barbera when working for them?
John Bruno: Well, I don’t want to get too deep into that but Joe and Bill did employ a lot of artists when they created the Flintstones, the Jetsons. Scooby-Doo and Yogi Bear, eventually all becoming live action feature films. The animation was stylized. It wasn’t Disney high end feature character animation, that could take weeks to animate five feet of film. HB produced funny scripts and characters that children and adults could relate to on a weekly basis. It was a production line supplying networks with Saturday morning cartoons. but as I said, it put a lot of people to work. I did storyboards and layout at Hanna-Barbera. Some animation. One day Bill Hanna called me into his office and handed me a script for Captain Caveman. He said, it’s Friday. Bring this script back to me on Monday and I’ll pay you a thousand dollars. I did and he said it was pretty good. Bill called on me when he wanted something special done.
Before moving down to LA, I asked Hank Ketchum, Gus Arriola and Eldon to write letters of introduction to Disney studios when I was 19. All of them had worked there and knew a lot of people. That got me in the door and I ended up doing Donald Duck comic books. The head of that dept mentioned that “The Hollywood Chamber Of Commerce was looking for young animators for an advanced animation class to be taught by Irv Spence. Eight people would be chosen from a 1,000 applicants”. Irv Spence in the early days of MGM animation, was the key animator responsible for Tom and Jerry theatrical cartoons directed by Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera.
I was one of the 8 chosen for that class. Problem was, I was an illustrator. I didn’t know a lot about character animation. but I was picked, I think, because I worked at Disney.
Every Wednesday, the eight of us would meet at Hanna Barbara. Everyone there was already at least an assistant animator. Everyone but me. But I was a quick learner and quickly learned to animate, “flip” pages to see the “in-between” animation motion.
Irv Spence noticed my work. Liked the “thick-thin” lines I drew (my Disney training), and out of the blue, asked me if I wanted to be his assistant. He was working on “Horton Hears A Who” at Chuck Jones. My first job in animation as Irv Spence’s assistant. I met all the MGM greats, including Chuck Jones.
Johnny: Oh, I remember that special. We’ll return to animation, but I did want to ask this: During your 70s work, you also became involved in the Argo plot to help rescue hostages from Iran. Did you ever have the chance to consult Ben Affleck on his movie Argo?
John Bruno: No. that’s kind of a long story, but when the film came out in 2012, I did call Ben Affleck’s office, and a lawyer called me back and said, “The movie’s already done. What do you want from us?”. I wanted to explain that I was THE ACTUAL illustrator in the story. Not Jack Kirby. I was the one in the office. The movie’s pretty accurate, but I definitely had more inside information. I mentioned that I had worked with Grant Heslov the producer, who played Faisal in True Lies. I was the Custodian in that film. At some point we’re going to cross paths, and we should talk (laughing). Still haven’t heard from anyone.
When I first came to Los Angeles in the early 70s, I lived with my cousin, make-up artist John Inzurella. I slept on his couch, and I would go to work with him. He was Henry Fonda’s makeup man, and at FOX he introduced me to John Chambers on the Fox lot, where John C was planning the second Planet Of The Apes. Planet of the Apes was groundbreaking.
Although I wanted to do animation and comic books, I also thought makeup effects were pretty cool and John Chambers took a liking to me. If make-up was what I really wanted to do he would help. I became really good friends with John Chambers who lived in Burbank, not far from where I had an apartment.
On the weekends, John would work out of his garage, and asked me to join him. It was there that he taught me what I know about makeup effects. I would watch what he was doing, and help with plaster casts of people’s faces. He would make ears for Spock out of his garage.
But there was never much work for specialty make-up artists at the time, if you weren’t in the union. And you needed to have worked 30 days as a makeup artist to get in the union. 30 days straight. Both John Chambers and John Inzurella did manage to line up a number of small make-up jobs for me as an assistant. I applied makeup on the local NBC news anchors.
At one point, I realized I had reached 30 days, and applied to the union but was turned down. “I was told, I only had worked 29 days in a row. You missed one day. You need 30 days straight”, John Chambers became really angry. Got someone on the phone and started screaming obscenities. I never did get in the Make-up guild. If I did my career path might have been very different.
I was still working at Hanna-Barbera, and I was doing a lot of storyboarding and layout on shows like Superfriends, Captain Caveman and Godzilla. Dave Stevens, who would one day create “The Rocketeer”, was in my layout department. He was really good at drawing Godzilla (laughing). An amazing illustrator.
I got a call from Producer Matty Simmons, office on the Universal lot. He was the producer of Animal House and the National Lampoon movies, publisher of National Lampoon and Heavy Metal magazines. I was asked if I could meet with him.
When I arrived, Matty introduced me to Producer/Director Ivan Reitman who had copies of Heavy Metal magazine spread across his desk. One was opened to a double-page spread of an illustrated story by French artist Moebius. He asked if the image on those pages could be animated with the same color and detail. I said, “Yes”. The funding for the film Heavy Metal would come from Canada, and for Americans to work in Canada the top tier of talent had to be Canadian. Ivan had to have a director that was Canadian, writers that were Canadian and a Canadian producer, but I could work on it as a sequence director.
My friend Gerald Potterton, whom I worked with on the film Raggedy Ann and Andy, directed by Richard Williams, would direct the movie. It was all unfolding rapidly.
I was good friends with Jean Giraud, Moebius, who was living in Santa Monica.
When Heavy Metal was greenlit, we set up 5 different companies. Los Angeles, Vancouver, Toronto, two in Montreal, and one in London. And each story would have a different length and different style. Each story had a different director for each sequence. I was going to direct Moebius’s Arzak, but it seemed a deal couldn’t be made for the Arzak story. So we turned the story into Taarna. A female warrior goddess designed in a way that Arzak could enter the story if needed. Taarna existed somewhere in a time and place that Arzak existed. This was all in the early discussions.
Dan Goldberg, Len Blum, the writers, and I kept talking about her dialogue. It was like a Clint Eastwood movie. Minimalist talking. So I sat down on a weekend and storyboarded the entire Taarna sequence. Expanding it. Came up with the idea of Taarna flying through a giant skeleton of a fossilized creature, a thousand feet high. Beneath it is a powerplant. A sacred Tarrakian hideaway, where she would prepare to become an avenging warrior.
It was an R-rated film, So in that sequence she removes her clothes and swims naked across a pool of sacred waters to purge and cleanse her soul. She dons her warrior costume, very Slowly, before receiving her weapon of choice. A sword. like Excalibur, it was a special gift from the gods (laughing), all the while, saying nothing. Not a word. She didn’t have to. Her actions would do the talking. People today say that’s one of the reasons they love it.
To create the Taarna sequence, we used a technique called rotoscoping to aid animators in drawing realistic human character movement (motion capture today). It would be especially hard to find enough animators who could hand draw the Taarna character, as illustrated by Chris Achilleos. We took his drawing to modeling agencies in Montreal and New York. Seeing the drawing, they all said, “That’s Carole Desbiens”.
I filmed the entire Taarna dressing sequence and bar scene using black and white film of actress model Carole Desbiens. Then took the pin registered film footage and printed each frame onto thick photo paper with accurate peg holes for lining up animation. We only used key frames for animators to draw from. But if an animator or assistant had a question about what something looked like between poses, we would pull the 8X10 photo and it could be used as reference.
For the background look of the sequence We were looking for someone who could illustrate and paint like Moebius. Remember, we were in Canada. The film board put the word out, an alert, throughout the entire country.
A painting arrives from Vancouver done by a young cartoonist illustrator named Brent Boates. Brent nailed it, so he became our key background painter. Keyed every background and overlay. Corrected our rough drawings, completed them in the style of Mobius, and we started animating the movie.
Ivan Reitman called with an update. Columbia wanted to release the film in the Summer. knocking six months off the schedule. in order to do that, we had to work day and night, 7 days week and we did it. I don’t know how we did it. Late nights in Montreal, 54 below zero…
John Bruno: Yeah. Montreal winters can be brutal. Because of my experience there, my new rule in life is that I won’t live anywhere where water gets stiff. I visit snow. I won’t live where it gets really, really cold.
During production, Richard Edlund came to the Canadian Film Board in Montreal to give a talk on Star Wars. I went to that talk. met Richard, and I said, “I want to do what you do”. Out of the blue he said, “We’re looking for animators. Give me a call when you’re back in L.A”.
The film was almost done. The idea of Taarna flying through a giant fossilized skeleton of a creature, a thousand feet high, was something I wanted to do using a multiplane camera. Playing up depth of field and focus separating background layers moving dimensionally. I knew an animation cameraman who was in Los Angeles who could do it. Max Morgan.
Max Morgan used to run the Disney multiplane camera department for films like Snow White and Fantasia. He taught me how to use an animation stand. He basically taught me the basics of visual effects. I came into contact with so many great people in my life, but I didn’t know it at the time.
Max built a Six-level multiplane camera using metal shelving, screwed to an Oxburry Animation platform. He knew the secrets. What lights to use, what glass and filters, exposures, when to remove glass as you lowered the camera down through the layers…The bottom layer background painting was 36 inches, each layer separated vertically by one foot. The next platen was at 24 inches- 16 -12-9-6 and so on. we’d had to pan all 6 layers using worm screws taped to the artwork. It was old school knowlege, but the shots came out really great. That sequence in Taarna is pretty cool. Pretty great.
I called Richard Edlund, who was at MGM. I don’t remember if I told Ivan I was going to show him the reel, but I had the last reel of Heavy Metal with the multiplane shots, under my arm and went to MGM.
Producers’ One, at the time, was Spielberg’s office. Steven was playing Space Invaders in his office. George Lucas passed by, followed by Richard who said, “Let’s see that reel!”.
We went into the MGM theater and ran the Taarna sequence. Richard wanted someone to set up an animation department for Poltergeist. “We need ghosts. Ectoplasm. Do you think you can animate ectoplasm?” I said, yes and was hired.
I didn’t know how I was going to do it yet. I was moving into live action visual effects and it was a little scary. I moved to Northern California, rented an apartment. I had two months to come up with the look of the ghosts, the ethereal ghost on the stairs, and the ectoplasm, using bottom light and cell animation that would be optically composited into a live action scene.
One of the key layout artists for Taarna, Terry Windell called. He was driving through Marin on his way to see his family in San Jose. I invited him to lunch. He came over, I jumped in his truck, and we went to a little sandwich shop where I asked him if he wanted a job. I could really use his help here.
We hired three more people that worked on Heavy Metal and brought them all to ILM. We worked on Poltergeist, E.T, Star Trek II, and Jedi.
Toward the end of Poltergeist, I recieved a call from Ivan Reitman’s office. Ivan had a ghost project he was going to direct. A comedy, “kind of like Poltergeist, only funny”. I was asked, if I thought Richard would do it?”. I said, “He should. Call him”. Don Shea from Cinefex Magazine got involved. Michael Gross also called.
Richard came into my office, this little cubbyhole, and says, “You’ve worked with Ivan Reitman. Tell me about him”. I said, “He’s a producer Director. He did Animal House, Stripes, Meatballs and Heavy Metal”. Richard said, “He’s got this comedy that’s got all the guys from Saturday Night Live chasing ghosts”.
Richard flew to LA. And returned with two projects. Ghostbusters and Legend. He had made arrangement to partner with Doug Trumbull and Richard Yuricich at Entertainment Effects Group (EEG). A 65 millimeter VFX facility. Did I want to join him?”.
It was the Summer of E.T, Poltergeist and Star Trek II and Blade Runner. It was quite a fun experience to work on all those movies. My term as the animation department supervisor at ILM was up. I was at home and, this is the honest-to-god truth, I got a call from Frank Marshall, who said, “Don’t go anywhere. Steven wants to talk to you about Raiders II. In the meantime, there’s a friend of mine who’s looking for someone to advise on an animated film, and maybe you can help him out. I asked, “Who the friend was?”, and he said, “Cheech Marin from Cheech and Chong”.
I flew down and met Cheech, who was doing an animated film. I ended up moving back to LA, staying at one of his homes and developing his project. I never left. I worked with Cheech on The Corsican Brothers in Paris. Born In East L.A and Shrimp On The Barbie in Australia.
Richard Edlund finally called to say, “I’ve got Ghostbusters. When can you start?”. Literally the next day, I walked into a meeting for Ghostbusters. That movie changed my life. In that meeting were a number of people formerly from ILM, Conrad and Laura Buff, Terry Windell, Annik Therrian, Gary Waller, Gary Plateck, Gene Whiteman and Mark Vargo. With Richard Edlund and myself, the nine key people that would become Boss Film.
We had 10 months to complete the movie. In 10 months it would be released. 10 months.
It was like, “How are you going to do this?”. “We don’t know.
That movie was done so quickly. If we had an idea, we would do it. And it was so much fun. It was the funniest script I’d ever read, by the way. To me, it was 2 D animation in three dimensions. We used every in camera trick in the book. Large puppets, The marshmallow man was an actor in a suit. As was Slimer. We started storyboarding immediately. Brent Boates from Vancouver, Terry Windell and myself storyboarded some really funny gags, then started work closely with the Boss Film creature shop filming framerate and lens tests of the Marshmallow Man.
Johnny: When it does come to Ghostbusters, knowing that the cast was well-known for improvising and coming up with new lines on the fly, did any of that impact your work on the visual effects?
John Bruno: Not really, but I remember Bill Murray made up probably 40 percent of his dialogue, but it was funny stuff. I do remember Bill Murray in Dana’s (Sigourney Weaver) apartment, entering with something “technical”. His fingers clicking the piano keys and saying, “They hate that”. I burst out laughing, and Ivan was annoyed. They had to do another take.
Johnny: The movie is a classic not just of 80s comedy, but 80s cinema period, and your work definitely helped make it the memorable experience that it was for so many of my generation.
John Bruno: Thank you. It holds up as funny. People still use lines from that movie, and reference it. I’m telling you, all this stuff we were doing then, Poltergeist and E.T and Ghostbusters and Poltergeist II led to Cliffhanger and Batman Returns. All those movies happened just one after the other, and it was exciting. I was always looking for something new. I really tried to push myself, and then I met James Cameron.
Johnny: We’ll hold off on James Cameron for now, but when it does come to Poltergeist II, when that movie was filming, MGM/UA was in the middle of being purchased and then sold back by Ted Turner, with Poltergeist II being the first movie MGM released after Turner sold back United Artists and the MGM logo. Did MGM/UA’s troubles in the late 1985/early 1986 time period have an impact on your work for Poltergeist II?
John Bruno: Well, not that I noticed. I do remember I had a little desk on the Poltergeist II set where I was storyboarding. I have pictures of that. As I was drawing, I remember a very tall man walking up to me asking, “Where’s the set?”. I looked up, and it was Ted Turner. I walked him to where we were shooting. He wanted to see what was going on.
Johnny: Let’s go back a year to 1985. You were the visual effects art director for Fright Night. I interviewed Tom Holland back in 2016, and he spoke very fondly of this movie, and the crew that helped him. What do you think has given Fright Night the staying power that it has?
John Bruno: It was a funny and scary film. Well cast, and Tom was open to doing things in camera. The budget was 8 million dollars. We had no money, and we would try to do everything in-camera as much as possible.
Vampire Stories throughout the ages always describe a man transforming into a bat. Well, is it a little 6-inch bat? I thought the bat should be anthropomorphic. Have an 8-foot-wingspan. Bat-like, but still humanlike. When he changes. he shouldn’t loose mass or volume to become that creature. He should maintain most of his physical mass. Tom agreed. The final design of the creature, I think, was physically four feet long, a big puppet.
Randy Cook designed the thing, and puppeted it from a track that hung from the ceiling. It was all done in-camera.
We were trying to figure out a quick way to show a transformation because we didn’t have the money to make multiple puppets transform.
I storyboarded a shot where Chris Sarandon jumps from a second floor railing, and we see his transformation animated in a shadow on the wall. Things like that helped us put money into other areas of the film where it was needed.
Everybody who worked on that film really liked it. There was something fun about it. There was great energy on the set.
Another interesting sequence was when Stephen Geoffreys transforms from a wolf back into a man. I spoke to Steve Johnson, “Could he make a wolf puppet who gets stabbed in the chest, breaks his back in a fall and crawls under the stairs to hide. Could he make it look real?”. He, of course, said yes.
I kept reminding Tom Holland that the creature would be made of rubber. “Don’t put a lot of light on it, or Stephen”. One thing that could make the Wolf lose credibility is if it’s brightly lit. You’ll see that it’s made of rubber.
When our Wolf falls over the railing he strikes a lamp hanging from a ceiling, which I specifically put there. The wolf hits the lamp and starts it swinging. With the idea we never really get a good look at the transformation, just glimpses, as the wolf crawls under the stairs with a broken back. Little flashes of the transformation as he turns human again.
When the movie came out, audiences thought we used a real dog. Roger Ebert, the film critic, and PETA came after us for harming a dog. Have you ever heard that?
Johnny: No, I can’t say I have. That’s a new one, and again, it’s a great testament to the skills of you and your craftsmen.
John Bruno: “Did you think that’s a real Wolf?”. Look up Roger Ebert’s review in the Chicago Sun-Times.
There was another scene that called for the Vampire to be struck by sunlight and blown 75 feet, horizontally, across a room and slam into a far wall. I came up with an interesting approach to do this in camera. We built dolly a track 75 feet long and built a 6X10 platform that we could place the actor and a camera on .
As the camera pulled away from the actor on this moving platform, the entire contraption was pushed through the set towards the far wall. The illusion was that Chris Sarandon flies 75 feet horizontally, on fire, as the camera pulls slowly away from him. Everything was in-camera. That completed, the following day, we took the back of the set, rotated it 90 degrees, with the camera, as a stuntman was then dropped onto the wall that was now on the floor. The illusion was that he flew “horizontally” into the wall and as he hit the wall, we added an explosion.
Johnny: That’s just fantastic stuff, and I know I said before that it’s a testament to your great skill, but, I mean, it is. You definitely are good at what you do.
John Bruno: Thank you.
Johnny: Oh, no problem. I want to go back to Argo. A question I want to ask is: Did you ever meet any of the hostages who were rescued as part of the Argo plot?
John Bruno: No. No no. In 1979 the whole Argo movie was a front. Staged, not real, but I didn’t know that at the time. Not for 30 years. Did you review that document I sent you? This is a true story.
John Chambers whom I consider a mentor, really would get me work. He wanted me to meet a young director, John Landis. “You guys would like each other”. He called John Landis, and John Landis asked me to come over to his office at Universal, to discuss a new film he was prepping and he needed storyboards. When I got there, he was sitting on the floor of his office, in front of his desk reading the reviews of The Blues Brothers.
I sat with him on the floor, we talked a few minutes about Blues Brothers and then I started drawing. Storyboarding An American Werewolf In London with him. Rough sketches. He had all the shots in his head. With my roughs in hand and the script of American Werewolf in London, I went home and started organizing and cleaning up the artwork. Once the drawings were approved I drove with John over to Rick Baker’s shop where I met Rick Baker and Steve Johnson for the first time. It’s funny how all these connections continued throughout my life.
Then one day, John Chambers called and said, “I’ve got a project. I’m going to produce a film with another make-up artist, Robert Sidell”. He said, “It’s not guaranteed, but we have scouts in Europe and the Middle East looking for locations. It’s about Jason and the Argonauts. His ship was called the Argo”. I said, “Oh, really? I didn’t know that”. He said, “We’re going to set up an office at Gower Studios. If you could work out of the office, that would be great. I’ll pay you cash”. I said okay.
At Gower Studios, the office was called studio six, for the six hostages. The office was maybe a 20-by-30 feet maximum. There were four desks. John asked me to set up in the corner, and would tell me what I needed to draw. I asked, “If he had a script for me to read?”. He said, “No, it’s shit. Don’t worry about it. I’ll tell you what I need you to draw”. He had a desk in the corner, and the producer’s wife was in front of me. I was there a couple of weeks drawing. it was mostly character stuff. I drew with charcoal. The current Argo movie used ink and felt markers, which is todays style, but back then I used charcoal. A thumbs-up on the movie, by the way.
John Bruno: I had a beard, and I looked more like Ben Affleck than Ben Affleck does (laughing), as you can see in the picture of John Chambers and myself. John was very adamant that I answer the phone, if no one was there, and when you do answer the phone, to say Argo Productions. “The scouts could call at any time with information”.
One day, a bearded man, I now know to be Tony Mendez, came in holding a briefcase. He put it on the table next to me, opened it up, and it was full of $100 bills. I looked at John, “This isn’t right. What is this?”. He said, “It’s okay. It’s okay”. The man looked at me and started counting out $100 bills. “How many weeks have you been here?”. “Three or four”. “I’ll pay you for four weeks in advance”. Everybody was getting paid in cash.
A few days later, John came in smiling, “They’re back”, “Who’s back?” I asked. He said, “The scouts are back. Everyone is coming back. And the movie has been cancelled. The movie’s not going to happen”. “But I was paid in advance”. He said, “It’s alright. Just keep it”. For the record, John Chambers did say, “Argo fuck-yerself” a lot.
That’s when I left to do Heavy Metal in Montreal. I never gave it another thought until 32 years later when in a theater i saw a movie trailer for a film called Argo, about John Chambers who was hired to make a fake movie… a front for a CIA rescue mission. What?
For thirty-two years, I never heard that. Not from him. Not from anybody.
John did take me to his house to show me a medal he received. He had an Oscar for Planet Of The Apes, and an Emmy, but he said, “I’m more proud of getting this medal than getting the Oscar”. The medal is discussed in the movie. CIA’s Intelligence Medal of Merit. I thought that was great, but at the time I had no idea why he got it. I thought he was joking, but he said he would go to Washington D.C to show the CIA or the FBI how to use makeup to change appearances, to put on a beard or mustache. I used to think he was maybe full of crap (laughing), but I take it all back.
Johnny: That’s definitely a great bond that you developed, and those stories are very interesting.
John Bruno: I want to say this. I’ve had four mentors in my life, Eldon Dedini, John Chambers, Richard Edlund, and my friend for over thirty years, James Cameron. I owe a lot to them.
Johnny: That’s fantastic, and you’ve definitely created some great work. i do have one more question related to Heavy Metal, and my question is this: What did you think of the South Park episode, Major Boobage, that parodied Heavy Metal?
John Bruno: I love it. Are you kidding? (Laughing) It was fantastic. “What a great honor” (laughing). We affected somebody enough that they’d do a parady of Taarna. I loved that. They also parodied Deep Sea Challenge, the documentary I directed of James Camerons dive to the bottom of the Mariana trench. My third deep ocean Expedition.
Johnny: We now come to The Abyss, the first of what would be several collaborations with James Cameron. The movie was a revolution in visual effects, so what was the most unique part of the creative process for that film?
John Bruno: The most unique and biggest problem that presented itself, was what Jim Cameron wanted to do the entire film underwater. Real divers. Real submarines. Actors and crew had to agree to learn to Scuba dive or couldn’t really work on the film. He had also written that the aliens had the technology to manipulate water and make a probe of water they could control. We had different names for it: Pseudopod, water tentacle, water wienie…and it would communicate with our cast by mimicking their faces. Did I mention that we hired Moebius to design the underwater aliens? Had to get that in there.
So how, in 1988, could we create liquid, flowing water in an extended tube and put somebody’s face on it? On Poltergeist, I had sculpted replacement animation of an acrylic hand coming out of a TV set that turned into smoke when Carol Anne said, “They’re here”. That was replacement animation for one second, and it was sculpted, cast in acrylic, backlit and replaced one by one with stop-motion, but for The Abyss this was a huge and long sequence. The technology had to be created to do it. We couldn’t figure it out. We thought it might not happen.
When I was at ILM in the early 80’s, there were a lot of tests coming from the computer industry. ILM Sprocket Systems was the digital effects arm that was being developed by George Lucas. Sprockets created the one minute Genesis effect in Star Trek II. That surprised a lot of people. It was used properly in the film, but nothing created digitally was really photorealistic at that point in time. We saw a lot of samples of chrome balls and reflective surfaces. Liquid mercury-looking test samples from different companies.
I storyboarded the Pseudopod sequence with Phil Norwood, trying to figure out how many shots we would have. We interviewed a number of different facilities that proposed ways to do the effect. At one point, we didn’t know if anybody could do it, but the movie was a go, so we’d have to figure it out as we go. We decided unanimously that ILM would be the place we’d go, and hopefully they’d figure it out. In the worst case, it would look like liquid plastic, but from the very first tests that came back from Dennis Muren, it was working. It was spectacular.
There were only 16 cuts, but the first image created looked like flowing liquid metal, looked like mercury. In order to get rid of the reflectiveness, the element was created digitally and composited optically. There were 261 visual effects shots in the Abyss, but those 16 digital shots still hold up today and, and I believe were responsible for the Abyss winning an Oscar.
Johnny: That actually does lead me to ask about that: Were you nervous on the evening of the 62nd Academy Awards, and do you recall what you felt when you were announced as a winner?
John Bruno: Well, it was a spectacular, nervous-making evening, and we were told that The Academy doesn’t know who will win, but if they think you’re have a chance, they’ll place you closer to the stage because once they call your name, you have to come down the isle. Use up broadcast time. After all it is a television show at heart. We were somewhere in the middle, in the center. That made us think we probably wouldn’t win.
I was just happy to be there. I remember all of us, Dennis Skotak, Dennis Muren, Hoyt Yeatman and myself. The Academy tells you in advance, “If you win, you have to keep your speech short. 45 seconds, after that music is going to cut you off”.
We didn’t care. It was decided that we should all say something. All of us. I would go first and thank Jim and Gale and my fellow nominees should step in…
I didn’t think we were going to win until I saw the highlight reel. Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd, were the actors who were presenting the award for Visual Effects. I had worked with Dan on Ghostbusters. They showed reels for The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, Back To The Future, Part II and The Abyss, and when I saw The Abyss reel, I thought, “Well, as a reel, that should win.” (Laughing).
Then they called our names, and I was completely taken aback. It was like we had to climb all over everybody to get out into the aisle to go down to the stage. You can find video of this on YouTube, but as an aside, I was beaming, and all I could think about was “I hope I can speak. say the first name on my list of people to thank?” I had a card in my pocket with names of the people I was going to thank.
I have to back up a minute. In preparation for the Oscar telecast, I was working out at Vince’s Gym in Studio City. Denzel Washington was also in there working out. We were all trying to get in shape for the Oscars. At the Oscar broadcast, Denzel had won earlier in the evening for Glory, and he and his wife Pauletta were in the front row. As I started down the isle, I looked up and saw Pauletta on her hands and knees screaming. She slapped my leg as I went up the steps to the podium. That’s why, when I got on stage, I was laughing so hard. It was insane. Thanks, Pauletta.
I placed the Oscar down on the little podium and pulled my card out and started reading, and then I left the Oscar there. I had to run back and get it when they took us backstage. After all that excitement and all the lights, you go backstage where It’s pitch-black, and all you hear are people’s voices saying, “Congratulations! Congratulations!”. We got on an elevator with Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase. Dead quiet. Nobody could say anything.
We got out and walked to a place where they took our pictures, and then we did the press rooms. It’s all interviews. All business and you’re in dead shock, and when you’re done with that, they take you back upstairs in the elevator. They pitch you out, and you’re in a corridor in the hallway. There’s nobody there, you’re oustide the doors of the main room and nobody knows what to do.
“Do we just go back inside?” There was nobody to tell us, so we peeked in and someone said, “Wait for the commercial” (laughing). I went back and sat in my seat. I wanted to go home. to sleep right there, but it was a spectacular moment.
Oddly enough, when we went to the dinner afterwards, there were people whispering in my ear, “I’ll pay you $15,000 for that Oscar!”. Are you kidding? I ran into Denzel a little later, and we clanged Oscars. I swear to god, it was like a fist bump, but with Oscars. There was a clink, and we both looked at them like, “Oh, did I dent it?!?”. That’s my memory of that. It’s pretty cool, that and the drive back. James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow, my date and I. We were all in the same limo.
Johnny: That’s definitely a fantastic story. Staying with James Cameron, and going into the 90s: You were a visual effects designer for 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which took the visual marvels of The Abyss to the next level. What was it like to help create some of the most unique aspects of the Terminator mythology?
John Bruno: Well, with that, I had Steve Burg and Phil Norwood again to help with Storyboard and design. We’d spitball ideas and run them by Jim. “So, what is this new Terminator going to look like this time? The first thing to be filmed is going to be the T-1000 walking out of the wreckage of a crashed, burning truck. Out of fire. How are we going to do that?”. It basically, had to be a well-animated human form. Chrome is going to dissolve away and reveal him as a human character, a policeman, and we had to figure out how many shots there were going to be.
I think we initially, had 51 shots with liquid chrome. All morphing into something else. Jim Cameron thought that maybe “When the T-1000 walks out of the fire, he should be gold. “But then he would look like a walking Oscar” I said. That would be presumptuous, and he said, “Yeah, let’s keep it chrome” (laughing). Terminator 2: Judgement Day did receive an Oscar for Visual Effects.
We were trying to limit the amount of shots because we didn’t really know if anyone could do that many digital shots.
There was a fight sequence with Arnold, and I thought that if we could make the cops costume out of mylar, his jacket, gloves and boots, Stan Winston’s guys could vacuum-metalize a chrome face of Robert Patrick, then use a chrome police helmet, and reflective police Glasses, the fight sequences, done with quick cuts, could reduce the amount of digital shots, so I think the total number of shots in the digital format was 41. But the big question was, could ILM do even 41 digital shots?
When the T-1000 rides his motorcycle from the second story of an office building and catches the helicopter. He smashes his head through the windshield and pours himself into the cockpit.
That’s what the original, first pass elements of The Abyss looked like…They were highly reflective, Chrome. I reminded Jim of that. The T-1000 lent itself to that technique.
Johnny: Well, those visual effects for Terminator 2 are definitely amazing to this day. Speaking of unique 90s sequels, you were a visual effects supervisor for 1992’s Batman Returns. What visuals were you most proud of having helped create for that movie?
John Bruno: Let’s see. We did the digital penguins, matte paintings, Batman flying over the city…We built a lot of models and miniatures, and we shot a lot of things in-camera, actors falling into a very large miniature that we built for another sequence. The shots of Batman looking down into the square are in-camera forced perspective shots.
With the Ice Princess falling, we lowered her on a crane into the miniature set. I think we shot it at 6 frames a second, we had wind machines blowing her hair. She had to act her fall out in slow-motion, as she descended into a miniature that was 27 feet tall, by the way. When I said “miniature”, it was a big set that we used for a number of other shots. We did the attack of the penguins, and we did all of the Catwoman shots and Batman flying, The Batmobile wrapping itself in armor and numerous flying bats.
That was an interesting film to work on. It was nice to be nominated for that one, whether we won or not. Stan Winston’s group did all the big penguins and the make up for Penguin, did the practical effects of penguins launching rockets. We had to try and match as much as we could with what was being done live.
Batman Returns overlapped with Cliffhanger. We used equipment designed for Batman to achieve shots in Cliffhanger. And I can’t move on without mentioning the “kicker puppet” of Stalone hanging from the Bitker ladder connected to the Helicopter in the movie Cliffhanger.
I had storyboard and designed a sequence where, near the end of the film, Gabe hooks a cable from the Huey rescue copter to a cable ladder bolted to the side of a cliff – 900 feet above a canyon and grabs hold. The Helicopter, now firmly attached to it, rips the ladder away from the cliff wall, with Stalone hanging on. The Copter stalls out and falls… All of that was shot – in camera – in 1/6th scale. The cliff was 60 ft high, the helicopter about 8 ft long with the Gabe character attached to the cable ladder, a 12” long “kicker” puppet controlled remotely and all shot, in-camera, in parking in Marina Del Ray.
Johnny: Alright. Jumping back to James Cameron, what was it like to work on True Lies?
John Bruno: True Lies, was the follow-up to Cliffhanger. I’m actually in that movie, playing a custodian.
Coming up with the idea of how to get Arnold to fly an AV 8B Harrier Jump jet realistically was the goal There was no digital Harrier model available. We weren’t that far ahead in the digital realm of the universe, so it would have to be a mock-up of sorts in front of a green screen or hanging from a crane, shot in-camera.
Before production started, The US Marine Corps allowed us to visit their Harrier jump jet squadron in Yuma, Arizona. the Black Sheep Squadron. We were given total access to observe.
If we could make a detailed mock-up of a Harrier, we could put it on a motion base and move it against the sky or a blue or green screen.
We were allowed to make a one to one fiberglass mock-up of a Harrier. We placed Arnold Schwarzenegger in the cockpit, on a motion base, on a rooftop of a bank building in downtown Miami. When we painted out the motion base, the rooftop, and the tower crane suspending it, the Harrier was flying with Arnold Schwarzenegger at the controls.
At Marathon Key, the Harrier mock-up with Arnold at the controls was lifted off the parkway by a 200-foot crane. Arnold took off, and was literally swung out over the ocean. It had a marionette rig on top to control yaw and pitch, and adjust its’ movement. We did it with Arnold in it, and then again in Miami when we landed Arnold and Eliza Dushku on Brickell street at the end of the movie and bumped it into a police car, not planned.
Some of the most spectacular footage was the full size Harrier mock-up, suspended from a crane 355 feet above Brickell Ave, with stuntmen fighting on it.
Out over the street from the top of the building, filmed from different positions, from other buildings, and from a helicopter flying close to it. We added the spinning fan blades to the jet’s intake, and added the jets down blast exhaust. The reason it looked real was because it was real. When the full-size jet backs into the building, I’m the janitor it crashes into.
When it came to blowing up the bridge, there was an 80 foot miniature bridge that was so realistic-looking that there were complaints from the citizens of Miami. People screaming because there was a photograph of the bridge explosion in one of the newspapers, and they really thought we blew up the bridge. None of us were going to say any different at that time because it was an 80-foot miniature, fifth scale and totally real, shot all in-camera. I was nominated for that, too (laughing), and I was in the movie, which is even better.
For Terminator 2/3D: Battle across time, I was designing and storyboarding the T-Meg 3 screen sequences when James asked me to co-direct the project with him and Stan Winston. Jim was writing Titanic, trying to make his deadline, and I knew the material well. We found an abandoned Iron Ore mine, out near Blythe at the California Nevada border. We planned shots during the day and filmed there at night. We had a scene where the Terminator, with John Connor riding on the back of the FatBoy Harley, was being chased and attacked by aerial Hunter Killers in one massive shot, filmed all in camera, in real time in 3D. We blew up two city blocks as the Terminator stuntmen rode through that carnage. The fireball rose almost 600 feet in the air above the location. All done in camera with 3 cameras filming. Nothing was added, painted out or enhanced. It was one take all in camera.
Terminator 2 3-D was a spectacular interactive chase film that ran successfully at Universal Studios Florida for years.
Johnny: Yes, I recall seeing it many times. It was a blast.
John Bruno: Yeah. That was our first foray into 3-D.
Johnny: Well, when it does come to Terminator 2 3-D, I don’t really have any questions about that. I just have to say that it was definitely a fantastic endeavor, and you definitely helped create a very memorable attraction. I can actually recall trying to interact with the preshow myself but then, years later, it occurred to me that you’re not supposed to do that. It’s all set up. You’re not supposed to interact with them.
John Bruno: No, you were not (laughing). The actors running through the audience, trying to shut down the presentation were shooting shotguns using blanks. The one thing I know that was good about all of that is that it boosted the gate at Universal Studios Florida. 40 percent more people came to Universal to see that attraction. they built one here at Universal Studios Hollywood, and then one in Japan. I really got to interact a lot with Arnold on that project. That was good.
Johnny: To go to Titanic, did you join James Cameron on any of his deep sea dives as research for your work on that movie?
John Bruno: Yes. Jim called one day, and said, “We’re going to dive the Titanic, but you can’t tell anyone, not one person” and “We’re leaving in two weeks”. It was a secret. I had a meeting with Gale and the higher-ups at Universal Studios about directing a film for them. I had previously worked on Waterworld and completed some outlaying work on that film.
While I was doing Terminator 2 3-D, Kevin Costner asked me to help finish some work on Waterworld. Jim got involved which opened the gate for me to be able to do that, and at that meeting at Universal is where I heard them say “Terminator 2 3-D increased the amount of people coming to Universal Studios Florida. You helped us with Waterworld. We have something for YOU that Gale Hurd is the producer of. The film is Virus, based on the Darkhorse Comic, Mike Richardson is also attached as a producer.”. I was given a script and book, and took them home to read.
That same day, Jim called me and said, “We’re going to dive to the Titanic. But you can’t tell anybody”, Not Gale. Not anyone.
So I secretly left town with the Virus script and…Disappeared. We went to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to meet up with the Russian Science ship Academic Keldysh, and prepare for the launch and recovery of the Mir Submersibles on our first Titanic expedition. Jim did practice dives in the MIR 1 sub with the Russians.
In Lunenbergh Bay, Nova Scotia, we started rehearsing launch, dive and recovery procedures and look for camera positions. The bay wasn’t too deep. These were practice dives, but we all needed to start understanding the process. We were going out into the deep open ocean to depths of 12,500 feet. Though exciting, it was a dangerous proposition.
That was on the first Titanic Deep dive expedition in 1995 . There would be another in 2001.
Everything was in order, the idea that we would try to illuminate the Titanic with specially built underwater lamps attached to MIR-2.
We were using film on the first expedition. 35 mm two-perf film instead of four-perf. It was half the vertical size, and it could run at a slower frame rate instead would allow for 10 minutes of filming instead of 5. A special remote housing was built from titanium by Jim’s brother Mike Cameron that could withstand full ocean depth.
On my first dive to Titanic, for the film Titanic, I was with Al Giddings in MIR 2. We were the lighting submarine. We lit the ship so Jim in Mir 1 could film it. We had our shot list and maps of what we were trying to achieve on film each day.
In the first shot, we, MIR 2, came up on the bow to reveal the Titanic. We lit it up. Jim was in Mir 1, filming. He wanted us to go down the anchor crane then follow the anchor chain across the fordeck, up to the mast that goes up to the bridge. He was filming that, so technically I’m in the movie Titanic as I was in that sub.
We had our shot list planned like a military exercise. Once we got our specific shots, we could then move to other parts of Titanic and take photographs and record detailed information about the ship.
We all had our specific jobs to do, and so they were real missions lasting 12 hours, and remember, if you’re diving in a submersible, there is no bathroom. If you have to go, you’re out of luck. And you couldn’t whine about it. It was a sub-mariner rule. We Americans weren’t going to give in to the Russians by saying, “I have to pee”, right? It was a manly thing. You just don’t pee.
It takes 2 1/2 to 3 hours to descend to Titanic from the surface, 4-6 hours of filming, and 2 ½ to return to the surface. A long day. When you dive in the morning, you return to the surface at night, and the ocean state could be entirely different.
For safety, during recovery, the submarines had to separate surfacing by half-an-hour. Jim’s sub went up first, and we left the bottom a half-an-hour behind him. At the surface, Keldysh had half-an-hour to hook up the sub and get it back on deck, and then they would come to get us.
The ocean’s state, in the case of my first dive return, was rough. That is the footage in the movie Ghosts Of The Abyss. These giant waves smashing over the submersible. Inside the sub was like being in a giant washing machine.
Once on deck, we’d download the information from our dive, then a fishing boat out of Nova Scotia would pick up the undeveloped film footage. No matter what the sea’s state, we’d pass it to them and off they’d go. The following day, a seaplane would drop the developed footage by parachute, A Catalina sea plane would fly low over the ship and drop it by parachute (laughing). A half hour later we’d watch the film dailies and make comments and notes for the follow up dives.
In 1995, I made two dives to the Titanic for the film Titanic, and In 2001, I made two more dives. On the second Titanic expedition, I was with Bill Paxton and Jenya Cherniyev in the MIR 2 sub. For Ghosts Of The Abyss, Bill Paxton was our host and star of the show and assigned with me to dive in MIR-2.
At that point, I was the old salt at this dive expedition thing. I helped Bill through a lot of procedures, the things on a first dive that could make you nervous.
Johnny: Such as?
John Bruno: Before each dive, bobbing at the surface, the temperature could get up to 100 degrees inside the sub. Humid. You’re sweating. Then As you descend, the temperature drops. By the time you reach the bottom it’s 30 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a 70 degree difference, we had to put on snow suits with 3 pairs of socks. On the way down you might see water trickling inside of the sub. Little streams. When you first experience that, you think the sub is leaking. (Laughing) No, it’s normal condensation.
About 5 hours into the dive there’s a CO-2 filter change. Carbon filters take the CO2 out of the air. When the Sub Pilot switches it out, there’s kind of a small cloud of dust that drifts from the canister. It scratches and tickles your throat. It feels wrong. When I first experienced it I thought there was something wrong with the air supply in the sub and you don’t know how long it’s going to last.
Al Giddings was with me on my first dive and he said it would last about five minutes, and it did.
Bill experienced the same things, and once we reached Titanic, we just got on with the dive. We had our assignments, and we’d move to our preplanned positions. It was a regular film shoot for us,
On deck, we had built a very large model of Titanic, a 15-foot section of the front half of the ship, where we would rehearse what we were going to do during each dive. How we would light and film the ship.
Then in 2001, when the World Trade Center was hit, I was filming topside on Keldysh with Bill Paxton, and Jim Cameron was below filming the Titanic.
We watched the 2nd plane hit the North tower from our satellite link. I didn’t know if we should tell Jim what was happening topside. “Do we bring him up?”, and then his brother David Cameron, our security officer, said, “We have to call off the dive. Bring him back”.
The Subs resurfaced, and then the story switched gears to incorporate the tragedy of Sept 11th into our filming. That’s what happens on a documentary. You follow the story where it takes you. That’s where we were on September 11th, 2001. I will never forget it.
Johnny: Wow! That’s indescribable. I mean, seeing one disaster while being in the wreck of another? That’s…wow. Alright. Earlier, you had mentioned that Universal offered you Virus, and you did direct that movie, so what lessons did you learn by directing Virus?
John Bruno: Well, here’s how that finally came about. We were still out on the Keldysh in the North Atlantic and I received a satellite call from Gale Hurd in LA, “Are you going to direct Virus or what?”. I said yes.
Being on the Titanic dive actually helped with our final pitch to the studio (laughing). I’m on a Russian science ship, in the open ocean with a Russian crew and Russian scientists, doing dives in a submersible about to experience a hurricane at sea. I’ve learned every aspect one needs to know about life on a ship.
I discussed all of this with Jim, and he said, “Okay. They want you to do that? He said, “Bring your own experiences to it. In the graphic novel Virus, the science ship was Chinese, so make it Russian, a Russian ship with a Russian crew. You already know the people’s names. You know who they are”.
Valeri, was a scientist, whose job was to take air density readings. He would take a green laser and shoot it at the Mir space station as it went overhead, and he would talk to the crew by radio. He would then take that laser and shoot it down into the ocean, and get a water density reading. He had a giant book, He did that every day (laughing), atmosphere and density readings of the ocean, take longitude and latitude reading from that location.
I’m on a Russian ship in the ocean, and talking to the Mir space station, and what happened next was Hurricane Louis. A category 4 hurricane coming our way. It was a huge, kickass storm, 50-foot seas, and we just rode that sucker out in place. A hurricane in the open ocean.
Back in Los Angeles I pitched that whole story idea to the executives at Universal. They liked it and said, “Have your agent call us”. That was it, so Gale Hurd arranged for writer Dennis Feldman, to help and we pounded it out, and started casting the picture.
We didn’t have the budget to do digital creatures, so I did it with practical robots, as many as possible. It was harder to shoot, but it certainly looked great.
GOLIATH was the largest practical robot on set. It was 14 feet tall, hydraulically operated and could walk slowly on set with the help of 12 puppeteers. To make it move very quickly, Phil Tippett’s company made a full CG version. This version would knock 55 gallon drums of fuel from it’s path and pull down a steel ceiling atop William Baldwin and Sherman Augustus.
Virus was a 97-day shoot on board The 522 foot USS Hoyt Vandenberg, a real guided missile satellite tracking ship, that was pulled from the James River fleet in Virginia, and towed into the Colonus shipyard in Norfolk Virginia for refitting. We painted the decks, the bow and the exterior port side of the hull and stern. We always shot from the painted side, everything was practical.
In Burbank, Gene Warren of Fantasy II built a wave tank specifically to shoot the 50 foot miniature of the Volkov he constructed from half of the Benthic Explorer.
Oh, that’s a story… On The Abyss, the Benthic Explorer was a twin-hulled ship that we filmed in the open ocean out at Greys Bay Washington. It was built as a 10th scale twin-hulled exploration science vessel. A miniature – 42 ft long. Once the filming of the Abyss was completed, that miniature was sold off.
For Virus, I thought we could use one of the Benthic’s hulls as our “Volkov.” We found it at a storage facility out in the Mojave Desert. I sent someone out to take photos of it, and then bought it for $4000. It shipped it to Gene Warren at Fantasy II. I said, he could keep the second hull if we turn the first hull into the Vladimir Volkov (laughing). That second hull was used in one of the Underworld movies.
Genes team turned the Benthic into a working 52-foot hull identical to the full size Volkov Russian ship. That’s what was used in the wave tank built at Fantasy II. The opening of the movie Virus was a 1/6th scale tugboat in the tank that would generate an 8-foot wave. Shooting at 96 frames a second, it looked like a 40 foot wave. The whole opening of Virus with the tug and barge was shot in that tank, including the Volkov in the hurricane.
Johnny: To go to my next question, and staying in the sci-fi genre, you were also involved with Star Trek: Voyager in the late 90s and early 00s, directing two episodes, Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy and Fury, and creating the story for one episode, Lifeline. Some people who have been involved with the Star Trek franchise have viewed that involvement as a blessing, while others have viewed it as a curse. What was working on Star Trek: Voyager for you?
John Bruno: A friend of mine, Terry Windell, going back to Heavy Metal and Boss Film days, had a great career going as a commercial director. Terry had also been directing episodes of Star Trek: Voyager. He called me one day and said that Brannon Braga was looking for feature directors to direct some episodes.
I called Brannon’s office and I came in. For Television, you have to shoot 8 pages a day to keep on schedule. I mentioned to Brannon that the most pages I ever shot in a day was 1 1/2. He said, “You’ll need to shoot 8 pages a day, maybe 10”, then said, “Don’t worry. We’re going to walk you through this process”.
So I jumped in, got my television chops from the Voyager production team. I stayed close to Marvin Rush, the DP, who was very helpful. Everybody was very helpful. It was a pleasurable experience once you got into the rhythm of it all. The actors already knew their characters. I would study the sets, and had a month to prep. I would go to the lot on weekends walk the sets. Captains Janeway’s Seat on the bridge…The Science lab. It’s all right here. If the script called out “hallway corridor”, those pages where used catch you up. Characters would walk and talk down the corridor, and you catch up on pages of dialogue for that day.
Les Landau was a director on the Star Trek series, Jon Landau’s brother, and gave me some great advice…”Three set-ups a page, and look for oners”.
There was a sequence shot at a conference table for Tinker Tenor… where B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson) said, “You’re shooting with three cameras. We’ve never seen anybody do that here”. The filming tools allotted by production were great. One Steadicam day, one Techno-crane Day and, generally, twp cameras every shooting day. Occasionally, if you got stuck, Marvin Rush would help out with a handheld shot, which helped keep things moving along. 19 years later, I would work with Marvin again on NOS4A2.
Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy was a really funny script, written by Joe Menosky. That was where I met Bob Picardo, and we became friends. We’re friends to this day and we see each other often.
One day, I asked Robert if the EMH had an origin story. He said, “No”, but he did play Dr. Zimmerman in Deep Space Nine, he said, I had an origin story in mind where Dr. Zimmerman created the EMH in his image, and in the end you have to save him with the medical knowledge you received from the Borg. That’s where I, Zimmerman, or Lifelife, started.
I wrote a first pass outline, and then got together and Bob explanded and tweaked his character, knowing all the right little nuances and character traits that we collaborated on to use in Lifeline. We were right in the middle of finishing up another show when my friend Terry Windell called and said, “Hey, man. I just got my next show. It’s called I, Zimmerman, and it’s got your name on it”. I said, “You’re going to direct that?”, he said, “Yeah”. “Okay (laughing). Who better than you”.
That show had eight pages of “repeat, real time, motion control.” It’s a very, very good show. Later, production changed the name to Lifeline, a better name, and it was a really well-done story, shot well. I was there during filming. In the morning, the crew would rehearse “x” pages of script, and Bob Picardo would come in as the elderly, 70-year-old Zimmerman, and after lunch, he’d come back as the Younger EMH, 35 year old Bob Picardo.
There were body doubles for over-the-shoulder shots, The actors had to be in the right position as the cameras repeated their movement, and the director and DP would make sure the shots lined up properly before moving on to the next set up. That show worked out well…It was complex, difficult, and rewarding.
Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy… I’ve been told, its one of the top five funniest Star Trek episodes among all the series. I hope that’s a true statement. It was well-done. I was very happy with it.
Johnny: That’s wonderful to hear. Going from a well-loved project to a project that I know had some mixed reactions, you were the visual effects supervisor for The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Parts 1 and 2. Had you read the Twilight books before working on the movies, and if so, how did they influence your work on the film?
John Bruno: Well, I’d seen the films. I hadn’t read the books until I received a call with the offer of doing Breaking Dawn, Part 1 and 2. Part of the attraction was the cast, and its’ Romeo and Juliet through line.
I’ve personally learned over the years that the success of a film, other than story, is its’ cast, and how well they play off each other. Do they have screen presence? On screen charisma? And I truly believe that 50 percent of a films success is the music. Films like Titanic,. Raiders of The Lost Ark, Star Wars, Jaws, X-Men, Hell Or High Water, Sicario, are perfectly cast. Their characters definitely have screen presence. You believe what you’re seeing because of the cast.
I wanted to do the Twilight Saga because I wanted to experience that firsthand. I wanted to understand it fully. On the first day, I met Robert Pattinson during rehearsals. We were doing contact lens tests. Yellow and red lens color. I also met Kristin, and I thought, “You know, the camera loves these two. I can see it”. “If you’re looking for a shot to do, put those two together and put the camera on them”.
When it came to the wolves, I had long talks with Stephanie Meyer about them. When a 150 pound human morphs into a 1200 pound wolf, the size of a horse, for me there was a question of physical volume, if there was a way on the new show that, maybe we could make them a little smaller, and slow that transformation moment down and see the changes that happen?. She said, “The wolves are magical. They are spirit animals. We don’t want to change them.
Phil Tippett was a very close friend of mine, and still is. I’d worked with Phil before at ILM and on two other films before including Virus. We talked about the wolves. In Breaking Dawn, the wolves were going to meet in a lumberyard, and they were going to talk to each other as Wolves. That was going to be tricky because the wolves would have to act out the “dialogue” as Wolves. Not speaking but using Wolf mannerisms.
In the town of Squamish, north of Vancouver, is where the wedding of Bella and Edward was shot. The biggest thing in the Twilight series for the fans was the fact that Edward and Bella were going to get married. Nobody had seen the wedding dress, so the crew was called together. “There’s been an offer of a million dollars for a photograph of Bella in her dress”. The paparazzi were about to descend on us. We had to be prepared for anything. The crew was given large, black umbrellas. Everyone had an umbrella, and if anyone yelled helicopter, everyone was to open their umbrella and cover Kristin and her dress (laughing).
I swear to god I thought it was a joke, and on day one of filming the wedding somebody yelled, “There’s scuba divers coming down river” (laughing), and there were 2 guys in wetsuits, with cameras, floating down the river past us. They were arrested. Shortly after, a helicopter hovered overhead and just kept circling, and everyone opened the umbrellas.
When we were filming in Louisiana, in Baton Rouge, there would be announcements on the local news. Nightly “vampire alerts”. Somebody would get on the local news and report that, “actor so-and-so was seen at the mall”. We were all staying in a place that was half restaurants, and stores with apartments above them.
My wife and I were sitting in a restaurant, and suddenly we heard screams. Hundreds of young girls were running from one block to the next. One of the actors had driven into the parking lot. I thought, “This must have been what it was like for The Beatles”.
The experience, on that level, was quite good.
Johnny: To go to my next question: I’ve been asking this of a lot of my recent interview subjects, so how has coronavirus impacted the way you do your work?
John Bruno: Well, it’s been difficult as far as work goes, but great in another way. in December 2019, last year, I finished work on Greyhound, a WWII story with Tom Hanks, filmed on the USS Kidd in Baton Rouge, not far from where we filmed Breaking Dawn. Following that, I received two film offers. One was Rush Hour 4, to be filmed in China which we were supposed to scout in March of 2020 in Hong Kong and Shanghai, China.
Of course, on the 15th of March 2020, the whole country was shut down, so those films were put on hold and still are. We’ve been told nothing was going happen in the film business until everyone’s gotten their vaccines. Its weird. In California all of my friends are on lock down., staying home, not travelling.
With nothing going on I decided to take out a number of projects I had written that were optioned at one time or another, or that I had taken a job and put it back on the shelf.
One of them was a script called The Navigator, about an alien navigator who is captured in battle and seeks sanctuary. In return he will help defend earth from an alien aggressor. Mike Richardson from Dark Horse Comics called me during the shutdown and asked, “Whatever happened to Navigator?”. He always liked it and said, “Let’s make it into a graphic novel”, so that’s what we’ve been doing. We’re in the middle of a four-part graphic novel called Navigator, illustrated by Jordi Armengol out of Barcelona. Mike liked the script enough to push forward to directly pitch it as a movie project. We’ve completed a really good script written by myself and Bill Wisher of Terminator fame.
Then, last year, I finished shooting a documentary based on the book The Dive, which is about Pipin Ferreras and Audrey Mestre. There’s a love story and Tragedy there. Pipin is a world-famous free-diver. The project is designed as a five-part series. We finished shooting in Cuba in September on 2019 with Pipin and his parents before COVID shut down travel, and that film has been in editing and is almost ready to go.
Then, just two days ago, I received funding to complete another documentary we filmed a few years back based on the book Low Level Hell, about a helicopter rescue pilot in Vietnam, Hugh Mills, who was shot down 16 times and lived to tell about it.
Hugh recently located a North Vietnamese soldier who had shot him down, and we thought, “You know, while we’re waiting for the film script to be completed, Why don’t we fly to Vietnam and see if we can find this North Vietnamese Soldier and interview him”.
So we went to Vietnam with a small camera crew, only to discover that Pham Gnoc Ang had died a year prior to us arriving, so arrangements were made for us to meet Phams comrades from the NVA 241st Air Defense Battalion. That meeting went well and it was decided that they would travel with us, by bus – a group of 17 North Vietnamese Soldiers, would drive to two battle sites from Hanoi to Khe Sanh in the south– all wearing their uniforms.
The siege of Khe Sanh was a very infamous battleground site for the US during the Vietnam War and these NVA soldiers were there, and Hugh was there flying aerial defense and rescue.
We interviewed all 17 of the North Vietnamese soldiers in Khe Sanh, to get their side of the story, and it’s amazing! No one has ever gotten North Vietnamese soldiers to tell Americans their side of the story on film and to confront the soldiers they shot down, and to compare notes. It’s an amazing thing. “One of the North Vietnamese Soldiers pulled the trigger that hit the helicopter that took off your leg”. “This is that soldier. Do you guys want to talk about it?”. “Dark Horse 16, Reconciliation,” is in post-production now, hopefully for next year’s documentary season.
SCOUSE THE MOUSE is another project I’m involved in. Animated. In 1979, just before I started Heavy Metal, I was in Montreal with actor Donald Pleasance, aka James Bond’s, Earnst Stavro Blofeld, and Dr. Loomis of Halloween. Donald, had written a children’s book for one of his daughters called Scouse The Mouse, illustrated by Gerry Potterton. It was about a mouse that learned to speak English by watching television, and falls in love with the music of a particular group, and imagines singing with them. One night Scouse stows away aboard the Queen Elizabeth luxury liner on its way to America and meets his favorite group and travels with them to America and becomes a rock star. The record, Scouse the Mouse was recorded with Ringo Starr, and Narrated by Donald Pleasence. The record was never released in the United States. It’s like listening to a musical play. Ringo sings nine songs.
I worked on it in Montreal back then with Gerald Potterton before starting Heavy Metal. We storyboarded the entire story at that time. Then recently, I discovered those storyboards in a box in my garage in LA. and now with Lucy Pleasance’s permission, we’ve updated that story and sent a new script, written during COVID, to Ringo who’s agreed to make a feature film with us.
That’s as far as I’ll go. It’s happening. It’s going to be quite good, and Ringo’s going to be very funny.
For these reasons, when I look back at it now, the COVID shutdown has been good for me. It’s forced me, and other of my friends, to get a number of their projects finished and completed, and pushed into final production.
Johnny: It’s great to hear you firing on all cylinders in spite of the chaos. I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about another James Cameron collaboration, Avatar, which created another revolution in visual effects. What was your favorite part of working on Avatar?
John Bruno: Well, when I’d got involved, James had already been working on it for 1 and ½ years. Jim had filmed the majority of the live action, but as far as the finished look of the film on Pandora, I was shown the night time bioluminescent sequence where Jake is attacked by wolves. To me, that moment hooked me on the movie. I’d never seen anything like that 8 minutes of 3D before.
All of Jim’s collective knowledge of 3D congealed on that project. From 1994’s Terminator 2: 3-D, amazing the advances were made in stereo photography. The two camera system used back then weighed 450 pounds and was the size of a washing machine and you needed a crane to lift and move it around.
Years later, when we filmed Ghosts Of The Abyss, Vince Pace had reduced the size of the 3-D camera package from 450 pounds down to two Sony 900s, weighing about 20 pounds, allowing you to do handheld or Steadicam shots in 3-D in two different configurations. One with a beam splitter, and the other the Pace fusion rig, where you could adjust the intraocular image and depth of field, on the fly, and choose the amount of 3-D you were trying to achieve. We learned how to use all this equipment leading up to Avatar.
Jim Cameron had been developing Avatar for quite a while, the story, the script, the costumes. the Pace cameras and WETA’s work creating the photo realistic digital jungles for King Kong was the breakthrough moment.
In New Zealand, I had to learn the WETA system. Joe Letteri was very good about that, and he opened up their whole facility to me. I had access to everything, it was something to see and be part of.
That’s where I met and became really good friends with VFX supervisor Stephen Rosenbaum. We worked closely together, Stephen and I, collaborated on a number of different sequences.
Avatar was shot in a three dimensional volume. using 3D motion Capture technology I had never done before. I had to learn the system and “the WETA way”, as I called it.
Actors would move in the volume and computers would feed background data into your camera where you could see your actors composited into the background in real time and record the moments you wanted.
The goal was for the final output to be photoreal. We’d have 8 hour group sessions, where we’d analyze shots, starting from the top left corner of the frame, and moving clockwise, we’d discuss composition, color and realism, always looking for any way to improve it.
It was a year-and-a-half of that, until we finally started outputting the film and converting it into 3-D.
I was told that “One out of every 33 people couldn’t see 3-D. The brain doesn’t process it”. That’s a lot, actually.
Though very experimental, we tried not overdo the 3-D. We made it, as Jim wanted, “the screen as a crystal clear window”. A window that’s tack-sharp. Things were sharp to infinity, and there was so much to see when you’re looking at it that way. The population of the forest, flying creatures, bugs that would add dimension to every aspect of a scene…It was so cool.
You might recall a sequence where Jake came back from being chased by the Thanator. In the mess hall, Sigourney Weaver was talking about how Jake barely made his escape. The first time all those shots were composited and put together and projected, you could read what was on the restaurant menu in the far background. I said to Jim, “This is so amazing. I have never seen this much depth, this much clarity. It was just spectacular”, and he said, “Well, we can’t do that. We have to soften the BG. Same in the Jungles we have to soften the backgrounds and throw them slightly out of focus because a camera lens can’t hold that. Can’t hold that much clarity and depth of field”.
We started continually forcing the images into what it should look like as film photography. In jungles scenes, we would add haze where there was no haze. We would soften the distant background to shorten the field of view, and it was a constant battle as to how much he wanted to see, or didn’t want to see. I learned a lot. It was all a spectacular adventure,
Johnny: Well, I think it’s great that you developed that bond, and I look forward to what you’ll be doing next, whether it’s with Jim Cameron, with another creator, or on your own because you’re a very incredible talent, and it’s been a great honor to speak to you.
John Bruno: Well, I appreciate the interest. Thank you so much.
Johnny: No problem. I thank you very much for your time, and I hope you have a wonderful evening.
John Bruno: Thank you. You, too.
Johnny: Be well, be happy, and we’ll talk again soon.
John Bruno: Okay. Bye.
I would again like to thank John Bruno for taking the time out of his schedule to speak to me, and I would like to thank Jeremy Conrady of The Pitt Group for helping put this all together.
Coming soon to the Flashback Interview, I’ll be sharing a recent interview with actress, musician, dancer and Body Double To The Stars, Shelley Michelle.
Thank you as always for taking the time to read my work.