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Larger than life: An interview with U-M alum and VFX Oscar winner John Nelson

By Sydney Hawkins

Blade Runner’s long-awaited sequel, Blade Runner 2049, opened in theaters on October 6, 2017.

On the heels of receiving his second Oscar at this year’s March 4 Academy Awards ceremony, visual effects artist John Nelson (BA ’76) returned to Ann Arbor last week to give a talk as part of the 56th annual Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF).

Nelson, who says that an AAFF award and distribution deal were key to launching his Hollywood film career, was hired out of college by Robert Abel and Associates as a cameraman, where he would eventually work up to the roles of technical director and director.

Nelson’s VFX breakout moment was on Terminator 2 (1991). He animated several sequences for the film, including one of his most well-known scenes—where a shotgunned head of the chrome terminator reseals itself.

John Nelson accepts the visual effects award for "Blade Runner 2049." (Photo: ROBERT DEUTSCH/USA TODAY)

John Nelson accepts the visual effects award for “Blade Runner 2049.” (Photo: ROBERT DEUTSCH/USA TODAY).

From there, he went on to VFX supervise many films, including Stay Tuned (1992), In the Line of Fire (1993), The Pelican Brief (1993), The Cable Guy (1996), City of Angels (1998), K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), and the Centropolis sections of The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and Matrix Revolutions (2003). He also supervised all the VFX in I, Robot (2004) and Iron Man (2008), which were both nominated for the Academy Award in Visual Effects.

Nelson, who won his first Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in 2001 for the his work on the film Gladiator, was recently awarded a 2018 Oscar in the same category for Blade Runner 2049, a sequel to the 1982 dystopian classic starring Harrison Ford.

During his Film Festival talk he gave an illustrated, behind-the-scenes look at the technical expertise and creative artistry that was used on the 1,190 visual effects shots for Blade Runner sequel.

We caught up with him during his visit and asked him about his time as a U-M student, his first film, and his biggest mistake. He also offered some advice for aspiring filmmakers.

Watch the full interview: