TF gets insider info on X-Men 3

John Bruno, visual effects supervisor on X3, tells TF what it's reallylike working with Brett Ratner

It’s not long after 9am and as the Friday traffic slips past a busy coffee shop in LA, totalfilm.com strains to hear the man who gave Wolverine his claws. John Bruno, visual effects supervisor, shouldn’t really be here but frankly, he’s just too nice. Taking time out from working on the final shots of X-Men: The Last Stand to suck back a latte and give us the juice from the set of a flick that can only be described as ‘anxiously anticipated.’ So, is he pleased that by talking to us he can pinch a quick break?

“I don’t mind.” See, too nice. “Today’s just so important, the international version is done today, no matter what.” He says with a mixed look of relief and pride.

No stranger to the blockbuster, Bruno’s colourful career kicked off as an animation supervisor on Poltergeist in 1982. Since then, he’s cashed cheques for his contributions on Ghostbusters, Batman Returns, Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Alien Vs Predator. However, Bruno admits that various chops and changes at the helm of X3 - franchise director Bryan Singer departed for Superman Returns, Layer Cake lenser Matthew Vaughn then jumped ship after only a few weeks before the studio signed up Rush Hour helmer Brett Ratner, much to the fanboys disgust - ate through precious production time meaning the production was certainly a one-off experience.

“I had to write a thesis on the visual effects for this movie, can you believe that?” Bruno throws his arms wide. “I’ve never had to do that before but with so little time, I couldn’t show the producers anything so I had to tell them what I was going to do. That’s not normally part of the job description but we’re never normally this rushed.”

Bruno boarded the project last April and was surprised to hear he only had a year to turn it all around.

“It would have been much harder if we’d had to start from scratch but obviously we used the first films as a reference for what we wanted to do and we spoke with the writers to see how the characters would be influenced in this movie.”

A few weeks into pre-production and the effects team were sweating over the lycra-tight timeframe, “I really wasn’t sure we’d physically be able to do it, that was quite daunting,” he admits. “The first approach was to try to do as much in-camera as possible and don’t reinvent the wheel. Mystique was done by the group that had worked on the character in the previous movies, we had new characters but we tried to maintain the parity between all three films – they had to look like they were done by the same people and nothing could be shockingly different.”

At the point of signing to the project there was no script, just a basic outline but even that was incomplete. “What we did have was the bridge sequence, so I started with that.” The bridge sequence being the stunning shots that dominate the closing scenes of the X3 trailer, all snapping cables and falling cars. “We had a 60 ft long section in miniature that I think was the first part and we shot that in-camera at the proper time of day.” John says, checking off the sequences in his memory.

“Then we built the rest on the computer and then we built a full-size mock-up of the Golden Gate Bridge - 200 ft long, 100ft wide - and shot it at night but it was meant to be dusk, sunset. So they brought in a bunch of airport landing lights to fake the sun and we shot it in the rain.” Quite something then? “Oh yes. When you see it, it looks stunning, you won’t be able to tell it’s not real. We also built Alcatraz prison yard with a full section of bridge and another full section with people and cars all over it.”

In an era when real stunts and set pieces are enjoying a resurgence over CGI, director Brett Ratner was keen to film as much of the action as possible, turning to computer wizardry only when completely necessary.  

“Brett wanted to do as much in-camera as possible and as a result, it’s pretty spectacular and satisfying for someone in my role. So when you see Angel flying, that is done on location and we just animated wings onto him. There’s this spectacular sequence where he jumps out of a window and he’s a hundred feet in the air, it’s the real actor. Halle Berry was shot in the same way. Halle did all her own action and so did Hugh Jackman.”

Drawing him onto the subject of Ratner’s controversial appointment, Bruno is blatantly honest in his initial concerns. “Everybody says this guy is really demanding but Brett was a whole lot of fun,” he says with a smile. “In the beginning he said to me ‘look, I don’t know a lot about special effects, you do so I’m going to concentrate on personalities and characters.’ He always wanted to make sure that the visual effects are extensions of the character, which is exactly what we did.”

The helmer's generous spirit filtered through the project and Bruno recalls how a painful night-shoot was made all the more enjoyable by a certain Brit thesp.

“We were on an evening shoot on the Alcatraz set and Brett was talking through the standard director instructions, ‘Something’s happening to the left, okay now look right…’ then Ian McKellan said, ‘Do you mind if I do that?’ So he took the script and read two pages of description. It was like he was standing there reading Shakespeare, it was fantastic. Here we all were, three in the morning, frozen solid and everybody was just mesmerised by Ian reading this description! It was so good, we had him do it again just for laughs. It’ll probably end up on the DVD.”

After he’s finished his coffee, John Bruno heads back to the lot to watch as the final pieces of the X-Men 3 jigsaw are slotted into place. He seems very calm considering the movie opens in less than a month. “It’s right to the wire,” he says. “But I’ve seen almost all the movie twice now and trust me, it’s pretty spectacular.”

We do trust him, he bought the coffee. What a nice guy.

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