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Animation Instructor Bruce Nicholson Adds Cinematography Courses to His Repertoire

The Academy Award-winning visual effects artist has worked on nearly 50 films from Star Wars and The Matrix Reloaded to Iron Man 3

In 1976, Bruce Nicholson landed his first big job on a feature film—a little movie known as Star Wars. A springboard into the realm of battling starships and snow-stomping AT-AT walkers, that film propelled the visual effects master on a journey into the magic of cinema. 

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Academy of Art University animation instructor Bruce Nicholson. Courtesy of Bruce Nicholson.

Nearly 40 years later, with two Oscar wins and a filmography spanning dozens of beloved blockbusters, Nicholson, who has taught visual effects classes in the School of Animation & Visual Effects since 2013, will be teaching M.F.A. cinematography courses as well. 

“The [School of Animation & Visual Effects] is thrilled that Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisor Bruce Nicholson will be teaching visual effects cinematography and history of visual effects classes,” said VFX Supervisor and Compositing Lead Catherine Tate. “Bruce has worked on nearly 50 feature films, including The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Poltergeist.”

While Nicholson’s success seems to have materialized instantly (his two Oscar wins came early), the visual effects expert said it took a lot of hard work and perseverance to find his path and ultimately forge a career. After studying film at UCLA and Sherman Oaks Film School, he took whatever job came his way, from working at a film lab, to operating an animation camera, to assisting a commercial photographer, eventually landing a gig at a small compositing house in Los Angeles.

“I definitely paid my dues in the beginning,” Nicholson said. “Sometimes that’s what it takes to get that opportunity, and fortunately it came my way. When I got my first job in visual effects it just felt like the right fit for me. I enjoyed the work immediately.”

But after a year at the compositing house, the work slowed and he got laid off, and what seemed like a stroke of bad luck turned out to be a highly fortuitous event on Nicholson’s career path. “I started calling around for jobs and I called a particular effects house and they said ‘I think they need people at this phone number, give them a call.’” Knowing little about the outfit, he went in for an interview and was intrigued by what he saw. “They were shooting these elaborate spaceships and stuff and I go, ‘What is this?’ And they said, ‘We’re working on this picture called Star Wars," and I went ‘Oh ... ’ I had heard about it.”

In the 1970s, Nicholson explained, George Lucas’ visual effects company Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) employed a young group of rather inexperienced, but enthusiastic “hippies.” Led by a few industry stalwarts like John Dykstra and Richard Edlund, Nicholson and his team forged their way through unchartered territory, experimenting with new technologies like motion control cameras and compositing scenes with optical printers, choreographing groundbreaking sequences that made audience's jaws drop. 

“It was more hit or miss than what you have with digital compositing today,” Nicholson explained. “So it was difficult to get everything right. If it was wrong, you’d just do it again and again and again until it was right.”

From the opening scene of Star Wars, when the menacing underbelly of a Star Destroyer cruises through the top of the screen, to the snow scenes in The Empire Strikes Back’s Battle of Hoth, to the subway sequence in Ghost when Patrick Swayze sticks his head through the side of a careening train, Nicholson has helped make some of film history’s most innovative (and challenging) visual effects scenes. But he has also worked on films like Field of Dreams and says some of his favorite movies to work on aren’t always the ones steeped in VFX.

“I respect the storytelling aspect of filmmaking,” he said. “I think that’s the most important ingredient and that comes first, everything else is to help tell that story. If you have a compelling story and it works out well, that’s the kind of film I want to work on.”