“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” Retrospective

Next month, Terminator 2: Judgment Day turns 30. Made by a director and star at the peaks of their powers, T2 was the most expensive film ever at the time, and remains both the highest-grossing movie of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career and the sequel which furthest out-performed its progenitor. It is also one of a handful of films that changed the world of visual effects forever, signalling as it did – to borrow the subtitle from its woeful follow-up – the rise of the machines.

No fate but what we make: Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor

The original Terminator, a low-budget surprise hit in 1984, launched director James Cameron’s career and cemented Schwarzenegger’s stardom, but it wasn’t until 1990 that the sequel was green-lit, mainly due to rights issues. At the Cannes Film Festival that year, Cameron handed executive producer Mario Kassar his script.

Today it’s easy to forget how risky it was to turn the Terminator, an iconic villain, an unstoppable, merciless death machine from an apocalyptic future, into a good guy who doesn’t kill anyone, stands on one leg when ordered, and looks like a horse when he attempts to smile. But Kassar didn’t balk, granting Cameron a budget ten times what he had had for the original, while stipulating that the film had to be in cinemas just 14 months later.

Even with some expensive sequences cut – including John Connor sending Kyle Reese back through time in the heart of Skynet HQ, a scene that would ultimately materialise in Terminator Genisys – the script was lengthy and extremely ambitious. Beginning on October 8th, 1990, the shooting schedule was front-loaded with effects shots to give the maximum time for CGI pioneers Industrial Light and Magic to realise the liquid metal T-1000 (Robert Patrick).

Rather than CGI, the T-1000’s head in this shot is a chrome model lifted into frame by a crew member.

To further ease ILM’s burden, every trick in the book was employed to get T-1000 shots in camera wherever possible: quick shots of the villain’s fight with the T-800 (Schwarzenegger) in the steel mill finale were done with a stuntman in a foil suit; a chrome bust of Patrick was hand-raised into frame for a helicopter pilot’s reaction shot; the reforming of the shattered T-1000 was achieved by blowing mercury around with a hair dryer; bullet hits on the character’s torso were represented by spring-loaded silver “flowers” that burst out of a pre-scored shirt on cue.

One of the chilling full-size T-800 endoskeleton puppets created by Stan Winston Studio for the Future War sequence

Stan Winston Studio also constructed a number of cable-controlled puppets to show more extensive damage to the morphing menace. These included “Splash Head”, a bust of Patrick with the head split in two by a shotgun blast, and “Pretzel Man”, the nightmarish result of a grenade hit moments before the T-1000 falls to its doom in the molten steel.

Traditional models and rear projection are used throughout the film. A few instances are all too obvious to a modern audience, but most still look great and some are virtually undetectable. Did you know that the roll-over and crash of the cryo-tanker were shot with miniatures? Or that the T-800 plucking John off his bike in the drainage channel was filmed against a rear projection screen?

Plenty of the action was accomplished without such trickery. The production added a third storey to a disused office building near Silicon Valley, then blew it up with 100 gallons of petrol, to show the demise of Cyberdyne Systems. DP Adam Greenberg lit 5.5 miles of freeway for the car chase, and pilot Chuck Tamburro really did fly the T-1000’s police helicopter under a 20ft underpass.

Chaotic, confusing action scenes are the norm today, but it is notable that T2’s action is thrilling yet never unclear. The film sends somewhat mixed messages though, with its horrific images of nuclear annihilation and the T-800’s morality lessons from John juxtaposed with indulgent violence and a reverence for firearms. “I think of T2 as a violent movie about world peace,” Cameron paradoxically stated. “It’s an action movie about the value of human life.”

More Stan Winston puppets were used to depict Sarah’s death by nuclear blast in her nightmare.

Meanwhile, 25 person-years of human life were being devoted by ILM to the T-1000’s metallic morphing abilities. Assistant VFX supervisor Mark Dippé noted: “We were pushing the limits of everything – the amount of disc space we had, the amount of memory we had in the computers, the amount of CPUs we had. Each shot, even though it only lasted about five seconds on the screen, typically would take about eight weeks to complete.”

Robert Patrick shooting reference footage for ILM’s animators

The team began by painting a 2×2” grid on a near-naked Patrick and shooting reference footage of him walking, before laser-scanning his head at the appropriately-named Cyberware Laboratory. Four separate computer models of the T-1000 were built on Silicon Graphics Iris 4Ds, from an amorphous blob to a fully-detailed chrome replica of Patrick, each with corresponding points in 3D space so that the custom software Model Interp could morph between them.

Other custom applications included Body Sock, a solution to gaps that initially appeared when the models flexed their joints, Polyalloy Shader, which gave the T-1000 its chrome appearance, and Make Sticky, with which images of Patrick were texture-mapped onto the distorting 3D model, as when he melts through a barred gate at the mental hospital.

The film’s legacy in visual effects – for which it won the 1992 Oscar – cannot be understated. A straight line can be drawn from the water tendril in Cameron’s The Abyss, through T2 to Jurassic Park and all the way on to Avatar, with which Cameron again broke the record for the highest-grossing film of all time. The Avatar sequels will undoubtedly push the technology even further, but for many Cameron fans his greatest achievement will always be Terminator 2: Judgment Day, with its perfect blend of huge stunts, traditional effects and groundbreaking CGI.

“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” Retrospective

Crash Deconstruction

Sarah on the roof rack
Sarah on the roof rack

Following on from my last post, let’s take a closer look at how part of The Beacon‘s car chase sequence was created, in particular the bit where Sarah goes flying out through her windscreen during the crash and miraculously lands on the roof rack of the villain’s speeding car. This ridiculous feat garnered a round of applause at the premiere, but how was it done?

The car crash was done for real, as previously explained, but clearly I couldn’t afford the stunt team and wire rigs necessary to catapult someone through the air and then composite in the vehicles below, which is how you would probably do it if you had a proper budget.

In fact there are no visual FX in this sequence at all. The illusion is created entirely through editing, using quick cuts of Sarah (LJ Hamer) leaning through the pre-smashed windscreen, a close-up of her legs being pulled out through the windscreen by a couple of crew members stood on the bonnet, a low angle shot against sky where she’s not moving at all, and a dummy being thrown at the villain’s car. The dummy was pulled together from whatever items we had to hand and looked terrible, but only eight frames of it were needed in the edit before cutting to an angle of LJ (already on the roof rack) dropping from all fours onto her front.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so a video must be worth at least a million. So I’ve put together a little compilation of the rushes so you can see exactly what I mean.

Crash Deconstruction

Chasing Cars

A decade ago I was editing The Beacon, my stupid Malvern-based action movie made for about £3,000. The Cardboard Chase is most people’s favourite scene, but a close second for me would have to be the car chase:

Setting up car-mounted cameras
Setting up car-mounted cameras

Pretty silly, huh?

The car chase was shot over three days, mostly on Castlemorton Common in Malvern. It was done totally guerrilla style – no permissions, no insurance, no safety briefings, no stunt co-ordinator. The red car belonged to one of the crew, whilst the blue one was purchased secondhand for the production at a cost of £120, then taxed for £90 and insured for LJ, the lead actress, to drive at £235. (This was just standard car insurance so she could drive it on the road legally, and in no way covered it for film stunt use.)

The crash was shot on private land. The white car belonged to a friend of mine who was going to scrap it anyway. Crazy cast member Si Dovey offered to double for LJ driving the blue car towards the white one (sorry, I know nothing about makes of cars so colours will have to suffice to identify them) and miraculously came out alive, despite not even wearing a seatbelt on the second take. Getting the wrecked cars towed away afterwards (which was a major hassle) cost £75, bringing the grand total for the sequence to £520.

So an action-packed car chase can be shot pretty cheaply, but of course you shouldn’t try it under any circumstances because it’s extremely dangerous and highly illegal on public land.

Additional (27/10/11): By the way, you can download the whole budget for the film, if you’re so inclined, from The Beacon page.

Chasing Cars