Terminator Salvation behind the scenes

Terminator Salvation behind the scenes takes a look at how the movie was made at George Lucas' Light and Magic studio, including interviews with McG, Shane Hurlbut, Ben Snow, Charlie Gibson and Christian Alzmann.

The year is 2018. Judgment Day has come and gone, levelling modern civilisation. An army of Terminators roam the post-apocalyptic landscape, killing or collecting humans where they hide in the desolate cities and deserts. 'Terminator Salvation' is the latest film in the Terminator series and is set only nine years away, but just how does it stack up in terms of reality?

"One of the great things about the Terminator films is that they are based on one of the classic sci-fi themes," says Rich Walker, managing director of the Shadow Robot Company, a company that has spent the last 20 years in robotics.

"The whole 'what is man, what is machine' and 'what is the boundary between them' and 'what happens when machines start to look like human and the humans start to look like machines': it's one of the great themes of sci-fi."

The Terminator films are also an education to a degree, as Walker explains: "We have to be appreciative of the fact that the Terminator franchise does give people who are not engineers an insight into the kind of things that we might be working around."

The films have also relied less on computer graphics and props, as robotics have advanced in the real world: "Stan Winston, responsible for bringing numerous sci-fi figures to life, including the Terminator, said that the first one was a puppet - a series of props that were carefully arranged. By the third one it walked and did everything they wanted," explains Walker. "They built a realistic machine because robotics had advanced enough in the interim that it was feasible to build a walking humanoid that you could put on screen and use as a Terminator. Obviously it didn't have the strength or the ability to reform itself from liquid metal but they were able to build something that was a reasonable approximation of the T1000 without the AI or the power source."

So the Terminator robot is feasible, if you ignore the AI, power source and strength issues. However, the robots building the Terminator are definitely feasible and were provided by ABB. Appropriately cast in a versatile manufacturing role, 12 ABB IRB 6620s and six ABB IRB 1600s spent the summer of 2008 on the movie set in a converted power plant in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Through special effects, the robots are arranged in an almost endless manufacturing line of robots on the Terminator factory floor, mass producing a growing army of the Terminators.

ILM takes on the terminator

George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) is responsible for blurring what is fact and what is fiction in 'Terminator Salvation', directed by acclaimed advert director-turned moviemaker Joseph McGinty Nichol (better known as 'McG'), which tells the story of how John Connor became the leader of the Resistance against the machines that are ruling a battered and bruised world. 

 In the words of the visual effects supervisor based in ILM and three-time Academy Award nominee Ben Snow: "We wanted to build on the franchise and make this film more than just a sequel; which is sort of what [director] James Cameron did with 'Terminator 2'. So, we had the challenge to live up to the legacy of those earlier films and update it all with what the viewers expect to see in 2009.

"We had already seen some glimpses of what the post-Judgment Day looked like, but we stepped up to give it a harsher and grittier look. Action films have changed quite a lot in recent years, and McG wanted us to extend the world of the Terminators technologically to show how these machines were hunting down humans.

"Our main challenge here at ILM was to create them in a way that was scary but also realistic and believable. A lot of it started with the look of the film, which was established by McG and the director of photography Shane Hurlbut, because we had to come up with some new image-based lighting approaches to really integrate the computer graphics with the harsh post-apocalyptic desert landscape and other complex dynamic environments, like the factory - with sparks and flames going off. So, we collaborated with the production designer Martin Laing, who built some beautiful sets."

Snow joined ILM in 1994: "The essence of the job of visual effects supervisor is to know what the audience is looking at and figure out how far you need to take something. And there are shots you never want to give up, because you could always add more stuff to them; but someone has to say 'that's enough' - which is my job.

"Usually they approach us with a script or an idea. And in this case there is a studio effects supervisor, Charlie Gibson, with whom we figure out what we are going to shoot for real and what is going to be generated by computer graphics. But that is only optimistically decided before the shoot because if a car doesn't flip over after an explosion the way they want it to, then we have to come in and do it. I was normally on set next to McG with the first unit, but Charlie was also the director of the second unit."

"In this film the lines between my jobs as visual effects supervisor and director of the second unit were blurred because the action and the effects blended together so well," admits two-time Oscar winner Charlie Gibson. "So, it was great because I knew we could try to go 110 per cent with the action sequences, as I could always fall back on the visual effects if necessary. If I hadn't been the second unit director I would probably have had to be whispering something into his ear all the time!"

Satisfying realism

"Our philosophy from the start was to shoot as much live action as possible and never have anything in it that was completely computer generated, to keep us grounded in reality. This required more work in the short run from the visual effects companies we hired; but in the end I think it is more satisfyingly realistic this way."

This meant he would also be directly responsible for some of the coolest new robots in the film, like the Moto-Terminators: "I created them and actually directed the sequences in which they appear! The other Terminator movies gave us a glimpse of the alternate world we show; but I loved the idea of integrating those robotic creatures into our world because, even though they are machines, they still are characters with personalities and performances that have to be crafted. That challenge is what attracted me the most to 'Terminator Salvation', and I am thrilled with the result."

Christian Alzmann was responsible for creating character designs, production paintings, effects designs and other artwork. "I started with a lot of pre-production designs on the robots and then made sure they followed through to the finished product. So, we provided a lot of support in the form of artwork; but if the look wasn't right I could always come back to my desk, paint up a frame and give the crew a kind of visual guide for the sequence.

"Usually we come in at the very beginning of the project, as soon as ILM is involved. We started working on 'Terminator Salvation' weeks before principal photography, and the Harvester [one of the most menacing machines in the movie] was our first design."

Director McG confesses: "I am happy to see how people are responding to the movie. The previous films were all about Terminators coming back in time; but ours takes place in 2018, so you get a chance to visualise the research and development that went into the becoming of the T-800 (the model made famous by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the original movies). You also see machines that live in water called Hydro-Terminators, others that are on two wheels known as Moto-Terminators and Harvesters that take people to use them for experiments! What got us excited about this movie was the possibility to see the future war between humans and machines that we had never really seen before, although James Cameron gave us a small look at it. This way, we honour the mythology of the first three films, but truly begin again; and hopefully that will be the defining characteristic of 'Terminator Salvation'."

'Terminator Salvation' is out on Blu-ray and DVD on 23 November 2009, courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

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