Inside "Terminator Salvation"


John Connor (Christian Bale) sneaks up behind a T-600 Terminator.
John Connor (Christian Bale) sneaks up behind a T-600 Terminator.
Photo courtesy or Warner Bros. Pictures/Richard Foreman

How do you inject new blood into a fading film franchise? For starters, take it back to the future. "Terminator Salvation" finds Connor (Christian Bale) older, a father-to-be and bravely leading the surviving resistance fighters in their ongoing battle against the mechanized armies of Skynet. These underground rebels include young Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), the protector of a silent but very smart little girl named Star (Jadagrace). Also new to the mix is the mysterious Marcus Wright (Australian rising star Sam Worthington).

"We tried to honor it and tell a different story," comments executive producer Daniel Lin, a self-described "huge fan of 'Terminator,'" who's excited to introduce the series to a new generation. Bale, however, was skeptical. He thought, "There was no new story to be told," and passed on participating--several times.

Director McG (short for McGinty) knew first hand the difficulty of making a sequel, having helmed both the hit "Charlie's Angels" and its inferior follow-up "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle." He was similarly uninterested but became intrigued by "Terminator Salvation's" post-apocalyptic setting. But once aboard, he flew to England and begged Bale to change his mind. The "Dark Knight" star did.

Christopher Nolan, Paul Haggis and other writers modified the original story and script by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, and according to both director and stars, rewrites continued on the set in New Mexico.

McG emphasizes that the movie "was designed to work as a table read…our goal was always to have the action supplement the characters and story. If it's just all action it becomes very noisy, and if it's talking heads, people will say, 'Where's my Terminator?' Hopefully we found some balance. But when it was time to explode things, we wanted to do it with a great deal of gusto."

In the following sections, we'll detail how McG and his creative team devised the look of the film, came up with and implemented the spectacular practical and computer-generated effects, and dealt with challenging conditions on location.

On the "Terminator" Set

McG was on a mission to keep blue and green screens to a minimum. He wanted to shoot on actual locations with real elements -- including multiple Terminators -- whenever possible. That posed a complicated set of challenges.

"It's a really hard movie to physically produce and shoot," observes Daniel Lin. "We shot all of it in New Mexico and the conditions are very tough -- it's windy and it gets really hot and really cold."

Notes McG, "You experience four seasons in a day. The wind would regularly be over 60 miles an hour and would blow down the lighting towers. That would make for an exciting minefield to say the least." The fact that the set was located in a dry riverbed didn't help. "Dry silt is very powdery, and when you add wind to that it's incredible."

Sequences shot on a military base posed other problems. "There was a great deal of security to contend with. There comes a point where they can't let you past that final door," McG explains.

McG was also determined to shoot action sequences as seamlessly as possible, including a run through a minefield and a desert chase "with many moving parts" that took two weeks of first unit photography (with the actors) and another three by the second unit to shoot.

"I wanted to make sure the film was never reliant on cutting, upon edits to inject action," says McG. "I wanted to block the film in a way that was exciting to watch while staying in one shot. This keeps the audience immersed completely in the action."

Of course, with all that action, some computer-generated work had to be included. Find out how they used graphics in the next section.

Visual vs. Special Effects in "Terminator Salvation"

A pair of Moto-Terminators in attack mode.
A pair of Moto-Terminators in attack mode.
Photo courtesy or Warner Bros. Pictures

As noted above, McG was equally set on using minimal green and blue screen. "I don't like actors emoting to tennis balls on C-stands. It's a lot better when they can respond to what's going on," he believes.

His actors concur. "It's a tremendous advantage for the performances and for the audience when something is real," says Moon Bloodgood, who plays resistance fighter Blair Williams. But certain sequences, including a helicopter crash early on, required green screen. "We built a 360 degree cyclorama and inserted the environment after the fact," notes McG.

CGI was put to use for such additions and subtractions like cable removal and creating the Harvester and Hunter-Killer Terminators as well as the motorcycle-mounted Moto-Terminators. "There are about 1,500 visual effects shots but about 200-300 complex three-dimensional visual effects," estimates McG.

While the Moto-Termintors were mostly CG-created via motion capture using Ducatis and riders with tracking dots for reference, there was a prop version on set. Christian Bale did his own riding in a scene where he overpowers a Moto-Terminator and takes off on it.

For the non-virtual effects, McG turned to Stan Winston Studios, which created the original Terminator and had worked on all three previous films. Sadly, Winston died in June 2008 after battling cancer for more than seven years, but had turned the business over to his protégés, now known as Legacy Effects. John Rosengrant, who joined Winston 26 years ago and worked with him on the T-800 Arnold Schwarzenegger played in the first film, was the Animatronics Supervisor and Special Makeup Effects Supervisor on "Terminator Salvation." The process of creating the deadly machines is somewhat easier today, he observes. Learn how they did it in the next section.

The Machines of "Terminator Salvation"

A T-600 Terminator
A T-600 Terminator
Photo courtesy or Warner Bros. Pictures

For the original chrome endoskeleton in "The Terminator," "We made a body cast of Arnold Schwarzenegger, poured melted clay into it, pulled out the clay form, sculpted it down to the skeleton form, made a mold from that and so on." On "Salvation," he compares, "We took the 2-D designs and worked them into a 3-D computer modeling program and sculpted it all digitally. It's absolutely faster. We still had to detail the parts by hand to give them that gritty, nasty look but it took months out of the process."

The T-800 makes a cameo appearance in the film, based on existing digital scans of the current governor of California that ILM integrated into the movie. Schwarzenegger signed off on it, once McG convinced him he wouldn't have to take time away from his day job.

Rosengrant built various types of Terminator, including several versions of the T-600, which as the primitive predecessor to the T-800 is "bigger, more Neanderthal and bulky but still very lethal and menacing," he says. No wonder nine-year-old Jadagrace said the model "freaked me out" It was a 7'4" fully articulated combination of rod puppet and radio-controlled animatronics with a moving head, eyes and limbs. It was featured prominently in many scenes, although the T-600 seen where Marcus first appears is actor Brian Steele in a body suit.

Rosengrant also created 1,400-pound (635-kilogram) T-1s and the Hydro-Bots, which he describes as a cross between "a psychotic crab and a deep sea fish with an eel body. It was a combination of animatronics and CGI, and we used air-driven pneumatic cables. It had to work in water, so everything had to be waterproof." He created two full Hydro-Bot models, other bits and pieces, and one that could ram through a helicopter. "That one was made from steel."

A scene where a writhing Hydro-Bot is examined on a table features a cameo appearance by Rosengrant as "the guy wrestling it." He did so with rods painted blue, which were digitally removed later on.

Not all the machines featured were computer generated, however. See which character played both man and machine in the next section.

Turning Man into Machine in "Terminator Salvation"

Sam Worthington stars as Marcus Wright
Sam Worthington stars as Marcus Wright
Photo courtesy or Warner Bros. Pictures/Richard Foreman

Terminators aside, Rosengrant's major challenge was Marcus Wright, a character whose appearance required a blend of prosthetics and CG to execute. Rosengrant arrived on set in April 2008 to do makeup tests on Sam Worthington in advance of the May-August shoot. The actor spent six to eight hours a day in the makeup chair having prosthetics applied, including blue-colored areas with tracking dots inside them.

Rosengrant worked closely with Visual Effects Supervisor Charlie Gibson to map out the endoskeleton reveal. "When Jon Connor undoes that chain and Marcus can look down at himself for the first time, it's an incredible moment," says Rosengrant, who also built an animatronic hand for Marcus based on a body scan and 3-D model.

While working on "Iron Man" last year, he discovered lightweight materials that looked like metal but were much easier to puppeteer. "This urethane is light and totally paintable," says Rosengrant, who chose drab colors. "We were going for the dirty, grungy look--kind of like a locomotive meets Soviet tank, a distressed metal look," he explains.

An arsenal of weapons provided firepower that some off the cast had to learn to handle. Anton Yelchin was excited about using a gun and a grenade launcher. "I didn't get a phaser in 'Star Trek.' I was bummed," he confided. "Here, I had a gun the whole movie."

Bale found the physical requirements of "Terminator" easy compared to the Batman movies. "It was really all weapons handling and I don't find that too tricky." He did many of his own stunts, which involved "a lot of jumping off things and harness work, which can be painful when they don't position the harness correctly. You break out in cold sweats."

But those stunts you'll just have to see for yourself. If you'd like more information on "Terminator Salvation" or how movies are made, take a look at some of the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • McG, John Rosengrant, Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Anton Yelchin, Moon Bloodgood interviewed May 8, 2009
  • James Cameron interviewed May 8, 2009
  • Daniel Lin, Jadagrace, Jane Alexander interviewed May 14, 2009