Eminent Domain - How Cameron changed the rules of digital cinema
Date: March, 1996
By: Ron Magid
How the visionary director of Terminator 2: Judgment Day -and now T2:3D- has advanced the effects revolution, and made Digital Domain his creative personal stronghold.
When he's freshly scrubbed and shaved, James Cameron looks like an accountant. His face is soft and plain, touched with none of the grandly memorable characteristics one expects to find in the visage of a great movie director. This could be why the filmmaker often wears a full beard; he certainly is not placid or typical and wouldn't want to fool anyone on that score. Indeed, though at first glance he appears as mild-mannered as Fred MacMurray, a closer look reveals a glint in the eye, a steely sharpness that cannot be misstaken. He does look like an accountant, but one who's about to sharpen his pencil and storm the bathroom.
The man who brought us Aliens and The Terminator has never denied that he is a drive, ambitious man. He's justly proud of those qualities, for they -combined with outsized talent- have brought him to the top of a very demanding and competitive industry. No one -with the possible exception of George Lucas- has had a greater impact on the modern cinema. Lucas fired the first salvo in the FX revolution with the founding of Industrial Light and Magic and the release of Star Wars, but it is Cameron who has pushed the technology forward by sheer force of creative will. Neither The Abyss nor Terminator 2 could be properly made with the FX available at the time each of those films began production. And Cameron's exacting standards -the reason the best people in the business want to work with him- would not allow anything less than the literal representation of his creative vision. Each time, something had to give... and so far it has always been the technology. James Cameron doesn't back down from man or machine.
More important still is that Cameron doesn't allow himself to be seduced by visual effects, no matter how sexy. The premise for Robert Zemeckis's Death Becomes Her, for example, was the FX; for Cameron, story and character are enhanced by effects wizardry, not manipulated and controlled by it. Effects remain mearly a means to an end, signposts to a destination his heart has already discovered. The painfull, conflicting relationship of Bud and Lindsey Brigman in The Abyss and the lonely, immutable anguish of Ripley in Aliens shows not a director filling space between FX set pieces but a commited artist examining the vicisitudes of the human experience.
A tone of the Gatsby-like, everybody-who's-anybody parties that seemed to define Hollywood in the 1980s, James Cameron found himself seated across from fellow director Paul Verhoeven, whose recently completed Robocop dealt with some of the same themes and story elements as Cameron's breakthrough film The Terminator. The two filmmakers had never met, and when Verhoeven realized he was face-to-face with the director of the Arnold Schwarzenegger hit, he leapt out of his chair "so fast," Cameron recalls, "he knocked his soup over, then came running around the table to shake my hand. He said. "I studied your film Terminator many times on my VCR". I nodded knowingly and said, "I know!".
Cameron is, of course, putting us on a bit... and tweaking his pal Verhoeven. Even if the Robocop helmer did blather at him like a starry-eyed film student, Cameron couldn't have predicted just how influential his superhuman creation would become. "I think it would be impossible for anyone to imagine that a low-budget techno-shocker made in 1983 would have the long-term ramifications that we're experiencing now," Cameron says. "I think the Terminator [character] fits some archetypal myth: the myth of invincibility. I realized after the first film, where the Terminator was the bad guy, that he was almost more interesting than the hero, and he became this kind of anti-hero because no one could stop him."
The Terminator was a surprise indie-film success story. Still, no one had an inkling that several years later, after its director made Aliens and The Abyss, the $8 million wonder film would spawn one of the most awesome sequels in Hollywood history. The most expensive film ever made at that time. When word of its $100 million budget leaked before Terminator 2's release, critics predicted that no movie could justify a cost of a million dollars per minute. They were wrong. Terminator 2 was a creative triumph. It served as the vehicle for an incredible FX breakthrough and became one of the highest-grossing films ever, cementing Cameron's reputation as a master storyteller and visionary effects filmmaker. "In the second film, we took the most sinister killer in history and turned him into a hero, but the myth that you couldn't stop him was propagated," Cameron recalls. "Now an entire business has been built around the culture and mythology of the Terminator films, which is exciting and a little bizarre. When I think back to when I was in my little one-bedroom apartment in Tarzana, Calif., writing this thing and thinking, 'I just hope I survive the shoot...'"
Now Terminator 2 has begotten its own sequel of sorts; T2 3-D: Battle Across Time, a trendsetting 3-D film attraction at Universal Studios Florida. "It's almost like a third Terminator film, except you can't go to see it at just any theater," Cameron says. "Sure, it's only 10 minutes long, but it's definitely the next film. It's not a rehash of things you've seen. We take John Connor and the Terminator into the Future War, an environment they never interacted with in the past films. T2 3-D is actually a continuation of the storyline. It's a whole new ballgame, something people have never seen before."
The project was first suggested by Landmark Entertainment topper Gary Goddard, director of the ill-fated Masters of the Universe and now a major force in themed attractions worldwide. When the subject was mentioned to Cameron, he immediately liked the concept of taking his creation into the theme-park arena... under the right circumstances.
"At Digital Domain [Cameron's FX company], we're always looking for new ways to entertain people visually, by integrating film into simulator-type rides or even be designing traditional iron rides," he says. "T2 3-D: Battle Across Time was the first one that came along, and it was certainly made to order because of my history with The Terminator films. The powers that be at MCA said, 'Well, we'll get a guy, we'll put him in makeup, it'll be kind of a generic Terminator...' and I said, "There's only one Terminator. Let's be real about this. If we're going to do a 70mm film based on the Terminator films, let's really do it. Let's get Arnold, let's get Eddie [Furlong], let's get Linda [Hamilton], let's get Robert [Patrick]. Let's not mess around." So we went into it with the idea that we weren't just doing this knock-off themed attraction, we were actually creating a third movie -albeit a small one- that would create a stepping stone to a third theatrical production and keep the mythology alive in the public consciousness. Arnold liked the idea because he's looking forward to doing another Terminator filmm and one by one I was able to talk all the actors into coming in and reprise their roles for the project."
After touring all the theme-park attractions in Florida, Cameron immediately began exploring the artistic and technical ramifications of immersing his creation in the 70mm, 3-D hyper-realism of a high-tech theme-park attraction. "The project was a blend of the film science that I know taken to a new extreme," he says. "But beyond that, we're integrating film and the proscenium theatrical experience into the same project. We actually have characters jumping into the screen and back out of the screen, so we're breaking down that barrier between the audience and events in the picture."
Theater of the Absurd
So how in the hell did they do that? Besides constructing a special theater to accommodate the interactive nature of T2 3-D, Cameron and company had to not only shoot an extensive live-action film with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Edward Furlong and Robert Patrick, they had to pioneer methods of introducing 2-D computer-generated effects into a 3-D environment. It was a massive effort on many fronts, sometimes surpassing the technical complexity of the original Terminator films.
As with all his features since The Abyss, Cameron asked visual-effects supervisor John Bruno to conceptualize the project on paper. Bruno hired his "old, traditionalm, standby-forever bullpen of artists" -Steve Berg, Phil Norwood and Brent Boates- and started storyboarding, just as they'd done on The Abyss, Terminator 2 and True Lies. "The entire thing would be an effects film, in theory, designed to interact with the stage," Bruno recalls. "We did our general brainstorming technique for the effects and we knew which shots were going to be model and which CG and so on... in theory. Then it just went into the mill -the CG arena- and was worked on forever. In the end, we went into production with a shot list."
Since Cameron was deeply involved in writing Titanic and other upcoming feature projects, Bruno also found himself selecting the location of the Future War. The Eagle Mountain Iron Ore Mine in Blythe, Calif., already slated for demolition, was the ideal setting for the kind of mass destruction for which the Terminator films are famous. Then Cameron dropped a bombshell on Bruno: He asked him to co-direct the complicated project, along with Digital Domain co-founder Stan Winston. "Jim said, 'You've gotten this far, why don't you direct the action stuff, Stan'll do the robot stuff and I'll come in and direct Arnold," Bruno relates. Though he was a logical choice, having brainstormed with Cameron on so many aspects of Terminator 2, for once Bruno's unshakable self-confidence wavered. "It was kind of spooky because this is Jim's baby and he was going to be very critical."
Despite the spookiness, Bruno was flattered and agreed to co-direct with Cameron and Winston. They all agreed up front that the graphic 3-D moments in the film had to feel organic to the story rather than simply grafted on to remind the audience that the attraction was in stereovision. "For me, the trick to doing 3-D was not to have one kind of [effects] gag where something is coming straight out at you," Cameron says. "I felt we had to stick to a normal cinematic style, and then, every once in a while, if something happened to come off the screen and into the audience, we had to integrate that in an organic way so the audience doesn't feel like they're just getting poked in the eye again and again... even though the goal is to poke them in the eye again and again!"
Meanwhile, Cameron and his production team geared up for the shoot, trying to anticipate and overcome challenges that were never encountered in previous Terminator films. "First of all, we were working in a larger format than normal features: 70mm as opposed to 35mm," Cameron says. "Second, we needed two of these monster 70mm cameras -one shooting down into a beam-splitter mirror, the other shooting through it, in order to align the two images for 3-D. So we had this monstrous camera that's the size of a refrigerator, and we're trying to move it in the same way we moved very lgith production cameras on The Terminator. That was the biggest barrier to hurdle, to figure out how to move these massive cameras to create that sense of speed and exhilaration and dynamic movement people expect in a Terminator film."
Many of these migraine-creators fell on Bruno's head, along with cinematographer Russell Carpenter (True Lies) and 3-D cinematographer Peter Anderson, all of whom found themselves trying to maneuver the 450-pounds, twin-70mm cameras through the huge Future War sequence at the Eagle Mountain mine. Amazingly, despite being encumbered with this 450-pound gorilla, many shots had the impact and immediacy of a hand-held camera. "The movement had to be continuous for it to work," Bruno sighs. "We always had to do a dolly move or a crane move or a boom shot, so there was a lot of heat on us."
For a dramatic sequence in which the Terminator's motorcycle was being chased by an Aerial Hunter Killer, Russell Carpenter devised a daring way of using a cable-cam system to fly the massive 70mm cameras 500 feet between spans. Other shots, like following the action in a moving camera car as the Terminator's motorcycle was chased by the T-1000, suddenly became monstrously difficult when they were attempted in 3-D. " The DPs [directors of photography] were very concerned because any vibration in the twin cameras would make the 3-d not work. We paved a road near the mine to smooth the ride, but couldn't get the camera low enough to hide the road -the lens height was on foot off the ground before it hit and we didn't particular want to break the camera, so we tossed all this stuff around to disquise the road. But as we were driving and shooting, I could see the read looked like a read, so I threw more gravel, rocks and shit to cover it up and just but the bullit... if it vibrated, it vibrated." He pauses and grins, "But if there was any vibration, nobody noticed."
As Bruno's shoot was winding down, T2 3-D's other directors, Stan Winston and James Cameron, arrived to film their respective portions. "Jim worked with his actors (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Edward Furlong), while I worked with my 'actor', the T-800 endoskeleton," Winston says with a laugh. Despite his director credit on the film, Winston shrugs off the title. "My role is much more honestly defined as a second-unit director. This is truly a James Cameron film."
Cameron's initial plan was to keep the Future War fighting off in the distance as a backdrop to the Terminator and John Connor's adventure, but the massive explosions in Bruno's sequences made the battle look much closer, which wasn't exactly his boss' liking. "We were constantly trying to do grat 3-D stuff, setting up 50-gallon drums of gasoline in multiple locations to get depth, and we finally designed one shot that was 1,000 feet long, where we blew up two buildings in one continuous explorsion!" Bruno says gleefully. "The motorcycle's coming straight at you, the buildings are blowing up behind it and there are laser hits on the ground and cars. Jim got sort of peeved -he kept daying the explosions were too big and we now had to bring the Future War to the Terminator and John Connor- so they're now driving through the Future War. When Arnold and Eddie showed up on location, there were explosions everywhere all the time."
And Cameron was dealing with the frustrations of working in 70,, and 3-D... on location. "You can't move a 450-pund camera rapidly," he groans. "We figure out ways to do it, but it sure was a nightmare. 3-D in 70mm doesn't just double your problems, it was an order of magnitude: It was 10 times greater."
Verifying Cameron's math, Bruno adds: "I remember we were shooting at night when the film snapped on one camera, so they had to take that camera off to fix it, and as the sun was coming up I said, ' Well, how long is that going to take?' '20 minutes.' '20 minutes to reload?!' And they said, 'Well, you know, this is all experimental!' I actually said, 'You brought an experimental weapon to a war?' I had T-shirts made up with that line!"
Among the most unusual aspects of this thoroughly unusual project was the way Cameron and Digital Domain handled visual effects. Previous large-format 3-d projects, such as the groundbreaking Captain Eo that George Lucas and ILM did for Disneyland, made the most of the limited tools of the day: optical and miniature effects. But times have changed. "We are able to use 3-D, computer-generated animation and spit that out in very high resolution, which has never been done before in this kind of format," Cameron beams. "I think it's going to be really successfull."
So does producer and visual-effects supervisor Chuck Comisky, whose previous experience includes creating visual effects for Jaws 3-D through his own effects house, Private Stock Effects. Comisky, a longtime Cameron friend, was among the first to give Cameron a job in the film industry, hiring the then-fledgling effects artists to work on Roger Corman's low-budget '70s space film Battle Beyond the Stars.
When Cameron hired Comisky for T2 3-D, his old boss decided to surround the director with a lot of familiar faces, many of them from the Corman days. That meant there had to be some insanity... in this case, the insanity was the fact that CG animation, which only exists in two dimensions, comprises more than half the 3-D film. Somehow Digital Domain had to generate digital imagery that looked three-dimensional.
"That's a pretty wild concept," Comisky admits. "When I took this job I had a certain amount of skepticism about DD's ability to pull this off, but they were up to the challenge. We applied the same principles to shooting our 3D CG objects as we would if we were shooting them for real. Even though these are flat 2-D objects, they were constructed in 3-D, which gives the objects 'virtual' depth. Next, the CG artists animated each object for the right eye and 'shot' it using a virtual camera in the 3-D world of the computer, then they off-set the object and 'photographed' the same animation for the left eye. Changing the virtual angles of the camera lenses, photographing what your left and right eye would expect to see, creates the stereoscopic illusion. It's amazing."
Almost the entire first act of T2 3-D: Battle Across Time involves 3-D animation. "When the T-1000 materializes out of the wall and searches the audience, that's all CG," Comisky says. "Then there's a completely digital motorcycle being ridden by a completely digital element of Arnold when the Terminator comes through the Time Sphere."
Of course, the most successfull effects films blend techniques, and T2 3-D is nog exception. "Jim shot the motorcycle that goes into the Future War with Arnold and Eddie riding it on [a set]," Comisky says, "so those were real people who were digitally composited into the background plate. The background itself used two scales of miniatures to give us the scope of that blasted future landscape: a 1/4-scale foreground, horseshoe-shaped piece of the 'roadway' the bike lands on; and the buildings, the free-ways and the capital building bent over in the distance were seperate 1/24-scale miniatures. We married those elements with motion-control camera moves. We shot the actors on the motorcycle, then scaled that down and shot at 1/4-scale for the foreground and midground piece, then scaled that down and did a 1/24-scale shot on our miniature backgrounds. Compounding that was the fact that it had to be 3-D, right and left cameras, right and left separate passes for everything!"
Cameron sees the ability to composite actors, miniatures and CG elements seamlessly in 3-D as the ultimate test for the digital compositing techniques Digital Domain developed for such feature films as True Lies, Interview With The Vampire and Apollo 13. "We're able to put Arnold and Eddie Furlong on a motorcycle racing through the middle of a futuristic battlefield 100 percent realistically in 3-D. The foreground and the background are in perfect stereo, but the two weren't in the same place at the same time. I don't think anything on that scale has been attempted."
All of this not only breaks new ground for 3-D FX, it makes for one of the most exciting 10-minute movie experiences ever created. One of the new wrinkles in the Terminator mythos -and a perfect example of Cameron's breathlessly visceral style- is the Mini-Hunter Killers deployed to chase the Terminator and John Connor through a bombed-out parking structure. Looking like futuristic frisbees with faces, the mechanical assassins sport twin machine guns. Most remarkably, the flying discs were completely CG except for two cuts, which employed life-sized mockups: Arnold says, "Stop your whining," then smashes a practical Mini-Hunter against a column, and he later hurls another Hunter at the T-800 Endoskeleton. Later, in the third act, our heroes wind up inside Skynet, the evil Cyberdyne Systems' headquarters which they are trying to destroy. As soon as the door closes behind them, the theater is plunged into darkness and the floor descends, carrying the Terminator, John Connor and the audience into the steel depths of Skynet. The final act features an entirely computer-generated environment spanning three 50-foot screens with column pieces, consistent with the "set" depicted on screen, masking the breaks. As our heroes attempt to destroy the central processing unit that controls Skynet, actors (doubling as Schwarzenegger and Furlong) climb the columns, interacting with the events on screen. "The beauty of 70mm 3-D is it's almost indistinguishable from reality," Cameron opines. "I know people are going to feel excited when they find themselves in the middle of a three-dimensional experience of The Terminator now all of a sudden made more real, coming into their faces in 3-D. But beyond that, we've created new machines, new adversaries, new problems for the Terminator to face, and those are also in 3-D. So the thing is really a sensory assault. It just keeps coming at you. I don't think anybody's going to walk out of the theater disappointed, that's for sure."
Like that steel endoskeleton dragging forward its shattered torso through sheer will at the end of The Terminator, so James Cameron has consistently driven himself -and his FX pros- to push beyond what conventional wisdom has considered doable on film. T2 3-D is just the latest example of Cameron's determination to test the limits of visual effects. Whether it's an enormous insect-like alien queen hissing at her human nemesis, an extraterrestrial water tentacle mimicking the facial expressions of trapped divers, a liquid metal man oozing through prison bars or a battle royale on a Harrier jet high over Miami, Cameron has shown us a universe of infinite creative possibilities.
Unsurprisingly, Cameron impressed others with his abilities at a young age. After attending high school in Orange County, Calif., and studying engineering in college, Cameron was hired by Chuck Comisky in the late '70s to handle special effects on Roger Corman's space opera, Battle Beyond the Stars. As it happens, Digital Domain, James Cameron's effects powerhouse in Venice, Calif., is only a block away from Hammond Lumber Building that Chuck Comisky converted into a low-budget version of ILM back in 1980. "That irony wasn't lost on Jim when we were down here in the Digital Domain greenscreen stage and he was directing Arnold." Comisky recalls, "He turne and looked at me and said, "Jesus, weren't we shooting here about 15 years ago a block away?"
Only one city block but a whole lifetime away, Comisky hired Cameron -over the objections of his associates- and a bunch of other talented misfits for the microbudget sci-fi flick. Cameron brought an engineer's precision to Battle Beyond the Stars' effects: the motion-control space armada is still impressive even to the CG-jaded eye. (It's rumored that concealing Sybil Danning's breasts in postproduction for the movie's initial TV airing cost more than the entire effects budget.) "That was a period of time where I was real lucky," Comisky says. "I hired Jim and his partner at that time, Alec Gillis, to build miniatures along with Bob and Dennis Skotak. These guys were really talented but were on the fringes of the business and couldn't seem to get work in the mainstream."
With Battle Beyond the Stars under his belt, Cameron began building the foundation for the quantum creative leaps that would define his career... and become landmarks in the modern cinema. He convinced Corman to recommend him as director of an Italian-American co-production, Piranha 2: the Spawning, a recommendation which helped him land the job. But once in Italy, Cameron was almost immediately fired... it turns out the Italians had agreed to Corman's demands just to get the American money. When the Italian-directed film was finally delivered, it was unwatchable. "My understanding is, Him went to the American distributors and said, 'Look, let me do some pickup shots and give me an editing room and I'll get it up to where you can release it,' which he did do," Comisky says. "I think he wanted to make sure that it was at lease releasable since his name was connected to it."
With Piranha 2 allowing him to present himself as a professional film director, Cameron began shopping a low-budget project he had concieved. Though the project would soon make him one of the most talked-about young directors in Hollywood, he originally viewed Terminator as a stepping stone to big-budget productions, and the script was shrugged off by some in Hollywood as just another low-rent genre piece from a wannabe director. But makeup artist Stan Winston saw something else in Cameron and hist project: and oppertunity. "My reaction reaction was instantaneous: This man gets the genre, and he's good!" Winston says. "When I read the script I was very jazzed about working on this project with him, but when he showed me a piece of artwork of the endoskeleton, I realized he was also a brilliant artist who understands my aspects of this business as far as the creation of fantasy characters."
On the strength of his cleanup work on Piranha 2, Orion Pictures greenlighted Terminator for a few million dollars and agreed to let Cameron direct. Though Cameron had little money to work with, Stan Winston Studio produced an incredible number of mechanical makeup effects for the movie, including metal endoskeleton limbs that could really bash through walls. Working within severe financial limits, Cameron and company created a low-budget monster success, and everyone benefitted. The Terminator made big names of Stan Winston, Arnold Schwarzenegger and of course, Cameron. "At that point, Jim had co-written Aliens, but they weren't about to let anybody other than a big-name director handle a film like that," Comisky recalls. "The way I hear it, the weekend the execs were making up their minds about who was going to direct Aliens, Terminator opened pretty impressively. On the strength of that Jim was asked to direct Aliens. And of course, the rest is history."
Cameron's drive and talent had conspired with chance to put him in the right place at the right time with the right credentials. Now that he was signed to direct Aliens, Winston and the Skotaks seemed to the natural choice to him to handle the effects. Even though he was at last working o a studio picture, Cameron resisted breaking out of his small circle of effects friends to see what ILM might do for him. And it worked: To the astonishment of moviegoers who had been scared stiff by Ridley Scott's original Alien, for the sequel Cameron conjured a monster even more terrifying than H.R. Giger's first alien design: the mother of them all. "The alien queen was Jim's design," Winston says. "Then the two of us fine-tuned specific parts of her body. Jim Cameron is an addition to my team. He's a damn brilliant artist."
Visual-effects supervisor John Bruno recalls meeting the filmmaker for the first time at a screening of Aliens: "I loved the film, and afterward, I introuced myself and told him what I did at Boss Film" (he'd supervised effects on Poltergeist and Ghostbusters) "and he said, 'Well, I just do cheap special effects, you guys do high-line stuff."
Within a year of that meeting, Bruno was helping Cameron design and flesh out action sequences for The Abyss. Then he was named visual-effects supervisor, and suddenly he was faced with balancing Cameron's penchant for low-tech with the high-tech effects the ambitious project demanded. Despite the large number of shots showing undersea backgrounds through the salvage rig's viewports, Cameron again took the low-tech approach. He refused to use bluescreen, insisting instead on combining backgrounds into scenes using rearscreen projection, as he did on Aliens. "I thought some of the rear-projection shots in Aliens looked a little milky," Bruno avers, "so I talked Jim into using 70mm rear-projection for The Abyss. Nothing was done on a small scale. I designed some wild shots for rear-projection, like when we see the crane crash through the rig's viewport. Jim and I were in total sync on that film."
Though Stan Winston was busy creating effects for another underwater movie, Leviathan, Cameron again called on the Skotaks, as well as Fantasy II, Dream Quest Images and several other effects companies, to flesh out the underwater milieu and the aliens. But for the first time, Cameron had conceptualized something that shattered the nuts and bolts of the Terminator and traditional technology al Aliens: the Pseudopod. At that time no technology could handle the writhing, shape-shifting water tentacle. For the first but not the last time, Cameron's vision had pushed him beyond the expertise of those he worked with, and suddenly John Bruno was introducing the maverick filmmaker to "high-line" effects houses like ILM. "We went through a number of ideas on the Pseudopod, including doing replacement animation using acrylic pieces," Bruno says. "Then the computer showed promise, but we were afraid of the plastic look that computer-generated images had then. When it was suggested that he should talk to ILM, Jim was really gun-shy. Even though he'd been a visual-effects supervisor himself, he'd say, 'Well, I don't want to go into those big places, they're really expensive...' It's kind of amazing when you think about it now."
Enter Dennis Muren and ILM, fresh off Willow, a film that featured the first morph effect ever (for the transmutation of an enchanted sorceress through all her different animal incarnations). Though not much 3-D computer-graphics work had been done at the time, ILM was on the vanguard. In 1979, ILM founder George Lucas had set up a computer devision at the FX house that developed Renderman and other programs that laid the groundwork for the computer-graphic effects they'd pioneer in Star Trek II and Young Sherlock Holmes; in 1988, Muren recognized The Abyss as an opportunity to take this technology even further. "Jim has these ideas that appear to be freen from the restraints of reality, and when I first saw the stuff on The Abyss, I just went crazy. But," Muren concedes, "it wasn't like we were, 'Hey, ready to go!' This technology has always needed to be pushed, and Cameron pushed us to do this job. We didn't really know how well the thing would turn out -Jim didn't have a clue, nobody did- and we needed the job to be able to push the technology forward."
And push it they didm ushering in a new era, a CG revolution that would transform not just the special-effects field but the entire film industry. Although the Pseudopod was created in the computer, it was composited optically because the digital technology wasn't quite there yet. And so The Abyss has been called the last great optical show. After he saw what had been achieved on The Abyss, Muren took a year off from ILM to learn everything he could about computers. And when he came back, Cameron had just brought in Terminator 2.
Terminator 2, with Cameron's plan to replicate a human being in the computer, then twist and distort that basic shape in every conceivable manner, wasn't just the most ambitious effects film in history. The number of shots Cameron needed to tell his saga of rock 'em, sock 'em robots was brutal. Stan Winston created an army of mechanical shape-shifters, but the work that Muren and ILM were undertaking was beyond state of the art. Muren was forced to take on the whole ILM system. "We spent eight months doing 16 shots for The Abyss; that's like, you know, 'Give me a break!' It just took too long. When we started T2, we had over 50 shots to do in a very limited amount of time. Janet Healey, my producer, and I took over. We had to control the flow of everything in the department because we had to get it to change. We knew there had to be a way to get this stuff to happen faster and cheaper... but reform was unheard of in 'academia,' which is where a lot of our guys had come from. A lot of the folks in the department were, as fas as they were concerned, still doing R&D rather than production."
While Muren was raising Cain at ILM, Cameron was figuring out which effects should be shot during the actual production using Winston's mechanical creations and which should be handled by ILM and CG during postproduction.
As he set to work creating T2's CG mutable metal man, Muren found Cameron to be surprisingly open to his ideas. From Muren's observation that the T-1000's surface was mirror-like, Cameron devised the signature shot of the helicopter pilot reflected in the T-1000's face; and working with Doug Chiang, Muren reimagined the climatic destruction of the T-1000 in the vat of molten lead. As he shot background plates in the set, Muren was determined to show Cameron the work in progress, to educate the director in CG as he had been educated.
The skillfull blending of Winston's mechanics and ILM's computer graphics in Terminator 2 produced images that still flabbergast viewers. "The blend of live action and computer animation is the magic of movies today," Winston opines. "Either alone is not nearly as wonderful as the seamless blending of both technologies to creat an illusion that there is no technology."
In the wake of the groundbreaking Terminator 2, Cameron teamed up with Winston and Scott Ross, former general manager of ILM and vice president of Lucasfilm, to found Digital Domain. "The primary reason I partnered in Digital Domain," Cameron reveals, "was I figured that the only way to keep from being pounded by the tidal wave of new technologies was to surf to on in. Let's face it: Whomever comes up with the best way of thrilling an audience will be the winner, and we've got a lot of new toys and tricks."
Soon, John Bruno, who missed working on T2 because of another commitment, was helping Cameron expand a treatment for True Lies, which became Digital Domain's premiere outing and on which Bruno served as visual-effects supervisor. True Lies' effects budget included enough R&D moeny for the fledgling company to develop new software for some remarkably realistic effects, like the heat exhaust signature that enhanced the mockup Harrier jet Schwarzenegger appeared to be flying. "Those were some unbelievable composites," Bruno says. "Out of the box, first film, we're right up there."
But True Lies wasn't all high-tech. As the film's producer as well as director, Cameron insisted on keeping the costs from getting out of control. Just when Bruno throught the effects had hit their financial limit, he discovered he could save some 60 composites by hanging the Harrier jet mockup from a crane atop a Miami office building, and the shots would look completely real because they were real. "Arnold was really flying that jet," Bruno grins. "I don't know any other director who would've gone through that whole thing with the Harrier on the roof."
These days, Cameron can afford to take such a low-tech -if still quite difficult- approach when necessary, although it's certain his next production will be another effects groundbreaker. Late this year, he began production on Titanic, an epic new spin on that tragic sea disaster. In typical gonzo fashion, Cameron has already explored the wreck in a Russian submersible, personally shooting footage of the sunken ship for the film.
If life is a journey, then James Cameron has already traveled a lot of miles and picked up a lot of talented associates along the way. With the assistance os some of the best effects minds in the business -including the Skotaks, Stan Winston, John Bruno and Dennis Muren- James Cameron has blossomed from a director toying with technology into one of the foremost practitioners of effects filmmaking.