When the Terminator stikes the special effects had better be good
By: James van Hise
Since his father won an Oscar for his work on George Pal's The Time Machine, you could certainly say that Gene Warren Jr. grew up with special effects. In 1980 he opened Fantasy II, an effects production facility in Burbank which has done work on Man From Atlantis, Winds of War, Spacehunter, Gremlins and the teaser trailer for Dune seen last Christmas.
While beginning work on some selected shots for Return of the Living Dead, they were just finishing up some demanding scenes for The Terminator, now playing at a theater near you.
Since The Terminator involves a chase set in the present as well as some scenes taking place in a robot dominated future, the film presented its own special set of challenges. Being basically an action film, the effects had to underscore this angle and in some important scenes support it. But as Warren read the script by directory Jim Cameron, he was eager to get the project underway.
"Jim talked with us and gave me a script which I couldn't put down. It was one of the best screenplays I'd read in years. I read it in less than an hour and became quite excited about the effects in December of '83."
Included in the future sequences were robot tanks called hunter-killers. Whilse these were designed by the director, they were built by the crew at Fantasy II. "Mike Joyce, who runs the model shop, was responsible for the tank," Warren explains. Gary Rhodaback did a lot of the helicopter, which is another hunter-killer which we just call helicopter to keep from getting them mixed up. It's a flying hunter-killer as opposed to the treaded hunter-killer.
"All of the machines are really a part of the mechanical army which takes over the world in the future. So is the Terminator. It's just a more sophisticated form of machine. It's supposed to hunt out and get rid of humans."
Making explosions look convincing in miniature is a specialized craft all its own. Lending his expertise in this area to The Terminator was Joe Viskocil. Viskocil has created convincing explosions for the Star Wars films, Dragonslayer, The Winds of War and others.
In The Terminator, Viskocil had to rig explosions to show a hunter-killer being destroyed in a future sequence as well as a gasoline tanker truck blowing up with the Terminator aboard.
Warren explains that in showing the convincing destruction of a hunter-killer, part of the trick was building another version of the model which was so fragile that it would not resist even a small explosive charge. "plus, it's not as detailed as the first one because when you cut to it you habe only about 12 to 15 frames before the explosion starts. It was built in such a fashion that it would break away, twist and bend to look like exploded metal. It was built differently to allow the tread to blow off when the bomb lands under it. You see the tread roll over a miniature bomb during the sequence where they've been stalking it.
"The explosive used in this is mainly just black powder. So it's not the explosions that are powerful, it's how you build the miniature. It doesn't take that much because the miniature is extremely fragile."
Much the same thing was done with the tanker truck, except that here the miniature had to look perfect. "Two tanker trucks were built on a scale of two inches to the foot," Warren says. "It translated into about twelve inches long so the whole model was eight feet in length. For the type of that were doing, to make it look convincing that was about as small as we could go."
As anyone who has seen this footage can attest, it looks extremely convincing and not like a miniature explosion at all.
One of the more striking images in The Terminator comes when Arnold Schwarzenegger's title character, stripped of his fleshy disguise by a horrendous explosion, continues his pursuit with his exposed robot skeleton now revealing his true nature. There were two versions of this robot form built. The full-sized one was made by Stan Winston and its use was built and contracted for separately from Warren's responsibilities. But the miniature armature which Fantasy II made for stop-motion animation had to be built to match the full-scale model before any serious filming could be done.
"The armature was actually built by Doug Beswick," Gene related, "and he had a couple of helpers on it whom he supervised. Doug worked closely with Stan, whose place built the full scale version. Doug had to match it and build the armature puppet in pieces following Stan as he build the full-sized one. Stan had to keep making changes in the large version and Doug had to wait for the parts to come out. If changes were made on something he'd already done, Doug would have to change his model to match Stan's.
"While the whole film could have been done with only the full-scale model, it would have meant another six months in post-production. As it is there are about twenty shots of the full-scale robot frame. Miniature stop-motion is used when you need a particular kind of action seen for the entire puppet. This is used when, for monetary and technological reasons, it becomes difficult to do in full scale."
In order for Peter Kleinow to animate it realistically, the model had to be capable of a variety of movements not unlike those of a living being. "The model is quite articulated," Warren explains, "but to get it to do all of those things it needed to do simultaneously is very difficult, particularly when matching the footage of the model with that of a living man it's supposed to be chasing. I got a number of shots which are quite convincing and other which are marginal. But it's like making movie sound effects - you cut them short and around and they work great. They've also got a lot of closeups and bust shots of the full-scale one and they're good-looking, too. On ours we had great control of the head and eyes and filmed som very terrific moments."
One of the full-scale shots was of the robot Terminator smashing through a door. The robot is seen from the waist up and the result is very convincing. But others would have been nearly impossible to accomplish with a full-scale model required to make quick, humanlike movements.
"In fact, for the fight sequence, to do that with a full-scale puppet would have required it to stand there full figure, bash the actor, recover and take a couple of steps backward. To build a full-scale puppet to do that would have cost another million dollars, and then there'd be the question of how much money would have to be spent to get it shot. You'd have to take a week with a full crew just to get that one shot. So those kind of sequences were reserved for the miniature, on which we can spend a week to get one shot with a crew of three instead of a crew of twenty on an expensive, elaborate soundstage or location set."
The rigors of animation
Because of the demands to make it look and function as convincingly as possible, it took Winston longer to make the full-scale Terminator frame than had been anticipated. This in turn caused a delay in getting the animation model made. "As a consequence," says Warren, "it took Beswick five or six weeks longer to get the model to us. This put a big crunch on this part of the operation, so we had very little time to familiarize ourselves with the model. Kleinow just had to jump in, animating footage for the movie with the two foot tall puppet.
"This was unusual to begin with because it's difficult to animate something when it's that tall. Plus, there were tough setups. For instance, for one setup there's a projector fifteen feet in the air, with some lenses pointing down and others up. This is how the live action was shot and we had to match it. So, in order to animate the puppet on a relatively level base we had to make these difficult setups, which are time consuming. To keep the camera and projector level we experimented with tilting the set at a funny angle, but then the animation became virtually impossible because of the effect of gravity. On a two-legged thing, when it's walking and it's on one leg in mid-step, the leverage puts it off balance. You can't tighten up the joints enough to hold it in place. That's when we decided to go with the projector on the ceiling idea.
"But a setup like that take about three days just to get arranged, and you have to wedge the plate and fix your lighting. On the fourth day you can animate and then generally you have to do it a second and third time. This is because it's not only difficult to animate the puppet to get the action just the way you and the director want it, but sometimes things happen. The camera might move and there are generally a number of gimmicks going on to get the shots not just aesthetically different but technically different. Some of the shots have taken as many as sixteen to eighteen hours to do although they're only 120 to 130 frames long. This is because of what's involved, such as backing up the film, multiple passes and matting out something when the Temrinator goes behind the figure on the screen that we're trying to match up with. All of that becomes very time consuming."
Many technicians are divided over whether Go-Motion, the variation of stop-motion developed by Industrial Light and Magic, is either important or necessary. Warren has his own thoughts on the issue.
"I've got nothing against Go-Motion, but you have to find the time and money to do it. It would have been prohibitive on this show. There just wasn't the budget for it. Go-Motion is more expensive and in most cases, for what we're doing, we don't need it."
Warren's shop has had other experiences with stop-motion prior to The Terminator. For instance, Kleinow animated the crowd of gremlins swarming down the streets after they leave the YMCA in last summer's smash hit Gremlins.
"That was, I would say, a record-setting shot," Warren says. "Certainly it was for the number of figures used in a stop-motion scene in a major motion picture. Those figures were five inches tall and in the last part of the scene, say the last ten or twelve frames, there were 46 of them. It took about 45 minutes a shot fot the last 24 frames. Peter had to animate each puppet because he not only had them running out like that but in every shot there were two or three of them leaping over others."
Other fantasy films are currently on the docket for Gene Warren Jr.'s company. On a small film titled City Limits he'll be doing opticals and will be contributing some key effects shots for Dan O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead. Among these will be smoke from a crematorium in the film's opening (which settles in a graveyard) that is an optical, as well as more obvious shots like an atomic blast.
The work of Fantasy II speaks for itself; in many cases the firm's shots are so convincing that they aren't even recognizes as being special effects. Not all effects people strive for the flashy. Some prefer to have the unreal just look uncannily convincing. This is really what the art of special effects is all about.