The low-budget hit that made name for Cameron
By: Martin Perlman
"We came in on time and on budget," said producer Gale Anne Hurd of The Terminator, the low-budget success story among last fall's releases. For the spunky, enterprising Hurd (only 28 when the movie was made), and the equally talented and youthful director/writer James Cameron (just 29) the challenge of making The Terminator on a tight budget and schedule became as important for them as the film's financial pull at the box office.
"We're proud to have gotten it done, basically," admitted Cameron of the movie that gave us Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Temrinator, a mean machine from the wars between them and us in the future. "There was a lot of doubt on the part of the Establishment, the superstructure above the actual production people on the film, that we could actually do it. They assumed it was going to be a situation of trying to patch something together in post-production."
Cameron, who had previously directed and co-written Piranha II, had to fight for every penny of the less-than-ample funds. "They were extremely hesitant about going over $4 million," said Cameron. "We convinced them this movie could not be made for less than $6 million, especially with Arnold Schwarzenegger starring, because he commanded a significant salary; the final shooting budget was actually $6.5 million."
Consider what The Terminator achieved; then not that the special effects budget alone for Ghostbusters was $5.8 million. Audiences, however, are not moved by budgets but by what they see on the screen, and what they experienced at The Terminator was an entertaining, absorbing variation on the monster movie theme that took itself somewhat, but not over seriously. Neatly plotted, more than adequatly acted, and finely tuned with just the right amount of special effects, The Terminator became a box-office smash when released last November.
Hurd is still admittedly excited about their accomplishment. "No one was in this picture to make a lot of money," she said frankly. "Perhaps the executive producers. The rest of us took on the project because we wanted to prove that with creative control we could make a terrific movie, and that we would be bankable commodities, so we could go out and make another one."
Cameron credits some of the film's success to audience reaction to Schwarzenegger. "It's fun to fantasize being a guy who can do whatever he wants," he said. "Arnold is indestructible. He can ben as rude as he wants. He can walk through a door, go through a plate of glass window and just get up, brush off impacts from bullets. It's like the dark side of Superman, in a sense. I think it has a great cathartic value to people who wish they could just splinter open the door to their boss's office, walk in, break his desk in half, grab him by the throat and throw him out the window, and get away with it. Everybody's got that little demon that wants to be able to do whatever it wants, the bad kid that's not gonna get punished."
Both Hurd and Cameron enjoyed the tutelage of B-movie mastermind Roger Corman at New World Pictures. There, Hurd and Cameron learned the importance of efficiency and budgetary control, the pragmatic side of film making. Cameron developed art, special effects, and director skills while working on films like Planet Of Horrors and Escape From New York. Hurd kept pace on productions like The Lady In Red, Alligator, and as co-producer with Corman of Smokey Bites The Dust. On Battle Beyond The Stars, Cameron was art director and director of photography for the special effects unit; Hurd served as production manager.
Cameron wrote The Terminator more than 2 years ago, after finishing Piranha II. Principal shooting began in mid-March 1984 and ran till the end of May. Post-production was a mere three months, through August. For the most part, what you see on the screen is what Cameron shot. He filmed mostly with a single camera, and shot what he needed to cut.
Given all the budgetary restrictions, though, the filmmakers, whom Charlotte Greenberg, publicist for Arnold Schwarzenegger, calls "the next Lucas and Spielberg," are still largely satisfied ("seventy-five percent," said Cameron) with the final product. Cameron obviously had a vision of a larger film when he said, "We had to cut scenes I was in love with in order to do it for that money."
Hurd adds though that nonsignificant departures were made from Cameron's original script. The filmmakers recieved "advice" from the film's backers, but weren't compelled to take it. HBO suggested that the romance between Biehn and Hamilton be emphasized, and Cameron obliged, fashioning it into almost mythic proportions, because he felt the suggestion was a good one. "There was also some really lame input," laughed Cameron. "Somebody, whose name will go unmentioned, thought it would be really significat for Biehn to have a robot dog."
Fantasy II Effects did a wide range of special effects for The Terminator. "I got the script almost two years ago, and read it in forty-five minutes, couldn't put it down," enthused Gene Warren, Jr. who's guided Fantasy II for four years, opening it after his father, Gene Warren, Sr., retired from the business. "I was convinced then it was going to be a big hit."
While much of the primary shooting went well and on schedule, the biggest delays came with the designing, construction, and filming of Stan Winston's full-size mechanical Terminator robot that rises from the fire after the tanker explosion, and the carbon copy stop-motion puppet animated by Pete Kleinow for Fantasy II. Neither Cameron nor Hurd fault the special effects people for the delay.
The genesis for the Terminator came to Cameron in a series of artistic flashes while developing a number of different storylines for prospective projects. In fact, the film's title came from a story designed to take place on an orbiting space city, "a sort of L-5 habitat," signifying the terminator line dividing day from night.
In the script which eventually made it to the screen, Cameron "started with an image of the robot." He had always wanted to see in a film the "definitive movie robot." Cameron was inspired by the Walkers seen in The Empire Strikes Back, and wanted to achieve that look on a more human scale. "I can't think of a movie, other than maybe Silent Running, that really had robots that did not look like men in suits," he said. "They always looked like the old suit of armor." Also, Cameron had always wanted to duplicate the old Analog covers where robots have a waist "like an insect, and you know that could not be a guy."
"I thought the robot should be skeletal," remembered Cameron of the script's genesis. "I hit on the image of it being an endoskeleton hidden within a superstructure of flesh, a cyborg." Cameron envisioned the robot caught in an inferno-like fire, and that inspired the crash of the gas truck, and the chase leading up to it. "It was all worked out backwards from that scene," said Cameron. Thus is low-budget science fiction created.
Cameron wanted to do a special-effects oriented film, but budgetary considerations dictated a limit to what he could accomplish. "I knew it would have to rely heavily on contemporary locations," he said, exploring the reason he made the picture a time travel story. "It all sort of evolved."
Cameron wanted a full-size mechanical model to "play" the Terminator's hidden self and hired makeup effects expert Stan Winston to create a detailed full-size robot with moving arms, pistons, and joints.
Said Cameron, "I drew out what I wanted; torso design, arm-design, etc. A lot of filmmakers fall into the trap of trying to make their designs really work, which is ludicrous. If we could build a robot like that, it would be the year 2029."
Winston transferred Cameron's sketches first to miniatures, then full scale mock-ups sculpted in clay, to finalize details of the design. The Terminator was sculpted in pieces - arms, chest, pelvic girdle, etc. - then cast in fiberglass and assembled. "It wasn't until quite close to the deadline that we got the thing assembled and mocked up to even see if it was going to work," said Cameron. "And thank God it worked."
Cameron had hoped to have the Terminator ready a week before they actually had to start shooting it - at the latest - so they could do some camera tests and figure out what it could do. "We did not get that luxury," said Cameron. "If we did any of that it was between takes on another set-up while we were actually shooting."
In the film, close-ups of the full-size mechanical model are intercut with shots of Kleinow's animated puppet. The first time the Terminator rises out of the flames, deskinned and far more insidious than Arnold Schwarzenegger looked, a rear projection plate was used behind the actors Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn, with the full size mechanical model being raised-up with rods from above. Thereafter, all full shots of the skeletal creature are stop-motion animation cuts by Kleinow.
Doug Beswick built the stop-motion Terminator for Fantasy II. Stan Winston's design had to be altered because the legs and hips wouldn't bend far enough, and a lot of the robot's gizmos restricted movement. Alterations had to be approved by Winston, because the models had to match. Winston also made alterations on his design which called for corresponding modifications on the stop-motion puppet. As more and more detail was added to the deisgn the stop-motion puppet construction job became bigger than anyone thought it would be.
According to Gene Warren, Jr. of Fantasy II, Winston didn't finish his model until "literally half a day prior to when it had to work. In fact, it was being finished on the set where it had to work for the first five shots." Since the stop-motion puppet could not be completed until the full-scale model was finished, Pete Kleinow had "six weeks chopped right of the animation schedule" from the delay, providing little or no time to practice movements which were difficult to gauge. Normally Kleinow works with smaller puppets; the Terminator, at 2 feet hight to accomodate all the detail, was twice the normal size.
According to Kleinow's Law, "the larger the puppet, the less control you have over it." "You can't grab more than one joint of the puppet at once when it's so big, which detracts from the smooth flowing movement you can get with a smaller puppet," Kleinow explained. "You have to bend the forearm, and then you have to bend the upper arm, and then you have to bend the torso, the neck, and the shoulder," said Kleinow, visions of the task still fresh in his memory. Kleinow reshot the first scenes "two or three times, just to get the puppet to operate correctly, and look right."
Principle photography was till ongoing at this time, though nearing completion. The puppet shots were made at Fantasy II and were fairly complicated, involving rear projection, miniature sets, multiple passes, and camera moves. As an example, consider the shot in the factory where Michael Biehn and the Terminator are fighting on a high platform. The principal shoot was done in a Kern's Jelly factory out in City of Industry.
In order to have the puppet working on a platform that matched the shot, we had to build the platform in miniature so that it obscured the one in the rear projection plate," said Kleinow. "That was extremely complicated, not because of the construction, but because the miniature had to be foreshortened to match the plate because the camera angles were all weird." The animation itself took a long time, but preparing the miniature foreground sets was "just horendous," according to Kleinow.
Cameron wanted smoke in the environment, "so we added the smoke on a multiple pass on these shots," explained Warren. And sometimes the puppet would be behind it. There's an example of that. Like the fight on the railing." Fantasy II also added camera movement to those shots so they weren't "real static, standing out as a lock-off." The effect of adding "camera drift" creates the illusion of an operator on the camera.
"And we actually panned over slightly in one of those, as the Terminator walked toward Biehn to hit him," said Warren. "If you could have seen the foreground pieces on the set you would swear they were all totally wrong," smiled Kleinow. "They had to be built at strange angles: the bottom of the stairs was two inches wide and the top of the stairs was four inches wide."
When the stop-motion Terminator backhands Biehn with a pipe, Kleinow put a piece of glass in front and blurred some of the action with vaseline so there wouldn't be any strobing on the action. On the earlier shot when the Terminator walks out of the fire, the fire was a rear projection plate, and a second exposure was made on a foreground plate of fire which was cross disolved, all in-camera, in front of the puppet. As a result, the puppet actually appears to walk through the flames and come forward. That shot has camera move on it too.
Cameron also wanted the skeletal Terminator to have the limp Schwarzenegger affects after his run-in with the truck, just before the explosion. It was a way to create a character linkage between Schwarzenegger and his main frame. Having the puppet limp obviated the need to duplicate Schwarzenegger's natural gait which would have been too much of a challenge, even for this talented team. As Kleinow pointed out, "the limp gives it a little more believability as far as I'm concerned."
For the futuristic scenes Cameron knew he needed a lot of smoke, a lot of backlight "and that's sort of mutually exclusive with doing a lot of blue-screen composites, or anything that requires a lot of matting, because you have to put in multiple overlays of intermediate smoke, and it becomes very complex. I also knew I wanted to do large scale miniatures and I wanted to shoot very low angles."
Cameron also wanted a hand-held-camera look to the future sequences when tanks are moving over the war-torn landscape. Those future sequences were shot with models by Mike Joyce on the Fantasy II stages; to create the hand-held look the camera was mounted on bungee cords and was shaken "like mad" during a shot done at 128 frames a second. When you see the shot on the screen the camera seems to be floating with debris right in the foreground, as if it is peering through and around bits and pieces of rubble.
Gene Warren Jr. thought Cameron's experience in the special effects field helped. "Cameron's a talented guy," said Warren. "He had a 'vision' for the picture and what he wanted the effects to be, particularly in the future sequences. He storyboarded them -- great boards." But Cameron had to trust in Fantasy II's expertise; when the director was tied-up in production, Warren often couldn't get his approval or input so that work could proceeed, but proceed it did in order to meet the deadlines and schedules.
Fantasy II had to deliver certain effects prior to the completion of principal photography, including their outstanding work on the tanker explosion, for some composite shots that were going to be done on stage. Both Warren and Cameron were in general agreement about the use of miniatures and rear projection rather than a dependence upon blue screen and other optical effects preferred by some "high tech" special effects companies.
Opticals in the film were primarily used to put in lasers. There is only one optical split screen shot in the entire future sequence, when the fighters jump down underneath the buildings, see a tank coming in the background, and ready themselves to throw a bomb. These live-action future sequences were shot at an old Bethlehem Steel plant.
The film's tanker truck explosion "is one of those effects no one thinks is an effect," quipped special effects coordinator Ernie Farino. Scaled two inches to the foot, the model was seven-and-a-half feet long. Pyrotechnician Joe Viskocil had the honor of blowing it up.
According to Gene Warren, what made the tanker model construction and shoot tight "was that we started building the truck piecemeal," because the principal unit hadn't found a truck for the live action. Being a low-budget film, to prevent tying up funds, the decision on the tanker truck to be used came down to the last minute. "When that happened we were immediately over in the yards taking pictures of it, and starting to build the model that had to explode," Warren said.
A miniature road set was constructed in Fantasy II's Burbank parking lot. "We got the truck done but we couldn't start building the set because they hadn't picked a location where they were going to shoot," said Warren. Once the full-size set was selected Warren and his team had to hustle and finish their own tanker shots because the principle unit needed one of the cuts to use as a rear projection when Linda Hamilton is running and ducking when the explosion goes of behind her.
There was no kit available to fabricate the tanker so the modelmakers started from scratch and made molds for everything including the tank. The tires were cast in foam rubber and designed to simulate a real truck's weight upon them.
"This truck was pulled by a very strong motor with a wench so we could get it going very fast for high speed photography," said Kleinow. But the first time Fantasy II did the shot they had a little problem: the front axle pulled out from under the cab. "We had a beautiful explosion but the truck sat right there," said Kleinow. "We had to rebuild it in three days."
The miniature truck was pulled by piano wire on a little pulley attached through a groove underneath the street set, so the wire didn't show on camera. Fantasy II strengthened the axle on the cab and the "second time was the charm," said a satisfied Warren. "They used it about six or seven times in the picture."
There are no burn marks on Joe Viskocil's hands. "I haven't been burned yet," the pyrotechnician said referring to the safety precautions he takes when doing special effects miniature explosions. Viskocil was peeved, however, that he and 40 other technicians didn't recieve credit on Ghostbusters for the three month's work they did on the Stay Puff monster.
For the tanker explosion, Viskocil needed to make a small fire look big. One method he uses is to break up the flames by adding vermiculite, a gardening material, to the gas. The result is not one large inferno but a stream of flames. Viskocil set 42 separate charges, all in measures of 3, for the effect. The first charge, black powder on the tanker's back end created Biehn's pipe bomb explosion. One-third second later; the back end of the truck explodes and for dramatic impact travels up the tank, working its way to the front. Then the cab goes. Filmed in three-eights of a second real time, on the screen the explosions last for 3 seconds.
In the movie there's a cut to a fill-scale burning cab (found in a junk yard). Fantasy II's miniature cab had to match the live action, which was filmed first.
Another high-power effect that sparked the movie was the bold lightning bolts when the time-travelers first arrive and when the Terminator is finally crushed at the last chase scene. The effects by Ernie Farino used the original tesla coils made by Kenneth Strickfadden which proved so popular in the old Frankenstein movies, now owned by lighting specialist Ed Angell in Laurel Canyon.
Farino and his Kinetic Image Company serves as the film's special effects coordinator, and supplied optical effects like laser beams, muzzle blasts and the infrared shots "which we called Termovision" that showed readouts from the Terminator's point-of-view. Farino knew Cameron from working at New World Pictures on Galaxy Of Terror. Cameron art directed the film and Farino supplied its rotoscoped animation effects. "Cameron asked me to read The Terminator script early on, and I contributed some ideas," said Farino.
Perhaps the real achievement of these varied special effects is not only their expertise and refinement but the way they more or less advise but don't control the film. Plot, characterization, and special effects all work together to produce an "A" of a B-picture.
Timing, of course, affected the film's success. As Cameron can now say with a smile. "If we had come out the same weekend as Gremlins I don't think we would have been around quite as long." But the movie found its audience, and as word of mouth spread, an even bigger audience began to seek it out. Most viewers in the first weeks went expecting an exploitation thriller, which is the way Orion promoted the picture.
Moviegoers were surprised to find a fully developed story with even a theme or two. Both Cameron and Hurd felt the picture was more than a basic chase 'em around and shoot 'em up show. For them The Terminator resonates on several level: it has meaning as well as suspence. "For me the important theme dramatically within the film is strictly human and personal," said Cameron. "It's the idea that the main character is forced into a situation of having to take responsibility for her own fate and her own survival."
Cameron and Hurd are currently preparing the script for Alien II, which Cameron will direct for 20th Century-Fox. "It's the sort of nebulous creative woolgathering process where they pay you large sums of money to sit around and sweat over what you are supposed to be doing," said Cameron.
Terminator II is also potentially down the road for them. "There are two ways it could go," said Cameron. "It would either wait 18 months until we're done with Alien II and then we may do it. I have a suspicion they won't want to wait that long because they'll want to follow closer on the heels of the film's success. In that case what will happen is that we will oversee it at one remove, and select a director. We've got a story worked out, but it hasn't gone beyond the talk stage."