T2:3D - Most spectacular CGI and SFX ever!
By: Bob Swain
Jim Cameron's reworking of Terminator 2 for the Universal Studios theme park in Orlando has resulted in one of the most spectacular displays of computer animation and special effects ever. Shot in a stereoscopic 65mm format, Terminator 2-3D combines live action, computer animation and real onstage elements.
The final sections of the 12 minute production are projected onto three 24 x 50 foot screens, giving a total image span of 150 feet. That's three separate 65mm images side by side, each of them made up of separate images for the right and left eye.
Cameron produced the project at Digital Domain, the company he founded in 1993 together with Scott Ross and Stan Winston. The computer work was broken down into two areas--computer graphics imaging and compositing. A total of 47 computer graphic artists and 8 compositors worked fulltime on the project for more than 6 months.
The story sweeps the audience from the present day forward to the year 2029 with Arnold Schwarzenegger's T800 and resistance leader John Connor. They are pursued by Robert Patrick's liquid metal T1000 and a team of other Terminators as they search for the central controlling core of Skynet. But when they do finally reach it they are faced with the ultimate test of the T-one million (or TMeg). The confrontation with this sixlegged creature features in a climactic 90 second 3D computer animation sequence across all three screens.
100% Digitally Processed
"T23D forced us to mature our CG animation department very, very rapidly, because we had to," says Cameron.
"The mimetic polyalloy we used to create the first T1000 and now the TMeg is so well understood, it's been duplicated by everyone since T2. But it's never been done at this resolution and in three dimensions so we had a lot of 3D science to work out."
T23D is the first such major production to be 100 percent digitally processed. Every frame, including the live action, was manipulated in the computer in some way before being recorded to film. Cameron believes that eventually all films will be digitally processed from start to finish, making for easier editing, effects and fine tuning. The current cost of digitizing an entire twohour feature film remains prohibitive, but the relatively short running time of T2 3D and the fact it was being made at a digital production facility made it a realistic option on this occasion. Act 1 takes place in the Cyberdyne auditorium and starts with the Cyberdyne logo melting and morphing into the reflective head of the T1000 and then into the face of actor Robert Patrick. The 3D technique makes the T1000 seem to leap out into the theater and then snap back to the screen just as a real T1000 actor is catapulted out from a trap door onto the stage. Computer generated elements were modeled and animated using a beta test version of Alias 7.0 and rendered in Renderman using a Digital Domain conversion program. Also featured in the first section and created using Alias and Renderman is a computer generated T800 on a HarleyDavidson motorbike.
Act 2 is primarily live action and features puppet robotics and animatronics by Stan Winston. Computer generated elements include Mini Hunter-Killers--flying probes approximately one foot in diameter used to search out the fugitives when they are hiding from the full helicoptersize HunterKillers. They were created as models, then digitally scanned into the computer and enhanced with Softimage and Renderman to give texture and shading.
Digital compositing was used throughout for everything from repositioning and reshaping explosions to extending doors and other elements of the set so that they would look larger than life. Compositing involved everything from layering 3 or 4 elements in scenes involving the insertion of the computer generated Mini HunterKillers to layers 40thick which were used to create the detailed computer generated Skynet interior in the final scenes. Both Flame and Digital Domain's own proprietary Nuke program were used for the compositing.
The final Act begins with live stage actors descending in an elevator. But then all three screens are revealed to show a completely computer generated environment. The gleaming steel of Skynet's central core features on the center screen, with a chrome pyramid in front of a corridor that seems to stretch away to infinity: catwalks and conveyor belts crisscross the scene and liquid nitrogen moves through translucent walls and streams down from vents and piping.
Most of the Skynet modeling was done by an outside supplier using Side Effects' Prisms software. Digital Domain used Prisms and some Alias applications to add lighting, shading and some further models. The end result is a vast and highly detailed world.
The Ultimate Terminator
At this stage the ultimate Terminator makes its appearance. Modeled in Softimage, TMeg is a sixlegged polyalloy spider which morphs out of molten chrome. Standing 30 feet high and with razor sharp legs, it scrambles from screen to screen, extending its legs out into the audience with the 3D effects. It was animated using Softimage Inverse Kinematics and lighting, color and texture were added with Softimage Mental Ray. This came in particularly useful for the selfreflections caused by its multiple chrome legs.
The point when the monster finally explodes into thousands of pieces was triggered using the particle animation properties of Prisms, controlling velocity, mass and weight. The legs collapse together under the control of Alias Dynamics. Digital Domain created its own inhouse program called Shatter SOP (Shatter Surface Operation) to break the image up into interestingly shaped fragments and to interface with Prisms, which was used to animate the pieces. The TMeg is then reformed using Softimage MetaClay.
In order to integrate Alias, Prisms and Softimage, Digital Domain wrote another inhouse program to create a universal language which could then be ported direct to Renderman for the final rendering process.