The Making of T2:3D Battle Across Time
Date: July 3, 2003
By: Kyle Young
Since the birth of polarized glasses made it possible for mass consumption, 3-D has always held a special fascination for filmmaker's. Classic 3-D movies like House of Wax and Bwana Devil achieved a slight bit of success in the early fifties, but the novelty quickly wore off.
A brief resurgence of interest in the 80's produced Jaws 3-D, and a few others; but for the most part, mainstream audiences, suffering eye-strain brought on by poor camera and projection techniques, remained none to impressed with the genre. But when special venue demands led to a revival of 70mm widescreen film, the door was opened to a more suitable format for 3-D, and the technology took a significant leap forward with such attractions as Disney World's Magic Journey and, more recently Honey I Shrunk the Audience and Muppet Vision 3-D.
With the debut of T2:3D Battle Across Time at Universal Studios Florida, the envelope on 3-D cinematography and technology has been expanded upon in a way that no one had ever imagined or even thought was possible. Designed as a a continuation of the Terminator franchise that ignited the careers of both writer- director James Cameron and superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger, the $60 million dollar extravaganza gracefully blends a theatrical stage show with an expansive 3-D film to provide a totally immersive experience that brings the viewer's right in the middle of its nonstop thrills and excitement throughout the duration of the show.
The show, which is divided into 3 acts, begins in the present day, as audience members shuffle into an auditorium belonging to Cyberdyne Systems. Midway through a demonstration of the company's latest advance in high-tech weaponry, the T-70 cyborg soldier, the show is interrupted, as renegades Sarah and John Connor repel into the theater with guns blazing. Pursuing them from the future is the deadly T-1000, morphing into his familiar liquid metal form through a bullet hole blasted in the huge Cyberdyne logo mounted behind the stage. But before the T-1000 can dispatch his adversaries, another inhabitant of the future arrives in spectacular fashion, riding his trademark Harley-Davidson onto the stage through a time sphere that appears to open in the wall. With the T-1000 in hot pursuit, the Terminator grabs John and leaps back through the time portal, pulling the audience in with him as the presentation shifts from live stage show to 70mm 3-D film. Landing in the post-apocalyptic ruins of Los Angeles in the year 2029, the audience follows as the speeding motorcycle races through the war zone, fired upon by Hunter Killer tanks and aircraft.
On foot, the two take cover in a destroyed parking garage where they come under attack from a fleet of mini H-K's. Upon locating Skynet, the heart of the machine-ruled empire, they descend into its depths, intent on destroying its brain center. But first they must do battle with the ultimate killing machine, the deadly T-1000000.
"Okay we know that you wanted a stunt show, but this is way better, something you have never seen before", those just happened to be the first words ever spoken about the proposed Terminator 2 attraction by Landmark Entertainment Group President Gary Goddard to Universal executives in the fall of 1992. Goddard's company Landmark Entertainment Group had been initially brought into develop a Terminator 2 related stunt show, since Landmark had previously collaborated with Universal on some other crowd pleasers that included Kong-frontation, Ghostbusters, and JAWS.
Goddard and his team spent countless hours initially watching Terminator 2: Judgement Day looking for an idea for an attraction. They realized after watching it enough times that the major action pieces that were in the film were essentially three fantastic James Cameron chases, plus some spectacular morphing effects. So the first thing that came to mind was how to do the morphing, and at that point 3-D was brought into the picture. The Landmark team then came up with the concept of a 3-D morph on multiple screens that suddenly surround you. And from there developed the idea to combine it with live actors that appear to jump in and out of the screen. From there the ideas just flowed like water from a faucet.
As they continued flesh out their ideas to Universal, Goddard and his team had to also factor in that they would have to be creating a project that served Universal's needs and it would have to be something that the Terminator series creator and director James Cameron could get interested in working on. Goddard and his team really knew they would have to really push the envelope on this attraction to snag Cameron for sure. So in December of 1992, armed with Universal's official endorsement, a thirty page treatment of the initial attraction, detailed storyboards, and more than a hundred color sketches and preliminary designs, Goddard headed off to meet with Terminator creator James Cameron.
One of the most burning questions that Goddard and team were pondering prior to the meeting was "Oh man, we're pitching this thing to the guy who created the Terminator films, it's his characters, his creation. You think that he's going to like it?" How is this going to go over? But one thing that Goddard knew going into his meeting was the Cameron loved new technology, and that was a big part of what they were promoting was the idea that they would be pushing the limits of 3-D with this project. "We were counting on the fact that he might be intrigued by the opportunity to explore a new medium" said Goddard, "that turned out to be a good call".
Initially somewhat skeptical, Cameron quickly warmed up to the idea of a 3-D presentation, even initially hinting that he may be interested in taking on a more active role than just a consultant. "My initial contribution" recalled Cameron, "was to sell Universal on the idea that we get the actual cast and do it like a real movie, as opposed to their idea of using generic actors. They thought the Terminator could have his face mostly blown off, and you wouldn't really see that it wasn't Arnold. But I couldn't see how that would work. I pointed out that this was an attraction that six-year-olds would be going to, and that they probably didn't want to see a bloody ripped face like the two R-rated films it was predicated on. You had to be true to the underlying material, but you also had to modify it. That was the fundamental stylistic evolution of the piece". Cameron's influence would also extend to the Landmark script, which contained more effects and gags in its proposed nine-minute show than in both Terminator films put together. Cameron also helped Landmark to refine the script, rewriting portions of dialogue and substantially paring down the effects while retaining the essence of the story and concept to his liking.
Over the next 12 months, T2:3D remained in development at Universal, as talks continued with Cameron's production company, Lightstorm Entertainment, and with Digital Domain, the then-new visual effects organization established by Cameron in partnership with Scott Ross and Stan Winston. While Cameron's attentions were engaged elsewhere, a lengthy period of research and testing on the project continued, funded by seed money from Universal.
One of the first things that had to be figured out was how to establish how the stereo film was going to work across multiple screens. "If we were to make audiences believe they were actually in the environment represented by the film, we'd have to get the perspectives to fall correctly on the three screens and there were a lot of problems related to that" remarked Goddard. Another aspect of the testing was seeing if we could take different elements in a 3-d environment, live plates, cg, miniatures, place them in the same composite, and have it all work both compositionally and in terms of stereo cues" stated Goddard.
To address many of the issues, an elaborate test version of the script, directed by members of the Digital Domain team, was shot in a hangar at the former Hughes Aircraft facility in Playa del Rey. "The test phase was more elaborate than some shows I've worked on", observed one worker. A triple screen mockup was created in the hangar to determine the full parameters of the concept. "We weren't just planning a film", explained Cameron. "We had to focus in on the entire presentation, which included theater architecture and projection system, something a traditional filmmaker usually doesn't have to worry about at all" Cameron stated.
Throughout the testing phase many discoveries were identified, like what causes the eye to be adversely affected by 3-D. Although the test phase proved to be successful, T2:3D would remain in development limbo through the following year as Cameron continued other work at the time which included directing True Lies, although the project continued to make headway even during Cameron's absence.
However in March of 1995, after nearly 3 years in development, T2:3D was at long last was green-lighted by Universal for full production. Cameron had by then secured commitments from the principal cast of T2 to reprise their roles for the 3-D movie, pitching it as a link to a possible third Terminator film.
As production neared problems began to slowly rear their ugly heads. Due to a tight window of availability for both Cameron and Schwarzenegger, live-action shooting of the future war in Act 2 was scheduled for a two-week slot in middle of May, jus two short months away. So a new production team was assembled for the live action shooting. But no sooner was everything in place than the first problem to begin to rear its head, the need to find a suitable location to shoot the nighttime future war sequence. The original set used for Terminator 2 future war scenes, was an abandoned steel mill in Fontana, California, and was no longer an option as that facility had since been demolished. Luckily for the production crew a replacement was found at Eagle Mountain near Blythe that had been used to supply Fontana Steel with iron ore.
It fit the productions needs quite well considering that it was slated for demolition, which meant the production team could do pretty much whatever they wanted to do to it since it was going to be destroyed anyway.
However the new location's biggest disadvantage was its utter remoteness, it was nearly 40 miles from the nearest town. Which initially created a logistical problem for the functionality of the production itself, however, an existing airstrip was used to transport supplies and people back and forth to Los Angeles.
Other problems that began to arise were the cameras. Being that 3-D is such a precise and mathematical medium it required absolute precision from the cameras, which always wasn't the case. So what do you do when you can't get what you want out of what you have? You improvise, and that's just what Cameron did, by applying visual filters and effects Cameron was able to blend Steadicam footage which initially was thought to be impossible to use in 3-D with the traditional 65mm footage without any issues. Another problem that came up during shooting was related to the movement of the cameras in consideration related to shooting in 3-D. During shooting it was not uncommon for only four shots to be completed on a working day. Because they were dealing with a third dimension camera depth had to be exact in order to be effective and not to look inappropriate.
However once filming was wrapped the next phase of the T2:3D project began, the auditorium. The production team created one of the world's most expensive and unique theaters in the history of live show and theater production. Inside the custom-built auditorium, three huge projection screens lit by the images from six 70mm projectors work in tandem with dozens of speakers to create an all-enveloping experience. Pyrotechnics, animatronic figures and live actors are all synched to the film image via the multi-track sound mix and computer control, allowing the 12 minute show to run several times an hour.
While you might think that the stage actors performing as the Terminator, Sarah, John and the T-1000 might seem extraneous next to the images of the original actors on the screens, the synchronization, audio and narrative flow make the presentation seamlessly blend without raising a hint of suspicion that it really isn't Arnold in front of you performing.
With a budget of two-thirds that of the film itself and at less than one-tenth of the feature's running time, T2:3D had one of the highest dollar-per-second price tags in recent memory. However this is actually quite typical for a high-profile attraction that not only has to run smoothly dozens of times a day with live actors seamlessly, but also must do this for a decade or more without losing its excitement, popularity or relevance.
And of course of no attraction is complete without a great gift shop. T2:3D exits into a gift shop complete with a whole new era of T2 related merchandise with everything from Cyberdyne Chip breath mints to T-shirts and everything in between, and even some new T3 merchandise, which help to keep the attraction, the feature film and Cameron's vision fresh in the minds of everyone even long after you have gotten back from your vacation! Wow man where did you get those breath mints??? Amid all the begging throughout years for yet another visit to the Terminator universe, in a sense they did this with T2:3D, and with audience participation no less!