Hall of Terminators
Date: April, 2008
By: Pat Jankiewicz
Homocidal robots disguised as humans out to start a nuclear war and trigger nuclear apocalypse is what the Terminator franchise is all about. It's a big part of the movies, comics, toys, and now it's a crucial part of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, an ambitious new TV series that follows the adventures of Sarah Connor and her son John, the future savior of the tattered forces of Humanity.
As the three movies cost hundreds of millions of dollars, how could a TV show hope to compete with the action and FX? The man responsible for bringing you Judgment Day on a weekly basis is Robert Hall. Looking more like a rock star than a make-up FX wizard, the hip Hall has to come up with cool Terminators to compete with viewers fond memories of the film series. "It's a challenge," he shrugs. "The show is called 'Terminator' and I'm building the Terminators, so it's pretty stressful, but it's also a fun challenge."
In his massive Eagle Rock California studio, Hall runs his Almost Human FX (It's named after a Kiss song). There's a mutilated body hanging on a wall, the monster from Frankenfish lying next to an equally fearsome great white shark in a corner and various monsters grinning or scrowling off different shelves. Hall is in the main conference room, in the shadow of a Terminator endoskeleton. One can't help but notice the fearsome robot's glowing red eyes.
The artist came from humble roots - doing cool, impressive creatures far more interesting than the Roger Corman movies they appeared in. Happily, Rob Hall has risen to the top of a crowded field. He provided various monsters for Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel to doing everything from the scars on Maggie Gyllenhall's body in Secretary, to corpses, burns, bruises and assorted accidents on Joss Wheedon's Firefly, The Shield, Superbad, Vacancy, Judging Amy, demons, zombies and beasts for movies and commercials.
If that doesn't solidify his cred with the Sci-Fi/genre community, he is also married to a Green Orion Slave Girls (Bobbi Sue Luther, who, on Enterprise, become the first Orion in 37 years). "I love my wife green, yellow, pink or blue," Hall laughs.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, "Came my way about a year and a half ago," he notes. "Warner Brothers called me in and said 'We have a top-secret project that we cannot tell you anything about. You can't tell anyone it's Terminator!' I said, 'Really, for TV? I haven't heard anything about it.' 'Good, we're trying to keep it secret.' They wouldn't send me the whole script. I had to physically go down there and sign for the script. I read it and I was really intrigued by it, like anybody would be, over how you were going to do Terminator for TV."
"Terminator is arguably one of the biggest Sci-Fi/action-oriented special FX movie series of all time, so I wondered how they could do it on a weekly basis. I read the script and when I saw what Josh (Friedman), the show's developer did with it, I was pretty excited. I got the script before anyone was hired for the show, it was Zoic Studios (who do the visual/digital FX) and us! That makes me feel like part of the family."
Looking up at his fearsome, gleaming Terminator towering over him, Hall confesses that "I always wanted to make a robot endoskeleton! The cool thing, for whatever reason - I'm sure it has to do with rights - they have had to completely re-design the Terminator! That was the mandate; it had to be re-designed and submitted to lawyers to make sure it passed inspection. The guys at Zoic were given the task of re-designing it and submitting that to lawyers. Jim Lima put the new design together and it's really wicked. It's changed enough to make the suits happy, but anybody who looks at it says 'hey, it's the Terminator'. There's no mistaking it, it's definately the f**king Terminator!"
"We had the exoskeleton for the last episode that we shot (before the writers strike began), the eighth episode called Dungeons & Dragons. We made it based on the script; generally it says something like 'A Terminator Endoskeleton walks up and grabs Sarah.' We obviously know they're gonna have to do that with CG. Zoic has a great [CG] model that they used, it's already created and it's so much easier for them to do it then for us to do it. Let's just say this bad boy here," he says, playfully tapping the endoskeleton on the stomach, "was created for something that would have been harder to do digitally."
"Other than the Terminator, I am not that into robots. I was 10 when I saw Terminator, and it blew my mind! The first Terminator was just amazing to me... That was the year that I decided to become a make-up artist. I saw 'The Making Of' Thriller, Ghostbusters and Terminator, so all three solidified it for me, and made me want to do what I do now. I came from Roger Corman, so I was used to creating monsters for no money. Although we have a decent budget now, there never seems to be enough time or money," he admits. "Of course, when I look at where I am and the stuff I came from, it's still the same thing. You're still dealing with 'not enough' always. Hopefully we've taken more time and more budget, and translated it into the work."
Keeping the cyborgs cool is his objective for the TV show. "That truly is the goal - it's harder to do a giant endoskeleton than a fake Summer Glau (who playes Cameron the Terminator); the fake heads and that kind of stuff are pretty standard for us. We do a lot of that shit on a daily basis. I even ripped open Dennis Hopper's head for a movie once," Hall says proudly. "This Terminator endoskeleton was a behemoth; one of the hardest things we ever had to do. We built it in three and a half weeks from scratch. It's made out of resin and all of the pieces are chrome plated! Now that we did it, we can generate molds from it."
"I sort of volunteered for making it," Hall says guiltily. "We were sitting in the meeting, trying to figure out how to do it. I said 'Don't you need a practical endoskeleton?' and they said 'Yeah, you're right, we need a real one. In three weeks.' and I ran back to the shop. 'Oh shot, we have to build an entire Terminator endoskeleton in 3 weeks!' We freaked out and then went to work and built it. We got a Christmas card from Josh Friedman. We gave him a Terminator head and he sent us some funny pictures of his kid playing with it!"
Getting the killer robots to work is another challenge. "The mechanical stuff goes hand and hand with the rest of the FX work we do. Trying to underlay the endoskeleton under a Human anatomy is the tricky part. That's challenging, because the model looks nice, intimidating and great, but every actor we cast as a Terminator doesn't necessarily have the same structure. We do have some concessions and small leaps of faith with the bone structure. We look at facial strucuture and we think 'How the hell can we do this?' We look at an actor and say, 'if a piece as missing and his lip was gone, what would be there?' You're stretching it a little bit. The mechanical aspect is the same sort of thing we've always done. The walking, talking (endeskeleton terminator) will be CGI."
Creating the world of slam-bang Terminator action and FX is a challenge. "A lot of our 2nd unit stuff, action and fights, are being done by Joel Kramer, who did second unit on Terminator 2: Judgment Day. He did that, so he knows what we need and he really kicks ass, while I have been here and onset, slinging rubber. I am really proud of The Turk episode, when he comes up out of the bathtub and gets his new skin, because it was something new that we hadn't seen in the franchise before. Don't get me wrong; I love doing the blown off faces and exposed metal, that's a key signature moment of the Terminator. You have to have that, it's awesome to do as an FX artist, but the skin and bathtub was something new in the Terminator world."
His love of monsters came early in life. "I was born in Detroit, Michigan. I got into Horror films when I was a little kid because my Aunt Karen took me to see The Spawn Of The Slithis! Everyone should have an Aunt Karen," he grins. "She's the 'cool Aunt', who was only 5 years older than me. I grew up with her reading me Stephen King books. When she took me to see Slithis at the Showboat theater in Wyandotte, Michigan, they gave me a 'Slithis Survival Kit' and it made a huge impression on me. It's about this mutant that crawls out of the Venice Canals and goes on a killing spree! I have the poster on the wall of my screening room at home."
"Slithis was the first monster movie I ever saw - I was in the Slithis Fan Club. It's a terrible movie, but I truly loved it. That movie is hysterical, but it is what it is and I do what I do today in part because I saw Slithis! I designed a Slithis-type monster for Roger Corman's The Phantom Eye; it was my tribute."
"I moved to Alabama with my Mom and younger brother, and it got kind of rough. I cover it in my movie, Lightning Bug. It's fairly autobiographical and the monster was not the made-up kind, it was his Mom's abusive boyfriend. That movie divided the town in Alabama I grew up in. I'm a hero to the younger folk, but the older conservative townsfolk were like 'Ah told yew he was bad!' I get a dozen fan letters a week from kids in Alabama - I'm not anti-Alabama, it was just a repressive time for me."
His career began in Alabama, when "I was an 18 year old deboning chickens at a Tyson Chicken plant, pulling fat and skin off dead chickens all day, I felt like time was running out; I worked the night shift, came home and saw the TV news where they said the movie Body Snatchers was going to shoot in Alabama. Tom Burman was doing Body Snatchers and I love (make-up legend) Burman - he gave me my first job. I called Burman studios in LA and talked to Tom's wife Bari (an emmy-winning FX designer). I was so nervous, I never talked to a Hollywood pro before. She was really nice, she said 'They're doing it in Selma. Are you close to Selma?' I looked, it was over 300 miles, but I said 'I'm close!' She said 'If you can get down there by Saterday, that would be a good day to meet him.' I got all my cool FX pictures, worked all night trying to finish this really silly bat puppet I had been molding, but I never got it finished!"
"I drove my crappy car, a '77 Ford Ltd, the 300 miles to Selma to a deserted Air Force Base where they were shooting. I got in from one empty building to another, until I found where Tom was doing make-up FX. He was touching up a fake body. He thumbed through my book, was gracious and nice to me, said nice things about my work and gave me a job! I actually got to do make-up on pod victims, which was cool. To this day, I cannot believe they were willing to pay me to do what I love!"
From there, he entered the treches of no-budget filmmaking. "It was hard, but after you do it, you can handle anything!" His fondest memory of working on something like Crocodile 2: Death Roll "is shooting in Bollywood and being so sick with fever, I would come back to my hotel and vomit in my trashcan! I was so excited to work for Roger Corman... I did some fun monsters for Roger; I like all my silly creatures for Club Vampire, as wll as decapitations. I even got to decapitate little Mike Anderson from Carnivale."
"Working for Roger Corman on low budget horror films, everying had to be done yesterday. It was great training. In the '90s, I was doing stuff for Roger all by myself, out of my garage. They called me and said 'Hey, can you make a shark that eats people?' I said 'Probably.' 'We made this movie, The Sea Wolf, really cheap. Stacy Keach is in it. We want to go back and add a lot of blood and gore, maybe even a shark attack!' For the shark attack, they used stock footage of the original 1978 Piranha and were surprised it didn't work! They sent me the rough cut and somebody yells, 'Shark! Shark!' and it cuts to a bloody scene from Piranha! They had to re-do it. I said 'Yeah, I can make a shark.' 'Good, we need it Monday!' This is said to me on Friday afternoon. I am pretty sure they didn't make Jaws this way," he laughs.
"Being naive and stupid, I did the shark quickly; I stayed up 48 hours straight, sculpting this shark, did a huge plaster mold because I didn't have any fiberglass, and I made this thing! Of course, I had to put on a wetsuit, go our into Lake Castaiac and puppeteer it! I had this real simple scissor mechanism where the shark's jaws would open and close. They were like 'Get under the water, Rob, get under!' I got so much water up my nose, it wrecked my sinuses, a rough weekend, but my latex shark worked great. All the rubber creatures I made for Buffy have deteriorated, but my littel Corman shark is in perfect condition! I'm convinced that whatever elements are in Lake Castaiac preserved it! This cheesy, awesome shark of mine is in perfect condition over 10 years later!"
He designed every sexy supervillainess to appear on Corman's Black Scorpian. "The gimmick was, most of the bad girls were Playboy Playmates," Hall chuckles. "It was hysterical; every week you would have some buxom Playmate coming in and you would have to mold various parts of their bodies, butts and God knows what... You would think for a guy in his 20s that it would be pretty awesome, but midway through, it started to get very clinical! I started to feel like a gynecologist."
"I also did the Black Scorpion suit, where I came up with a 'Batman Meets Baywatch' design. It was sleek and looked good. I recast it three times - Julie Strain was going to be Black Scorpion on the series... She came to the shop and we spent all day molding her body. That was a lot of material, because she's six feet and worth the climb," he jokes. "We spent all day molding her body and face, the mask looked great, but a few days before shooting, they said 'Julie isn't going to be the Black Scorpion, because Roger wanted the show to be mainstream.' How could Roger not know the movies Julie's done? He produced most of them! He knew who she was when he cast her. They found Michelle Lintel and we had to re-do everything with her. I didn't get any extra money for it, which kinda sucked for me, but it was terrible for Julie because she thought she had a show. Julie did come down and buy her Black Scorpion outfit off me, which stung a little less."
His clever work for Corman got him noticed and he soon worked his monster magic on Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel. "I have to say, Buffy and Angel were super challenging, Buffy in particular, because by the time I came to the show, they had done five seasons of really great stuff. Optic Nerve had done some really cool monsters for the show; and it was really hard to impress people on the show, because we had come on towards the end and they had basically seen everything," he says with a headshake.
"Angel was a different story... It was still challenging, but by the time I got involved there, it was still really fresh, so I fot to create a lot of great stuff that people were really excited about. Super-fun, Angel was my favourite show of all time, but now Terminator is running neck and neck with it! They're personal favorites; I feel more involved with these shows. Buffy was an awesome opportunity to get to work hand in hand with Joss (Whedon, Buffy creator)."
"Joss was amazing. Sitting down and talking with Joss about a character or monster, and having the opportunity to be around someone so friggin' clever was awesome! On Angel, I designed a character called Skip, the key man... I got a call from (Angel co-creator) David Greenwalt, and I thought I was in trouble... But David said 'I just wanted you to know: there's more online buzz about this character than anyone in the history of the Buffyverse, except when Angel was introduced!' I was flattered. I made him up out of desperation, when we were trying to decide what he should look like. With Angel, I feel I was there almost from the beginning, so I feel I sort of grew with the show."
"My favorite monster on Buffy was Gnarl, played by Camden Toy. He's a signature character, classic, and it's totally brought to life by Camden's performance, because he was super expressive. I credit Joss for it, because he wanted to do something totally Arthur Rackham; and forced me to do something in a totally different direction from most Buffy creatures. Gnarl is cutting little strips off Willow's belly and eating them. We made a fake belly for Alison (Hannigan, who played Willow), with little silicon strips of skin and blood. I remember Alison giving us crap about the fake stomach - she was saying 'My belly doesn't look like that," he smiles fondly. "She'd say 'That looks fat, my belly looks good!' I also liked Sweet, the musical demon from Once More With Feeling."
If he wanted people to know one thing about the Terminator show, it's "That Lena's hot... Forget my robots, Lena Headey (Sarah Connor) is totally hot," he jokes. "Besides that, the coolest stuff we've built is yet to come on the show. We have some big, really elaborate stuff that we're very proud of. I forgot of the instant gratification you get from a television show where, every week, you can go online and immediately hear from, asshole talkbackers! I love that about TV. I used to love that about Buffy and Angel, get online and hear what they think of the episode and my monsters."
"We shot January through February of '07 in Albaquerque and it was freezing! Call me naive, although I have traveled the world, I had no idea that New Mexico would be buried under six inches of f**king snow! It's the desert, it's supposed to be hot! The coldest place I have ever been. The night shots of them running naked in the pilot? That was in the brutal cold. When you're there trying to keep something glued together and it's frozen? It's tough."
As for the night life he encountered while shooting the Sarah Connor pilot in New Mexico. "Let me tell you about the night life in Albaquerque, New Mexico - there is no night life! Except for this little place called TD's that me, Owain [Yeoman], who plays a Terminator called Cromartie and Erik Porn (an Almost Human FX guy] would go to on a nightly basis to drown our sorrows! Owain's awesome, one of the guys you hit if off with immediately. We've become good friends. He's a really talented actor, but more importantly, he's super nice and super funny."
When we did Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles pilot, it was really stressful. (Pilot director) David Nutter's a mad genius! He is very focused, and knows exactly what he wants. He wants his people right there at all times. There's no smoke breaks, I am in there every second that camera is rolling. It was a good exercise for me to do that, but man, by the end of the day, I was drained! Aaron, myself, and Eric Porn would literally eat pizza and drink a couple beers trying to unwind! It was a really stressful show because there's so much on the line."
"You've got to understand, the pilot of Terminator, even though its for TV, had a budget as much as some of the movies I have done! Its massively expensive to produce and there's a lot riding on it. It was stressful, but I loved everone on it. You had to be on your game all the time and ready to go."
He feels creativ with the killer robots. "They're really wide open and receptive to my Terminator designs within the context of what's been established and where we're going to go, which is nice. The cool thing is we've never seen what Cameron (Summer Glau) is. We don't actually know what kind of Terminator she is. We know that she is not a liquid metal Terminator, we know that she is different - she's made of chips and blue eyes, so we know that there is something different about her, but we don't actually know what she is."
"The cool thing is, every time we have to do something to her, or we have to see her when some of her flesh taken away, it's up to us to determine what it looks like! Piece by piece and bit by bit, we'll have finally designed Cameron inside and out. The writers already know what she is, but I'm makin' it up as I go along."
On the regular show, "Harriet Landau does the straight (beauty) make-up on Terminator, and covers all of Lena's tattoos, which is almost a full-time job! I covered her tattoos on the pilot and it was brutal. Covering tattoes is hard. Bruises and minor scrapes are done by day-to-day make-up artists, but anytime someon has metal showing, I come in. Even if it's a tiny fleck. The cool thing is, as Cameron, Summer (Glau) gets fucked up a lot. Every episode of the show, something happens to her. I did her make-up on Firefly as well, but nothing really happened to her on that."
Although he's made numerous beasties, one of his most interesting monsters is the mutant catfish creature he built for the Sci-Fi channel extravaganza, Frankenfish! "Oh yeah, Frankenfish," he says with a slow smile. "That was interesting... We did two movies back to back, the cool Dead Birds and the awesomely craptastic Frankenfish. I was finishing the post on my directorial debut, Lightning Bug, so I didn't go to the set of Frankenfish. It was directed by Mark Dippe (Spawn), who I love, but we all knew it was a f**kin' monster movie. When we designed him, we just wanted to make a cool monster fish. So we just opened up a fish book and said 'That's a scary mouth, lets use it, that's a cool head...' Mark had a lot of input and I think we nailed it."
"What's amazing is that it's always on the Sci-Fi Channel! In recent years, I can't tell you how many time people have come in the shop and the first thing they want to talk about is Frankenfish! Everybody from (actor) Steve Zahn to Bob Sapp, a big wrestler gets excited about Frankenfish! 'Oh, they got Frankenfish in here!' They see him on the shelf and they know his name - they f**kin' love him. Mark Dippe is a genius and should rush out a sequel, who wouldn't want to see a Frankenfish 2? I put one of his victims on the table at my last Halloween party, because everybody f**kin' loves Frankenfish! Incidentally, the clever marketing people were the ones who called it 'Frankenfish'; when we shot it, it was called 'The Bayou'! I know (Sci Fi Channel) liked it, because they just offered me Hogzilla!"
Hall recently built a sasquatch for the nature comedy Strange Wilderness. "That was pretty fun," he admits. "There are two schools of thought on making Bigfoot. The guys making the movie love zany, cool shit, but I wanted Sasquatch to look like the image and outline of the Roger Patterson Footage - that shot of Bigfoot walking in the hills shot back in the '60s, and make our sasquatch look like it's really him! I wanted to capture that classic silhouette of Bigfoot. We did that, and then looked at a lot of images of orangutangs and primates because I knew we were gonna see him, albeit pretty briefly, in a nice close-up shot. We made him mottled and gave him chimpanzee markings and colors, so he'd be a hybrid of different apes. A lot of FX guys, their favorite things are dinosaurs and apes. I'm not like that, honestly. I would rather do a really convincing fat suit or age make-up. I'm not super geeked out on the apes, but I loved doing Bigfoot... And let's face it, if you're gonna be an independent make-up artist, ya gotta have one Bigfoot in your repetoire!"
His next project is directing his second movie. "I'm doing Laid To Rest. A girl wakes up in a coffin, but doesn't know who she is or how she got there and she has a massive head wound. We follow her through the story as we learn who put her there. Its a balls-out horrow throwback to the movies I loved growing up. Its not tongue-in-cheek, it's not referencing other movies like Scream, its hopefully gonna be done with a cool indie slant. Bobbi stars. It's going to be weird directing my wife, especially with the strange subject matter, but I boss her around all the time. We work together nicely - but," Rob Hall proclaims, "I figure if Rob Zombie can do it, so can I".