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November 26


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Building a Compelling New Future in TERMINATOR: DARK FATE


A story about a malevolent artificial intelligence sending a cyborg assassin back in time to prevent the birth of the leader of the human resistance launched the blockbuster career of filmmaker James Cameron (Avatar) and established The Terminator franchise. The follow-up, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, is considered to be one of the best sequels ever made. Subsequent sequels have been directed by Jonathan Mostow, McG and Alan Taylor. Even though Cameron is not stepping behind the camera again for the sixth installment, he is serving as a producer on Terminator: Dark Fate, helmed by Tim Miller (Deadpool), with aspirations of launching a trilogy that ignores everything after the first sequel.

Gabriel Luna as the Rev-9 with the Ectoskeleton, left, and Endoskeleton, right. (All images copyright © 2018 Skydance Productions and Paramount Pictures.)

Cameron had a significant impact on the development and execution of Terminator: Dark Fate. “The biggest value of working with Jim is that he created and knows these characters,” remarks Miller. “If I’m going to tell a story about Sarah Connor in her sixties then I need to know more about Sarah Connor in her twenties. Jim is there to tell us. Then you extrapolate [those things important to Sarah] into this new character with the help of [Sarah Connor actress] Linda Hamilton and the writers.

“The biggest challenge has been the ‘youthification’ work,” remarks Visual Effects Producer Lisa Beroud (Black Panther). “At the beginning of Terminator: Dark Fate there is a sequence where the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Sarah and young John (played by Ed Furlong) have to appear. We were using any reference that we could get our mitts on, from interviews to previous movies. We like to think it’s [the advancement in] the technology, but it’s about having the right artists, especially the compositor who can guide everything through.”

There are different techniques for de-aging from digitally retouching the real actors, to creating them entirely in CG, to head replacements. “We got actors who were built like John and Sarah, and did a head replacement,” states Miller. “The technology is amazing. To think that we could even attempt something like this a few years ago wouldn’t have been convincing.”

A highway showdown has Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) firing an RPG at the Rev-9. (Photo: Kerry Brown)

Sarah Connor was successful in disrupting the Skynet/Cyberdyne timeline, which results in a new threat being faced in Terminator: Dark Fate. “AI is still trying to extinguish humanity, but it came out of a different company called Legion, and the Terminators are labelled as Revs. In our film you get to see Rev-7 and Rev-9,” explains Visual Effects Supervisor Eric Barba (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). The change in robotic manufacturers meant that the Terminators were made from a different technology. “There are some similarities with the Cyberdyne world. For example, the glowing red eyes is an iconic Terminator thing. However, there are differences, as our endoskeleton isn’t made of steel and hydraulic rams but of titanium and carbon muscles, so you don’t see the additional hydraulics.”

Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) takes over the mantle of human resistance leader from John Connor, and like those before her, has become the target of assassins sent from the future. “Like the first Terminator movie this is about her evolution,” explains Miller. “At the beginning of Terminator: Dark Fate, Dani is the last person you would think would rise to be the great leader of humanity. Not that she’s not a good person or intelligent or strong-minded. It’s just that Dani comes from circumstances that you wouldn’t expect the greatest to rise from normally, which makes it interesting for me. You can see her evolution over the course of the film into this person who has the strength to lead people through Judgment Day and take the fight to the machines.”

A tricky balance was honoring the past while still bringing something distinct to the cinematic franchise. Remarks Miller, “Here is where we can extrapolate and do something different. Some of that was built into it. Cyberdyne was destroyed, which means that there’s a new future with new technology. But you don’t want to throw away the baby with the bath water. When it came to designing a new Terminator, we had some early designs where they had removed the skull. I said, ‘No. That’s iconic of the brand.’ We made it look different. Jim was insistent that this version would have half of a head to show that it had no soul. Then we have Linda and Arnold coming back. I wanted to do more with what this new future was and how the war between humanity and the machines was going. But you have to walk that line of honoring the franchise while still giving people something new.”

Tim Miller wanted to have enough breathing room that the story could be expanded into a potential trilogy but also stand alone. 

“When it came to designing a new Terminator, we had some early designs where they had removed the skull. I said, ‘No. That’s iconic of the brand.’ We made it look different. Jim [Cameron] was insistent that this version would have half of a head to show that it had no soul. … You have to walk that line of honoring the franchise while still giving people something new.”

—Tim Miller, Director

Eric Barba, Production VFX Supervisor

Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) battles the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) inside a C-5 Galaxy aircraft.

Miller is well-versed in visual effects, having co-founded Blur Studio in 1995. “It’s great because there’s an instant communication with terminologies that Tim understands and he knows the process well,” notes Barba. “However, our experiences are different, so sometimes our ways of doing things are not exactly the same.” Miller agrees, “Eric is a smart guy. My style is messy and loose while Eric’s is planned and organized. Those two things can live together comfortably. Eric cleans up my mistakes. It has been a good collaboration. We have some more help from ILM, too, because it’s a monster of a show.”

Beroud has worked with Barba over the past 15 years starting at Digital Domain. “Working on the studio side is a challenge, but you get to plan the whole thing, which is something I love doing,” says Beroud. “It’s been a challenging project with all of the creative people involved, but rewarding. Tim has an extensive background in animation, a good eye for the finished project, and gets very involved all the way through the process. Tim likes to manage his designers himself and work with them until he has something he likes. Tim is hands-on with previs, postvis and shot lists.” Extensive storyboards, previs and postvis were created for the project. “Each one of these acts has a large-scale action sequence,” states Barba. “A lot of the previs was for figuring out how we were going to shoot it and what needed to be built.”

“I’m a huge believer in previs,” admits Miller. “I previs everything in Deadpool and am comfortable with mocap. We spent six weeks doing that. For a majority of the sequences, the previs became the template. The previs changed somewhat as the script further developed or as we found locations, or because of the amount of time we had to shoot it. I really believe, especially with complex action scenes, if you don’t have some kind of template, like a solid previs, you’re screwed. I wish I had even more time to plan than we did, but this was a quickly evolving process. The scope of it was three times the size of Deadpool.”

The same workflow was kept from Deadpool. “I would say that on Deadpool, the script was more locked down when we did previs than it was for Terminator: Dark Fate,” notes Miller. “We also had a better idea of how we were going to do things and had the time in prep to find locations that fit the concept more than we did on this movie. We had to adapt more. That said, we have gigantic sequences on Terminator: Dark Fate, which I didn’t have on Deadpool. It wasn’t that kind of show. The effects were complicated but weren’t as nearly complicated as these. Jim Cameron’s movies are known for these relentless, long, third-act action scenes, and this one does not disappoint in that category.”

Barba was involved with Terminator: Dark Fate for two years, while Beroud joined during the second week of principal photography in July 2018 with the post-production deadline being September 13, 2019. “We started shooting in June and began turning over shots by August,” says Beroud. “Initially, ILM was going to do the entire film, but it grew so much.  Starting in January 2019, we redistributed the work because also the cut was changing quite a bit. Tim Miller, James Cameron and [producer] David Ellison [Top Gun: Maverick] are creatively involved as well in the cut.”

Left to right: Eric Barba, Production VFX Supervisor; Lisa Beroud,  Production VFX Producer; and Alex Wang, ILM VFX Supervisor.

“At the beginning of Terminator: Dark Fate there is a sequence where Arnold, Linda and young John have to appear. We were using any reference that we could get our mitts on, from interviews to previous movies. We like to think it’s [the advancement in] the technology, but it’s about having the right artists, especially the compositor who can guide everything through.”

—Lisa Beroud, Visual Effects Producer

Natalia Reyes hangs by wires in the massive C-5 Galaxy set constructed by the SFX team led by Neil Corbould.

The C-5 Galaxy set was a 60-foot-long by 20-foot diameter tube constructed for a signature action sequence that features Natalia Reyes hanging by wires.

Other vendors contributing to 1,900 shots were Scanline VFX, Digital Domain, Blur Studio, Weta Digital, UPP, Method Studios and Rebellion VFX. “There is a tremendous amount of sharing of shots and assets among vendors which is challenging, but then you dig into it and everyone starts working together,” says Beroud. “Because movies have to happen so quickly and everyone needs to break down these movies into bite-size chunks, people are used to it now. We haven’t had an issue with the sharing.”

ILM has been working with Disney Research for the past couple of years on the next generation facial capture and the re-targeting of the capture onto CG characters. “We picked it up on this film and are pushing it further still,” reveals Barba. “There are so many pitfalls that result in the uncanny valley. The thing that people struggle with is the performance, and the nature of the capture system they’ve been using up until recently is technically flawed. It is building a blend shape system where you go from one blend shape to another. However, that is never going to move exactly as a human would move. You need the current-day actors for the subtleties of the performance that says who they are. Without them driving themselves it wouldn’t look quite right.”

Linda Hamilton reprises her role of Sarah Connor who learns that the future has not been entirely altered with the destruction of Cyberdyne.

Neil Corbould, VES, SFX Supervisor

“[The C-5 Galaxy airplane] was a 60-foot-long by 20-foot-diameter tube flipped over, and we had Humvees floating around. The rig weighed 80 tons. Trying to move that at speed and stopping it was quite a feat, but we got there! It was an interesting concept having the plane corkscrew around so one minute they’re on the ceiling and then on the floor.”

—Neil Corbould, Special Effects Supervisor

Each cinematic incarnation has Terminators receiving upgrades that make them even more lethal than before. “Ultimately, this thing has to feel deadly and unstoppable, and yet the heroes have to be able to fight it and survive the experience many times over the course of the movie,” states Miller. “How do you make it formidable and also able to be fought off with shotguns and 21st  Century weapons? He definitely has some new capabilities, but they are not radical. Otherwise, it becomes ungrounded, and the heroes have to do things that normal people would never be able to do in order to fight this.”

There has been an evolution for the Terminators. “The T-800 was a robot designed to infiltrate humans and had limited abilities other than its strength and processor which develops over time,” notes Barba. “The T-1000 had the same ability and wasn’t completely human in its interactions. This Terminator is the most advanced in its ability to be a human. It can also be both liquid metal and have an endoskeleton, which can separate from each other to become two bad guys that are equally lethal.”

It was critical that the ability of the Rev-9 to regenerate did not look like a morph or dissolve. “It was one of the longest things that we worked on,” reveals Barba. “It’s trying to build the layers of complexity to show how this liquid metal can form and build the outer layers of the photoreal human that is Gabriel.” A signature element involves shotgun blasts causing the liquid metal to separate and reform. “An iconic moment is when you see the T-1000’s head split open. Our liquid metal is black rather than silver and comes apart differently. The density is different. In some cases, it acts like a thin layer over the endoskeleton.” Grace Mackenzie Davis) is a technically and biologically- enhanced human resistance fighter from the future. Adds Barba. “When Grace is in battle with the Rev-9, the liquid metal can be violently ripped off of the endoskeleton. The bullet hits make the similar holes that we saw in the original T-1000. It’s just that they’re different depending on the bullet hit.”

Mackenzie Davis, who portrays Grace, a technically and biologically enhanced human resistance fighter from the future, attempts to hold on as the C-5 Galaxy aircraft flies out of control. 

An important aspect was conveying that the liquid metal was being controlled at the nano level, rather than feel like a fluid simulation. “Tim wanted the liquid metal to move and form as if there was an intelligence to it,” notes Barba. “That was a headscratcher at first. There’s a good shot of what Tim referred to as ‘swimming dolphins’ as a representation of this underlying intelligence.” Maintaining the correct volume of metal liquid was important to Miller and Cameron. “Our endoskeleton has a hollow body cavity as well part of his skull is missing, and it’s believable that there was enough liquid volume to make a full version of Gabriel. We called that the ‘chocolate bunny’ version. He is not solid like T-1000. Inside it’s hollow with honeycomb-looking inner connections. There’s intentional negative space to keep the structure strong.”

In order for humans in the future to have a better chance of fighting the Rev-7 and Rev-9, some of them have been technologically enhanced. “These soldiers are created from hijacked Legion technology to become these machine fighters,” states Miller. “They’re fast, strong, and using future weapons are able to do some real damage to the Legion forces. If you send one back in time then she has to fight with 21st Century weapons and it’s a lot harder. Not fully human, Grace has underlying protective membranes to her organs, infusions to her skeletal system that make her stronger and tougher, and her blood has been replaced by an advanced liquid that helps her to heal fast. “Her whole system has been amped up with pumps and power supply to allow her to do things that a traditional human certainly couldn’t do,” remarks Barba. “Essentially, we’ve created two superhuman characters, and the tricky part was how do we convey that in these action sequences without causing the audience to checkout. That’s where Tim has done a fantastic job.”

Linda Hamilton and Natalia Reyes, who plays Dani Ramos, in a sinking Humvee surrounded by bluescreen. 

“We always lean hard on special effects and the art department to give us everything that we can possibly get in-camera even if it’s just for the right lighting reference,” states Beroud. “The DP [Ken Seng] is a part of that as well. Then visual effects has to pick up the pieces. Tim worked hard with his AD, DP, Production Designer [Sonja Klaus] and Special Effects Supervisor [Neil Corbould, VES] to shoot as much practical gadgetry as possible.” Animatronics were not utilized for the endoskeleton. “Unfortunately, it was all CG,” remarks Neil Corbould (The Martian). “I did push that we have sections of a real Terminator, but was quickly shutdown. I looked at the first two movies, which are the best. I sat down with Tim Miller and Eric Barba to offer what we could do. We built helicopters and lightweight Humvees. There’s a big sequence with Humvees free-falling from an aircraft. We had six-axis motion-bases that were linked to the camera. It was the sheer volume of practical and digital effects combining into one effort.”

Operating systems for hydraulic valves to work in conjunction with camera systems were updated. “We use a software called Concept Overdrive, which is an American-based system, and are always tweaking that to do what we want it to do,” adds Corbould. “It’s mainly a camera system, but we use it to operate hydraulic and pneumatic rigs, and for explosions.” Corbould is a big believer in techvis created within Maya. “My team designs a rig for me, puts it into a 3D environment, and we show the director what it looks like. We take the data from the previs and put it into our rig so we could see exactly how to do each shot. It also shows us where problems are, such as what we cannot achieve with the rig, or will it have to be full CG characters in our rig, or can it be wires.”

The camera crew wear wetsuits to get the necessary footage of a sinking Humvee. 

A Humvee is prepared to get partially submerged for a signature action sequence.

Mackenzie Davis is attached to wires to create the illusion that she is free-falling with a Humvee. 

A massive bluescreen was utilized for the Humvee sequence which involves the vehicles falling off of a C-5 Galaxy aircraft and into the water. 

Linda Hamilton, Mackenzie Davis and Natalia Reyes discuss a scene while surrounded by bluescreen. 

A remote-control car crash was executed. “Tim wanted a T-bone shot at 70 miles per hour,” remarks Corbould. “We designed and built this remote-control car. We had a stuntman in the back of a van. It looked like a PlayStation car rig with cameras all around. We loaded the remote-control car up with explosives. Off he went down the motorway and drove it into this vehicle that blew up.” The highway battle takes place in daylight. “That was shot over three or four weeks,” states Beroud. “We did get lucky. It was very hot and the sky was always blue. There were not a lot of clouds.  We have three or four partner vendors working on that sequence, so matching everything together is a challenge.”

A big fight takes place inside a C-5 Galaxy airplane at night. “That was a 60-foot-long by 20-foot-diameter tube flipped over, and we had Humvees floating around. The rig weighed 80 tons,” states Corbould. “Trying to move that at speed and stopping it was quite a feat, but we got there! It was an interesting concept having the plane corkscrew around so one minute they’re on the ceiling and then on the floor.” Getting the lighting right was critical for the signature aerial action sequence, reveals Beroud. “If you light it too much it looks fake, but we also didn’t want to make it too dark.” Miller is happy with how various digital and practical elements came together. “The plane needed to come apart in a such a way that the autopilot could interact with it to create moments of dive-bombing terror and zero gravity where the plane levels off for a second before more shit happens. It was a real physics experiment for how to recreate that and how to track it for the audience so they’re not going, ‘What the hell is going on?’ Neil built this gigantic rotating C-5 gimbal set which was a masterpiece of engineering.”

The amount of battle scars and wounds on Arnold Schwarzenegger indicates that Tim Miller decided to put the T-800 character into full fighting mode.    

The camera crew as well as Natalia Reyes and Arnold Schwarzenegger look on as Mackenzie Davis fights Gabriel Luna inside of the C-5 Galaxy aircraft.

To me, the challenge is to make Terminator: Dark Fate as good and compelling as T2 was across the board in the visual effects category, because when T2 came out in 1991 it blew our minds and was inspiring,” states Barba. “Terminator: Dark Fate needs to live in that world. All of our partners on this movie have done a great job, so it’s going to be a fun ride for everybody.” Corbould is looking forward to seeing the end result of the C-5 Galaxy confrontation. “One of the highlights was meeting Arnold Schwarzenegger as his Terminator character. He’s great in it, and Linda Hamilton as well. They’re going to make the movie what it is. Terminator: Dark Fate will be a roller-coaster ride for everyone.”

Choosing a standout scene is difficult for Miller. “They’re all great for different reasons. Each week I might have a different favorite. Right now, as I see the turbine fight come together, it’s pretty badass. You get a lot of character in that particular fight, and a sense of desperation that I find appealing in storytelling.”

Concludes Miller, “Terminator: Dark Fate is an excellent example of what’s happening in the visual effects industry, where we have a worldwide workforce all bent on a single goal of making the best movie possible.”

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