Filed in: Postproduction, Visual FX
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Charles Gibson, VFX Supervisor, Terminator Salvation

June 8, 2009 | By

Charles Gibson, the VFX Supervisor for Terminator Salvation, recently talked to Below the Line about the state-of- the-art CG animation and effects work that it took to create the army of Terminator killer robots featured in the post-Apocalyptic world of T4. Gibson—winner of two Oscars for best special effects-for Babe in 1995 and for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest in 2007—worked with director McG and a topflight team of visual effects cohorts to recreate one of the most famous creatures in Sci-Fi cinema.

BTL: How was working with McG? Terminator Salvation involved far more in special effects than he’s ever had to deal with.

Gibson: He was very open to new ideas, and very open to our suggestions. He has a great eye. He came to me with the idea of creating an action-driven effects film rather an effects-driven action film. That was really appealing to me. Sometimes we pay so much attention to effects that the action suffers. In this case, the action and the story came first, and the effects followed up. I really liked the sound of that.

We were always going for the best action and the best cinematic effects, and then finding ways to shoehorn the CG effects into that context. It made it a bit harder to get the visual effects into the shot—the camera was always moving, or there was dirt in the air and things flying around. But the net result is that you get a very integrated and organic feeling film, and you’re not sure where the effects start and where the action stops.

From a style standpoint, McG, the director, wanted to create an entirely different movie. Terminator was really about creating a very fantastic new technology, with the liquid metal. In Terminator 3 they wanted to continue that idea.

BTL: What was your thinking on referencing the Terminators from the first three films?

Gibson: In Terminator Salvation the technology went in different directions. This is in many ways a prequel—the technology is supposed to be earlier than even Terminator 1. A lot of the technological breakthroughs on T2 and T3, in terms of visual effects, like the liquid metal and the fluid dynamics and simulation in T3, didn’t even apply directly to the many Terminators, though we did some fluid simulations in this movie. So a lot of the work that we did drew more on the work Industrial Light & Magic had done on Pirates of the Caribbean and Iron Man than on Terminator 3.

BTL: You worked on all three of the Pirates movies, and were the VFX supervisor on the last two. And ILM did a lot of the digital effects on those. Did that familiarity help?

Gibson: Without a doubt. Most specifically having a performer stand in for the Terminator on set working with the principal actors was key to the sense of immediacy and the sense of physical reality. When Christian Bale grapples with that T-600 torso at the beginning of the movie, and later on when both Marcus and John Connor fight with the T-800, that technique was developed by John Knoll and his team at ILM for Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s called iMoCap. We were very fortunate to use that. It’s a very effective filmmaking tool.

BTL: How does iMoCap differ from motion capture?

Gibson: Traditional motion capture is done separately as a post process. The actors imagine the CG player in the scene. And then later on as a separate step—days or months later— motion capture is replayed and recaptured and is added to the scene. You lose the sense of the player being in the same space in front of the camera working with the director. You don’t have the same sort of energy.

The breakthrough is allowing the film crew to work very quickly. It’s a light footprint system. They very quickly set up some video cameras and some reference points. The player, who is going to eventually become a robot or a Terminator, has calibrated movies. You’re basically unrolling film very quickly and shooting in a very unconstrained way. Set the camera any way you need to, shoot multiple cameras if you need to. The scene is reconstructed and the animation is added later on.

BTL: So in iMoCap you get the sense of an actor interacting with a physical object that then gets animated?

Gibson: The live players in the scene don’t have to imagine that there’s something else there. There is an actual living breathing character, proxy, there. Eventually it’s going to be rendered as if it’s a metal robot. Their physical content, the energy, the punches being thrown, it ends up being superior. There’s actually a physical drama unfolding in front of the camera. Otherwise, it’s a onesided tennis game.

BTL: How did you organize the VFX team for T4?

Gibson: Having set up a number of shows like this before, I was able to cherry pick people whom I’d work with—the four or five people that I trusted to come out to location when I needed them, and in postproduction to supervise a portion of their work.

I’d give them a chunk of the visual effects work to supervise themselves. The group consisted of Ben Snow, VFX supervisor at ILM, which was the lead effects house on T4; John Fragomeni, visual effects supervisor at Asylum VFX, responsible for most of the work on the hybrid human-machine Marcus character; Brian Gernand, creative supervisor at miniatures-specialist Kerner Studios; Craig Barron of Matte World Digital; and John Dietz at Australia’s Rising Sun Studios, who was assigned several key sequences.

There are so many visual effects shots. We were dealing with 65 or 70 minutes of solid visual effects footage. There’s no way for you to get in and direct every aspect of every single shot. You have to delegate. The trick is to find people who are like-minded and can understand what you’re looking for in terms of energy and mood. You trust them and let them run with it. The results were great. It makes more sense for them and their team when they’re not being micromanaged. They added all kinds of incredible things to the shots that I certainly wouldn’t have come up with.

BTL: What did Asylum do on the film?

Gibson: Asylum handled everything with Marcus and his environment. He was half- Terminator, half-human character. When his skin is missing, you can see everything underneath his skin.

BTL: And Kerner studios in San Francisco, which is well known for its miniatures?

Gibson: There’s so much destruction in the movie, and so many things blowing up. Where we could construct things like the gas station, the production blew them up and created incredible full-scale pyrotechnics effects that were fantastic when we photographed them. But sometimes when we needed a lot of scope, like when we were blowing up a huge portion of San Francisco, or an entire skyscraper, or an entire SkyNet installation, we used miniatures and built them at a smaller scale, 1/12 or 1/24 scale. Kerner Studios constructed those miniatures and then also were able to blow them up in a very controlled fashion—exactly the way we needed them. They were able to precisely time and compose explosions and place them into shots, exactly to our requirements. They did incredible work. It’s very seamless. You don’t really know where the fullscale work stops and the animation work starts.

As for the airplanes, we were constantly handing off between computer-generated A-10’s and fighters, and miniature A-10 fighters that were pretty large. They had a 10-foot wingspan. In some cases, some real A-10 fighters on loan from the military were used. They were kind enough to do some flybys for us. And we were able to weave them all together, sometimes into single shots, which is effective. You weren’t able to identify any particular technique, which was great.

BTL: The effects were pretty seamless. You didn’t get the sense that you were watching a lot of CGI. That must have taken a lot of careful coordination.

Gibson: It was a great coming together. A lot of the film’s palette and that unified feel originated in our director of photography, Shane Hurlbut, who used the OZ process from Technicolor. The look was extreme, but not grainy. The art department was able to create a palette that could endure this high-contrast look without losing all detail. We were able to maintain that in our digital elements, to make sure there was enough information and enough tonal range, so when we had the final color correction, and applied that final look to the Terminators, they didn’t turn black or fall apart. Knowing there was a look to the film from the beginning, and sticking to that plan was really crucial. If we hadn’t known about that up front, and we arbitrarily decided to do it at the end, it would have been a disaster.

BTL: Stan Winston, the makeup and animatronics genius who helped create the Terminator and worked on all three films, died last June when he had already started on Terminator Salvation. How did you deal with that?

Gibson: John Rosengrant, who had also worked on the other Terminator films, capably stepped into Stan’s shoes, and we kept working with Winston’s people under his supervision. Of course, they are the guardians of all things Terminator, and they kept us on the rails in terms of designs and what felt right in terms of Terminator action. We were so glad that they were there.

Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t in this movie. But they had a treasure trove of drawings of him and film footage and even a plaster cast of his face used as reference in the first movie for makeup. In creating the T-800, we wanted to imitate how Arnold held his body, how he turned his head. We tried to keep that sense of how he walked, and how he moved. We wanted to create one single character. And John and his team knew that character inside out.

The Terminator was created by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Cameron (who directed the first two Terminator movies), and our job was to recreate that character. I didn’t think it was appropriate for us to create a new character who could do things like leap around or do kung fu fighting. This is a classic character that behaves in certain ways. We did our best to evoke that personality and bring the character back to life.

BTL: How did you proceed to create the Terminators that we finally see on the screen?

Gibson: The process of creating most of the Terminator characters involved doing full-sized animatronics, which usually got animated. We would usually photograph them as animatronics in a scene. Then we would pull that animatronic out and move the actor in the iMoCap suit to get in the specifics and the refined action.

We had the best of all worlds. We would know exactly what the Terminator would look like under all that lighting—how the reflections would play, how the dirt on its surface would look, how the sheen of the light would feel. Then we would have a more articulate performance from an actor in an iMoCap suit as a reference. We would combine all of that in digital animation and get a very articulate, specific performance that feels very fluid. That’s what we haven’t able to achieve in the other movies.

BTL: Could you talk about the Moto-Terminators—the robot motorcycles that were based on actual motor bikes by Ducati, the Italian firm?

Gibson: It’s the same idea. We used the real Ducati as the proxy, instead of inventing the animation in postproduction and coming up with something where we were guessing whether the physics were correct. We wanted to have something on the set that was real, that we could photograph, and that the cameraman could compose with. So we photographed the actual bikes from the helicopter, and then used all our tools. Later on, we would erase them and put an animated bike in its place, but be sure that all the dynamics were realistic. It seems like an easy thing to do—animate a motorcycle, but it isn’t. You have to be a real student of motion and physics. Real life is extremely complex.

BTL: Was there any new software you employed?

Gibson: ILM is always working on their flesh simulation software. For the scene where the molten metal is dumped on the T-800, their use of their new fluid simulation was really good. We were fortunate enough to work with Ben Snow as our visual effects supervisor at ILM, who had just come off Iron Man. For the Iron Man suit, they had done a lot of interesting new work with shaders and metallic surfaces. There are also a lot of metal surfaces in Terminator, and the realism of the motorcycles and the robots benefited from the knowledge they had developed.

We were definitely standing on the shoulders of some of the new R&D at ILM. It’s not out in front. It’s not the flashiest, and for the bulk of the film, it’s not very obvious. But it’s so integrated and smooth, shot after shot, for hundreds and hundreds of shots. It all fit in perfectly, and is a testament to how well ILM is doing its work. They’re really humming on all cylinders.

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