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Hasta La Vista, T-800! Revisiting The Practical Effects Of Terminator 2: Judgement Day

Last week we looked back at Stan Winston’s work on The Penguin for BATMAN RETURNS. Now we jump in our time machine to bring you another taste of early 1990s practical wizardry courtesy of The Stan Winston School Of Character Arts. 1991 could be considered the birth of CGI thanks to TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY’s T-1000 (Robert Patrick). Computer effects had been used before, but here they seemed to blend in seamlessly with the live action footage. With all this hullabaloo over new fancy technology, it may be easy to forget the hard work of Stan Winston and his team. After all, you can throw in as many pixels as you like, but did any CGI shot rival the opening iconic skull crushing?

For TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY Stan Winston and team has to up their game by creating four standing T-800s. Stan Winston said:

We really advanced our technology for the Terminator endoskeleton.This time, we had a full standing, completely animatronic robot.

That made a change to the crawling, crippled T-800 we saw in THE TERMINATOR. The team also learned from that experience how much boshing and bashing these robots would go through, resulting in some other changes according to Stan Winston School co-founder Shane Mahan:

The first Terminator robot was made of a plastic material, like a lens cap that might have the look of chrome, but is really plastic. We’d run the robot pieces through an electrostatic process to apply a metallic finish; but, in shooting the first Terminator, we’d found that it chipped very easily. That was a heavy action film — as this one would be — and we were constantly bashing that thing through walls. So, by the end of shooting Terminator, the endoskeleton puppets were literally patched together with paint and tin foil. There were little patches all over them to hide where the metallic finish had flaked off. By the time we got to Terminator 2, we used an actual chroming process for making the endoskeleton. It was a heavier material, but it made the endoskeleton puppets more durable, and the metallic luster was much more authentic looking. It made a huge difference.

Most impressive of all was the construction of the unforgettable skull crushing opening. The amount of time, effort and resources used to compose such a shot may seem silly in a computer age, but for me it reinvigorates my love of film and a respect for the craft. I’m not saying computer graphic artists are lazy bums behind a computer as I’m sure they work hard, but listening to Mahan recall the construction of such a brief scene is really inspiring:

This tracking shot moves up to the child’s skull buried in the dirt and then the foot smashes down on top of it, and the camera pulls back to reveal the whole endoskeleton. So the illusion is that this endoskeleton has walked up and stepped on this skull. How it worked, though, was that the endoskeleton’s left leg was planted on the set, and its right leg was smashed down on the skull with a rod that was connected to the calf, which would then trigger-release so that the guy operating it could grab the rod and get out of shot before the camera moved up. It was a five or six-foot rod, so the puppeteer was pretty well out of frame anyway. He could just hoist it up, smash the leg down, pull it out, and step back out of the shot as the camera moved up. I thought twenty-eight skulls was overkill. I thought that would be way more than enough. But we did take after take of that shot, and each time, some little thing would go wrong. It was very complicated, because there was a lot of stuff that all had to work together. There were explosions going off in the distance that had to time out just right. Plus, just getting the look of the leg crashing down on the skull, how it shattered, how the camera pulled up, how the endoskeleton looked when it pulled up, getting the rod out in time — all of that had to be coordinated. So here we were, out in some old steel yard in Fontana, shooting this huge scene at three o’clock in the morning, and I’m running out of skulls. We’re using them up in take after take, and I’m just praying that we get the shot before we run out of skulls. By take fifteen, I was thinking, ‘Okay, well, we’ve used a lot, but we’re going to get this shot in the next take or two.’ By take twenty, I was thinking: ‘God Almighty! I’ve only got eight left! What am I going to do if we run out?’ Of course, I didn’t mention to anybody that we were running out of skulls. I was just sweating it out secretly, wondering how I was going to break the news to Jim. Any other director, ten skulls would have been plenty. But with Jim, you make a lot more of everything — and it still isn’t enough. We had two skulls left in the box when we finally got it. I was so thankful.

Well all that hard work was certainly worth it in my opinion. The next time I watch that clip I’ll have a whole new appreciation for it. Kind of makes me sad that AVATAR was so dominated by CGI.

Source: Stan Winston School

Luke likes many things, films and penguins being among them. He's loved films since the age of 9, when STARGATE and BATMAN FOREVER changed the landscape of modern cinema as we know it. His love of film extends to all aspects of his life, with trips abroad being planned around film locations and only buying products featured in Will Smith movies. His favourite films include SEVEN SAMURAI, PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, IN BRUGES, LONE STAR, GODZILLA, and a thousand others.
  • Daniel R.

    amazing article, very in depth.I love T2