When the first season of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles got cut back to a mere nine episodes due to the 100-day WGA writers strike, showrunner Josh Friedman knew that he'd have to raise the vfx bar for the second season of his fledgling series, despite Zoic Studio's Emmy-nominated work on the pilot and first season (particularly the T-888 model). Not only did he have to woo fickle audiences back to his show but Friedman also had to make sure his corner of the mythology stayed comparable to the new big screen sequel (Terminator Salvation) coming in May 2009.
For the new season, Jim Lima remains the on-site isual effects supervisor on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, but the vendor creating the shots is now Entity FX in Santa Monica, CA.
Mat Beck, Senior Visual Effects Supervisor at Entity FX, says that an important reference was the groundbreaking work that James Cameron pioneered for T2: Judgment Day.
"Jim came to us needing a lot of cool effects," Beck explains. "Obviously, it's an effects driven show and TV being TV, a lot of cool effects in a short period of time. So we're building on the good work that has been done on the series, and we're continuing to customize our procedures to the production 'as we move through the episodes. There's a certain amount of building the train while it's going down the track."
And that's understandable once you see the first episode of the season, "Samson & Delilah", which ends with the stunning reveal of character Catherine Weaver (Shirley Manson) as a liquid metal T-1000 (à la Robert Patrick's Terminator in T2). In a cheeky scene, two businessmen chat cattily in a bathroom about Weaver, who then proceeds to morph from the urinal into her murderous mechanical self. It's an impressive shot not only technically, but also because it sets the stage in rebooting the intentions and tone of the show's second season.
"We thought the urinal shot turned out well, considering we were in the toilet the whole time," Beck laughs sheepishly. "It's interesting because part of it is that you think of the physics of how she would have disguised herself in the environment but then taking some liberties about what would look cool. Transforming a urinal into a female Terminator... we actually tried various paths which looked more or less believable, or even comic, It took some experimentation to adjust the details of when and where her head appears. There were some earlier configurations that we could not do! The trick was to have it look like a scary transformation/ not like someone getting born." he laughs. "Plus the fact that no guy who worked on it will never stand at a urinal the same way again."
The sequence also allowed the Entity team to really take the look and technology of T2 (1991) and update it for the new millennium. "Ironically, one of the geniuses of Jim Cameron was that he designed effects and created characters that represented the leading edge of the technology at the time," Beck explains. "A moving chrome surface was once the ultimate CG demonstration piece. That's not true anymore, but you still want to honor it in a certain way. We spent a lot of time looking at how the [Terminator] character rose off the checkerboard tiled floor in T2. If you look closely, you can even see some cheats done back then. The tools are more powerful now, but the shots aren't easier because we have to do more in a much shorter time. Ironically, because you don't have the time to do a lot of little tweaks or paint fixes to make the shots go together, the underlying solution has to be right. That said, we're not above tweaking the 360-degree environment to make the reflections cooler, since that's how these surfaces play. The challenge is always, within the environment, to make the thing look really cool and tell a story with an emotional and visual impact."
The success of the sequence was immediate with critics and fans buzzing the day after the premiere about the reveal. And despite TV budgets, the T-1000 transformation is going to become a regular fixture as the season progresses. "We are doing some more interesting transformation stuff," Beck teases. "A recent shot involves a woman kissing a guy in an alley. She transforms into half woman half chrome terminator, then into another woman, pausing in mid transformation to kill the guy by shoving a probe down his throat. All while the camera is moving through space. That's a lot of complicated choreography, so the challenges of animation and match-moving go up. That's an adventure when the final version of the shot has to be finished literally within days."
Entity also has a laundry list of other effects they are producing for the series, including the post-apocalyptic sequences that define the context of the future lives of characters like Cameron (Summer Glau) and Derek Reese (Brian Austin Green). "There are a lot of apocalyptic environments with matte paintings," Beck details. "They start out as concept art which turn into paintings which then are given 3D geometry and lit. There's a scene that takes place on a derelict aircraft carrier in the ruined harbor of Los Angeles, all of which is completely synthetic, including a modeled aircraft carrier."
"We are also doing a lot of machinery," Beck continues. "Arguably the Terminator in its endoskeleton form is machinery but we also have Hunter-Killer aircraft and giant robots roaming around. We're also modeling more of the terminator's innards for when he gets injured. And some of those have to be finished in really quick turnaround. So we're modeling like crazy and we are also using and modifying some of the excellent models that "were done on the show before we arrived. There's a shot of an exoskeleton terminator suddenly turning and lunging toward camera for which we did a quick re-model of the neck to work in that particular perspective. When you get a physical reaction to the shot, you know it's working."
And Beck says the flexibility of his talented artists are really helping Entity move through problems that will arise on such a tight turnaround timeline. "We had an idea for how a model was going to be put together and then the concept for its look changed," he gives as an example. "One of our modelers then sat down and generated something within a day that looked great. It's so funny because in this case it was like the good old days of model shops where guys would break open the plastic model of a tank and start sticking things all over the surface of a space ship. This was a moment like that where we were giving our model texture and just started sticking other pieces all over it. It's old school but again all digital.
"It's also cool that some of these environments, before they get turned into real synthetic environments, they start as concept paintings done by some of our conceptual artists. Jim will also work directly on them or generate a sketch of his own so you start with a cool illustration and then turn that into an environment. It gives you a lot of leverage."
Communication with Jim Lima and the executive producers has been an important part of the job, Beck says. "It's a dynamic process. There is a lot of back and forth. We go to Warner Bros. for concept meetings and vfx spotting. Jim comes here to look at stuff. The more overlaps you get, the better it works. We've given Jim a place to come and hang out here when he wants to look at stuff. And it being 2008, we are constantly shipping images back and forth over the net. It's always our preference to look at shots in full res within the cut, but we have used every single medium you can think of to get something viewed by somebody in a difficult location/ from HD images on a HD monitor to movies on someone's i-phone."
As for the work load, Beck laughs that there is never enough time but Entity has a strong pipeline that helps overcome the typical crunch issues. "For systems we have a homegrown render manager which is quite powerful and very useful. It manages distributed renders for 3D, for 3D hardware and for 2D. It's important to turn the crank quickly and manage how the resources are dedicated to the shot or project that needs the most priority. There's management there that makes a lot of difference. We keep track of everything with a database and it's important that the production side has updates and it keeps track of status and comments for every shot. It gets everyone on the same page so people know what to expect. Some of these shots are just bears and then sometimes there are little things like a bunch of burn-ins so the shot count goes up. Or maybe there is one burn-in that is super difficult. 'You are definitely up against the wall to get everything done on time."
Already deep into their production cycle, Beck says he's heard good feedback so far from audiences, which is satisfying. "We haven't had the time to read all the feedback and follow the sites like we'd like, but we take this stuff seriously. It's a great franchise and tradition so you want to hold up your end. It matters a great deal what the audience thinks. Visual effects are important to this show – both in terms of the ooh and aah factor – and the believability of the messed up world that they are in. The show doesn't work unless you believe in the protagonist and the antagonist, and the antagonists here just happen to need a lot of visual effects."
Tara Bennett is an East Coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI FI Magazine, SFX and Lost Magazine. She is the author of the books 300: The Art of the Film and 24: The Official Companion Guide: Seasons 1-6.