VFX Supervisor Jim Lima tells Tara DiLullo Bennett about the rigors of doing right by Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles on the small screen with feature quality effects.
After 25 years of existing as a film franchise, this month the blockbuster Terminator mythology transitions to, of all places, the small screen in the new Fox series, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (premiering Jan. 13 at 8:00 pm and concluding Jan. 14 at 9:00 pm). Starring Lena Headey as Sarah Connor and Thomas Dekker as humanity's future savior John Connor, the series puts its own spin on the post-apocalyptic, time-travel storyline created by James Cameron.
But the big question that faces this new incarnation is whether you can successfully take a billion dollar franchise, that over the course of its history literally changed the way Hollywood creates and features visual effects, and scale it down to the scope and budget of television? If you ask Jim Lima, the show's visual effects supervisor, the answer in unequivocally "Yes!"
For the last 15 years as a designer and vfx supervisor (Spider-Man, Strange Days and Taken), Lima has been learning his craft alongside such mentors as Cameron and Steven Spielbeg. Lima suggests Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is the latest example of how artistry and technology are bridging what once was a chasm between film and television. "The interesting thing is that TV always uses the analogy that it's more character driven," Lima explains. "To a certain extent that is true, but what James Cameron wrote were character driven films. Josh Friedman [exec producer and screenwriter for T:SCC], took what worked brilliantly in the [film] franchise, which is this very strong character driven story, a modern mythology, if you will. And when you think of the Terminator, there are certain iconic elements and it has this ubiquitous energy to it so that people immediately identify it right away. With anything Terminator, the audience expects to see the fully realized Terminator in the environment. The audience expects to see believable time travel like it was brilliantly executed in all the films. They expect the weaponry with the same impact and effect that the plasma rifles have. The interesting thing about TV is that it truly now competes with feature film. What is demanded from TV in terms of action, pacing and visual effects is nothing less than what is demanded in a feature film. It's why feature films are going 3-D. Television keeps catching up to films with the cinematography and the acting, etc... For example, Lena Headey is a feature film actress...and the energy and vibe she brings to Sarah Connor has the gravitas and depth of a film actress. My approach to this whole thing is that this is a feature film and it is film quality, but we have to do it on an insane TV budget and schedule. So the giant mountain that I climb every day isn't that this is a cool idea that no one has seen before but we aren't downshifting from the films, but rather saying that this is part of the landscape."
As a self-professed "huge" fan of Cameron's Terminator films, Lima says that one of the most exciting aspects of working on the series is how it creatively strives to equal the films in all aspects. "On set and in story meetings and concept meetings between Josh and [exec producer] James Middleton and me, we were always talking about the mythology. We talked about the laws and the logic foundation established, and where we could expand it and where we should never deviate. I realized I was becoming this encyclopedic guardian of this mythology to a certain extent because I started out as a fan and now it's a dream come true that I am working on Terminator! And from my perspective, having worked with Jim [who started out as an illustrator and a designer and worked his way up to directing via visual effects supervising], I know how he thinks and I am simpatico because my approach is very similar [in terms of problem solving]. The whole thing is extremely challenging but satisfying because I love to solve the impossible problem."
And Lima says that philosophy is especially conducive to helping overcome the particular challenges on T: SCC. When it came time to start working on how to develop the visual effects for the series, Lima explains that they looked to the original films to serve as their template for the show. "We looked at everything we were doing and our model isn't so much T2, which is brilliant, but Terminator, which is one of the greatest B-movies of all time. I remember being at Jim Cameron's house years ago where he showed me the original sketches and the original one-and-a-half page treatment written for Terminator," he remembers with awe. "So basically that is our model and we said it's a brutal battering ram of a film that doesn't stop. It was done economically and even at the time in 1984, $6 million was still considered a low budget movie but Jim was able to pull off an epic scope on that budget. So that is our bible and it is Terminator all over again."
With the compressed turnaround time for vfx shots on a television show, Lima says one of the key components they developed to assist their pipeline efficiency is the use of concept art throughout the pre-pro stages. "We are very, very fortunate to have brilliant EPs," Lima explains. "We had meetings very early on about how do we do this pipeline? I'm at the service of the script but also I am trying to enhance it. My philosophy is that vfx is an extension of editing except that it's not really a post-production process despite the fact that's where it kind of lives. It really occurs very early on in the treatment phase. Something I learned from Spielberg is that the treatment phase is where you start dynamically visualizing the universe so that each element and continent on that planet fits into the logic of the story. Fortunately, I was able to get treatments very early [on this] so I would do concept art. I have been given the great gift of being able to draw and that's a huge communication tool in a visual medium. I am able to go, 'Here's your idea and here is where it can go.' When [the producers] come back and say is this feasible, because I am also a vfx supervisor I can say, yes, this is how we can do this and explain it to them. From there it's tons more meetings and I never think of it as TV. It's a medium that works on a smaller scale but it's the same thing as a film. So in concept meetings, I will throw out the most grandiose, epic shots and offer why and how it impacts the characters and the audience. I'm a visual storyteller so I work very closely with Josh and the writers. From there it gets pared down and we look at the budget.
"Another thing I learned from Steven is that you go in with a strong blue print and you have your bid with the shots you are going to do. But you have a camera and a crew and you are shooting and if something happens on set where I see something and it's a better angle, you shoot it because you are never coming back. The exciting thing is that if the network or EPs see that inspiration is the better approach, they will find a way make it work. You have to find the balance of not being too rigid. There is an old philosophy in visual effect to be too rigid and that is ludicrous because it's speculative! You have to roll with it and be flexible, having a jazz mentality. I think it's what makes the product stronger and makes it much more collaborative. So we shoot in different angles and then editorially the "do-vis" comes in."
Lima smiles and elaborates, "Again it goes back to what I learned with Spielberg and Cameron, which is start with the design. I do tons of concept art and previs and even something that I call "do-vis," which is when after I've shot my plates I will actually do concept art on the plates. This is done to show the animators exactly what happens in the shot compositionally and in terms of scale. But it's also to show the EPs what we are about to start working on so we can get the buy off on the approach. It's really the first pass of an animatic, but it's better because we already shot the plates. Then I feed it to the editorial department and they put in into the rough cut. Then we can determine if we need a re-shoot if we discover we are missing a shot. Or in the editing session, a producer sees there is something missing and they will have me go off and do something to plug into the cut. It's much like an editor... you keep editing until... and this is a quote from Jim Cameron that I love and use all the time... 'until you abandon the project,'" he laughs. "You don't finish it, but you run out of time! The reality is that 'see, discover, refine and re-edit' is very much like the editorial process. And then all this stuff happens in a compressed, psycho amount of time but I'm the kind of person that thinks that sleep is a waste of time. I'm non-stop and I never stop thinking of a better solution."
Another monumental issue at the start was how to bring the iconic silver-metal Terminator endoskeleton into the series as a workable, budget-friendly element of the show. Lima explains, "The other aspect of this whole interesting project was that back in the day they didn't have the technology to move the extremely intricate endoskeleton and now we do. The first thing I did when I started the project back in the summer of 2007 was to design the assets that ultimately became the CG models or characters. I've done that from day one working with Steven Spielberg on SeaQuest DSV and Taken to features like Stealth. I design the thing that becomes the asset. It was no different on this show where we had to, by legal rights, come up with a new endoskeleton. In the concept art, you see how I had to pitch it to the lawyers and show what is different about the new Terminator, showing the new features and benefits like it was a car. In a weird, meta way, I felt like designing the new Terminator was somehow fulfilling the prophecy of Cyberdine. We joke about the fact that SkyNet will come to exist because of the TV show Sarah Connor Chronicles," he chuckles.
"As a sidebar, that was so exciting to me because I designed a new Terminator!" he enthuses. "It was a lot of fun and I got to name it the T-888." As to how he came up with the new name, Lima reveals, "I was looking at it evolutionary wise that it started out as a T-800 and then in T3 there was a T-850. It's not a TX or a T-1000; it's still a T-800 model so it made sense to give it a tag that made sense in the 800 series. But it also sounds like a hot rod and there is something cool about the triple eights. It goes to the mythology."
Continuing to describe his endo design mandate, Lima says, "Unlike most television schedules, we had three or four months before we started the pilot which was for all the design development of the Terminator and weaponry and then testing it. I worked very closely with Josh, James Middleton and [director] David Nutter and very much like their mission statement of what they were going for in terms of the story and mythology that was also what I was going for with the design of the new endo. I bowed humbly to the genius of James Cameron's design. It's near perfect so how do you improve it? So I looked at what Porsche has done and it's basically evolved from four-cylinder to a six-cylinder vehicle but it always looks like a Porsche. The whole idea was there has to be a new design and at first read you have to be able to say that's a Terminator. But then as you get closer, you see it's a little bit different and it's not a stylistic choice but an engineering choice.
"Being a designer/visual effects supervisor, I was designing like a good engineer designs in terms of the economy of later for when I actually had to build this thing. We did build an extremely articulate, expressionistic, emoting Terminator. It's a very complicated Maya model that we animated, but we downshifted and translated it into LightWave so it's more usable for TV. We can put him it as many scenes as we want to. We spent a lot of time modeling and texturing it so it was a very series friendly character. To my great joy, it makes quite a few appearances in the series, so it's not like we are holding back and just teasing the audience. It's something we use a lot. Even though it's a hell of a thing to render it is series friendly and that stems from its design. And the interesting thing is that it's a completely spherical object, where you can into it through its mouth and into its chest so all of that had to have detail."
Zoic Studios in Los Angeles is the vfx house creating the visuals for the series and Lima says they've really tailored all of their software systems to help them manage the rigors of the series. "There has been a lot of software exploration. As an industry, we are all using the same tools, so we ask can we bend this to give us a little extra magic to what we are trying to do to the shot that will separate it from a straight out of the tube Maya render. A lot of it has to do with the classic stuff of lenses and lighting and that is where vfx will never lose its reality because at the end of the day you have to know those things and there's no short cut around that."
Asked if the show favors one system over another for the bulk of the work, Lima says no. "There are times when it makes sense to use Flame because of the interactivity and because the turnaround time to see it in AE [After Effects], or Shake or Combustion doesn't allow for it. We need to have it immediately so it makes sense for Flame. I look at it and say per shot what makes the most sense? At the end of the day, everything in vfx you have to listen to it because it will tell you what it wants. It will say no matter what you do this isn't going to happen in Combustion. Then we go into Flame and look at that! Other times we are in Flame, I will go back in Photoshop and go in and make custom lens flares for the time travel sphere. I made custom lens aberrations and flaring and then I put them in alpha channels and gave them to the animators. If I have to, I'll do the matte painting. I have no problem picking up a shovel and digging in the trenches!"
Overall Zoic employs a shifting team for the demands of the episode at hand. For the pilot, Lima says more than 20 animators worked on the effects. "Per episode, it is broken down into teams like 3D, tracking, the simple wire-removal team and then the more complicated compositing. We have a very strong compositing team but everybody works very tightly together. It's an orchestrated team environment when people pass the ball. A 2D person will give suggestions to a 3D person. It's very organic and a strong working environment. It also breaks it down into manageable tasks because on TV it's a SWAT team that you have to be able to move. You save the power hitters for the big sequences and then it's all hands on deck."
T: SCC has nine episodes of completed episodes due to the writer's strike and Lima insists fans will not be disappointed. "There is a moment in every episode of what I like to call the 'holy shit!' moment where people say, 'Man, they did that on TV? How did they do that?!' In my first soapbox moment to the team back in 2007, I said we have to honor Jim Cameron and do right for the fans. We must nail this and have no fear about this. If anyone is freaked out, that's OK because we have safety nets. But I'm going to push you guys to go to places they have never seen before. It's what I learned from Cameron and I'm better for it. I'm so incredibly excited about this because on every level this series is the Terminator... We've gone back to explore what these places really mean and what they are about. It's the digging deeper into the mythology that is so exciting!"
Tara DiLullo 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 the 24: The Official Companion Guide: Seasons 1-6.