MPC VFX Supervisor Sheldon Stopsack examines the ins and outs of digitally recreating an iconic action hero for Paramount’s ‘Terminator’ franchise reboot.
While he always promised he’d “be back,” Arnold never mentioned anything about returning as multiple versions of himself. Yet, that’s exactly what the Terminator does in his latest film, Terminator: Genisys, thanks to some help from the Moving Picture Company (MPC). For VFX supervisor Sheldon Stopsack, who led the Montreal team in their year-long mission to bring the Terminator’s past and future to life, it has been a unique challenge with some very special requirements. Among them, upgrading Skynet’s terrifying machines for the 21st Century…and digitally recreating every inch of Ah-nold’s physique from James Cameron’s 1984 blockbuster, right down to the Terminator’s rear end.
James Gartler: Let’s talk about the digital version of young Arnold that MPC created for the movie. Where did you start with him?
Sheldon Stopsack: Well, obviously, it’s rather difficult to create a version of who he was in 1984 based off his current age and appearance, so what we had to do was dive deep in there and do a whole lot of research. These days, you would normally get reference photography taken or you’d have a 3D scan of the actor, but none of that was done in 1984 or could have been done due to the technical constraints back then. It was really down to us to figure out what Arnold looked like in 1984 and base his appearance on any sort of materials that we could get our hands on.
JG: What materials were the most useful for you? Did you go back to cut scenes or footage from the original film?
SS: It was sort of a combination of those. The sequence with young Arnold started off as a recreation of the original footage from Terminator, so that was the first port of call. We made sure to study the footage after our clients managed to get their hands on a copy of the film and scan it for us. It wasn’t a negative – it was a screener copy, the kind that you would classically find in a theatre that was used for the projection of the movie, but nevertheless it was incredibly helpful to have that footage at hand.
JG: Were none of the DVD versions of Terminator at a high enough resolution for your purposes?
SS: Before we got our hands on the scan, we started using the Blu-Ray…but it’s been 30 years since it was shot and then mastered and everything, so the quality of the footage that you get your hands on is limited in that respect. So it was helpful to have a scan of the original, but that was really just one part of what was utilized and helpful for us.
We really studied any material we could get our hands on. Luckily with an iconic figure like Arnold Schwarzenegger, there’s tons of material available. Things like Pumping Iron, which is this documentary about his early days, was great because not only did it show him from various angles but it also showed his body in action as he’s working out.
JG: Was there a digital double of the current-day Arnold used in the film?
SS: There was. In some sequences, we had a replacement of what is called the Guardian, who is the older, middle-aged character. So, we had the 1984 young Arnold and one that was closer to his current age and appearance, which helped us cross-reference and use any sort of data that was captured now, like the motion capture work used in facial recreation or dialogue shots. We had both age variations in our pipeline. But in the movie itself, the Guardian was partially done either as a CG digital double or in some shots partially done by Lola with face replacement.
JG: Was Arnold himself kept in the loop with regards to the evolution of the look of his younger self?
SS: I assume he was. Producers David Ellison and Dana Goldberg were working closely with him on the creation of the character so I would assume they kept him in the loop.
JG: I assume he’d have to give a thumb’s up approval of how his younger self looks…
SS: I’d assume so. [Laughs] Arnold was incredibly helpful when it came to the motion capture session where we did the facial performance for the shots where he’s talking to the punks.
JG: With the sophistication of visual effects now, would the old Terminator footage from 1984 just look laughable spliced in alongside the new footage?
SS: Yeah, it’s a whole different medium now. This movie was shot with the ALEXA camera in a digital medium, so I think that would have been a giveaway straight away. Even the scans we received of the original footage were quite grainy and had a completely different visual appearance and quality. That immediately disqualified the idea of using the original and then switching it over to a CG version.
JG: How long did the fight between the two Arnolds end up lasting and how much time did you devote just to that?
SS: It took us the whole year and we knew right from the start that it was probably going to take us through the end of the production because it’s such a complex challenge. As far as the actual shot count is concerned I think it was about 31 digital Arnold shots that we created for the fight and some two thousand frames that feature a full CG Arnold – that’s the ballpark.
JG: Who was opposite Schwarzenegger during the filming of the fight sequence?
SS: For the principle photography they used a stunt double named Brett Azar and he certainly was in good shape. What made Arnold so successful in his career was this very distinct appearance, so Brett’s performance was a good guide but we didn’t use it too much. There are a few shots that are a bit wider where you might get away with it but for the most part we ended up replacing him entirely because you would have been able to see the difference pretty much immediately.
JG: Did poor Brett have to be nude throughout the whole scene or did he at least get to wear some kind of trunks?
SS: He was nude entirely throughout the scene, yup, and for the main sequence at the observatory he was nude…which presented us with a challenge in itself because there’s obviously a certain rating concern for a movie like this. You can’t have the nudity too much in-picture so there were shots where we had to be clever about how we presented the character. It could be helped by clever lighting that doesn’t reveal too much or even adjusting your framing ever so slightly. So yes, the nudity aspect there was something we had to work with…or work around, so to speak.
JG: I can only imagine the comments that must have been flying around the office as everybody came in every morning saying,“Let’s get Arnold’s butt looking right people!”
SS: [Laughs] Exactly. The butt crack hiding was high in demand, so we had a few shots where we needed to pay careful attention that we wouldn’t really show any of that to make sure there were no rating issues.
JG: Is there one moment in the film where you feel you’ve really succeeded in recreating young Arnold?
SS: It’s tricky because again, the task is like trying to overcome what is considered the Holy Grail in computer graphics, the uncanny valley, which is probably still the biggest challenge today. Working so carefully on this character for over a year, you question what you’ve got in front of you. I personally never got to the point where I’d say, “Okay, this is it, we’ve got it 100%!” I think this is one of the reasons why the work continued on the sequence all the way until the end of the production. It was constant refinement, which probably could have gone on forever to be honest with you. It was time that was the limit for us, nothing else.
JG: Considering how challenging it was trying to recreate young Arnold, might it not have been easier to have the robots capable of being tactile holograms or something else that could give you a bit more leeway as far as the CG was concerned?
SS: Well it could have been an easy out, I suppose, but at the same time what drew me to this project was the challenge of making a flawless recreation of Arnold that’s believable for the audience. So I guess there could have been an easier way but at the same time this is something that hasn’t been done before and that makes it appealing for the audience in the end.
JG: What programs did you use in your pipeline at MPC for Genisys?
SS: There are quite a few. Our main 3D package in-house is Maya with some proprietary software that we’ve built on the back of that. It’s still our weapon of choice for most of the modeling and rigging. For the lighting and rendering, MPC adopted KATANA a few years back so that’s become our standard tool. For Terminator: Genisys we decided to go with a full path tracing approach that came with the Pixar Renderman 19 that was recently introduced.
JG: MPC also worked on the opening sequences of the battle at LAX…
SS: The LAX sequence was the second largest portion of our work and it’s in complete contrast to the digital Arnold recreation. It was about really selling the drama and the violence of the invading guerillas fighting the machines in the post-apocalyptic environment. Everything that was shot was spiced-up to the maximum. The more action that we could put in there, the better.
The principle photography took place in New Orleans and there was a limited set piece of the camp itself, which included portions of the wall segments and minor items that were built practically. The big task became the extension of the camp with prison cells and a huge hangar building that houses the time displacement chamber.
There was a lot of crowd work with endoskeletons fighting ground troops and we ended up introducing an air battle as well. Whenever you saw a portion of the sky you saw guerilla helicopters fighting the flying robot machines which had been featured in the previous movies. It was war machines on every level, whether on the ground or in the sky.
JG: Did you want to evolve the look of those machines or stay true to what was seen in the previous installments of the franchise?
SS: I think the overall language of Terminator: Genisys is highly oriented on the original series, the first and the second in particular. We wanted to stay true to the original designs, but then again it had to evolve to some extent. There was creative input that came into play from anyone involved and that allowed for a little bit of deviation, but the overall language is true to the originals. It’s almost like an homage and I like that.
Terminator Genisys is now in theatres. For more information on MPC Montreal, visit http://www.moving-picture.com/contact-us/montreal.
James Gartler is a Canadian writer with a serious passion for animation in all its forms. His work has appeared in the pages of Sci Fi Magazine and at the websites EW.com and Newsarama.com.