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Timed for a Killing: Double Negative Takes on ‘Terminator Genisys’

VFX supervisor Pete Bebb walks us through DNeg’s extensive work on robotic assassins, digital doubles and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Guardian in the latest ‘Terminator’ franchise flick.

Even though Terminator Genisys is the fifth instalment of a cinematic franchise which began over 30 years ago, The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) specifically served as templates for director Alan Taylor and production VFX supervisor Janek Sirrs, who wanted their new film to carry on from where filmmaker James Cameron left off.  In order to achieve this vision, Sirrs sought the assistance of Double Negative to create both familiar and new robotic assassins from the future as well as environments which span three different time periods.

Double Negative VFX supervisor Pete Bebb, who previously worked with Sirrs on Batman Begins (2005), was tasked with reproducing the shape-shifting liquefied metal antagonist known as the T-1000 (Lee Byung-hun) from Terminator 2: Judgement Day.  “We decided not to do a straight fluid simulation with the plate, which they did for the original film,” notes Bebb.  “We thought it would be a nice idea that Skynet had replicated one of the best things in nature dealing with camouflage.  We looked at the pores of kettle fish in order to get a feel for that [its camouflage capabilities].  When it came to the final death of the T-1000 we wanted to explore ideas other than melting him, so he was burned with acid. The T-1000 starts as liquid metal, moves to bright flames and burning vapour, dries up to go to a hummus type-of-thing, shatters and goes to dust.” 

The previous films were quite savvy in how they visualized the blades of the T-1000. “[In previous films] You only see them in profile, whereas in this film they are shown from a number of different angles,” Bebb explains. “For the Department Store Scene where the T-1000 flips the blades back towards the camera we made them two to three times the proper length, otherwise, they’d look like drumsticks.   We had to do a new version of the blade model every time because there was never a one solution trick.”

According to Bebb, lighting the liquid form was not too difficult. “We wanted to improve the shader.  The original one was pure chrome so it came out very clean and tended to look CG.  We were conscious of the fact that this is a solid metal object.  We always had reference for that within the camera to have an idea of what it would look like.  We gave it slight imperfections over the entire model so when he is close to the bonnet of the car you see indentations like fractures in the metal with a bit of iridescence.  Also, by its nature fluid picks up debris and dust within the environment it is set in.”

The brief Bebb’s team received on the T-3000 was to create an iconic Terminator based on nanotech. “We had a small team of concept artists, modellers, riggers, effects artists and compositors that churned out ideas and did a bunch of different tests,” he explains. “We had to be quite divergent on this because we didn’t want it to be something that you’ve seen before. The T-3000 is a Terminator spliced between John Connor [Jason Clarke] and Skynet so it had to be something quite unique.  We blended the T-800 with the T-1000 but it didn’t ring true.  John Connor is replaced at the cellular level by nanobots.  Skynet doesn’t know what it is about John Connor that is required so it carbon copies him.  As Skynet figures that out it re-forms John Connor to make him a pure combat machine.  We made it a form follows function design.  The system within the computer was to be particulate. It had to be alive, breath, have a blood flow and be muscular.  Rather than being a normally rigged geometric character, it ended up being half a billion hairs.”

“Each of the nanobots had its own shader property,” continues Bebb.  “We were keen for the T-3000 not to have too much of a metallic feel.  We didn’t want to go too T-800 or too chrome like the T-1000. It went into the stealth feel like the Blackbird and F-35.  It was modern and had a slight iridescence because we wanted to give a biochemical advance technology feel to it as well.  It also helped with the kettle fish idea that we borrowed from the T-1000 for the camouflage.  From the start they wanted to have the T-3000 react like a human.  If he gets angry the hairs would stand on end and increase while the muscles would become tighter and more rigid.  The T-3000 was also designed for sound because we had to do a sequence whereby he is being pulled by this big MRI machine like a huge magnet.  The sound of MRI machines are quite unique so the sound department plugged that into the effects and that’s what drives the simulation within that scene.”

Turning the cloth simulations into particles was not too difficult until they had to work with live-action plates that already had cloth. “We had to try to match the cloth motion in the plate with the particles.  Half of the time we ended up replacing the T-3000 entirely,” Bebb explains.

The different levels of destruction inflicted upon the magnetic nanoparticle being did not linger for long as the T-3000 was able to regenerate quite quickly.  A signature cinematic moment from Terminator 2: Judgment Day served as an inspiration.  Notes Bebb, “When the T-3000 is shot with a grenade in the Helicopter Chase Sequence it harkens back to T2 when the torso of the T-1000 splits in two with his head hanging off.”

No Terminator movie is complete without the appearance of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who portrays the protector of Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) known as the Guardian.  “The different levels of demise for the Guardian were mainly copying the practical onset make-up by Legacy and taking it further depending on how much he was torn apart by the T-3000 at the end battle,” remarks Bebb, who oversaw the production of the Guardian digital double.  “We had different sculpts based on the proof of concepts we did. When we took away the flesh we still had to keep enough to retain the recognizable form of Arnie.”

The age of the actor had an impact on the design of the T-800. “We were conscious of where we had to show the endoskeleton through bits of tissue to make sure that there wasn’t too much jowl or flesh. There was some manipulation and sculpting on a per-shot basis in order to make that look real, otherwise, it felt that the endoskeleton was setback too far,” says Bebb. A concerted effort was made by DNeg to utilize as much of the live-action footage as possible. “The majority of the time when it was Arnie we used his plate,” he adds.

“The T-5000 is not so much a hologram as the character is layered with colours ionizing the air,” Bebb continues.  “It’s more of a physical presence in the room than just light.  We also wanted it to be a more subjective form rather than the shot to pieces image that is screened on top of the plate.  We needed to show some evolution through detail and form.   We didn’t use any plates at all.  It was all digital doubles.  A light sculpture was our reference as we used small and different dots that become more refined as you ionize the air around them.  It was an interesting artistic task rather than a straight hologram.”  A sense of depth needed to be created for the T-5000, which is embodied by Doctor Who alumnus Matt Smith.  “We weren’t dealing with light as a pure physical thing,” says Bebb.  “We were using lighted dots within 3D space.  We used a great deal of depth of field within that and we also used different exposures and motion.  That all helped give it a complete sculptural form and depth.”

Double Negative was also involved with creating a 360 degree environment for the Time Displacement Device Chamber, which appears in 1984, 2017 and 2029.   “All of those TDDs had a slightly different look but you still understand the methodology on how they work, which was common for the three different eras,” explains Bebb.  “The 1984 device is made out of the different technology of the day.  2017, which was classified as present day in the film, was the watered down version of the 2029 device.  The 2029 version was starker because there are many more robots.  The TDD chamber is massive.  For each one of the coffer sections they built onset, we had to replicate that same design all the way through the chamber.  When you see the TDD in 2017 it is a partial build.  We had to design the area behind the coffers as well as the functionality of the TDD which gets damaged and then blows up.”  There were also some practical effects involved.  Bebb continues, “If you have things react from the coffers and if nothing is there then we can’t deploy anything.  We tried to maintain as much as we could of the dry ice and explosions that were shot onset but the majority of how it played was CG.”

The parking lot outside the stage in New Orleans served as the rooftop of the San Francisco Police Station.“It enabled us to section off the set,” states Bebb.“We had the principals there in a real environment.Then we took that footage and put it on top of the CG building.If we had the helicopter plate from San Francisco we would doctor that into it as well.The helicopter takes off and falls down the side of the building.”An aerial pursuit ensues.“The Helicopter Chase is a completely CG sequence because as you wouldn’t be allowed to fly a helicopter that low on the streets,” Bebb adds. “All of the set pieces and the two life-size bucks [the helicopter body without the top rotor and tail section] were all shot and scanned.When we finished in New Orleans, the main unit went over to San Francisco.Once that wrapped up after a couple of weeks, the visual effects unit stayed for another month scanning and doing an intensive film shoot of rooftop, helicopter and street positions.”

The film includes a dramatic showdown that takes place on the Golden Gate Bridge.  “They built a 500 foot section in New Orleans at the back of the main production offices,” notes Bebb.  “They flipped the bus for real but there was only one practical hero crash which is when the bus hits a MPV.  We had issues with the cars coming up to speed before hitting the set creating a lot of dust - they had to run at a slow speed limit in order to get all of that scene shot in plates or in-camera.”  Real car rashes were referenced including dashboard camera footage from Eastern Europe and Russia. “We tracked them and started replicating the crashes to make sure that they looked as real as possible,” Bebb continues. “What we didn’t want to do is key in any of these crashes.  We created a library of different car crashes that we could use in the Golden Gate and Highway Sequences.  We ran them through various simulations in Houdini to give us the smoke, dust and glass.  At the end we had quite a repertoire of real simulated car crashes which could be incorporated into the live-action plate or complete CG environment.”

LiDAR scans of the set along with photography of the landmark structure made possible the creation of a highly detailed model that could be sculpted for set extensions and full CG shots.  An overriding issue for Double Negative was the umpredictable weather encountered during principal photography.  “We had to merge a New Orleans summer, which is bright blue sky and direct sunlight, with a foggy and cloudy San Francisco where every now and then the sun broke through but most of times was flat,” Bebb notes. “We do have some banking clouds and sun breaking through.  It made for more cinematic lighting.  It also helped us to blend in the live-action footage from New Orleans.  We also shot plates within San Francisco that were in both direct sunlight and overcast so we had that mixture of the two.  Janek Sirrs went back again to shoot helicopter plates in November when the weather was somewhat better.  We had a great repertoire of different lighting conditions to play with, so it was good.”

According to Bebb, the biggest challenge was the creation of a brand new Terminator - making sure it was different from what audiences had seen before, was recognizable as John Connor, and had all of the traits desired from something designed by a computer.“There was over a year of design involved. We almost ended up going full circle in the design of T-3000 to something recognizable. You can’t get too finicky and complex when you’re trying to tell a story, otherwise, it ends up being a fancy show reel.We were always conscious of that.” Bebb was pleased with the end result, concluding, “I’m looking forward to seeing the T-3000 walking through the flames and fighting the Guardian at the end in the TDD chamber.It was pure T-800 versus T-3000. That was a fun design.”


Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for sites such as the CGSociety, 3DTotal, Live for Films and Flickering Myth; he is a big fan of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Batman: The Animated Series, The Hobbit, Studio Ghibli, and Peter Weir.

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.