Two-time Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Charles Gibson was originally going to take a crack at Superman. He told me in a phone conversation that he first met McG when the director had "another movie at Warner Bros. that kind of crashed," which can only be the doomed Superman project McG has openly discussed in recent months. But the two didn't give up on the partnership, and not long after Gibson was brought on in the very, very early stages of another reboot of a popular franchise.
For Terminator: Salvation, Gibson was charged not only with creating a wide array of robots and Terminators, but re-creating the most famous one of all. He received notes and suggestions from California Governor Schwarzenegger, but for the most part re-created the T-800 using a mold made of Schwarzenegger's face 25 years ago. "Remember there's a lot of makeup in Terminator 1. Whenever you have to do makeup on an actor, expensive makeup, you usually have to do a life cast on him, so that you can build pieces that will attach to his face. So they had that, which was a tremendous coup for us."
When it came to creating the new robots, from the giant Harvester to the tiny eels that swarm John Connor in a stream, Gibson says that even when the robots were CGI, having something real there for the actors to interact with was a priority. "Part of our philosophy of hte film was to always have some physical component of the robot on set. That really enhanced the movie."
You can read a transcribed portion of our conversation below, and listen to the whole thing in the embedded video below. Gibson is a fascinating, generous guy, happy to give a newbie like me a look into the incredibly complex process of creating visual effects for a movie as massive as Terminator: Salvation. Warning, though-- spoilers abound, so I'd recommend listening to this after you've seen the movie.
How did you take elements of the original T-800 Arnold character and create the robot we see in the movie? The techniques they used [in the original Terminator] were either stop-motion animation, which was a little crude by today's standards, or they used a puppet. Actually, I was thinking of Arnold himself as he first appears actually as Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie. We could actually get that kind of character applied to our skeleotn. You get the best of both worlds. You get the fluidity of Arnold's first performance. There's a technical component to making it look realistic, and making metal look like metal, having it cast shadows and all that. But [also] a stance and a personality and a body attitude. He projects his chin fowrard a certain way. He walks with his upper body held a certain way. There's a body attitude that's there. Arnold plays a character that's the Terminator, that's very, very specific. More than just having a skeelton walk around. We needed to recreate this character specifically. It wasn't our job to put a spin on him.
After filming the T-800 scene with a body double, how did you tweak him to make him look like Arnold Schwarzenegger?
You know, Arnold's body was perfect. I was not a bodybuilding afficionado, I have to admit. [It was] creating symmetry, and making sure that it had the right definitions and the right silhouette that matched. We just had tons and tons and tons of references of him from that era. We would always check back and make sure that we were on model and were being faithful.
Were those references mostly the Terminator movies, or the bodybuilding videos?
For the body it was definitely bodybuilding vieeos and photos. For the face and the expressions, as part of the production process for Terminator 1, the Stan Winston people had thousands of still photos, literally had notebooks full of photos of him. In character, out of character. Again, it's not just creating a reproduction of Arnold Schwarzenegger. It's creating a reproduction of Arnold Schwarzenegger playing the Terminator. We are so critical when it comes to seeing the face of an actor we know, or the face of a loved one, or something like that. Very, very subtle adjustments on the order of moving the eyes up, tilting the ears. Why doesn't that look like Arnold? What's wrong with? It was an amazing lesson. We were very fortunate to have this incredible resource from the people that worked on the first Terminator movie, and all the Terminator movies.