Cinema in 2019 is a far cry from that of the early 1990s, when two Hollywood motion pictures were released that would transform the world of special effects. Both Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park were big budget summer blockbusters from acclaimed filmmakers that were designed to both excite and terrify audiences with their expert balance of horror, action and suspense. And both would showcase groundbreaking digital effects that would help to bring to life both a liquid metal cyborg from the future and dinosaurs that have been extinct for millions of years.
Yet despite such advancement in special effects, both movies would use this new technology sparingly and instead relied on elaborate stunt-work and practical effects, incorporating old fashioned techniques such as stop-motion into new state-of-the-art digital trickery. And while this would be achieved through the legendary company Industrial Light & Magic, the cyborg and dinosaurs were the creation of one of the most acclaimed special effects artists of all time…Stan Winston.
While he would ultimately become an important collaborator for James Cameron, the visionary filmmaker behind both The Terminator and its sequel, Winston had not been the director’s first choice in bringing his terrifying creation to fruition. Cameron had conceived the idea that would form the basic concept of The Terminator after a suffering a terrifying nightmare. ‘I was sick at the time. I had a high fever,’ he would later recall. ‘I was just lying on the bed thinking and came up with all this bizarre imagery.’
Taking inspiration from John Carpenter’s landmark slasher Halloween, Cameron and co-writer Gale Anne Hurd developed a story in which a cyborg travels back in time to assassinate an innocent young woman called Sarah Connor, whose unborn son would one day lead humanity to victory in a war against an artificial intelligence known as Skynet. With the fate of mankind resting on her survival, her son John sends a soldier back in time to protect her against the indestructible killing machine.
Ostensibly a culmination of both Halloween‘s unstoppable boogeyman Michael Myers and Yul Brynner’s malfunctioning homicidal robot from Michael Crichton’s Westworld, Cameron’s eponymous monster would become one of the most iconic villains of the 1980s and transformed a young bodybuilder-turned-actor into a Hollywood superstar. Yet it would take more than Cameron’s unique concept and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s menacing performance to bring such an ambitious vision to life.
Realising that the success of the movie relied on creating a convincing and terrifying monster, Cameron approached legendary artist Dick Smith to create the groundbreaking special effects. Having performed similar duties for such acclaimed pictures as The Godfather and The Exorcist, Smith was arguably the most respected FX artist in the industry but when looking at the demands that the script dictated he declined the offer, realising that he would not have the sufficient resources in which to create the Terminator in a way that would be both convincing and horrifying.
Smith would, however, recommend another artist to Cameron, one whom had already won two Emmys and most recently an Academy Award nomination, Stan Winston. Initially hoping to become an actor before trying his hand at stand-up comedy, it would be viewing the 1968 sci-fi fantasy Planet of the Apes that would convince a young Winston that make-up effects was where his talents lay and so eventually succeeded in landing an apprenticeship at the Walt Disney Studio. His first break and accolade would come with the made-for TV movie Gargoyles but this overnight success was soon be followed by a glut of low budget horror pictures.
His work on the 1978 musical The Wiz, an adaptation of a successful Broadway play that starred pop icons Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, would finally bring him to a more mainstream audience and it would be through Smith’s recommendation that he would come to the attention of Cameron. ‘By signing onto The Terminator Winston committed to significantly expanding his Stan Winston Studio staff, which at that time numbered only five,’ explained author Jody Duncan. ‘Over the next few months Winston would quadruple that number.’
Having started in the industry behind-the-scenes in the special effects department of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, Cameron had worked on a slew of low budget features that had included such cult titles as Battle Beyond the Stars and Carpenter’s sci-fi action flick Escape from New York. Yet despite his experience in the field, he was something of an amateur compared to Winston and as the latter’s studio grew to a staff of twenty artists the special effects department on The Terminator were hard at work designing what would become its titular creation, the T-800.
The design of the Terminator would be flesh and blood over a strong metal endoskeleton, giving the appearance of a human so that the cyborg assassin could easily infiltrate enemy defences. The face of the machine would be based on the appearance of a struggling actor called Lance Henriksen, who had not only worked with Cameron on his directorial debut Piranha II: The Spawning in 1982 but had also collaborated with Winston on the 1976 horror Mansion of the Doomed for producer Charles Band. Henriksen had been an early consideration for the part of the Terminator but would instead land a supporting role as a detective who perishes during a police station shootout.
While many special effects artists would have employed extensive use of miniatures, Winston instead wanted to build a life-size animatronic robot for the climax of the movie, in which the flesh had been burnt from the endoskeleton and Sarah is forced to face the horrifying truth that everything she had been told about the future was indeed true. While still only in his teens and only two years out of high school, up-and-coming artist Shane Mahan would take on the responsibility of creating the robotic head that is revealed once Schwarzenegger’s flesh has burnt away.
Bringing the Terminator to life would be achieved through a number of techniques. Stop-motion, which had been an integral part of special effects since the dawn of cinema, would be utilised in order to show the skinless cyborg walking, as seen during both flashbacks to the war and the cat-and-mouse scene during the finale as a wounded Sarah attempts to escape from the pursuing menace. Shots of the T-800, however, that were filmed in medium close-up were achieved by Winston’s crew attaching a puppet to the back of an operator, allowing the artists to create intricate movements in order to show the thought process of the cyborg.
A woman’s eyeball being sliced open with a razorblade in a graphic close-up
One of the more gruesome scenes in the movie would feature the Terminator, having escaped from a car crash, removing a damaged eye from its socket and operating on the exposed circuits in his wrist. Taking inspiration from Luis Buñuel’s surreal short film Un Chien Andalou, which showed a woman’s eyeball being sliced open with a razorblade in a graphic close-up, Winston’s workshop designed a head using foam rubber and animatronics in order to replicate Schwarzenegger’s features and then carefully removed the eyeball to reveal a glowing red robotic eye underneath.
The Terminator was released by Orion Pictures shortly before Halloween 1984 and would earn $78m on a budget of a little over $6m, exceeding the expectations of both the filmmakers and studio. What would prove to be more surprising was the reaction the film would receive from mainstream critics. Conceived as a slasher sci-fi flick and produced with the sensibility of a B-movie, The Terminator would prove to be a critical success, with Variety praising its ‘clever script’ and Schwarzenegger being describe by one writer as ‘perfectly cast.’
Yet while both audiences and critics reacted positively to the movie what proved to be a considerable disappointment was how the film was neglected at the Academy Awards the following year. Despite having brought to life an indestructible cyborg from the future through a combination of various filmmaking techniques, Winston and his crew would be overlooked in favour of more respected pictures like Cocoon and the real-life drama Mask. This would be rectified seven years later when Cameron would once again terrify audiences with his disturbing vision of the future.
It would be somewhat ironic that while Cameron would raise the special effects bar even further in 1989 with his claustrophobic sci-fi horror The Abyss, Winston would work on a film with a similar tone yet with a vastly reduced budget, the long-forgotten Leviathan. Yet once both had completed work on their respected projects pre-production was soon underway on the long-anticipated sequel to their first collaboration. And by the time it was released in the July of 1991 they would have created one of the most successful movies of all time and one that would change the world of special effects forever.
While the T-800 had been a major accomplishment and The Terminator had become a surprise success, Cameron had wanted to push the special effects even further, yet with such a limited budget and the technological restrictions of the day he knew that he would be unable to take the concept any further. Yet shortly after completing work on The Abyss, which had allowed him to explore the possibilities of digital effects through the design of an alien life-form that uses water to create its form, he realised that the technology had advanced so significantly that he would now create a cyborg made from liquid metal.
‘Jim wanted us to do everything we could do live,’ Winston would later claim. ‘Even though the CG water pod in The Abyss had been the inspiration for the liquid metal Terminator, Jim was still smart about getting what he could with live effects. Then, CG would be used to augment that and do what we couldn’t. Usually, for example, we would do an effect for the T-1000 injury or destruction, such as the crowbar slicing him down the middle or bullets hitting his chest and then ILM would close up those wounds digitally. And then, of course, any time you saw the full metal T-1000 walking around that was a CG character.’
With Sarah having destroyed the T-800 at the end of The Terminator, only to discover that the soldier sent back to keep her safe would become the father of the future leader of the rebellion, the movie concluded on the note that mankind had been saved. But when Terminator 2: Judgment Day would arrive the following decade it is revealed that the remains of the cyborg had provided the building block for what would become Skynet and so once again a Terminator is sent from the future to eliminate both Sarah and her ten-year-old son, John. Yet unlike the previous design, which had been a metal skeleton covered with flesh and blood, the T-1000 would be made of liquid metal and thus far superior to the previous threat she had faced.
Whereas the Stan Winston Studio had taken sole responsibility of creating the T-800, when it came to bringing its successor to light the special effects would be designed through a collaboration between Winston and Industrial Light & Magic. Formed by George Lucas during the making of his sci-fi epic Star Wars in the mid-1970s, ILM had become the leading force in visual effects and had been responsible for such Hollywood blockbusters as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future and Ghost. But with Cameron insisting on CGI only taking charge when an effect could not be achieved practically, Terminator 2: Judgment Day would feature both groundbreaking special effects and elaborate stuntwork.
For Winston and his team their approach to creating the practical effects were similar to that of The Terminator, albeit with a larger budget and tight filming schedule. And whereas there had been no expectations for the original film, anticipation for the sequel was considerably high, particularly as Schwarzenegger would be returning to the role that made him a superstar. Yet this time the T-800 would no longer be the threat, with John having sent the cyborg back in time to protect his mother from the more advanced and dangerous T-1000, portrayed by relative newcomer Robert Patrick.
Returning to the design and moulds of the original production, Winston and his team began creating new endoskeletons to be used during the flashbacks which, once again, show the audience a post-apocalyptic world where John Connor, decades from now, would have to lead a rebellion against Skynet in order to bring the war to an end. The T-800s shown during these war sequences would be brought to life through a team of puppeteers that would allow movement without the use of digital effects.
‘We’ve had a luxury in this movie,’ admitted Winston at the time. ‘We’ve been able to do what we normally could never do in a movie, we’ve been able to take what we did the first time and do it better the second time.’ This would allow Winston and his team of artists to rectify past mistakes in order to bring the cyborgs to life with more fluidity in order to give the impression of the endoskeletons moving independently. Once again portions of Schwarzenegger’s face would be covered with prosthetics to show where his flesh had been burnt, but it would be through the creation of the T-1000 that the production would be pushed to its limits.
We did a lot of in-camera magic tricks
‘The endoskeletons, which had been the big deal on The Terminator, were the least of our problems on Terminator 2,’ confessed John Rosengrant, one of Winston’s team who had played a part in the original creation of the T-800. ‘By far, the most challenging things we did for Terminator 2 were the physical effects involving the T-1000 character. We did a lot of in-camera magic tricks for that; splitting open bodies, finger blades, heads blowing open, bullet-hit wounds. Every day there was something new and challenging to do.’
With Cameron’s demands of practical effects wherever possible this meant that Winston’s team were forced to create an array of special effects that would include the T-100’s finger blade piercing through the face of John Connor’s stepfather, portrayed by Xander Berkeley. With Jenette Goldstein, who had worked with both Cameron and Winston on 1986’s Aliens, playing the role of the T-1000 after having taken the form of John’s stepmother, she extends her finger to a point and the thrusts it through the Berkeley’s face, impaling a milk carton in midair as his lifeless body is pinned against a cupboard door.
One of the more elaborate special effects would prove to be the demise of the T-1000, in which during the final showdown the T-800 manages to launch a grenade into its stomach, tearing the liquid metal robot open to such a degree that it is unable to reform. This scene was achieved through the creation of three separate puppets; the first was for the shot in which the grenade explodes, causing the robot’s body to violently split in two. A second puppet was used for when Sarah, John and the T-800 watch as the T-1000 staggers backwards, his form twisted and mangled from the explosion.
‘The puppet was mounted onto gimbals at the angles to create a teetering motion, while other body movements were achieved through rods, puppeteered by crew members stationed below the set,’ explained author Jody Duncan in The Winston Effect. ‘Jaw and eye movement in the head were radio-controlled, while the spinning head action was cable-controlled.’ The final puppet was used for the moment that the T-1000 falls backwards off the walkway and into the molten steel below, during which ILM would take over by incorporating the faces of its victims as it slowly melts away under the intense heat.
Despite his hard work and the accomplishments of his team having been ignored by the Academy the first time around, Winston would win two Oscars for his work on Terminator 2: Judgment Day; one for Best Visual Effects and a second for Best Make-up. The collaborative effort between Stan Winston Studio and Industrial Light & Magic would prove to be a landmark moment in American cinema, one that would demonstrate how both practical and digital effects could be used in conjunction to show audiences something they had never seen before. The two companies would join forces once again soon afterwards to bring an array of dinosaurs to life in Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking blockbuster Jurassic Park.
It would be over a decade before the Terminator franchise would return but by that point things had changed considerably; while not quite the dominant force it would become, digital effects had become more commonplace in the industry thanks to the success of such visual spectacles as The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings. Edward Furlong, the former child star who had portrayed John Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, had struggled publicly with both alcohol and drug addiction and had become something of a liability to studios and filmmakers. And most importantly James Cameron, the man most responsible for the series, had little interest in returning.
The release of his epic disaster drama Titanic had changed both his life and career, eventually becoming the most successful motion picture of all time and so for Cameron making a third Terminator film felt like a step backwards. ‘I think I was finishing Titanic at the time and I just felt as a filmmaker maybe I’ve gone beyond it. I really wasn’t that interested,’ he would later admit. ‘I felt like I’d told the story I wanted to tell…Basically I went from being a truck driver to being a filmmaker and part of my dues was that I sold the rights to The Terminator in order to keep myself attached as a director. And the outcome was fine. The rest of my career really hinged on that. But I no longer had control of it.’
While Cameron was disinterested with a third Terminator movie he had inadvertently justified its existence. During a showdown in Terminator 2: Judgment Day between the T-1000 and the T-800, the latter’s arm is trapped in a gear and he is forced to tear it off at the elbow in order to complete his mission. When the T-1000 is finally defeated and the remains of the original Terminator are destroyed, the T-800 is lowered into the molten steel but the severed arm is never recovered. Although the microchip in his head was melted, the arm still remained and thus would provide another eager scientist the starting point for creating artificial intelligence and, ultimately, Skynet.
By this point Cameron may have washed his hands of the series but Winston and his company would agree to return. The demands of the second movie had been considerable but his team had succeeded in accomplishing every difficult set piece and special effect sequence and so when they were approached to perform similar duties on Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines they were more than aware of the challenges that would lie ahead. And as it had become commonplace for each sequel to introduce a new type of Terminator the writers of the third movie would create the T-X.
Presented as an attractive and athletic young blonde woman who can resize her breasts in order to manipulate her male victims, the T-X was intended to be even deadlier and more menacing than the T-1000. A new model of Terminator would require a brand new endoskeleton, one more sleek and feminine than the model used for the T-800 and one that would be faster and more agile. Much like its predecessor, the liquid metal T-1000, the T-X would be a shape-shifting machine, able to perfectly mimic any living creature that it comes into contact with, while also being able to transform its limbs into an assortment of weapons.
While actress and model Kristanna Loken would portray the T-X in human form, its endoskeleton would be designed on computer to fit with the same body structure as Loken before a life-size robot was once again built. ‘The T-X was articulated through rods and radio-controlled electronics,’ described author Duncan. ‘Winston’s team also built weapon accessories for the T-X, computer-designed by Aaron Sims, that emerged from her shape-shifting arm, such as drills, buzz saws and flame-throwers. Each of the accessories was fully mechanical and functional and was fit onto custom prosthetic appendages built from casts of Loken’s arms.’
The special effects team would once again create endoskeletons for the T-800 and lifelike puppets resembling Schwarzenegger but one of the more interesting additions to the studio’s repertoire was the T-1, a present-day proto-Terminator designed by Cyber Research Systems, the company which would also create Skynet. A large robot that runs on tracks similar to that of a tank, the T-1 is less practical than the later models but would serve as deadly battle droid. After being designed digitally as a three-dimensional computer model, the team built two functional robots and a further three to be used during the sequence at the military facility during the climax of the film.
Despite a considerably higher budget than its predecessors and impressive box office returns, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines would prove to be something of an underwhelming experience to both audiences and critics. With both Cameron and Linda Hamilton, who had portrayed Sarah Connor in the first two movies, now absent from the series and the screenplay merely recycling the stalk-and-slash formula once again, the sequel would fail to give the franchise a new spin and instead served only to highlight how it inferior it was to its predecessors. ‘Less a sequel to than a remake of T2, the third Terminator is the weakest in terms of character development,’ stated the Chicago Reader. ‘And some of the most entertaining scenes in the first two have begun to harden into ritual, or parody.’
By the time that a fourth instalment in the series, Salvation, finally went into production Stan Winston had passed away at the age of just sixty-two. The Stan Winston Studio had been one of the true innovators of combining the old with the new, embracing the truly symbiotic relationship between practical effects and CGI. And in the decade since his death the industry has drastically changed, with digital effects now become the industry standard. Not only have they now become the driving force in action and fantasy scenes but is often used for minor details that an audience would not even be aware of.
Perhaps it’s because it has become so commonplace that in many modern motion pictures the digital effects look less convincing or awe-inspiring than they did in 1991 when Terminator 2: Judgment Day was released. Maybe all the pressure placed on those artists and with the limited timeframes they have to create the images, this has resulted in a reduced quality in special effects. While some motion pictures like Avengers: Infinity War and its sequel Endgame are pure visual spectacles, other Marvel entries such as Black Panther are far less convincing in their use of digital effects. Another movie where this seems to be the case is Terminator: Dark Fate, the upcoming sixth instalment of the long-running franchise.
Directed by Deadpool‘s Tim Miller and marking the return of producer Cameron and star Hamilton, Dark Fate has been herald by the studio as a return to the roots of the series following the lacklustre response to the recent sequels, yet the CGI present in the trailer could be compared to that used in mid-to-late 1990s blockbusters such as Independence Day or Armageddon. Still in its relative infancy, digital effects twenty years ago struggled to not only recreate human features or movement convincingly but would also contrast against its background, making the CGI seem out-of-place and unconvincing.
The digital effects used to create the title character of Marvel’s 2008 blockbuster Iron Man and its subsequent use throughout Marvel’s Cinematic Universe have demonstrated how the technology can be used in ways that remain impressive even in an era where many viewers have become jaded by the overuse of CGI. Even Miller’s use of it in Deadpool was effective and would help to create action set pieces that may have been impossible two decades ago. With this only being a trailer and the movie’s release date still five months away it is possible that the special effects shown are not complete and that the filmmakers are working to improve on them, but perhaps it is more likely that the digital effects in the latest Terminator sequel will be far less impressive than that of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, a movie that was released twenty-eight years ago.
While there are still an abundance of talented FX studios working in Hollywood that would be able to create convincing liquid metal Terminators, it is somewhat telling that since the passing of Stan Winston eleven years ago the visual aspect of the series has suffered. 2015’s Terminator Genisys, which attempted to reboot the franchise by rewriting its history, was awash with overused and unconvincing digital effects and this appears to be the same issue with Dark Fate if the trailer is an indication of what audiences can expect come November.
The trailer opened with a pick-up truck fleeing down a highway with a larger truck in pursuit. A young woman climbs out of the pick-up truck and throws a metal rod at their attacker; the driver morphing into liquid metal and reaching out onto the bonnet of the truck, where it morphs back into human form. The transition from human to liquid was a visual spectacle when Cameron and Winston’s team achieved this in 1991, showing the viewer something they had never witnessed before, but in 2019 the effects used to create this sequence look cheap and unimaginative. This is even more frustrating when one recalls how the first Terminator was produced on a relatively low budget but utilised its resources to create a believable and threatening villain.
In an era where filmmakers can show the audience literally anything and where most blockbusters are awash with digital effects many fans may find it disheartening to see that the latest instalment of the Terminator, the franchise that ushered in CGI and raised the bar on what could be achieved, now produces sequels that boast digital effects that pale in comparison to the ones used almost three decades earlier. Even with Winston having passed away, his work on not only the Terminator series but also Jurassic Park should serve as a benchmark for all other special effects artists and filmmakers on how to use Computer-Generated Imagery correctly and how this is at its most effective when it interacts with practical effects and real-world surroundings, not replaces them. Perhaps the series was at its best with the first two movies because it was overseen by a filmmaker who understood this, but even if Cameron’s role in the latest sequel is only as a producer his knowledge of how CGI can truly be used should be on display. Sadly, however, the title Dark Fate seems an apt description for what the future holds for a once-great franchise.