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When you think of James Cameron films, you probably remember special effects extravaganzas—the kind of that make your eyes bulge out Tex Avery-style. The liquid Terminator, the sinking of the Titanic, the natural splendor of FernGully. Wait, no, it was Smurf Village. No, Pandora. We knew we'd get there.
Regardless of the name, those special effects don't come cheap. In fact, Cameron has broken the record for the most expensive film ever made four times, and he's poised to do it again with Avatar 2.
The Terminator, on the other hand, was a financially restrained project. Cameron had a mere $6.4 million to work with. To put that into perspective, Arnold Schwarzenegger's salary for Terminator 2 alone was a cool $15 million.
Despite the tight budget, Cameron and his crew made a science-fiction film with special effects that still mostly hold up today. (Mostly.) How'd they do it? They used cheap, tried-and-true techniques, and they did so in spectacular fashion.
Lacking the budget to blow up the real world, the filmmakers opted to create scale models of it and blow those up instead. If you're thinking that sounds like something a bored kid would do, then you're right. Cameron's special effects people were so pro at being kids that they got paid for it.
One of the most notable models in the film was the tanker truck. During the final chase, the script called for a tanker truck to be blown up in front of the police armory, but the crew couldn't get the permits to perform such a stunt live. Apparently, police get antsy at the idea of high explosives being operated near a building loaded with ammunition. Who knew?
Effects supervisor Gene Warren, Jr., and his crew thought up a workaround. Their solution was to build a 1:6 scale model of the armory and truck and send that to its fiery doom. The real trick was to match the model shot with the wreckage filmed in principal with the actors. The end result was—we have to say—pretty convincing.
And here's a tidbit of trivia for you: they had to film the destruction of the tanker truck model twice. During the first shot, the cable pulled too hard and took the axel out from underneath. The explosions didn't get the memo and went off. This ruined the shot, and the filmmakers had to create a second model and do it again (source).
Of course, the tanker truck wasn't the only model used. The Hunter-Killers and the Terminator's endoskeleton were models, as were many of the shots taking place in the far-flung future of 2029.
To create that desolate hellscape, the filmmakers used miniatures made of cutouts, foam, and cardboard on a raised platform. If you've ever seen the intricate game tables created for games like Warhammar 40K, you've got the idea.
To make these models seem as large as they would be in real life, the filmmakers used a variety of camera techniques. One such technique is called forced-perspective.
When looking through a camera, images in the foreground appear larger than images in the background. Forced-perspective is when the shot's angle uses this phenomenon to create a depth of field and trick the human eye. If you've ever taken a photo in which a far-away friend appears to be standing in the palm of another person's hand, you have used this technique.
The filmmakers used forced-perspective on the model landscape to create depth of field. By adding high light and smoke, a platform that is mere feet away is given a huge depth of field, appearing like a city that is miles and miles away (source).
Rear projection is another camera technique used to help give the models life. Rear projection is when you have your actors stand in front of a screen. A projector plays behind the screen, casting pre-filmed images upon it. You then film the actors against this image, and the effect appears to transport them to wherever the pre-filmed images show.
If you're a fan of old-timey movies, you'll recognize this technique as the one used when actors drive cars in front of backgrounds that don't quite look right.
In The Terminator, the technique is used to bring models to life alongside the actors. For example, let's consider the scene when Sarah and Reese run into the factory to escape the Terminator. In this scene, the Terminator is a completely exposed endoskeleton—and obviously a model brought to life using stop-motion animation.
The crew filmed the endoskeleton using stop-motion animation. This footage was then projected against a screen, and the screen was placed behind the door Sarah and Reese were desperately attempting to close. The result makes it appear as if the Terminator is chasing Sarah and Reese into the factory.
But it wasn't just the special effects that required the film crew to be creative to stay within budget. Cameron and his people also had to resort to something called guerrilla filmmaking. Essentially, this means the crew filmed some scenes without obtaining permission first.
The scene when the Terminator steals the station wagon in a suburban neighborhood is an example of Cameron resorting to guerrilla filmmaking. He and Schwarzenegger set up the scene, filmed the grand theft auto, and then beat feet before someone took the time to wonder why some guy was filming another guy stealing a car. Cameron footed the bill for this one himself, as it was the final shot of the film and the money was dried up (source).
Stan Winston was in charge of The Terminator's makeup effects, and he created all of the prosthetics for the film. These prosthetics were used as the Terminator took battle damage, slowly revealing the endoskeleton beneath the cyborg's flesh.
Winston also designed the puppets and animatronics for any scenes when Schwarzenegger couldn't stand in—for example, the scene when the Terminator repairs itself in the motel. Using animatronics, Winston created a two Schwarzeneggers: one that was 1:1 scale and a much larger one for close-up shots of the cybernetic eye. Then he used puppetry to have these perform that gut-wrenching eye surgery so that Arnie wouldn't have to (source).
Sure, by today's standards, it's got more than a foot out of the Uncanny Valley, thanks to that herky-jerky motion. But as Winston himself points out, it was the start of future endeavors to use animatronics and puppetry more thoroughly in film, something that led to his extraordinary work in films such as Jurassic Park (source).
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