Revisiting Cinefex (21): The Terminator, Dune

Cinefex 21Emerging from a wall of fire on the front cover of Cinefex #21 is the extraordinarily detailed stop-motion cyborg endoskeleton built by Doug Beswick for James Cameron’s seminal 1984 science fiction film The Terminator. There’s more fictional futurism on the back cover, in the form of the spice harvester from David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of the classic Frank Herbert novel Dune. The harvester’s a model too, this time sculpted by Rafael Ablanque and photographed on one of Kit West’s huge miniature sets at Mexico’s Churubusco studios. Two articles to re-read in this issue, then, spanning a total of 72 pages.

  • The Terminator (article by Jennifer Benidt)
  • The Shape of ‘Dune’ (edited by Janine Pourroy and Don Shay, based on material gathered by Paul M. Sammon)

Let’s travel back in time to 1984. Ronald Reagan was US President, Margaret Thatcher was UK Prime Minister and none of us felt terribly safe in our beds. NASA’s Space Shuttle was, well, shuttling, Terms of Endearment won the Oscar for Best Picture and a little company called Apple launched a brand new product called the Macintosh.

Ancient history. Ah, I remember it well.

The Terminator

What I don’t remember so well is the release of The Terminator towards the end of that long-ago year. I do recall seeing the trailer and writing the movie off as a cheap exploitation flick starring that musclebound guy from Conan the Barbarian. When I caught up with it years later on late-night TV, I finally realised it was something special.

rc21tIf the introduction to Jennifer Benidt’s article is anything to go by, I wasn’t alone. ‘[The Terminator] looked like nothing more than the latest in a seemingly endless barrage of excessively violent action pictures,’ she says before going on to praise its ‘intelligence’, ‘flair’ and ‘precision’. Fortunately for us, Cinefex managed to include coverage of this surprise hit in issue #21, dated April 1985. So what we have here is nothing less than a contemporary study of the making of James Cameron’s first big hit.

Right from the start, Benidt’s article reveals one of the key traits for which Cameron is now famous: a keen eye for design both in terms of concept and functionality. For instance, he chose chrome as a surface finish for the robots in this film because (a) ‘it gives you the sense that they are only and purely machines’ and (b) ‘a mirrored surface will reflect a laser beam.’

Benidt also gives us multiple examples of what she describes as an ‘exercise in low-budget ingenuity.’ Fantasy II effects supervisor Gene Warren comments that ‘one of the reasons we were awarded the job was that Jim Cameron wanted to avoid high-tech motion control.’ Not that even apparently simple effects like suspending miniature flying machines on wires and swinging them through smoke were without their problems: Cameron wanted so much light inside the miniatures that they tended to melt.

There are lots of juicy quotes from Cameron as he tells us how he wanted to ‘do a film like Alien,’ and how Arnie got the role originally intended for an actor who was ‘not particularly imposing.’ Another key voice is that of Stan Winston, working here with Cameron at the start of what was to prove a lifelong relationship. Winston talks with great pride (and in great depth) about the high quality of his sculpting and casting processes, and is at great pains to point out that the final cyborg endoskeleton ‘is anatomically correct, and could literally fit inside Arnold’s body.’ He talks at length about the puppet-on-the-shoulders rig devised for the waist-up shots, a revolutionary and effective animation solution that has rightfully taken its place in special effects lore.

Back in 1984, the only solution for full-body shots of the endoskeleton moving around was stop-motion. Cameron was ‘wary of the technique’, but found it acceptable given the character’s mechanical nature. The one-third scale stop-motion puppet was a meticulous replica of its full-scale cousin, and the actual shooting used camera movements and blurs (achieved ‘by smearing Vaseline on the lens’) to help sell the shots.

All the Cameron trademarks are on display here, fully formed even at the beginning of his ongoing cinematic journey: a laser-sharp eye for design, a desire to innovate and a readiness to thing big. Futuristic, war-torn Los Angeles? Fine, we’ll ‘dynamite some condemned buildings at a Bethlehem Steel plant.’ Still, few of us reading this issue of Cinefex back then could have guessed quite how far that journey would take him. At the end of the article, Cameron remarks that people like Stan Winston and Fantasy II ‘find themselves doing a lot of bad “blood-and-guts” movies just to bring in revenue.’ He goes on to say that ‘when they get a chance to work on a movie with a good script, they are willing to work that much harder.’ Here’s a man who wants to raise not only his own game, but everybody else’s. His assertion has a clear subtext: ‘Come with me, and I’ll take you on a hell of a ride.’

Did any of us know quite what a ride that was going to be when we read that ‘[Gale Ann] Hurd and Cameron are already discussing a sequel [to The Terminator]’? Or that Cameron’s next film might be his ‘long-planned follow-up to Alien‘? I know I didn’t. But I’m very glad I bought my ticket and climbed aboard.

Dune

Dune hasn’t fared so well. On its release it proved too confused and confusing to engage a mainstream audience. Like John Carter, it cost gazillions and made a little loose change, and was forever branded a flop. Still, it’s a big movie. Very big. Effects supervisor Barry Nolan puts the optical shot count at 550, a whopping total for 1984. Originally, John Dykstra at Apogee was slated to handle the lion’s share of the work, but when producers Dino and Raffaella de Laurentiis insisted the effects unit operate out of the main production facility in Mexico, Dykstra pulled out, concerned that the quality of the shots would suffer as a consequence.

rc21dThe producers’ solution was to pull together a mix of talents all under one (rather rickety) roof. This approach fostered an old-school approach evident in the production’s extensive use of traditional camera tricks like hanging miniatures and matte paintings. These latter were supervised by the legendary Albert Whitlock; if you’ve seen the film you’ll know what a breathtaking job he and his team did.

Even some of the bluescreen shots caught the retro bug. While the big players of the day – Apogee, EEG and ILM – were more than ready to get down and dirty when required, they preferred to move their expensive motion control cameras through carefully controlled environments. That’s one reason Dykstra left the show: because he’d have been forced to give up that control. But the Dune crew, for various reasons, ended up using what Barry Nolan describes as ‘a [sunlit] backlot blue screen … about two hundred feet long.’ Cinefex editors Pourroy and Shay comment, quite reasonably, that this was ‘unconventional by contemporary standards, but a staple technique in the past.’

Backlot bluescreens. Ah, they do say everything goes in cycles, don’t they? Look at a production still from any of the 1950s Biblical epics and you’ll see one of those ancient outdoor bluescreens loitering in the background. Fast-forward to 1984 and presto: most bluescreen shots are now being done indoors and under almost laboratory conditions. Fast-forward once more to the present day and what do we see on the backlot sets of Avengers Assemble or The Hobbit? Yep, a bunch of outdoor bluescreens (or greenscreens).

Of course, it’s the digital revolution that’s made this most recent turnaround possible. It’s now (relatively) easy to isolate hues and create mattes from almost any suitably coloured screen. Pulling a clean matte from a bluescreen using traditional photochemical means was a fiendish alchemical process that was about as easy as turning lead into gold. By the late seventies the technique had been all but abandoned – Star Wars more or less brought it back from the grave. In the 1980s, reborn into a world of science, robust machinery and clever computing, the humble bluescreen finally came into its own.

So is Dune‘s outdoor bluescreen work any good or were Dykstra’s worst fears realised? Well, there are some ropey shots to be sure, but there are just as many stunners. Given the film’s huge scope and ambition, I reckon those sunlit bluescreens didn’t do such a bad job.

This is a big article, one that covers a vast amount of desert ground. As well as interviews with the film’s many VFX and special effects supervisors, it also features input from production designer Tony Masters and cinematographer Freddie Francis, who spends some time discussing the Lightflex system – a device that sits in front of the camera and selectively bleeds coloured light into the lens during photography.

To my eye, the Lightflex lends Dune a graded, rather modern look, with muted tones and subtle differences in colour palettes between the various planetary locations. It also gave Barry Nolan some headaches when trying to match his bluescreen shots to the live action photography. ‘We came up with a system of flashing our film in the lab,’ he says, ‘that gave the effects a subtle sort of graying which helped lock them in with the rest of the film.’

Like Cameron, David Lynch is a director with a strong artistic vision, although here he seems to be more into experimentation than clarity. Production illustrator Ron Miller clearly understood what his director was after: ‘Lynch’s favourite three things in the world,’ he says, ‘were small triangles, black rubber and little twisty wires.’ But sometimes Lynch’s ideas just didn’t get communicated. There’s mention of constant redesigns and, commenting on the bizarre scene in which a Guild Navigator ‘folds space’ within a cathedral-like spacecraft interior, Barry Nolan says, ‘It’s not my favourite sequence. Nobody really knew what David wanted.’

Ultimately, it’s the numbers that remind you of the sheer scale and ambition of Dune. Take the mind-boggling challenge of optically recolouring the eyes of the desert-dwelling Fremen characters. Talking numbers once more, Nolan estimates the total number of rotoscoped, optically composited and painstakingly colour-wedged eyes was around 136,000.

Dune was a big movie indeed.

The pictures

Flicking back through the pages this issue of Cinefex, my eyes are drawn to several photos. The first is from the Terminator article, and shows the late great Stan Winston sculpting detail back into a life-cast of Arnold Schwarzenegger. That’s two cinema icons in one image – what’s not to like? From the same article, there’s a nice spread of shots showcasing the stop-motion puppet. I’m struck by the size of the thing, its detailing and the sophistication of the design. Oh, that’ll be another icon, then.

From the Dune article, I like the ‘pensive portrait’ of Albert Whitlock on page 48, but also the later spread that breaks down my favourite effects shot in the movie: the view looking down from a flying ornithopter as a sandworm erupts from the desert to consume a spice harvester. The set-up comprises a big outdoor landscape, miniature harvester, a giant articulated worm-on-a-stick and lots and lots of wind machines.

Cinefex #21 is about two futuristic films. It’s also (even though this can’t have been apparent at the time) about the future of the industry. Do I need to outline James Cameron’s career after he wrapped on The Terminator – specifically the massive influence he and his partners have had not only on visual effects but on the whole film industry? Of course I don’t. And am I the only one who, when pondering Dune‘s generous use of forced perspective and massive miniatures alongside bluescreen and creature work both old-school and state-of-the-art, is reminded of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings? If that’s a stretch, doesn’t Dune‘s multi-vendor approach sound familiar, with a number of different supervisors being employed each to bring their own particular expertise to a show containing more effects than you can shake a stick at?

The shape of things to come, anyone?

Did you enjoy this Cinefex retrospective? If so, click here to read the others in the series.

Comments

  1. Reblogged this on TNG Visual Effects.

  2. Jody Duncan says:

    Hi Graham — I’ve been horribly derelict in not responding to any of these wonderful blogs earlier, but I’m enjoying them so much! I don’t know if you’ve ever read the “Look Back” thing I did for #80, our 20th anniversary issue, but I tell the story in that piece that Don wasn’t even going to do anything on The Terminator. He assumed it was going to be a low-rent ‘B’ flick — and who the heck was ‘Jim Cameron’ anyway? — and so he didn’t even consider it, and he was well on his way with other editorial content. But son Gregg, who was prime Terminator age at the time (12 or 13, I think), pestered Don to take him to see it — and Don was so blown away by it, he came home and announced that he was ditching his original editorial content for that issue and was devoting it to The Terminator, instead. And that one turned out to be one of our best selling issues EVER. Just thought I’d pass that along. Hope I get to meet you in person someday! — Jody

    • Hi Jody – it’s lovely to hear from you, and I’m so glad you’re enjoying the blogs. Thanks for sharing that lovely story about Don’s near miss with The Terminator (I confess to having some gaps in my collection around that time so never read the “Look Back” piece). It just goes to show how tough it must be trying to predict which movies are going to (a) be popular and (b) offer up compelling behind-the-scenes stories. These days, there are so many effects movies to choose from I guess the problem must be which ones to leave out.
      I too hope our paths might cross at some point in the future!
      Graham

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