VFX: <I>Terminator: Dark Fate</I>
Issue: November/December 2019

VFX: Terminator: Dark Fate

Paramount Pictures released Terminator: Dark Fate on November 1st, marking the sixth installment in the franchise, which debuted in 1984. Directed by Tim Miller, the film reunites Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor and Arnold Schwarzenegger as the T-800, with Mackenzie Davis portraying the genetically-enhanced human Grace, and Gabriel Luna playing the new Rev 9 Terminator. Natalia Reyes is Dani Ramos, the future hope for humans, and the target of the next generation of Terminators, who’ve been sent from the future to destroy her.

Eric Barba served as visual effects supervisor on the film, overseeing teams from nine studios: The Third Floor, ILM, Digital Domain, ScanlineVFX, Blur, Rebellion, UPP, Method Studios and Weta. At the time, he was a creative director at ILM in Vancouver, but moved back to Los Angeles in order to work with the director on what he believed would be “an exciting project.” 

Upon reading the script, it was estimated that the film would require somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 VFX shots, but Barba says that number swelled after seeing some of the previs sequences, ultimately growing to a figure north of 1,900.

VFX supervisor Eric Barba

ILM handled the majority of the film’s effects shots, including the sequence that Barba says was one of the toughest to pull off — the de-aging scene where the T-800 (Schwarzenegger) approaches Sarah Connor and her son John on the beach. The sequence is set in the early ‘90s, around the same time as the second film, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and all of the actors needed to look considerably younger. John was portrayed by Edward Furlong in the original film, but was represented here by a young actor with similar features. All of the characters needed digital head replacement to make the scene work.

“That was something that I felt we needed to get moving on pretty quick and with the expertise that was at ILM,” says Barba of the challenge. “It was on the heels of some other stuff that they had done. I helped out with Aladdin on the launching of Disney Research’s anima capture. I thought that would be a great resource for us. So they got that type of work.”

“You also hold on them, while there’s the struggle with Arnold grabbing Sarah Conner’s head and pointing her back,” he continues. “There’s just some emotion that has to be conveyed there. And yes, the heads have to sit on those bodies perfectly. The hair has to move in the wind and all the little action, all the intricacies so the audience just connects with them. The detail that is there has to be perfect, otherwise the illusion is broken.”

Head replacement played a significant role throughout the film, as many scenes involved complex fights with Schwarzenegger, Davis and Luna. The use of stunt performers allowed the production to capture the dynamic motion necessary while keeping the lead actors out of harm’s way.

“That kind of digi-human work was also put on the ILM plate,” says Barba. “And then the character of the Rev 9, the endoskeleton and the liquid forms, were also put on the development plate at ILM.”

The Rev 9 Terminator has similar features to the T-1000, which appeared in the second film. The character could turn from a solid form, such as a human, into a liquid-metal matter in order to change appearance or recover from damage it received.

“It was important to Tim that the liquid from the Rev 9 be similar in that it moves like liquid, but it needed to have more intelligence to it,” says Barba of the evolution. “We need to feel like there is something — a secondary thing in there, or tertiary thing. And of course, instead of being chrome, he wanted it to be black, much like the Rev 9 is. There’s a great deal of design and iterative process that went in there. The team at ILM tried many, many routes to get something that met all of his criteria.”

Digital Domain also provided head replacement, including sequences inside the auto factory fight early in the film, and inside the C5 cargo bay later in the movie. Both head replacement and full digi characters were required to pull off the latter sequence, notes Barba. The cast is trying to escape the pursuit of a Rev 9 Terminator and commandeers a massive C5 military cargo transport, with an open back in which Hummers can be loaded via a ramp and then dropped from mid-air using a parachute.

“There’s an incredibly-challenging shot, where we come around Mackenzie before she drops into the C5 that Digital Domain did that was high on Tim’s list to get accomplished,” says Barba of the sequence.
Method Studios’ Melbourne, Australia, team also contributed to the C5 sequence, focusing on the shots that take place before the plane gets into the air. 

“The assets that Alex Wang’s team at ILM created for all the head replacements and the bodies were passed on to our partners at Digital Domain and Method,” Barba explains. “They had built such great assets. We got great feedback that they were easy to plug into their pipeline to get going. That helped us add those partners.”

UPP, with locations in Prague and Budapest, impressed Barba with their contributions, which were initially going to be some of the simpler shots, but ultimately grew to become more complex.
“They didn’t miss a beat,” he states. “They have a fantastic team there. And we were very impressed with what they were able to give us, even though they hadn’t initially signed up for quite as complex work.”

The creatives at Rebellion served as the film’s in-house VFX team and handled a lot of shots that might be consider less complex but were still important. Car shots, for example, that were filmed in front of a blue screen, were much of their work.

“That team did a fantastic job making all of those car shots seamless and work all the different times — adding CG sunglasses and different things to make all that stuff work. They did a great job,” says Barba. “It was meant to be seamless, so hopefully you didn’t notice?”

Looking back, Barba says that upon reading the initial script, he thought many of the VFX would be captured in-camera, keeping with the techniques used in the original two Terminator films. 

“But then as this previs came, and I saw Tim’s concepts and ideas for these action sequences,” he recalls. “That got me really excited because he was definitely pushing what these big action sequences could be. We did a lot of head replacement and digi double [work] that other films have not had to do, because once you get these older actors, you have to be much more cognizant of putting them at risk. Even getting stunt performers to be them is tricky. So we did a lot more head replacement than I would have originally thought, but I think it all worked out.”