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American Cinematographer Magazine
Heavy Metal
Don Burgess, ASC helps to craft a new look for the Terminator series on Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

After springing from the fertile imagination of young filmmaker James Cameron, The Terminator (1984) created a phenomenon that launched not only Cameron's career, but also that of his robotic star, Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger. Seven years later, the Terminator returned in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and now the Terminator has returned once again in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

Shot by Don Burgess, ASC and directed by Jonathan Mostow, T3 picks up 10 years after the cyborg's last visit to pre-apocalypse Los Angeles. John Connor (John Stahl), the future leader of the free world, is in his twenties and waiting for his destiny to unfold. The first two Terminator films established that Connor will eventually lead a revolution to save mankind - after the machines rebel against their human masters - but as T3 opens, none of that has taken place.

Although Burgess and Mostow screened the previous films before embarking on T3, the cinematographer says they weren't interested in trying to match the cold, blue look established by cinematographer Adam Greenberg, ASC and Cameron in those films. Instead, they wanted to give the new chapter its own style. "T3 has its steely-cold moments, but more and more I found myself reaching for warmer colors - more sodium-vapor or fire sources - that led us away from that look," says Burgess. "When we introduce the Terminator, there's a large explosion and lots of fire, in addition to sodium-vapor lights all around, and Arnold comes into a very warm, orange-yellow light. We kept that look for a lot of the picture. It was a nice thread, because some of that sequence was shot on location and some was done on stage, and I was able to keep the thread of color alive to make the two feel like the same place."

To develop the look of T3, Burgess "sat down with Jonathan to get his feelings and ideas about the type of movie he envisioned. I then met with the production designer and started looking at the locations that had been picked and the designs that had been developed. We boiled all of that information down and came to grips with an overall approach. Especially on a film like this one, where we have reality-based elements and science-fiction elements, we had to establish the rules for the world in which were going to tell this story. In part, the story depends on our ability to believe that this could all happen today in Los Angeles, so [we knew] the cinematography had to be based in reality. It's the right choice for this film because it allows the audience to willingly suspend disbelief."

Setting a new look for the Terminator himself, Burgess used cross-back key lights to help chisel out Schwarzenegger's hard features, along with a high, soft fill. The latter was usually a 20K with a large Chimera softbank raised on a super-crank stand and tipped down at about a 45-degree angle on the actor's face, about 2 1/2 to 3 stops under key. "I reached for 20Ks quite a bit on this show," confesses Burgess. "We used them instead of 18Ks for backlight all the time, and they were gelled with either 1/8 CTB or our sodium-vapor color pack [Rosco Calcolor 30 Yellow and Lee 147 Apricot]. I also used Maxi-Brutes with Firestarters, especially in scenes with smoke or fire, because as soon as you introduce smoke, you need a harder source to penetrate and punch through from the background."

One of the most daunting tasks in mounting the production was its extensive prep, which lasted eight weeks. "The biggest challenge on these movies is the preproduction phase - breaking the script down into storyboards, breaking those storyboards down into each element of each frame, and then figuring out how each element should be created," says Burgess, who went through an equally painstaking prep on Spider-Man. "What can be a location? What has to be a set? What can be computer-generated? You have to go through almost every shot, and it's very tedious and time-consuming. But those decisions have to be made correctly up front, or you get in a lot of trouble later on.

"Jonathan hadn't directed a project of this nature before," he adds, "so it was my job to do what I could to guide him into the best decisions during prep. Over the years, especially while shooting a lot of second-unit work, I've learned many tricks about how to create illusions with camera speed or specific focal-length lenses, [how to use] mechanical rigs to physically integrate actors into the action while still keeping them safe - whatever it takes to make the best shot we can in the safest and most efficient manner possible."

In one of the film's chase sequences, the villain Terminatrix, the T-X (Kristanna Loken), commandeers a large construction crane in pursuit of Connor. The sequence called for more than 1,000 shots, and the production built a three-block stretch of suburban streets and buildings outside a production facility in Downey, California. The scene was set at night, but the filmmakers quickly realized they wouldn't have time to light and shoot so many night shots, so they decided to change it to a day sequence. During one point in the action, the hero Terminator (Schwarzenegger) grabs the large hook at the end of the construction-crane arm as he attempts to rescue Connor from the evil T-X. Burgess suggested actually hanging Schwarzenegger from the hook. "We try to connect the actors to the action as much as we can," he says. "That means we have to create mechanical effects to make it appear as if they're deep in harm's way without actually putting them in jeopardy. After the scene was storyboarded and we saw what was going to happen, I said, 'Hey, I know how we can put Arnold in the middle of this and make him look like he's really hanging on.'"

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.