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A Flexible Finish
American Cinematographer Magazine
Building a Believable Blockbuster
Artists at Stan Winston Studio and Industrial Light & Magic collaborate with cinematographer Don Burgess, ASC on Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.


by Ron Magid

With the relentless determination of a Terminator pursuing its prey, cinematographers have sought to retain control of their images in the treacherous domain of visual effects. Don Burgess, ASC is a master of the form, having photographed such effects-heavy projects as Forrest Gump, Contact and Spider-Man. For Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, the cinematographer worked closely with artists at Stan Winston Studio and Industrial Light & Magic to ensure that their work would blend seamlessly with his own.

As Burgess has learned in recent years, sophisticated digital effects present unique challenges. Because these images are created without any physical constraints, they can end up having all the dramatic weight of a videogame if filmmakers aren't careful. "We really have to work to keep audiences 'in' the film and believing that it's reality-based, and it's tough because audiences have seen everything," says Burgess. "I think people are watching big effects movies and yawning. Why? Because they don't believe [they're looking at] anything more than a CG character flopping around. When you work on an effects-heavy picture, you're always deciding how to make it believable and keep it interesting in order to keep the audience connected to the principal characters."

These days, Burgess finds himself fielding a lot of effects questions during those crucial preproduction meetings. "The director, the visual-effects supervisor and I all work together to determine how we're going to execute the storyboards on film, but everyone else often turns to the cameraman and asks, 'What's the best way to do this?' And given my experience with mechanical and digital effects, on Spider-Man and T3 I was usually the one trying to sort out how to execute it right.

"It's ultimately a financial decision: what it will cost to do it this way vs. what it will cost to do it that way," Burgess continues. "On Spider-Man, I was able to use a lot of TransLites and painted backings to help save money. I try to solve problems the way I used to, before everything became about making a composite; I try to come up with clever ways to execute certain ideas so that not every shot becomes a visual effect."

Fortunately, Terminator effects have always been achieved with a great deal of makeup and mechanical techniques, courtesy of Stan Winston Studio. For T3, Winston's team created an armada of robots using techniques that began with actor-driven makeups and peaked with fully articulated robots that were controlled via radio signals. The evolution of visual effects in the futuristic trilogy is as fascinating as anything in the films themselves. "For The Terminator, we did some makeup effects that were kind of new, and in order to pretend to bring the full-sized character to life, we created a puppet Terminator with technology I borrowed from Jim Henson," recalls Winston. "On T2, we advanced our animatronic technology to create a full T-800 endoskeleton whose foot could crush a skull as the camera panned up to show the robot scanning the battlefield. And for the first time, we married our live-action puppetry and animatronics to ILM's CG technology. That was a breakthrough movie, and it still holds up. With all of the advances in robotics, animatronics and CG, on T3 we can do for real what we just pretended to do in the first Terminator, and what we made advances with in T2."

One of T3's major advancements springs from Winston's work on A.I.. For that film, he created robotic humans whose skulls were largely missing, using a skillful blend of makeup with greenscreen accents and ILM's digital technology. He used the same technique to expose more of the T-800 endoskeleton lurking beneath the Terminator's massive physique. "You'll see the combination of Schwarzenegger and endoskeleton much more in T3 than you did in the first two films," Winston notes with pride.

ILM visual-effects supervisor Pablo Helman originally asked Burgess to use Kodak SFX 200T to film those sequences. Burgess had used the emulsion for effects shots in Spider-Man, and after he did some comparison tests with Vision 200T 5274, which he planned to use for most of T3, the cinematographer convinced the ILM team that the Vision stock would work. "This was only about a year after Spider-Man, and the CG technology had advanced so much that we didn't need to use the special-effects stock," notes Burgess. Adds Helman, "After consulting with Don Burgess and ILM optical supervisor Kenneth Smith, we determined that the 5274 had to be exposed about a half-stop under key."

To create shots in which the Terminator is literally half man, half machine, Burgess shot Schwarzenegger wearing greenscreen makeup against a bluescreen background. "Half of Arnold was in [traditional] makeup, and the other half of him was green," says Helman. "That way, we could separate the CG makeup elements from the background."

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.