SPOILER ALERT! Read no further if you don’t want to ruin the surprise behind one of Terminator Salvation’s most startling sequences.
“How’d they DO that?” is the question that’ll be stuck in the minds of Terminator Salvation audiences as soon as they get a glimpse of the film’s most surprising guest stars. Not only does the original Terminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, turn up to menace stars Christian Bale and Sam Worthington in the film’s third act, he looks EXACTLY like he did when he first took on the role.
No, the 61-year-old action star-turned-current California Governor didn’t blow the state’s budget on plastic surgery – in fact, he never even showed up on the set. The effect was achieved by using a digital image of Schwarzenegger mapped onto the computer way back when by Terminator’s original FX guru, the late Stan Winston, along with previously existing footage and the body of another, younger Austrian bodybuilder, Roland Kickinger (who also played Schwarzenegger in the 2005 telepic See Arnold Run).
In an exclusive interview, we plied Salvation’s director McG for the secrets behind the amazing scene.
Did you initially approach Gov. Schwarzenegger about appearing in the film?
McG: “We spoke at great length, and he was always very supportive and very helpful, but he has a job to do, running the state of California in a difficult time where there’s budgetary problems and job problems. And he just didn’t want people to think he was down messing around on a film set, which is why I had to get him comfortable with the idea.”
Was it tough to persuade him to sign off on the plan?
McG: “He said 'no' for a long time because he got into a little bit of hot water for agreeing to do The Expendables with [Sylvester] Stallone [while in office]. People said, 'What are you doing? You're the Governor – keep your eye on the ball.' He said, 'I can't do that again,' and I said, 'Here's the thing: We don't use your physical presence on set at all. We can make that perfectly clear to the people of California, that you never left your responsibilities in Sacramento to go lunch off at craft service down in Hollywood.’ He ultimately said, ‘As long as you make it clear, then I’m agreeable to it.’"
That must have been tricky – working to create a believable digital recreation without knowing if he’d ultimately sign off on the finished version.
McG: “We went for it because he said, 'I want to see it before I agree to it.' So you can imagine that pickle. Here we are, going down the road developing this proprietary technology and not knowing if we're going to be able to use it. He looked at it, saw it, and we're both very pleased with the result.”
How did you pull it off?
McG: “We’d taken the scan that the great Stan Winston grabbed in whatever it was – 1983, I presume, when the scans were made – and we applied those to some code that ILM has written to create this effect, which hopefully also services the responsibilities of a Terminator film, to push forth the idea of visual effects by writing code that has Schwarzenegger in his prime appearing in our picture … We married that to digitally-created material and, indeed, footage from T1. So it was a hybrid from all those elements.”
So Schwarzenegger never took part in any of the process? No digital scans for CGI “de-aging?”
McG: “Just a stand-in. [We just used] the maps of his youthful face that Stan had from the period, which were obviously antiquated and not state-of-the-art. But that was part of the challenge. Then you get into the shading, and it's always the eye that's the most tricky. Look at Polar Express. It was a real challenge for those guys up there, and we were up and down to the Bay Area with great regularity trying to figure it out.”
Did you get the sense that he would’ve liked to actually participate, if his political duties didn’t preclude him from doing so?
McG: “Yeah. It felt like it. But at the same time, we wanted to be careful not to lean on Arnold as we tried to recreate the idea. One of the things that I'm most proud of is that when we first screened this movie there was a real concern in my heart that people would come out and go, 'Yeah, it's pretty good, but I just can't get behind a Terminator movie without Schwarzenegger. See ya!' There's no note. There's no fix. You're sunk. 'Your take was wrong.' Not a word to this day. No one is going, 'Yeah, but where's Arnold?'”
Have you made scans of your Terminator Salvation actors, in case you want to revisit them at various ages in future films?
McG: “It’s interesting you say that. We do scan them, and it has been considered in the spirit of any time paradox that’s presented in any time-travel stories, so potentially, yes. It’s funny that you locked into that, because you’re the first person to ask me that question. It’s interesting: If you create digital characters that become photo-realistic, you can capture performances from any age in an actor’s career. But I don’t know if it’ll ever get to a place where it’s as good as the real thing.”
And would you also consider similar high-tech trickery to bring other characters from the franchise back in potential sequels?
McG: “Absolutely. Robert Patrick most particularly. And Michael Biehn. And for that matter, [John] Connor may be looking for his mother who is not dead yet [in the past]. Think about the advent of time travel with Skynet, and we could go back to an interesting period where these characters are alive and well.”