Intelligent Design: Creating The Terminator

The Terminator endo skeleton cameron concept

From a flop sweat fever dream it came to him – James Cameron’s Tech Noir nightmare. Sacked unceremoniously from his fledgling debut , Piranha 2: The Spawning, the hungry director, determined to make his mark after toiling as a special effects maestro at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, bought a one way ticket to Rome to secretly recut his own picture. Starving for success, starving literally – reduced to scavenging hotel food trolleys and working all hours, he soon racked up a temperature, sick as a dog with flu.

When the fever passed he awoke, and grabbed a napkin to sketch what he’d so vividly dreamt: a chrome skele-framed torso, dragging itself relentlessly by a wicked blade from a wall of flames, implacably pursuing a young woman, also crawling away in terror. This sketch was to be the genesis of The Terminator.

Much has been written of the background to creating this landmark film. From Lance Henriksen kicking open the door Terminator style on potential wary independent producers Hemdale, and staring out a freaked out secretary and executive while wearing gold cigarette foil over his teeth; to the legendary lunch between a reluctant Cameron and  Arnold Schwarzenegger, then only known as Conan. The two strangers in Hollywood’s strange land bonded over how the cyborg killing machine should be played, and any ridiculous notions of Schwarzenegger playing the future human resistance fighter Kyle Reese were quickly forgotten. Thoughts of entertaining former athlete O.J Simpson as the Terminator were also dismissed – wary of the image of a black man hunting down a young white woman through the dark back alleys of L.A’s baddest neighbourhoods. In 1995, Simpson was acquitted of the murders of his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman; a civil court later awarded a judgment against him for their wrongful deaths. In hindsight, would The Terminator be as well remembered with that shadow hanging over it?

the terminator oj-simpson-as-terminator

Cameron recalled: “What changed was not the original concept – as written, the script (which you can read via Cinearchive.org) didn’t change at all. The visual concept changed. The Terminator was this anonymous character who could walk out of the crowd, just one face in the crowd, could walk up and kill you for no apparent reason. Arnold doesn’t vanish in the crowd. It took on a slightly more hyperbolic visual style-a little more larger than life.”

Let’s look at the visual language and “intelligent design” of the film – the genius of The Terminator belies its garage, cut ‘n’ shunt B – movie feel. You could say it is the perfect infiltration unit, creeping up on unaware audiences and critics in 1984: an ambitious time – travel / slasher / love story / thriller, anchored unusually by a strong female lead, who grows from confused every-woman to reluctant warrior, with the weight of the world on her shoulders, and its possible salvation growing within.

Cameron described his pitch to production partner (and later wife, then ex-wife) Gale Anne Hurd as, “a linear action piece that a 12 year old would think was the most rad picture he’d ever seen, and as science fiction that a 45 year old Stanford english professor would think had some sort of social – political significance between the lines.”  What’s so clever and subtle about it is how Cameron and his cinematographer Adam Greensberg suggest visually how the audience should react and feel to the various elements, long before exposition begins to be doled out by Reese, often while on the run from Arnold’s implacable cyborg.

Taking a year of enforced hiatus to storyboard every element (Dino De Laurentiis tied Schwarzenegger into a Conan sequel), meant Cameron was fully prepped, ready to account for every cent of his precious $6 million budget. Michael Biehn as Reese trained with firearms and learned to hotwire cars. He recalled for Entertainment Weekly:

In preparation for the film I’d read a book about the guys that held out in Warsaw during World War II. When they were killing all the Jews or taking them away and putting them on trains, there was a bunch of Jewish guys who were hiding in the rubble. And they fought the Germans against insurmountable odds, like 30 or 40 of them, some women, some children. That grittiness and that mentality—that there’s no time for love or tenderness or music or religion, there’s only time for survival. I said to myself, “This is where this guy came from. This is how he would feel.”

Cameron and effects whiz Stan Winston “mind – melded” according to Hurd – both agreed the Terminator, as the flesh was gradually ripped from its endo – skeleton frame, must not look like “a man in a suit.”

For Schwarzenegger, it meant putting his trust in Cameron, who saw beyond the actor’s physicality – apart from the opening sequence when the Terminator and Reese materialise form the future, naked, no real emphasis is placed on his star’s bulging biceps. “For me it was about the potential iconography of his face – it was about projecting a character and not just the physicality. I guess I saw an intensity that I liked.”

the terminator (1)

Schwarzenegger would create a genius detail in the Terminator’s searching, stalking body language – as he prowls along the streets and an underground car park in stolen automobiles, seeking his prey, first his eyes move, then the head follows. He’s like a shark, always moving, ready to devour. This on the first day of shooting. It was the start of  a fruitful director / star symbiosis. But Schwarzenegger had to not only submit to many hours in the make-up chair – he had to submit his ego to Cameron’s insistence on very specific movement, especially after Reese blasts him through the window of the Tech Noir club.

“Jim would say: ” I want you to lay there Arnold,” Henriksen (who ended up playing a cop) recalled. “Then, when I tell you, I want you to start lifting up with your head. The your shoulders. Then I want you to sit up. Then I want you to look straight ahead.”

Greenberg often shot him from low angles, to appear even more imposing. Cameron stuck to his guns to film mostly at night. Because he was so prepared, costs were kept down, and filming didn’t overrun.  They aimed for “a cool look, lots of dark shadows, strong black light…a very hard, strong, contrasty look.”

Cameron's future war concept

Cameron’s future war concept

The opening pre-credits sequence plays without dialogue – a brief synopsis on screen gives just enough detail of the war for humankind’s survival being fought against the machines in the ruins of a post nuclear apocalypse. This is a bleak, blasted, dangerous world, where twisted girders, not trees grasp at the cold, blue grey sky. Hunter Killers (HK’s) roam the skies, sweeping the rubble with searchlights for anything human. Like the crouching tenacious resistance, we crane our necks to look up always at these grim instruments of destruction, accompanied by their tracked land borne “brethren”.

When Arnold’s Cyberdyne Systems Series 800 cyborg (model 101 – apt for 1984) materialises in our present, we do not yet know his true nature. However, the way he is lit, and his manner, link him subconsciously to the oppressive nature of what we have just witnessed. He / it arrives crouched, poised like an athlete at the starting block. He slowly, gracefully rises, and coolly takes in his surroundings. Naked, he radiates a coldly unnatural energy, enhanced by the cool back lighting and his dark silhouette.

Contrast his first appearance with Reese’s. The machines set the time machine controls perfectly for the Terminator’s arrival. The humans desperately sending Reese back to stop it are not so skilled, materialising him in mid-air, slamming down hard on the alley’s concrete. He moans in pain, shivering – they are both surrounded by darkness, but Reese is lit more brightly, highlighting his frail frame, ribs prominent. Explaining it later to Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) as “white light, noise – like being born, maybe.” His journey was messy and disorientating, the Terminator is prepared from the off.

the terminator arrival

While the Terminator is often framed in static, locked-down shots (sometimes shooting his victims in slow-motion to highlight the horror), Reese (and Sarah joining him) is shot in a frantic, skittery manner, constantly moving, hunted. Reese is edgy, haunted – the same hard light he shares with the Terminator casts a shadow over his face, the shadow of his future experience, and the enormity of his mission.

Sarah, the innocent, as yet unaware of her role, is lit in a warm, soft front light. Inside the Cadillac, pursued by the T-800 in a police cruiser, Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn’s close-ups were lit with a couple of tiny fluorescent lights.

the terminator reese and sarah

Her large, expressive eyes help convey confusion, growing awareness, compassion for Reese, and hardening steel – the need to believe her future saviour son’s words, “The future is not set.”

An interesting thread running through the film is perception via visual media, especially that cathode ray comforter, TV. The Terminator is methodical, working through all the Sarah Connors in the L.A phone book. At Sarah’s workplace, a waitress colleague gleefully directs her to a news report on the portable set in the restaurant back room. Her namesake has died violently at home at the hands of a gunman. “You’re dead, honey,” the waitress quips, popping her gum. Next, the weather.

the terminator you're dead tv

When Reese and a semi-traumatised Sarah (“Come with me if you want to live”) escape the clutches of the Terminator after a desperate car chase, the cops catch up and arrest him. Interrogated and relaying his incredible story, he’s disbelieved by Detectives and a shrink, Dr Silberman (Earl Boen) who seek to reassure Sarah that he is delusional – “This is great stuff. I could make a career out of this guy! You see how clever his part is? How it doesn’t require a shred of proof? Most paranoid delusions are intricate, but this is brilliant!”

The “Terminator” according to Lt Traxler (Paul Winfield) was probably on PCP, hence his seeming incredible imperviousness to shotgun blasts. Standing or perched on a desk, sipping coffee and looking down at Reese on the monitor, it seems they are the rational, controlled ones – he is the trapped loon, the freak show on T.V, emphasised by the skewed angle of the desk and isolation in the frame.

the terminator reese

But as he struggles to be heard and believed, he yells directly up at the highly placed interrogation room camera, seemingly reaching out to Sarah directly. A further medium close- up of her isolates her from the group, unsure of whether to believe that she is out of danger, as Reese’s close-up fills the frame, “leaving” the confines of the TV.

Another instance of perception via TV, or monitor, is the red tinged “Terminator vision”. As the killer cyborg carries out his polite intent to the station’s desk sergeant (“I’ll be back”), the slaughter of the police personnel in his hunt for Sarah is interspersed with the Terminator’s POV, as it scans for targets. It’s HUD display text is actually a dump of the ROM assembler code for the Apple II operation system – even back then, Apple was plotting world domination.

the terminator red

A final correlation between the seeming comforting memory of TV and direct threat is when Reese attempts to explain to Sarah the reality of his own time’s day to day existence. Wearily returning from a patrol, he mock shoots at a raggedy kid squatting in front of a television frame, housing only a meagre flame in place of cathode ray heat. This domestic “idyll” is interrupted by a different terminator breaching their sanctuary, shooting the place up for real. The Terminator’s silhouette fills the frame, blasting away, his red eyes blazing dispassionately, seeking only targets.

the terminator fire tv

As Reese reaches for his treasured polaroid-reference of Sarah, it burns up, to dissolve into her peaceful, sleeping face, nestled in his arms in our present. Shortly afterwards he begins to break down, to allow his feelings to come forward; later, they make love (“I came across time for you, Sarah.”) – John Connor, future fighter, centre of a time paradox. “Should I tell you about your father? That’s a tough one. Will it change your decision to send him here… knowing? But if you don’t send Kyle, you could never be. God, you can go crazy thinking about all this… I suppose I’ll tell you… I owe him that. And maybe it’ll be enough if you know that in the few hours we had together we loved a lifetime’s worth.”

Relations between Cameron and backers Hemdale were tricky during the production – John Daly wanted to cut costs by having the film finish with Arnold’s Terminator destroyed in the truck explosion – “before the image that inspired the movie, the endoskeleton emerging from the flames!” Hurd recalled, aghast.

the terminator 3

Fortunately, despite delays finessing Stan Winston’s full size mechanical robot, the completion-bond company stood behind the young film-makers, sharing their belief in the story. Winston and Cameron collaborated on the Terminator design, although Winston recalled, “By the time all was said and done, Jim had sketched every detail of the endo-skeleton. And I ended up taking the credit.” For the climactic final factory showdown, Winston and Cameron combined a full-sized endo-skeleton, puppetry and animatronics. To ground the stop-motion effects, Cameron frequently inserted close-ups of life-sized mechanical hands grasping for Sarah, and its feet dragging along the floor.

The Terminator is repeatedly shown in extremely long lens medium close-ups and close-ups, visually isolating it from the surrounding environment, highlighting its single-minded programming – the termination of Sarah Connor. Filmed from below, the endo-skeleton is actually a puppet on the shoulders of Shane Mahan, mounted to a backpack with a radio controlled head.. For specific action Tom Woodruff Jr recalled “I was able to put my arm inside a vertebrae in the neck and grab a handle inside the head and lock my arm into the back of the rig.”

Stan Winston achieved the cold, chrome effect by a process of vacuum-metalising plastic. When Reese jams a pipe bomb inside the Terminator, a special urethane substitute was created for the explosion, for safety’s sake. After Reese dies in the explosion, Sarah has to pool every single ounce of strength and grit to finish the job, as that terrifying torso ploughs on after her, death in its eyes.

the terminator youre terminated

The insert of the Terminator “dying” was shot after the main body of filming was done. Stan Winston used a light bulb for the red eye, some silver sprayed foam for the press crushing the head, and cigarette smoke.

the terminator dying 2

The final shot  harkens back to the very beginning – as Sarah drives off from the Mexican boy and old man at the gas station, towards a foreboding horizon of “a storm coming” the Joshua trees branches recall the twisted debris of Reese’s future, reaching towards the blue grey sky.

the terminator end

The Terminator represented the dark side of the human pysche – that fantasy of being totally stripped of all moral constraints and being able to do exactly what they wanted to do whenever they do it,” Cameron said. “It’s the little chittering demon inside all of us.” A more optimistic message is Kyle Reese’s original credo, dropped from the final cut but reinserted in the sequel: “There is no fate but what we make.” James Cameron’s calling card, a seeming B-movie shocker, captured the cultural zeitgeist and announced a major new talent in film-making.  In 2008, The Terminator was preserved in the American National Film Registry, being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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