Behind the Scenes of Terminator: Imaginary Forces

For McG’s Terminator: Salvation, Imaginary Forces was tasked with creating the machine vision sequences seen in the film, as well as creating the opening and main titles. fxguide gets the details from Jeremy Cox (lead animator/designer), Rod Basham (Inferno artist) and Karin Fong (creative supervisor/designer). We love the work of Imaginary Forces and this story includes some great behind the scenes videos.

Machine Vision Sequences

Exclusive behind the scenes QuickTime videos here:

Click to view a montage of machine vision clips from the film

Click to view a point cloud test movie

09Jul/if/Terminator_Salvation_Machine_Vision_Still_01fxg: What was your brief for the machine vision shots?

Jeremy: As with everything else in the film, McG was very interested in a building up of the technology that we see in the first movies – everything feeling very worn, equivalent to say a Soviet tank version of the T-800. I think he wanted a very similar idea in the interfaces of something that felt very utilitarian and military and not very sci-fi. So the way we initially approached it was to look at exisiting military technologies and existing scientific visualization technologies. That initially drew me to LIDAR and ways of machines seeing the depth of an environment.

Karin: What’s great about McG is that even before shooting, he’d have me read early versions of the script and it was very clear that he was going for a very post-apocalyptic look and feel. He wanted it very much based on reality. There had to be a lot taken from today, because that’s less than 10 years in the future. So he wanted that military technology in there. He’d send us frame grabs of current cockpit displays, for example. McG wanted to make sure that you got a sense of today out of it.

fxg: What reference did you look to?

Karin: Well, obviously this is a huge franchise and there’s a huge mythology behind it. It’s a re-boot or restart or even a prequel in a way (although in Terminator terms the future and the past are always messed up!). So, even in the script, motifs from the past films were in there. The main titles from the first Terminator film were a key reference for our main titles.

Jeremy: Apart from the existing military technologies, we did look at what movies had done it before. Iron Man came out while we were working on it and had the head up display. We were primarily trying to create something that felt as machine-like as possible. It had to be free of the frills – anything that a machine would not purely need. We had to keep it as simple as possible, and give it a technical feel.

Rod: We actually went as far as acquiring one of these NASA Bumblebee stereo cameras that they are retro-fitting onto robots for dimensional navigation. Jeremy found this camera that seemed to do what we were talking about in terms of depth analysis. It became a good tool for reference. We unfortunately didn’t end up using the camera in the way we’d planned in the final shots, but it was interesting working with these stereo camera systems to see how they would capture and process data. We’d then retro-fit that logic onto our work and make it work for something set slightly in the future.

09Jul/if/Terminator_Salvation_Machine_Vision_Still_03fxg: How did the camera help you conceive the shots?

Rod: The biggest challenge is that it’s a pretty raw device. It doesn’t come with a user friendly software package. There are no buttons on it. It literally tethers to a PC and it’s driven by code-based software. A lot of it was quite cumbersome until somebody sat down and started manipulating the code.

The camera’s interesting in that it really does try to figure out where everything is in dimensional space. The tricky thing is if you’re shooting a very dark environment, there’s not much data for it to figure out. It can lead to some weird things. But what we were enticed by initially was that it has its own kind of anomalies. We really wanted to embrace the artifacts – to let the digital problems occur and let that be part of the artistry of it. If it’s too manipulated and sculptured you lose, I hate to say it, an organic quality to the shot. The camera wants to do what it wants to do, and allowing that to happen created some interesting moments that did inform the approaches we went on with for the machine vision.

Jeremy: I think that fit in well conceptually with the idea that these machines were early prototypes. They still have bugs and problems.

Rod: It’s like Terminator vision phase one.

Jeremy: Yeah, so it was interesting to see in our experimentation how a machine might encounter those problems.

09Jul/if/Terminator_Salvation_Machine_Vision_Still_06fxg: How did you then use the idea of the camera and work it into your machine vision shots?

Rod: We had to figure out how to take this depth information and map these interesting point clouds under there and supplement these with the interface graphics. I think Jeremy approached it very cleanly and in a fresh way but drawing upon what was in the other films. The red wash is pretty much a trademark of machine vision type shots, but we took it in a slightly different direction so it wasn’t the expected optical red wash that people have seen. We made it different for different machines, too.

Karin: It was very much the intention that a lot of things were reinvented. Our machine vision has that red look, but not a blanket red tinge nor a grid feel. That was a way of showing this was a different time in the Terminator time-line.

Jeremy: We also broke it down into the different machines and each had a separate interface based on how that machine would see. We broke up the pre-800 machines and the T-800 itself. The pre-800s had more of a black and white vision with a red bleed on it, as opposed to the T-800s which had a pure red wash. Ultimately, we didn’t use the point-based look except mainly for the hydro-bot shots, which we rationalised based on the fact that they would be purely seeing underwater.

fxg: What techniques did you end up using for the final shots?

Jeremy: The initial tracking of all the shots was done in PFTrack and Boujou. We did this to every shot that we could. We then brought that into Cinema 4D which is our primary 3D program. Often we would rebuild the set or do minimal construction of elements in order to have a surface to create these point clouds.

In most cases we would render a depth map out of Cinema 4D of this crude scene and then bring that into After Effects. We used a plugin from Trapcode called Form, which essentially creates a grid of particles whose Z position can be determined in space based on the depth map. So we could line up the particles with the original shot. Then almost the entire interface animation was done in After Effects.

09Jul/if/Terminator_Salvation_Machine_Vision_Still_05fxg: There’s so much going on in the machine vision shots. How did you make decisions about what would go where?

Jeremy: We tried to make them based on what the machine would be seeing and what decisions it would make. For example, the Aerostat, we thought it would need to know more about its altitude and its position within a three-dimensional space. For the T-600s, we tried to fit the interface into an overall stylistic look but that was unique for that machine. There is a certain amount of overlap to make them look like the same language.

Rod: They were just so fast, the shots, that you had to be able to read what was happening on the interface and see the background action. You don’t have a lot of time to draw on and animate that and make things fall into position.

Jeremy: Each shot was also chosen to tell a story point. They didn’t just throw in a machine vision shot because they thought it would be fun – it was that they wanted to show a point of view. So the point might be identifying Kyle Reese or not finding John Connor. As much as we wanted to just go crazy and have fun with it, we always had a story we needed to tell with the shot.

fxg: What were the typefaces used in the interface shots?

Jeremy: I chose to use OCR-F for almost all of the type throughout the movie. It is an optical character recognition font which – although not technically accurate for a machine (there’s not really any reason a machine would use it) – but I found that the technical nature of the font worked with the style we were going for. Just the history of it lent a very interesting angle to it. OCR-F was also used in the titles for people’s names, any subtitles and in the closing crawl, I think. We tried to tell a certain story using the font that we chose.

fxg: How were the type and the other graphics integrated into the shots?

Jeremy: They were almost all done in two-and-a-half-D, in After Effects 3D space. There were a couple of elements done in true 3D, in Cinema 4D, but as much as we could we tried to construct it with the camera from the match-move and in the realistic feeling space. Even if we needed to keep the element on screen, at least it felt it was reacting with the camera and interacting with the move that the machine was doing.

fxg: What kind of post moves were added?

Jeremy: We found that adding little snap zooms lent a dynamic quality to it – almost as if the machines’ lenses were focussing on things or there was a mechanical twitchyness.

Main Titles

View a clip from the Main Titles of Terminator Salvation

09Jul/if/Terminator_Salvation_Main_Title_Still_10 fxg:Let’s talk about the main titles – how did you get started with those?

Rod: A lot of the inspiration for the titles came from the machine vision work and from what we were already working on. The titles themselves are big, iconic, heavy pieces that fit into the score that Danny Elfman did. We did our best to work in pixel crawls and glitches to match the other stuff we were doing.

Jeremy: McG loved the original Terminator titles which also had very large type scrolling past screen. He wanted to take that and do a modern version of it. We did some boards of that idea plus a couple of ideas we had.

fxg: What were the techniques you settled on for achieving the titles?

Jeremy: The 3D letters were done in Cinema 4D, composited in After Effects and the title cards were also animated in After Effects.

fxg: What kinds of things were figured out in the boards stage?

Jeremy: We wanted it to start out very vague so that you weren’t entirely sure what you were looking at. Then as it progresses you realise they are giant letters and then realise what it will be spelling out. We had that in mind, and the idea of not entirely being sure what material the letters were made out of – glassy, holographic or stone. It’s a very odd material and we gave it some digital distortion and digital noise for a unique tone.

09Jul/if/Terminator_Salvation_Main_Title_Still_02 fxg: How were those textures done?

Rod: I know we did a lot of experimentation with shaders and layering. A lot of work went into getting the right quality of each letter by the lead titles animator, Charles Khoury.

fxg: It’s been happening for a little while, but it’s great to see main titles, either at the beginning or the end of films, being part of the storytelling.

Rod: Yeah, mains at the end are becoming more popular these days. I think it’s easier to have it happen then. If we can keep people in their chair for another few minutes then we’ve done our job.

Karin: And I think there’s something very emotional for an audience when they see this re-telling of the story done in this way, especially with the large-type titles. It might be years since the first movie, but it’s a very recognisable mythology or legend, and it works to play against that sensibility.

Interview by Ian Failes

Credit Roll

Designed & Produced by: Imaginary Forces (IF)
IF Creative Supervisor/Designer: Karin Fong
IF Lead Animator/Designer: Jeremy Cox
Titles Lead Animator/Designer: Charles Khoury
IF Producers: Cara McKenney, Kathy Kelehan
Project Manager: Steven Giangrasso
IF Machine Vision Animation: Chase Massingill, Josh Van Praag
IF Title Animation: Ko Maruyama, Phillip Shtoll, Brian McGee
IF Editor: Danielle White, Joe Denk
IF Inferno Artist: Rod Basham
IF Coordinators: Heather Dennis, Kim Dates