Terminator Salvation: Creating America of 2018

“Terminator Salvation,” directed by McG and starring Christian Bale, is being released May 21, 2009 by Warner Bros.

The practical challenge for the filmmakers of “Terminator Salvation” was to bring to life an America circa 2018 with its sun-blasted expanses, skeletal cities and both human and Terminator occupants.  From finding the ideal locations and shooting facilities, to the fabrication of every physical element, to the type of film stock used to capture the otherworldly vistas he sought, McG worked in close collaboration with his team to create a unified and totally new vision for the post-apocalyptic reality of the story.

To pervade the imagery with a post-war tone, McG and his director of photography Shane Hurlbut shot the film using an experimental version of the “Oz process” in film processing.  “We took an old film stock from Kodak and we let it sit in the sun too long to degrade some of its qualities,” explains McG. 

“Then we processed it in a way where we added more silver than you would traditionally add to a color film stock.  And we went even further to manipulate that in the digital intermediate to give the film an otherworldly quality that gives you the impression that something’s just off with the way this world looks, which is in keeping with the mood of the entire picture.”

The locations would also play a major role in grounding the film in tactile reality.  “We wanted a big, vast world,” McG affirms.  “To do that, we needed this incredible diversity in our locations.  In this film, we go to the sea, we go to the mountaintop, we go to the desert, we go to the jungle.  Added to that, we wanted to capture a world at war; the entire world is involved in this conflict, and we wanted to open the film up and make it feel like a huge cinematic experience in that respect.”

The filmmaking team was able to accomplish all of that in one place when they chose Albuquerque, New Mexico, with its combination of sweeping deserts, mountain landscapes and the modern stages at Albuquerque Studios.

“When you’re making a movie about an American icon, following the journey of John Connor as he chases Terminators, you want to have that American backdrop behind you,” says production designer Laing. “Judgment Day has taken place, so we have a devastated landscape and out here, you literally open the door of the stage and you see these amazing deserts.   And Albuquerque Studios, in addition to being a multi-purpose studio, also has a huge amount of land around it where we could build sets.”

With the echo of a once-powerful military force living on in the Resistance, the filmmakers turned for guidance and support—not to mention hardware—to the Defense Department at nearby Kirtland Air Force Base.  “‘Terminator Salvation’ is set in a world that is post-Air Force, post-Army; it’s just the Resistance,” offers producer Jeffrey Silver.  “But we figured the Resistance would model itself after the discipline of the armed forces today, so we went to Chuck Davis, who is the coordinator of the Department of Defense in Los Angeles and its motion picture liaison.  He introduced us to the Air Force and they just opened the doors to us.  We got all the hardware we needed; we were able to shoot on Air Force property.  We had just fantastic cooperation because they recognized that in the future portrayed in this film, the military will still be the men and women who protect us, no matter what may come.”

The production utilized aircraft and weaponry to reflect the kinds of supplies to which humans could conceivably gain access within the context of the story.  “The resistance does have some hardware, so it’s not just sticks and stones against the machines,” says McG.  “They’ve got A-10 planes, and some older mechanized machines that they use to fight back.”

A key military jet that figures into the story is the A-10 Thunderbolt Two (also known as the Mighty Warthog, the Flying Gun, and the Tankbuster).  Flown by Blair Williams, the A-10s are one of the best forms of air support the Resistance possesses for taking on Skynet’s massive machines.  Air Force Captain Jennifer Shoeck, herself an A-10 pilot and the woman who provided guidance to Bloodgood in her role, remarks, “The A-10 gets down in the weeds, gets dirty—low and slow is its main mission.  It’s a close air support aircraft to aid the ground troops.”

Other aircraft utilized by the production, with the assistance of the Air Force and its pilots, were: the CV-22 Osprey, which can fly at fixed-wing aircraft speeds but has tilt-rotor technology that allows it also to take off and land like a helicopter; a massive C-130 Hercules transport; and the HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter, a modified Blackhawk aircraft with external gun mounts.  

Since not all sequences required actual hardware, the production also created mock-ups and reclaimed junked aircraft, which was put on motion simulators to recreate the flight dynamics of the respective aircraft.  The special effects crew, led by special effects supervisor Mike Meinardus, rigged up a gimbal and hung a helicopter from a crane, so the prop aircraft could be moved in a believable fashion from above, and McG could shoot the bottom as it pulled away from the set without any whirling blades.  

Because Kirtland Air Force Base shares a runway with a commercial airport, Albuquerque’s Sunport, the Air Force offered the production an unused hangar for staging, which ultimately was also modified to stand in as the Resistance stronghold.

In the film, this outpost is comprised of a series of ‘60s-era missile silos connected by a large underground network of tunnels.  “Everything you see in the outpost are the layers the Resistance fighters have set up—to generate power, to grow their own food, to build a water filtration system, to equip an infirmary—stuff these guys would have dragged in from their reconnaissance expeditions and what, realistically, they could have jerry-rigged together to make this a functioning facility,” Laing relates.

To research the Resistance base, Laing toured the nuclear fallout shelters beneath Budapest, Hungary, and looked at other post-disaster quarters.  “I took a whole series of photographs and came back to create the environment in which the Resistance lives and plans,” he says.  “These men and women are not only fighting Skynet, but they’re also fighting the environment they’re in.  Every resource is completely depleted; they’re just living with the world that they have.”

The film’s creators spoke to futurists about what would happen with the flora and fauna, as well as manmade objects.  “We wanted to get all of that detailing into our movie,” says costume designer Michael Wilkinson.  “We asked, ‘If the bombs went off about 14 years ago and destroyed most of North America, what would be left?  What would people scrounge and cobble together to survive, to fight?’”

Obsolete but functioning weapons, recycled clothing, electronics equipment culled from the rubble and reconfigured, ammunition found or stolen from the enemy—these are the limited resources of the Resistance.  The design team set about scouri
ng New Mexico, which has long had a strong military presence, for authentic pieces at military surplus yards and from local collectors.  

Wilkinson recalls, “McG didn’t want the film to look like some far-fetched, fantastical science fiction movie.  It’s set in 2018, not the distant future; it’s just around the corner.  So we did lots of research into moments in history that have had incredible meaning in the human psyche, stories of displaced people and apocalyptic tales.”

Photorealism was the mandate for the practical effects and visual effects teams alike.  Visual effects supervisor (and second unit director) Charles Gibson asserts, “McG wanted real pyro events, explosions and actions at a one-to-one scale, not as miniatures or computer-generated.  This is actually more of an action movie in that sense.  So, we chose to deploy the visual effects as intelligently as we could, to not overdo it, and always used a real-world proxy where we could.”  Gibson also worked in partnership with eight facilities, including Industrial Light & Magic, Asylum, Kerner Studios, Whiskey Tree and Rising Sun Studios.

One of the most potent special effects challenges was the destruction of the gas station during Marcus and Kyle’s battle with the Harvester, in which Marcus spies a tanker truck and blows it up beneath the Harvester in an attempt to thwart further attacks.  Shot using a tanker filled with roughly 250 gallons of gasoline, the ensuing fireball was about 160 feet in diameter and 200 feet high.  That explosion enveloped the gas station itself, followed by another explosion at the gas pump island.  The effect required 12 weeks of preparation and thorough safety measures on the day of the event.

It also meant the production had only one shot at getting it right and capturing it on film.  McG took no chances, filming the scene from multiple angles using cameras on remote switches; cameras up close, protected in crash housings; cameras manned by operators behind bunkers; and even cameras on helicopters, using very long lenses.

Even more spectacular, perhaps, was the napalm drop and the crash of Connor’s helicopter into the river.  To accomplish this sequence, the crew constructed a 200-foot length of river in the middle of the desert, consisting of an 18-foot-deep tank that housed a scissor lift that moved the helicopter up and down and was rigged so the helicopter could crash in the water and ratchet over.  Along the “riverbank” was a mix of real and concrete trees, the latter rigged with gas lines to generate a controlled burn, and beyond that a protective fire ring, with a cadre of local firefighters standing by.  

The “napalm” was dropped in a series of explosions along a 300-foot length of river, each blast using 100 gallons of gasoline, with the flames climbing several hundred feet into the air.  Lasting about seven seconds, the effect was like a machine gun strafe of fireballs, generating a big heat blast, “and luckily nothing more than that,” recalls Gibson.

“It just got your adrenaline going,” Moon Bloodgood attests.  “There were some crazy stunts—we’d start running and then it would be dust and things exploding and I had no idea what was going to hit me.  And we would be laughing because we were so scared.  But I loved it.”

McG sums up simply, “It was intense…but an incredible amount of fun.”