ClassicVFX

Making A Nuclear Apocalypse: How The Iconic Sequence In ‘Terminator 2’ Was Created

Released nationally in the United States on July 3, 1991, James Cameron’s future sci-fi dystopia Terminator 2: Judgment Day is now 25 years old.

It contained some of the earliest photoreal computer graphics seen on film and laid the foundations for a visual effects industry for many years to come. But it was also a classic example of mixing practical, miniature, optical, and digital effects for the greatest possible impact. That approach can be seen in Sarah Connor’s nuclear nightmare scene (watch below), where she imagines a blast consuming Los Angeles and her past and present selves.

The sequence was handled by 4Ward Productions, headed by brothers Robert and Dennis Skotak. Cartoon Brew spoke with Robert in detail about how the nightmare was crafted from concept to production, including everything from considering dancers to perform the mushroom cloud effect, utilizing breakfast cereal for debris, and jumping onto nascent computer animation software.

Getting involved

4Ward Productions had already had a long history with James Cameron—they contributed to both Aliens and The Abyss—before the director asked them to come on-board Terminator 2. “Jim gave us the script and I sat over at Lightstorm Entertainment [Cameron’s production company] with a guard sitting next to me while I read the script,” recalled Skotak. “The script was given to us for only so many hours to read because they were trying to keep it hush-hush so all the cool stuff didn’t get immediately in the press and get second guessed.”

Cameron asked 4Ward which shots they would like to work on, and the nuclear nightmare scene became one that Skotak thought “would be very dramatic and interesting thing to do,” as well as complement a fascination with having grown up during the Cold War era.

4Ward would also contribute to shots in the steel plant featuring the liquid metal blobs that begin to reform into the T-1000 terminator. Interestingly, 4Ward was originally going to further produce a silo missile launch scene but this was deleted during pre-production. And Skotak was additionally hired as art director on a teaser promo for the film directed by Stan Winston, the film’s mechanical creature effects supervisor, that showcased a factory of terminator parts in development. Watch the teaser below:

Planning a nuclear nightmare

A number of storyboard artists began planning out the nightmarish nuclear scenarios based on Cameron’s script. These included Steve Berg doing some concept work, and Sherman Labby starting on the boards before Phil Norwood then took over duties. After discussion, Norwood drew images larger than regular storyboards to allow for as much detail as possible. “Camera placement was important as was perspective to allow for 4Ward to build only what they needed for the miniatures and to fit within the stage they were going to shoot in,” Norwood told Cartoon Brew.

A storyboard from the nuclear nightmare sequence.
A storyboard from the nuclear nightmare sequence.

At the time, Cameron had established a relatively consistent approach to boarding. It would start from a description or thumbnail, according to Norwood, who would then lightly pencil the storyboard on Xerox paper and hang it on a wall. Once the sequence was penciled, Cameron would be able to make revisions if necessary and once the pencils were approved, Norwood would ink over them with ballpoint pen and gray markers. These were then presented for scanning and numbering.

4Ward also had a role in refining the boards and drew inspiration from nuclear explosion reference material. This was before Youtube and the internet, so they would pull out films and documentaries that were available on VHS tape. Iconic nuclear explosion shots of the houses heating up and then being flattened and the trees lashing from left to right were very much part of this reference. The storyboarding team also looked at Akira as inspiration which has the shot of the expanding dome of energy, bowling over, smashing buildings, radiating outward from the core of the explosion. “That was almost like a storyboard in a way,” recalled Skotak, “and gave us some ideas on the general effect of what Jim would like to see.”

A dancer for a mushroom cloud?

The first shot in the sequence handled by 4Ward is the playground setting in LA. Suddenly, a large mushroom cloud explosion appears in the near distance (a number of shots of the burning humans during the sequence were Stan Winston Studio creations). 4Ward’s immediate solution for the cloud was to create a practical effect rather than digital since there were aspects of the explosion that could be replicated for real. But to get a ‘performance’ from the cloud required something extra, and for this Skotak thought a dancer with good pantomiming skills could hit the mark. His rationale was that a dancer could wear a mushroom cloud costume and then stand up and expand and roll their arms out to become a big roiling cloud.

The mushroom cloud created by 4Ward Productions.
The mushroom cloud created by 4Ward Productions.

Skotak says everybody thought he was crazy, but it turns out Cameron had had a similar idea. Ultimately, the idea did not move to fruition and instead what was created became a column of base cloud on the ground with another column reaching up as the overhead mushroom shape. Attached was a series of Plexiglass shapes with rotating discs. Effects artists would lift this structure, which was filled with fiber-fill (for the cloud appearance), with cables and push the cloud column upward. Attached to that cloud-like Plexiglas shape were the rotating disks that also had clouds on them, so they would rotate inward. The scene was filmed on VistaVision and then composited, by a company called Hollywood Optical, into background plates of the playground.

LA is burning – a combination of old and new, and breakfast cereal

What follows is a wide shot of Los Angeles as the nuclear blast wipes out blocks of buildings and a foreground home in the hills above. At first the shot was imagined by Cameron as one that could be achieved by building a miniature L.A. city out in the desert and blowing up tons of TNT next to the set to let a shockwave wipe out the buildings. Skotak quickly advised against this approach given the unpredictability and need to acquire permits for all the pyro work.

A progression of images showcasing the blast wave sequence and the matte painting work.
A progression of images showcasing the blast wave sequence and the matte painting work.

In the end, it was still achieved as an incredibly complicated shot that involved the combination of real photography, practical effects with air cannons, split screens, matte painting, and the latest digital visual effects—even though it was still composited on an optical printer. “We basically had to create a machine on stage to put this shot together because it was all assembled in-camera,” said Skotak. “It was done as a continuous take with all those elements fused as in-camera exposures.”

The first step was to acquire a high angle of L.A., which was done by hiring a pilot to fly above the city and take stills that replicated the angle seen in the storyboards. From there, matte painters Rick Rische and Richard Kilroy created an image of a destroyed Los Angeles. The idea here was that during the in-camera exposure, there would be a wipe across the frame from the photograph of L.A. to the matte painting of L.A. in ruins. But to be able to make that transition, 4Ward also needed the buildings to be seen getting hit and shattered. Added to this challenge, they were mostly backlit, making them more or less just silhouettes.

The matte painting of the destroyed LA scene by Rick Kilroy and Rick Riche. Robert Skotak himself made some minor touches to the painting with atmospheric overlays and highlights.
The matte painting of the destroyed LA scene by Rick Kilroy and Rick Riche. Robert Skotak himself made some minor touches to the painting with atmospheric overlays and highlights.

The solution was a CG one, but even then Skotak wanted a practical reference. He went with the shattering of, believe it or not, matzo crackers. “I set up a backlit silhouette of these buildings made with these matzo crackers. You would see just the silhouette of these shapes that looked like buildings. And I got a trip hammer, and we shot I think a hundred and twenty frame piece of film of the hammer hitting these buildings—boom! Added to the mix was breakfast cereal, spray painted gray, standing in for debris.”

Those cracker effects then informed the CG animation work, which was undertaken by Jay Roth, an artist who had launched a company called Electric Image. With 4Ward’s film sample, Roth produced a series of building silhouettes that aligned with the original L.A. photograph (and matte painting). That took a day-and-a-half to render even though they were just silhouettes shattering against a white, clear background. The idea here was the silhouette renders, once scanned back to film, would form ‘mattes’ for the final in-camera exposure of the scene.

The silhouetted buildings rendered with Electric Image.
The silhouetted buildings rendered with Electric Image.

This is how it worked: The camera would be aimed at the matte painting of the undestroyed city. 4Ward employed a beam splitter which reflected a rear-projection image of the CG footage that had been scanned onto film. Then they wiped, with a blade that was moving across in front of the camera lens, that silhouette—effectively ‘wiping in’ the matte painting of the destroyed LA using the CG silhouettes as a transitional zone.

The final part of the effect was an additional matte painting with a previously shot miniature of a house on the hill being blown up (done with an air cannon). “What our final compositing camera was getting,” explained Skotak, “was the original photograph of the city, a beam split image of the CG of the buildings being destroyed, a blade moving across to make a split screen to wipe in the destroyed city, and then a separate projection that was done in the lower left corner of a previously shot miniature house being blown apart. And then we took that film and wound it back one more time and shot an air cannon at the camera to blow out that image.”

The nuclear blast as it heads up the LA hills house.
The nuclear blast as it heads up the LA hills house.

The one-take in-camera exposure was filmed on a hushed darkened stage, where nobody talked above a whisper. Soft ambient music was even piped in to aid in concentration. The team could not afford to make a mistake and re-shoot it. “It took hours to shoot it frame by frame to get the correct exposure,” said Skotak, “and then to wind the film back and then add that air cannon footage on top of that. So it was kind of a nerves of steel situation.”

Cameron liked the result so much that he asked for the shot to be made twice as long, right at the end of production. Skotak realized the only way to achieve this was to produce a ‘cascade print’ on an optical printer. This meant taking additional exposures of varying time to extend the shot with extrapolated frames (essentially in-betweens). One outcome of that process was that the original footage was ‘duped,’ i.e. it was no longer the pristine original. “However,” noted Skotak, “Jim actually liked the look of the duped footage. It had a harder, slightly more contrasted look, so he wound up putting all of the shots of that sequence through the optical printer and boosting the contrast.”

“I got a call and was told Jim’s on the phone [and] he wants to talk to you,” added Skotak. “And Jim goes, ‘This is my favorite fucking shot in the movie. Listen, listen we’re doing the sound mix. Here’s the sound that we recorded for this shot.’ That was great, you know, to get a call like that.”

Blowing up palm trees, and the rest of L.A.

Amidst the wider shots of L.A. were close-in views of the nuclear destruction. These were all miniature shots where 4Ward used air cannons and fans to blow apart buildings, vehicles, and palm trees, amongst other things. Skotak recalls that every one of those shots took exactly eight takes to get. “I don’t know why they wound up being eight, but it was always something that didn’t quite work. In the master shot of the main street, a block of wood flew up from the very back of the set and flew at the camera, for example.”

Dennis Skotak (foreground) works on the LA miniature, with Samantha Stevens at left.
Dennis Skotak (foreground) works on the LA miniature, with Samantha Stevens at left.

The building models themselves were made from highly breakable material called Gypsnow. This resulted in fragile building facades constructed onto metal frames. Even then, a wad of nearly ten air cannons and fans was needed to actually make the buildings come apart in the desired way. These fans had shrapnel and metal pieces loaded in them that helped break apart the Gypsnow and add in debris. 4Ward also attached ropes to the back of these sets with sandbags with trips on them so at the very moment that the fans and air cannon were fired, these trips were released and had the effect of yanking the buildings backwards.

The set was sometimes so chaotic from all the air being blown about that pieces of wood and debris the team knew would be blown were made into supports but then dressed to look like buildings, rooms or cars. On the set, 4Ward had several effects artists, including the skilled pyro technician Joe Viskocil.

Setting up the freeway miniature. Robert Skotak is leaning over the freeway at rear.
Setting up the freeway miniature. Robert Skotak is leaning over the freeway at rear.
The view during the shoot.
The view during the shoot.
The aftermath of air cannons and fans on the set.
The aftermath of air cannons and fans on the set.

For one signature shot with the freeway where the bus gets blown away, the vehicles and palm trees were pulled away using a motorized wire rig as the fans and air cannons were turned on. The bus roof is peeled off in the iconic shot, although Skotak notes there was a better looking take that couldn’t be used because of some distracting background action. “I still have that outtake here, and I thought one day we might scan that or go back to the negative and replace that shot in the movie with this better take. We really couldn’t use digital technology to do shot fixes back then.”

A planned effect that came from the reference footage was to show the buildings heating up and almost bubbling from the nuclear explosion heat before they are blown away. 4Ward did shoot this as a fog-like layer that traveled up the facades, but determined that it slowed down the action too much (if you look closely it can still be seen on the stop signs and some trees in the main street).

Miniature buildings on a raised platform.
Miniature buildings on a raised platform.
Shattered miniature buildings after the shoot.
Shattered miniature buildings after the shoot.

During planning and production of the miniature work, 4Ward had built everything for the explosion to travel from left to right. At a late stage, Cameron realized from the live-action footage that the blast wave in fact needed to go from right to left. With not enough time to re-work the build, the solution was to shoot everything into a front-surface mirror, essentially flopping the action. It also meant 4Ward had to ensure writing seen in the miniatures was reversed, such as the stop sign. “That front surface mirror had to be anchored to the concrete floor with iron and angle iron,” said Skotak, “because it had to be amidst all this high-powered wind blasting across the set and it couldn’t budge an inch, otherwise the whole shot would be shaking.”

4Ward was able to achieve two set-ups a day—that means they could shoot one portion of the miniature sequence, reset it, and then shoot again. At one stage Skotak requested one of his team to ‘clean the set,’ intending that to be an instruction to clean away the debris from all the broken buildings. Instead, overnight the employee had thrown the entire set away—all of it was thrown in a dumpster and had to be re-built from scratch.

Miniature trees and light poles.
Miniature trees and light poles.
T2’s legacy

The nuclear nightmare scene plays very quickly in Terminator 2; it’s a visceral jolt on the audience and of course on Sarah Connor. Despite the many challenges in bringing it to life, Skotak knew it would form a key part in a film he also knew would become iconic. “I thought Cameron’s film had something to say about fatherhood the way that people said Aliens was about motherhood. And it turns out that a robot, quote unquote, turns out to be a really great father figure, a strong figure in Terminator 2. And I thought that was very cool, the message behind that.”

You can see more of 4Ward Production’s credits on their website. Robert Skotak is soon planning to relaunch his previous film magazine Fantasy under the new title Retrospect, with detailed making-of’s behind many older films.

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