Why does the original Terminator still hold up after all these years? Like a lot of movies that became cultural touchstones and phenomenons, The Terminator was under-estimated, dismissed by Orion Pictures as a low budget drive-in film that would come and go in a week. Yet The Terminator became a major sleeper that connected with audiences in a big way. It was the top movie at the box office for six weeks, but beyond its commercial success it also made Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Cameron, and Stan Winston superstars in their respective professions.
At a screening celebrating The Terminator's third decade, Cameron said the movie is still remembered because "I think it's just a lean, mean thriller that works." But there's clearly more to it that than. In celebrating The Terminator, we spoke to John Rosengrant and Shane Mahan of Legacy Effects, who both broke into the big leagues by working with Stan Winston, and who helped build the indestructible killer, and the seemingly indestructible franchise, from the ground up.
It was thanks to the kindness of make-up master Dick Smith that Stan Winston got The Terminator gig. Smith, who many considered the greatest living make-up artist, was well-known for the magic he did for The Godfather, The Exorcist, and Amadeus, just to name a few, but his career was winding down, and The Terminator was clearly going to be a big job.
Cameron wanted Smith, but Smith kept telling the young director that Stan Winston was the man for the job. Winston had been steadily working for years, he did a lot of TV and low budget B-movies, and had already won two Emmys, but The Terminator would prove to be the big breakthrough that made him one of the most in demand creature builders in the business. (Cameron and Winston would also form a strong personal and professional bond that would continue until Winston passed away in 2008.)
When Rosengrant and Mahan first came aboard, Winston told them The Terminator was "a little robot movie" that needed prosthetics and other effects. "Stan was fairly vague at that point about what the project was," Mahan says. "I didn't know who the director was, I didn't know much about it. As the weeks went by, once we discovered what we were into, it kind of grew in my mind. We had very heavy involvement in helping Stan break down the ideas, and we really found out we were in the middle of something pretty special."
"I was very excited because it was my first opportunity," Rosengrant says. "I worked on a number of small budget films before, so for me this was an opportunity to come to work for Stan and work on a film that, once he explained what it was, sounded awfully cool. Seeing the artwork that Jim had done himself, I thought it was going to be amazing. I felt, welcome to the big leagues."
Mahan says, "Cameron wrote the script with FX in mind. Jim has always directed his own material, and he's got a very clear vision in his head from the moment when he first writes it. He doesn't vary, he doesn't warble around and he's not indecisive. It's pretty much on paper and it's now just a matter of getting it ready to go."
The early eighties had launched the golden age of make-up, with films like American Werewolf and John Carpenter's remake of The Thing pushing the envelope for special effects. "This was our chance to make our mark," Rosengrant says. "Rick Baker had a dozen guys, and we were becoming Stan's guys."
As Mahan recalls, "That period was rife with an explosion of effects, so we were dying to prove ourselves, come into the fold, and be recognized for what we could do. I had heard tales of Jim because at one of the previous studios we worked at, he was an FX coordinator on one of the Corman films, so once I put two and two together I realized he was an FX artist as well. We all spoke the same lingo, and in fact, Jim being the very competitive person he is, he tried to show how much he could develop in camera FX.
"It was a much smaller, more intimate group, which is something we don't see much today," Mahan continues. "It wasn't corporate. We had a lot of fun dreaming up ways to do FX, and I think that's why Jim and Stan had such a good friendship. He really took a liking to him."
The fact that Cameron understood the mechanics of FX "made a huge difference," Rosengrant says. "Because you had somebody who's invested in figuring out the shot, not just showing up and telling me, 'Okay, what have you figured out,' and whether he likes it or not. Cameron set the benchmark for what a director is in my book. It was very collaborative in how that was going to happen. It was less of, 'This department's going to do this, this department's going to do that.'"
Mahan adds that, "Stan understood that if he had a great team around him, it didn't take away from him. It wasn't, 'I'm the boss and I know best.' Stan would collaborate, and he listened to people. He gave us somewhere to grow and learn. He took care of all of us and treated us like family. It was a great place to work."
Because Cameron came out of the Roger Corman school where movies got made fast and furious on tiny budgets, he knew how to put the most on the screen for what he had to spend. "For a six million dollar film, which we knew was cheap even back then, we got a lot on screen because of Jim's knowledge of FX," Rosengrant recalls. "Funny enough, even though it was moving fast, I never felt like the movie was budget strapped. I think Stan got a decent amount of money to make sure that the stuff got done right. The movies I worked on before that were tiny, low budget things, and this felt like an upgrade from where Shane and I started."
Mahan recalled the shooting schedule was about forty-two days, "and forty of those were probably night shoots. The story takes place really in a two-day period, mostly at night, and it was non-stop. Once we were into it, we were really into it."
Winston also convinced Cameron to push the envelope with FX technology, even though they had limited resources. "Stan convinced Jim that with the endo skeleton a lot of the shots could be a full size on set piece and not stop motion animation," Mahan says. "I think the original intention was it was going to be all animation. Once we got into that animatronic puppet, Arnold's make-up, we had the future war stuff to do, it was busy. It was a lot of work. Just creating the endoskeleton then was Da Vinci techniques."
"All of that endoskeleton was sculpted from life casts of Arnold that was carved down so that the bone links would be true to him," Rosengrant says. "There's the whole thing about symmetry, and we did it all by hand, where now you can do it in the computer in a fraction of the time, and it's ten times cleaner. We did a lot of old school hand work, once the parts were sculpted, they had to be cast, polished, pulled out, remolded, we were trying to figure out all the materials then. It was a breakthrough period and a learning curve not just on the film, but the industry as a whole."
Where Cameron and Winston were also of a like mind is that both wanted to embrace new technology to make FX better. "Stan was constantly seeking out mechanical techniques, embracing digital technology," Mahan says. "He wasn't afraid of it, he embraced every tool in the toolbox."
Winston had studied art and drama in college, and when he first came to L.A. from Virginia, he wanted to be an actor. Knowing performance techniques made all the difference with his FX. Winston would tell the artists working for him that they were creating characters, not FX. Winston told Mahan that once the Terminator's skin gets ripped off, "We have to be very careful that Arnold doesn't feel like this is his character anymore. We want to study his walk, study his movements, and make him feel like this is an extension of his character. We're the Terminator."
"Arnold would show us how he would walk if he was a robot, and we would emulate that."
"Arnold would show us how he would walk if he was a robot, and we would emulate that," Mahan recalls. "Like Karloff's Frankenstein, it's the actor in the show, whether it's an animatronic piece, or a man in make-up, it doesn't really matter. The audience sees that as The Terminator."
"And that was true of every successive film we ever did, whether it was with Jim or not," Rosengrant adds. "The Queen Alien, that's a character. The Predator, Edward Scissorhands, the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, we built a character into it, and that's what stands apart from the competition."
Funny enough, on the non-FX side of things, nobody had any idea the film's most classic line, "I'll be back," would be the one-liner everyone would remember and imitate repeatedly.
"It seemed pretty non sequitur," Mahan recalls. "I think only Jim saw that coming. Because when you're there filming and he said, 'I'll be back.' Well of course you'll be back! You're gonna drive a car through the wall. I do remember when they were promoting the film, Arnold was on Johnny Carson, and they showed that clip. It got a big laugh when the car comes crashing in afterwards, so part of that cultural thing might have happened from the Carson show. So many people watched Johnny back then."
Like many of the best sci-fi films, The Terminator was somewhat prophetic and ahead of its time. "Jim as way ahead of his time with fear of technology," Mahan says. "And it's a big subconscious theme in the film, computers running the world. It was science fiction at one point, but now there's parts of it that are happening. It's that little bit of subconscious fear that plays and still makes it interesting."
Rosengrant says, "For sci-fi, I think robots and mechanical things really weren't in vogue, and The Terminator really set a trend for that. It was a whole different kind of sci-fi. Then Jim reinvented The Terminator like he reinvented Alien. He took his idea of turning around of what you thought the hero was and changing it. He first made Arnold the villain, then flipped it on its ear again, making the Terminator the hero."
Clearly The Terminator was a movie where the planets aligned, and one of the biggest driving forces behind it was the passion of everyone involved. "Everyone who came to the party really put their heart and soul into it," Rosengrant says. "Jim wasn't a director for hire, this was his passion project, and he was making a mark, announcing to the world, 'This is who I am.'"
"When it came out and it was a sleeper hit that took the world by storm, we were like, 'Wow man, we just pulled off our Frankenstein,'" Mahan says. "It's what we hoped to have done. We weren't just technicians doing FX, we were part of the process, which was exciting."