TERMINATOR – DARK FATE: Tim Miller – Director & Co-Founder of Blur Studio

In April 2019, Tim Miller told us about his work on LOVE, DEATH & ROBOTS. Today, he talks about the challenges of his new film, TERMINATOR: DARK FATE.

How did you get involved on this show?
I met David Ellison when I was finishing DEADPOOL and we bonded over a mutual love of sci-fi in general and TERMINATOR in specific. He said he wanted to take another shot at a new film (after doing GENISYS a few years back) and would I be interested in helping. And OF COURSE I was!

How did it feel to be part of the Terminator universe?
It’s was an unbearable honor. Like most sci-fi fans, the TERMINATOR films (the first 2) were among my favorite films of all time. The chance to add something new to that legendary franchise was something I would never have believed could happen to me 5 years ago.

Can you tell us more about your work with James Cameron?
I’ve known Jim for years and Blur has worked on AVATAR as well as some of his documentaries. He was briefly going to be a part of the HEAVY METAL film David Fincher and I were developing as well. And he also put in a good word for me with Fox after reading the DEADPOOL script telling them they should do the project immediately… they didn’t listen then, but I was incredibly grateful that he tried to help.

How did your animation background and Deadpool help you for this new movie?
This is only my 2nd movie but it’s HUGE… so without the experience of DEADPOOL it wouldn’t have been possible. Nobody would have let me direct a 185M film without SOME experience. I’m a fast learner, but having at least had DEADPOOL under my belt gave me the confidence and experience I needed to at least know what I DIDN’T know… and how to ask for help. Coming from animation and VFX has been hugely helpful for both films. Animators tend to be students of movement… they study people, they breakdown the physics things. All of that is hugely useful in directing action films, but also in simply directing actors. I’m always trying to carve away at the blocking and dialog delivery in a scene until I arrive at WHAT PEOPLE WOULD REALLY DO. I know that sounds kind of basic and stupid, but there’s an essential TRUTH to how THESE characters would enter THIS ROOM and say THESE WORDS if they are in THIS EMOTIONAL STATE. Analysing all those data points — with the actors input of course — until you find something that feels natural is what I strive for. And it’s sometimes harder to do than one would think — especially on a film set with hundreds of people, and a ticking clock schedule, and the needs, hopes, fears and requirements of all those people who need to do their job while your trying to find the closest thing to truth in the 20 minutes you have to do that setup.

Where did you film the various sequences of the movie?
The film was shot in Spain in Madrid and Murcia and in Hungary in and around Budapest. Additional photography was done in LA.

The movie has many crazy action sequences. How did you approach those sequences?
One of the first things we all decided on (during the script outline phase) was the big action set pieces. Because of the schedule I needed to start working on those in previs while the script was being written. I’m very particular about the action scenes and tend to either write or rewrite them myself (though in DEADPOOL Rhett and Paul wrote some incredible scenes before I showed up) So for TERMINATOR I started out writing some very elaborate BEAT SHEETS of the action. Bullet points of the action in detail with all the call-outs needed for stunts and previs. We then take all that and go into either the mocap stage OR we do “stuntvis” and shoot the sequence with stunt actors and cut it together. It all depends on when and what we need to do. The C5 sequence was all mocap-Ed and then we put together the previs at Blur (Blur did most of the previs for the film with additional work by Halon) GRACE ARRIVAL where she beats up the cops — we stuntvised that because we made changes to that sequence very deep in production. Etc. Etc.

How did you work with the stunts, SFX and VFX teams to create those action sequences?
We had a TON of meetings with the SFX and VFX department as we gradually figured out who would do what for each sequence. Neil Corbould and his team are the best in the business and either know how already or can figure out how to achieve most anything. And the few things that might be impossible — due to schedule, safety, cost, or just plain craziness — well, those are the things VFX would do. It really was a sequence by sequence and then a shot by shot approach to getting each action beat done. Endless meetings, tests, cost breakdowns etc. Go into making a plan for getting the action scenes done.

Which sequence was the most complicated to shoot?
Definitely the C5 sequence. As the plan begins to crash, gravity is constantly shifting directions, we’re going in and out of zero G and the plane is being torn apart — all while a massive FIGHT between the Rev9 and all 3 of Dani’s protectors. It was a massive logistical undertaking for both SFX— who had to build multiple sets including a GIGANTIC C5 interior set on a gamble that could rotate 360 degrees and tilt 20 degrees in either direction. Another set that could rotate 90 degrees. A third set that was flat. And a cockpit that was also on a gamble. And all of these had to be rigged for stunts and wire work as well as bluescreen work, head replacement and full-digital double work. And of course we SHOT all this stuff out of order so it was, believe me, a constant mind-fuck.

How was the collaboration with Overall VFX Supervisor Eric Barba?
It was a tough show for all the VFX crew. It was a hugely complicated show and as things evolved for a variety of reasons (like for instance our main C5 set in an old warehouse was found to have asbestos in it and we had to rearrange a ton of work while it was cleaned) and things were messy. We shot often with multiple cameras and most of the time they were moving cameras. I’m afraid I drove Eric a bit nutty, but we all had to go with the flow and, in the end, we got what we needed.

There is an impressive sequence featuring younger versions of Sarah Connor, John Connor and the T-800. Can you tell us more about the shooting and creation of this sequence?
It was one of the hardest scenes to do — and the last to finish — but the process was very straightforward. We had body doubles for all 3 actors with tracking caps so we could later do full head replacement. We did hires digital heads for each actor and they were driven by facial performance capture (ILM’s ANIMA) done by Linda, Arnold and Eddie Furlong. And then iterate, iterate, iterate. The ILM team studied a LOT of footage from older films with the actors and we even did some “deepfake” tests to get a feel for the beats using old footage mapped on our body doubles. It was helpful.

The movie presents new terminators, the REV 9. How did you work with the art department?
I mostly worked with a variety of freelance artists around the world during preproduction and production. Though when we got into post we had ILM doing the bulk of the outstanding design work — especially on the Rev9, and the final battle in the Turbine hall.

Can you elaborate about your work with Eric Barba and ILM to bring those new terminators to life?
The animation for the Rev9 was driven either by Gabriel Luna’s onset performance (we had him in a mocap suit to perform the movements of the ENDOSKELETON. And then we had quite a bit of additional animation done by ILM and led by Scott Benza. We had so much to do and such a short schedule that Jeff White came on to help manage all the ILM work and he did an amazing job getting it across the finish line.

What were your references for the REV-9?
Nothing in particular… we wanted it to feel as human as possible so for the most part it was driven by Gabe, mocap or keyframes work from the ILM animators meant to feel as human as possible.

The T-800 is back. How was your work with Arnold Schwarzenegger?
Arnold is fantastic to work with – one of the nicest, most genuine people I’ve ever met. He loves playing this character and he loves being on set. He really just wants to have a good time and he truly enjoys the process — we had an enormous amount of fun and he really took Gabe under his wing and taught him all the tricks of the TERMINATOR trade.

That was great to see Sarah Connor back! Can you tell us more about this comeback with Linda Hamilton?
Linda is the loveliest, most professional and hardest working actors I’ve ever directed. She’s incredible — she’s always prepared and she always wants to do EVERYTHING. If it doesn’t seem like it will kill her — she wants to do it. She was an inspiration to all the other actors and everyday it was a big love-fest on set. Lots of hugs and smiles even though we had a lot of long, hard, physically and emotionally challenging days.

Is there something specific during post that gave you some restless nights?
Just the sheer volume of work the VFX teams had to get through in a short amount of time. We pushed everyone to the limit of what could get done. But I had a lot of faith in the vendors, supervisors and artists on the team and I knew we’d get it all done. I sweated… but I believed.

Tricky question, what is your favorite shot or sequence?
So many cool moments… but I think it has to be the moment Dani stabs the R9 in the eye with the Ion Spike, screaming in rage. Such a fucking WARRIOR MOMENT for Dani that we were building towards during the whole film. I also love the beat right after as Arnold drags the R9 toward the pit before he explodes… he’s battered and scorched to shit and looks like a side of raw beef but STILL HE FIGHTS.

What is your best memory on this show?
Too many to count. But it might have been the moment when we were shooting the Derelict Building sequence and I had Arnold on one the A Camera monitor and Linda on the B Camera monitor and I had this sudden flush of realization that I was MAKING A TERMINATOR FILM. Oddly enough, this was rather late in the shooting process so it was a weird and wonderful emotional rush. I think I had just been too busy and getting shit done and spinning plates to REALLY have that sink in until that moment.

How long have you worked on this show?
From starting the writers room until opening day was almost exactly 2 years… though it feels more like 5.

What is your next project?
I’m going to focus on Season 2 of LOVE, DEATH & ROBOTS for the foreseeable future. That was all rolling along even while TERMINATOR was happening, but now I’m going to dive back into the deep end.

A big thanks for your time.

WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Blur Studio: Official website of Blur Studio.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2019

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Vincent Frei

Founder & Editor-in-Chief // VES Member // Former comp artist

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