James Cameron's latest trek -- How the director's gamble with ''Terminator 2'' paid off

”That really looks silly!” director James Cameron says, surprised, as he strides into the conference room at his Lightstorm Entertainment headquarters in Burbank, Calif. In the center of the room, grinning at him rather ghoulishly, is one of the six-foot metal ”endoskeletons,” the mechanized killing machines that stalk through the bleakly futuristic opening sequence of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. But this robot isn’t equipped for mass destruction. It’s a present from its creator, special-effects wizard Stan Winston, who has sent it over, bedecked incongruously in ribbons and bows, to mark Cameron’s 37th birthday. Cameron’s surprise gives way to laughter. ”The last thing you want to do,” he says, ”is drape a Terminator with ribbons.”

With Terminator 2 already the biggest hit of the year and well on its way to earning $200 million at the U.S. box office, Cameron and his team can now afford to joke around. Three months earlier, when Cameron’s crew was struggling to finish the production in time for its July 3 release date, the atmosphere in these offices was anything but silly. To a degree rare even in the hit-or-miss world of Hollywood, Cameron’s reputation was on the line with Terminator 2. A string of delays and postponed release dates had tainted his last major undertaking, 1989’s The Abyss; another blown opening might have been fatal to his standing. Then there was the money: At a cost of roughly $90 million, T2 was shaping up as the most expensive movie ever made. Though the risk was balanced somewhat by $91 million in distribution advances and guarantees, Carolco Pictures, the film’s major backer, was betting heavily on the outcome. And TriStar Pictures, the movie’s distributor, which already had one ticking bomb on its hands in the form of Hudson Hawk, couldn’t afford a second summer disaster.

The results silenced the skeptics literally overnight. On the long July 4 weekend, the movie pulled in a stunning $52 million. And, for the director whose 1984 The Terminator had developed near-mythic status among sci-fi fans, the sequel was renewed proof of his ability to astonish. In two hours and 16 minutes of heavy-metal action, T2 redefined the limits of moviemaking technology, combining new breakthroughs in computerized special effects with some of the most elaborate makeup contraptions and explosive stunts ever filmed.

But after spending a year and a half immersed in this project, Cameron claims to feel no urge to slow down. ”I like to do what Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff called ‘maintaining an even strain,”’ he says. The Canadian-born director even dismisses the notion that his career was ever on the line. ”Basically, it’s just a question of how strong the current is you’re swimming against,” he says. ”If Terminator 2 had been less successful, that current would now be stronger. It wouldn’t mean I wouldn’t still make the swim.”

From the start, Cameron knew T2 had to be more ambitious than the original. In early 1990 Carolco chairman Mario F. Kassar, having purchased the remake rights to The Terminator for $10 million, offered Cameron the chance to top himself. A deal was struck even before a screenplay was written. ”Everything seemed to line up with a weird synchronicity,” recalls Cameron. ”Mario never asked me the story. All he said was, ‘As long as Arnold’s satisfied with it, and you’re satisfied with it, I’m happy.”’

By the time Cameron and his coscreenwriter, William Wisher, sat down at their computers, above-the-line costs — the talent fees that included Schwarzenegger’s $12 to $15 million and Cameron’s $5 to $6 million — were already approaching $30 million. ”It made me think differently about the script I was writing,” Cameron acknowledges. ”I felt it was necessary to take it to a little bit more mythic level. It would have been a very top-heavy film if we’d spent three times more above the line than we spent below the line (the cost of actually shooting the film). People would have felt ripped off.”

After toying briefly with the idea of playing a ”good Arnold” off against a ”bad Arnold,” the writers instead assigned the reprogrammed Schwarzenegger the job of protecting Sarah Connor’s 10-year-old son, John, from an even more fearsome cyborg, the T-1000 (played by Edward Furlong and Robert Patrick, respectively). Though armchair critics would later theorize that the title character was softened in deference to Schwarzenegger’s worldwide popularity, Wisher insists, ”That’s not how it happened at all. We were worried that people were going to be pissed off if the Terminator didn’t kill.”

”My sensibility is somewhere between Steven Spielberg and Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall),” says Cameron. Indeed, T2‘s combination of an antiwar message with state-of-the-art movie mayhem strikes some critics as disingenuous. ”I did want to do a tough picture,” Cameron says. ”I just wanted to be clear about the moral pathway through the film. I didn’t mind that the T-1000 is pretty brutal. He’s the bad guy. But as a filmmaker I tend to shun violence much more than I did when I was just a filmgoer.”

Similarly, though big-budget action films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger aren’t usually seen as vehicles for progressive ideas, Cameron felt T2 gave him ”a mandate” to work in his concerns about nuclear war. ”With Arnold Schwarzenegger, the biggest film star on the planet at the peak of his career, I knew people would want to see this movie. I knew that within it I could organically work in these ideas in a way that wouldn’t offend people but would give them something to think about without trashing it as an entertainment experience.”

But, while Cameron was eager to sneak his antiwar message into the movie, he bristles at the idea that he was trying to create a new feminist role model with Linda Hamilton’s role as the pumped-up Sarah Connor. ”She’s not being presented as a role model in this film any more than Robert De Niro was trying to create a role model in Raging Bull. Sarah’s a borderline psychotic in this movie. Her character was meant to challenge, not to be idolized.”

Cameron’s feelings for Hamilton’s dilemma are apparently more than professional. Though married to Point Break director Kathryn Bigelow, Cameron reportedly became romantically involved with Hamilton during T2. When the subject is raised, he answers simply, ”I’d like to keep my private life private.” But he isn’t reticent about praising Hamilton for her bold performance. ”I needed her to agree to do the movie without seeing a script,” he says. ”All I could tell her was that when we first meet Sarah, she would be in a mental hospital. She said, ‘Good, just be sure you make me crazy.”’

Cameron’s notion of maintaining an even strain doesn’t just apply to work. He’s getting ready for some strenuous R&R. ”I want to play hard — ride dirt bikes or go scuba diving,” he says. But then he’ll plunge into his next project, a multiple-personality drama called The Crowded Room. ”It couldn’t be more opposite from Terminator 2,” he says with enthusiasm. ”Obviously, the success of (T2) may allow me to be a little braver with the film.”

But what about that megasuccess? Is T3 inevitable in his future? ”I’m not under any pressure to do it,” Cameron says. ”If they want to make that movie, we’re going to have to talk about it. At this point, if they asked me, I’d say no.” He reflects a moment, though, and adds, ”Ask me six years from now and I might say yes.”

Light, Camera, Magic

You can slice him, dice him, slash him, and mash him, but each time T-1000, the liquid-metal cyborg that oozes his way through Terminator 2, comes back for more. In a movie already packed with special-effects breakthroughs, the protean T-1000 — a seamless blend of makeup, life-size puppets, computer graphics, and Robert Patrick’s acting-is a technical tour de force unlike anything the movies have ever seen.

”A lot of what we did you can do at home on a Macintosh,” says Dennis Muren, who supervised T2‘s team of 35 computer-graphics artists at George Lucas’ renowned special-effects shop, LucasArts Industrial Light & Magic. ”But you can’t do it in the time, or with the resolution and precision, that this show required.” That’s a major ”but.” The 43 key shots that ILM contributed to the film amounted to just five minutes of screen time, but they required painstaking attention to detail, cost nearly $6.4 million, and used a monstrous 150 gigabytes of computer storage — nearly 4,000 times more computing power than a 40-megabyte home computer.

Still, the techniques employed in the creation of T-1000 are simple enough. Working from photographs, models, and films of Patrick going through T-1000’s moves, the ILM team first built a three-dimensional model of T-1000 in their data base, which they could then call up on their screens and examine from any angle. In fact, since one of T-1000’s tricks involves changing from a free-flowing metal blob into a fully detailed human shape, the team built four models, ranging from stage one, an amorphous metal shape, to stage four, a complete metallic man. For the scenes in which T-1000 mutates from one form to another — when he pours himself into a helicopter and then takes on a human shape, for example — ILM used a process called ”morphing” (for ”metamorphosis”). To create a morphing sequence, ILM technicians provide a computer with the first frame in the transformation and the final result; the computer mathematically figures out how to fill in the transitional frames so that the first figure mutates fluidly into the last. Moviegoers saw their first example of morphing in Willow (different animals transform into Raziel the witch). But the process has never been applied more extensively than in T2.

Once the ILM technicians put T-1000 through its scripted moves, they used a process called ”digital compositing” to combine the figure with background scenes that had been filmed and then converted to digital computer memory. Both the backgrounds and the animated figures are read by the computer as a grid of individual points of light, or pixels. Since the artists can manipulate the pixels at will, they are able to remove imperfections or add shadows and reflections for greater realism. Traditional special-effects photography requires filming individual elements on top of one another, often revealing telltale matte lines and gradations in film quality where the separate elements meet; the computer-generated scene appears seamless. Once the work is completed, the finished sequence is electronically transferred back onto film, one frame at a time.