Stephanie Austin asks me where I’m calling from. I say London. “It’s one of my favourite cities. I got to spend a lot of time there while I was producing overseas. It’s a great place when someone else is paying for it.” I couldn’t agree with her more, and in a somewhat lame and quivering attempt at small talk, ask her where she is.
California. With glorious weather. I consider the professional implications of asking her for a job outright. I decide against it.
Admission – it’s difficult for me to keep my inner fanboy in check. Austin is part responsible for delivering what is often regarded as one of the greatest Hollywood films ever made. Add to that ‘True Lies’ and you’ve quite literally got hundreds of hours of my childhood right there. But despite my obvious nerves in speaking to a personal hero and Austin’s industry stature, she is incredibly pleasant and disarming. Almost jolly.
There are a million questions running through my head, but with a strict ten-minute time slot, what I really want to hear about is the experience of working on the most expensive film ever made at the time.
“Well, when I was first being interviewed by James Cameron and I read the script, I was terrified because at that point nobody had done any … of the effects – nobody had ever even endeavoured to do them before and I didn’t actually know how we were going to pull it off.
…of course with a great team and with a director like Jim [Cameron] and Dennis Muren at the helm in terms of visual effects you knew you were in good hands. But frankly the insane shooting schedule and the insane post schedule to meet the somewhat arbitrary release date kept one from totally collapsing.”
In the scenes that follow Joe Morton’s unforgettable final breaths, Sarah, John and our trusty T-101 are pursued by Robert Patrick’s still-to-this-day terrifying T-1000 in a helicopter down the San Pedro freeway. It was such a dangerous sequence to execute that it’s been said the camera department refused to shoot it and that Cameron shot it himself.
“It was overwhelming. We always had two units shooting simultaneously all day and all night. I’d go from the San Pedro freeway set to Fontana, sleep for an hour or two and shoot all day at the steel mill set.”
When it was released in August this year ‘T23D’ put the hard work of the its technicians on full display and far surpasses any contemporary 3D film this writer has seen in a cinema. Why, despite all the advancements in modern filmmaking technology, does it outperform competition. The answer, Austin suggests, lies in the ‘fancy footwork’ of good filmmaking.
“I’ve actually been amazed. 3D conversions can be very tricky and I think it’s a tribute to the skill of all involved that even though we were pre digital camera age – we shot on film and transferred to digital for the effects and transferred back to film for release – if you didn’t have those building blocks of this extraordinary attention to detail even back then, the conversion would not have been as successful.
Aside from imagining and creating these massive sets – the set on the freeway was miles and miles long and we had to do night lighting so we had every large – or as we call them BFL’s…”
…’Big Fucking Lights’, for which 10 miles of cable was laid…
“…[every] lighting element in northern California at that point. So the size of the sets was really daunting and executing those designs was daunting and how you the achieve the effect of molten steel without actually having molten steel- that was in a former active steel mill that we then built our set inside of – all the cauldrons of molten steel had to be created by, you know, fancy footwork. All of those things were daunting.”
“we didn’t really know if we were going to pull it off”
But what was one of the biggest challenges?
“…I’d say that, I’m sure you understand when you’re doing visual effects that one of the most challenging parts of it was [that] we didn’t really know if we were going to pull it off, but at the same time we had to front-load all the scenes that had visual effects in them, because the throughput was astonishing. You know you think about computer power today compared to 1990/91.”
With computers still in the relative dark ages and with a time consuming render process, all the shots containing any special effects had to be done first.
“I think we had every mainframe computer in Paulo Alto working for us, so because of the render time … and in order to make the release date, we had to front-load. So you’re shooting scenes irrationally compared to the way that films are usually scheduled. We’d have to leapfrog a lot…”
The film continues to find new audiences every generation. Why does Austin think the film has had such a lasting impact?
“I think there’s two reasons. One is certainly that it was a huge technological achievement – even though six months after it was released my nephew was doing morphs on his Macintosh, which was really discouraging.
But I also think it’s kind of a timeless story, it’s really almost a family story if I could go so far as to say, where the Arnold Schwarzenegger character really takes on the role of being a father figure for Eddie Furlong’s character and I think Sarah Connor of course is just this iconic, fierce mother figure, protecting her child no matter what comes her way.
It has that warmth and compassion so that you are drawn into the emotional aspects of the story and when you contrast this with these really extraordinary technological breakthroughs I think that’s what makes it unique.”
I have to ask at this point if James Cameron was as ferocious as the stories suggest. I mention the T-Shirt on set of ‘The Abyss’ that read “You Can’t Scare Me, I Work for James Cameron”.
“Oh yes (Austin laughs). Yes, I would echo that. He is an exacting filmmaker, but I always tell people, in my job I had to work very closely with him and he was always… even as difficult as he can be he respected my job. At the end of the day I knew he was happy I was there and doing the work. Also it makes you a better filmmaker. It really does. He’s a mad whirling durbish of energy and attention to detail.
Every single aspect of the film, every prop, he really looked at everything and I think again, that’s why this conversion, where your flaws as well as your virtues can be exposed in these 3D conversions and I’m very proud it shows on screen.”
There has been speculation about the future of the franchise. ‘Terminator Genisys’ was received poorly by fans and critics alike, but there has been some speculation about Cameron’s return to the series he started. I wonder what Austin’s hopes are for the future of the series.
“We have big hopes. I’m not sure if I’ll be involved or not, but of course The Terminator 3, not the one that’s already been released, but the one based on our part of the franchise, is in our future shall we say.”
Terminator 2 Judgment Day is released on 4k UHD (incl: Blu-Ray), 3D BLU-RAY (incl: Blu-Ray), BLU-RAY, DVD & DIGITAL DOWNLOAD on December 4th.