Interview: Terminator Salvation VFX supervisor Charlie Gibson

We chat with the man in charge of the movie magic for T4...

I'll be bike.

With the UK release of Terminator Salvation sitting in the not-too-distant future, we’ve had the chance to talk to Charlie Gibson, the VFX Supervisor and Second Unit Director on the film. Part of the Academy Award-winning visual effects teams on Babe and Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Gibson has carved out his career working on both spectacle-based summer movies and more dramatic projects such as The Green Mile and The Terminal. He fills us in on his background, tells us about his approach to one of the most iconic VFX creations in movie history, and gives us an expert’s insight into the future of digital effects (and James Cameron’s Avatar).

What’s your background in visual effects, and how did you get into it as a career?

I’ve been nosing around visual effects for a while. I started a company in Los Angeles quite a while ago called Rhythm & Hues, with five other people. They’re still around, I left about 10 years ago to try to pursue directing and developing my own projects, and I’ve been freelancing ever since – I’ve been having a really good time! I’ve looked for interesting pictures, and been working mostly as a Visual Effects Supervisor, and a Second Unit Director for the last ten years on films with directors like Frank Darabont, and primarily Gore Verbinski on the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies and others of his films like The Ring and Mouse Hunt.

So are you more on the digital side of Visual Effects, rather than the model-based, hand-made side?

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I’m definitely a child of the digital age. You know, I had a computer from age 14, and I’ve always been keenly interested in cinema, and I went to film school, where I always had one hand in the computer lab. And, by the time that I was in university, this industry was just starting to evolve and I was there at a really good time to be a part of the revolution – to be there during the fun time where there was still some invention, and there were still problems to be solved. I mean, it’s fantastic now that digital effects are so pervasive, and part of the vernacular of film. But, back then, there was a definite sense of ‘can we do this?’, and there were long conversations with whiteboards, and nail biting and head scratching, you know! Trying to sort out how to solve problems. A lot of that’s gone away, because the software has gotten so fantastic, and the machines have gotten so powerful – that’s really the huge difference. You know, you can brute force your way through so many problems now, it’s really quite amazing.

That’s my background. And what I’ve enjoyed is going from an 80% technical focus, 20% creative focus to the reverse, where I can really concern myself with story and action and image, and content, and just know that the technology is there. It’s so rare now that at some point, someone would point something out to me that is a technical issue – it takes me by surprise, in fact, because now you take for granted that you can do almost anything.

So what is the role of the VFX Supervisor, is it mostly shepherding the effects team, or is it also a creative role in a design sense?

Well, the VFX Supervisor is more of a general title. When I was at Rhythm & Hues, I was a Facility-side Supervisor, and now I work directly for the production, so Warner Bros. or whoever would hire me to supervise the picture. And that means that I’ll go to a number of facilities, and I’ll hire people that I know, or people that I respect or whose work I love, and then I’ll delegate as much as I can to them, because I know they’re good at what they do! In this case, I was very very fortunate to be able work with Ben Snow at ILM, who had just come off of Iron Man, and John Fragomeni at Asylum, who I’d worked with on Pirates, and John Dietz at Rising Sun (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Watchmen), who I’d worked with at Rhythm & Hues, and a number of other great people – Jon Harb at WhiskyTree (Star Wars Episodes I-III) and Craig Barron at Matte World (The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button). And those guys have anywhere from 10 to 200 people working under them that are actually grinding out takes and elements and shots. So that’s an ongoing concern, and then in addition there’s a lot of element and miniature photography that’s going on concurrently that’s feeding into the system as well.

And how does your role as a second unit director work in all of that?

That role changes from picture to picture. This film is ostensibly an action film, and the brief from the director McG was to create this seamless blend of visual effects and action. One of his big criticisms of science fiction movies, and I think it is a very right one, was that science fiction movies have a real sense of sterility in them sometimes, so that the action kind of suffers because the setting is precious. Usually, they trade off an exotic futuristic feel for any visceral sense of reality. It’s not necessarily a deficiency – it seems to be more of an aesthetic choice – but he very much wanted a gritty, state-of-the-art, modern action movie, but with these Terminator elements in it. And I have directed second unit on a number of films before, so I was immediately attracted to the idea of directing a traditional action second unit the way you would for any movie, but then knowing that I would prime it for visual effects elements that would be added later.

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And that’s exactly what we did, we used all of the traditional tools for action movie photography – camera cars, helicopters, camera bikes, all kinds of special rigs. Then we’d cut the footage as you would an action film, and added slowly, carefully, all of the Terminator elements in there, and preserve the energy of the proxy players we put in there to pace the action.

And you’re working with such an iconic franchise, with especially the first two films being at the cutting edge of visual effects for their time, and featured the work of effects greats like Stan Winston (who sadly passed away during production). How did you approach that? Was there much pressure? Did you work with Stan Winston and the more handcrafted effects team?

Very closely, and I was so happy that they were on the show. I felt like they had two major responsibilities. One was providing so much of the physical effects portion of the Terminators, they did a lot of make-up design, obviously – there’s a character, Marcus, who’s half-Terminator, half-man and we did his insides, they were done CG, the stuff you couldn’t do with make-up, the excavation of his body. But all his bruising and battering on his skin, and basically the interface between the edge of his skin and the cavity where we see into his body, they did as makeup, because they do that stuff so brilliantly. You just can’t beat that! For us to do that digitally, it doesn’t feel right.

Then, they also had for every normal sized Terminator – not the giant kind, of course – but the bipedal T-600s and T-800s, they had a full-size Terminator that they had on set. We used their Terminator in a number of scenes where we could, and actually photographed it, and it plays in the movie. But, moreover, we had this process where we would photograph their Terminators always in the scene, in situ, under the lighting, because the film was shot largely in changing light conditions in exteriors in Albuquerque, where the sun is always changing, or in interiors where we had a lot of flashing lights and lightning going off. So we always needed to know exactly how a proper Terminator would look under those lighting conditions. So we photographed them, and we had them there for the actors to work with. Just, for everyone to see – to have that visceral reality there! And then, later on, we would generally erase it out and put a digital one in the same position, so we could refine the performance, but we always had that there as a hard reference to keep us honest. That makes a huge difference, because there are so many nuances that don’t immediately come to mind when you are creating something in CG, that you see in live action. Like the way light happens to wrap around a curved surface, or the way light glints into the camera lens. It’s those imperfections that tell us something is real.

Speaking of reality, and the use of CG. As you said, in the last 10-15 years CG has become very refined and realistic, and, seamless. Where do you see VFX going from here? Is Avatar the next big thing?

Avatar is the next big thing! But I see three different directions for VFX. There’s the super high def end, you know, certain directors like Jim Cameron and David Fincher and Gore Verbinski that are committed to the process, and are such artists and craftsmen, that they are involved from the very first sketches to the very last frame. And they’re there every day, looking at the work of the artists on the screen. That’s what Avatar’s going to be. Avatar will be a technological breakthrough, and it will be amazing, and will be the best 3D that anyone’s ever seen, but what it really is is Jim Cameron’s labour of love, and his obsessing over what amounts to every single frame of film for years! And that’s what I’m paying to see – it’s not any particular piece of technology. It’s his attention!

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I think that Benjamin Button – obviously it was awarded the Oscar this year for visual effects – a lot of that was due to David Fincher spending a better part of a year at Digital Domain, making Benjamin look real, and look good, using all of his abilities as an artist. And Gore’s doing a movie now with ILM called Rango, and he has a similar level of involvement. It’s exciting to see these incredibly talented people lavishing this much attention onto images, and seeing what they come up with. That’s not the way all movies get made! [laughs]

And then you have the second tier, and I think that, as computing power becomes less expensive and more people are trained in the art of visual effects, and they become available from other sources in other countries, I think the tools become available to other film-makers, and maybe they’ll become a part of less expensive films. And we’ll see them play more interestingly in different contexts to summer event films, and maybe we’ll see them more in garage films, lower budget films – that would be the third tier. Just like people are doing music in their garage, I think we’ll see the same sort of thing. Both of those are exciting to me, and I’ve seen scripts for really sophisticated films. You know, real funny, social satires, that are high concept visual effects films. People wouldn’t have dared to make them 5 to 10 years ago, because they wouldn’t have attracted an audience, or it had to have an asteroid hitting the Earth, or a tidal wave! But now, a studio would consider doing a comedy for grown ups, that might only appeal to people over 30, that has a significant visual effects component. And that’s exciting, to be able to tell new stories with visual effects, and not be limited to these kinds of movies.

That would be a fascinating development, indeed. Thank you for your time, Charlie!

Interviews at Den Of Geek