Exclusive: Charles Gibson on Building Terminators and The Apocalypse

The Visual FX Supervisor for Terminator Salvation gave us some of his time to discuss the concepts behind creating the world after the bombs fell.
By  · Published on May 29th, 2009

Whether you loved it or hated it or forgot to see it, Terminator Salvation seems to have gotten one thing right in the eyes of the fans. The scorched earth of the West Coast, the hellish machines bent on human extermination, the blending of man and robot. All of the visual FX seemed to be spot on for most fans and critics alike.

And they should, not only for the amount of money that was spent on the production, but because the picture had Charles Gibson – a two-time Academy Award winner – as a VFX Supervisor and Second Unit Director.

Gibson has created and overseen FX for a long list of films including all the Pirates of the Caribbean movies (he scored an Oscar for Dead Man’s Chest), The Ring, Green Mile, and Babe for which he won his first Academy Award. Of course all of that experience was poured into Salvation, but it seems obvious that its stark look at the future was a new angle for the veteran.

I first ask if there’s an advantage to being the Second Unit Director as well as an FX Supervisor.

“In a movie like this, yes,” Gibson says. “In order to tie action and visual FX seamlessly. We wanted to make no concessions – to blend the art of an action film with a science fiction film. To straddle both.”

The segments that Gibson directed with the Second Unit involved the Terminators specifically – scenes inside the factory, the narrow streets up against the patrolling T-600, and shots with the hydrobots among others. This allowed him to plan accordingly, to get the exact shots he needed, and to be intimately familiar with the images he’d later manipulate to build the machines.

The world of Terminator Salvation is a desolate landscape where humanity has been all but wiped off the planet – nature overtake city streets, dark deserts stretch out against the skyline. That’s a major challenge in creating a future world that looks nothing like our own while also being relatable.

“The clock kind of stopped when the bombs dropped…It was crucial that everything felt real, that in every vehicle and every creature there’s elements of existing technology. It’s crucial. Getting a believable performance from everything…finding ways to play certain things realistically and making the fantastic notes.”

Gibson chose to blend the real and the fantastic by tossing out the heavy use of green screens. In just a few minutes, he gives me a quick primer on the two schools of thought behind FX – a world I admit to not knowing much about. Breaking it down to movies like 300 where most of the world is created in the computer and movies like Terminator Salvation where most of the world exists before the computers add or replace elements, Gibson claims that the team opted for the second option in order to deliver the audience the visceral feel of an actual world. The crunch of boots on the ground. The smoldering look of burned-out streets and store facades. Actors responding to real life performers who would be rendered later as Terminators.

“The goal was to take the immediacy of the scene and expand it digitally.”

The undertaking wasn’t a small one, especially when McG was promising that the FX would be like none the world had ever seen before. When I ask if he was ever nervous about what his team was promising, he laughs and admits that he was, “a little worried about the schedule, but otherwise confident [they] could deliver.”

Gibson has worked on a diverse amount of films, and each had unique challenges. He doesn’t necessarily have a dream project to work on, but he does love the challenge of making iconic characters. With that as the case, it’s easy to see why working on building Terminators would be a major draw. It’s unclear as to whether a sequel will be forthcoming, but if it is, it seems obvious that the producers will be calling the Academy Award winner to revisit the desolate future of a Post-Judgment-Day World and to build even cooler Terminators and human-hunting machines.

If you haven’t been scared off by our review, Terminator Salvation is currently in theaters now. If you want to check out some of Charles Gibson’s work, be sure to hit up our Ultimate Terminator Salvation Photo Gallery.

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