We are going to give you a special treat on this blog. When I travel around the world, many people come up and ask me about the one shot helicopter crash in Terminator:Salvation. So I thought this was a fitting place to talk about all in one shot sequences and draw parallels with the Behind the Scenes Vietnam Sequence because it is a small version of that concept.
Episode II “Vietnam” was the most difficult of William’s memories to deliver. When you design shots that play all out as one shot everything has to work. The camera has to be in sync with the explosions, the performance has to work, the smoke level has to be just right, the focus must be sharp, and I could go on and on.
When McG and I designed the helicopter crash in the beginning of Terminator:Salvation it played as one shot but it was a series of hook-ups as we call them that seamlessly go together to give the viewer the appearance of one complete uninterrupted shot.
Breaking down the Terminator Sequence. Here is how we did it:
Shot ONE; Handheld: Millennium XL: John Connor climbs up out of the hole and we see him look camera left. The camera pans over to see his commander shot in the head. We pan back to reveal John Connor readying his gun, he looks up and we whip pan.
Shot TWO; 50’ Technocrane, we whip pan to see a helicopter and a Skynet transporter taking off in the B.G. John Connor runs into frame and we push in with him. Now, this Helicopter is on a large gimbal which lifts the chopper up into the air and spins it around to make it seem like John Connor is piloting it. Behind the chopper is a huge Blue Screen 100’ x 60’ that we painted on the North facing wall at Albuquerque Studios. We continue to move in with John Connor, he jumps into the cargo bay and tells the pilot to take off and follow that transport, he touches him and the pilot falls out of the seat, DEAD. John then hops into the seat and starts to take off, we boom up with the crane so that it feels like he is taking off. The gimbal also booms up and banks to the side and the crane continues to rotate around to be in more of a profile so we now see the huge Satellite dishes in the F.G. Moving past the choppers doors. THEN IT HAPPENS, an explosion from underground blows the camera back, the technocrane swings back rapidly to reveal all of the chopper as it spins out of control from the blast. Dust and debris is added in post. The tail spins around and the camera then pushes in to the cargo bay and lands in an over the shoulder of both seats in the cockpit.
Shot THREE; Handheld w/ Arri 235 in chopper. The gimbal has now moved to another location where were able to build a 360 degree blue screen to spin the chopper on the gimbal. I used the shadow of Stage One to give soft ambient daylight to illuminate the blue screen so we did not have hard, harsh sunlight on the screen. Kent Baker my brilliant rigging Key Grip had to add small 12’ x 12’ blue screen frames for the small windows that were on the floor of the chopper, which were attached to the gimbal. You should have seen this rig. It looked ridiculous but it did the trick. The screens had to be lit with 1200 HMI par lights that we had to wind up so that the gimbal could spin approximately 12 times before it sheared our cable in half. The camera moves into the cargo bay just like the Technocrane did in the previous shot. We move in and wrap around to see John Connor in profile, then down to the stick and then back up to his face. While all this is happening I am in the chopper spinning around. We mounted a 3-18k’s on a condor that poked over the top of the blue screen to give the rotation more speed so he is constantly moving in and out of the sunlight. Then our camera moves back to the over the shoulder as John braces for impact.
Shot FOUR; Arri III mounted in a tube crash housing, hard mounted in the exact place that our last frame of the Arri 235 handheld shot left off. We mount the chaisse of the helicopter to a huge construction crane that will now sling this into the air like a pendulum. At its highest swing Mike Meinardus, www.mikemeinardus.com, our Special EFX’s genius releases the chopper it flies through air with a articulated dummy in John’s seat. Camera impacts the earth and dust debris fills the cabin.
Shot FIVE; Arri 235 Handheld in the same place that the hard mounted crash camera was and now we add a stuntman to unclip himself in the upside down cockpit. My camera is also upside down when this is happening, so the viewers world is upside down. Dust and debris is blown into the chopper’s cockpit to help mend the shots. The stuntman impacts his head and body onto the roof of the chopper.
Shot SIX; Arri 235 Handheld still in the same place but now Christian Bale gets in to the pilot’s seat and acts like he just unclipped out of the seat, falls and hits the ceiling of the chopper. John Connor is dazed and starts to crawl towards the camera, we pan with him as he exits the cargo bay. In this pan Chris Mosley, my A camera operator, www.hurlbutvisuals.com/team.php starts to spin so the viewer sees their world rotate as the upside down camera now rights itself. It moves with John Connor out of the helicopter and lands in an over the shoulder shot. We take in the Nuclear cloud in the deep background and then we wrap around him to reveal the emotion on his face when John Connor discovers that all his unit is gone; the resistance has been wiped out. Then, all of a sudden a T-600 grabs his shoulder and throws him out of shot. End of the sequence.
This was a hugh collaboration with Charlie Gibson, www.imdb.com/name/nm0002716/ and Ben Snow, www.imdb.com/name/nm0811240/ our Visual EFX’s Guru’s, Adolfo Martinez Perez, www.imdb.com/name/nm0553439/ our storyboard artist, PLF’s pre-vis team, and my amazing camera, lighting and grip teams to pull off the impossible, seamless sequence.
Now, our little short did not have the luxury of this time and money. Yet, we had the expertise of a visionary crew that was determined to make it happen. The Terminator sequence could be repeated several times to get it exactly right. On “The Last 3 Minutes” we could rehearse but we still had only 6 takes with explosions. Dan Cangemi, www.imdb.com/name/nm0133958/ and Al Di Sarro, www.imdb.com/name/nm0224298/ the SPEFX”S team from “Act of Valor” were nice enough to come and play with us to make an ordinary scene extraordinary. We ran it many times to get all the departments in sync: actors, camera, effects, smoke, explosions, etc. Much of this was a dance in showing the director, Po Chan what it would be like and then adjusting so that her vision came to life.
The explosion in the beginning was not big enough so we first had to make sure that worked because that was our transition element from William’s wife in the ocean splashing around to the mortar going off. We finally got the blast to wipe the frame, so now we needed to make it feel like there was a battle going on. I asked Al if we could add another mortar to assist in my lighting. This is something I did on Terminator a lot. I would use trapezoid mortars to blow debris, dirt and dust into the air to diffuse the sunlight. Al loaded in the second one that we blew right as Bodie Orman, my Helmet Cam operator, crawls to his friend.
It worked very well because you feel the weight of the explosion. It takes out the sun and lowers the light so that it becomes very dark. I wanted that mood to assist the emotion, as a foreshadowing of his upcoming death when the world goes dark. Then, when the soldier actually dies, the dust clears and bright sunlight basks his face, like a sun ray from heaven. But, there was still something missing. We all decided that a 3rd mortar was needed and that one needed fire to cut through all the smoke and dust that was in the air.
The fire marshall’s ears perked up and he came over and said “Now, what do you want to do?” Al explained that we were lacking something in our scene to really make the audience feel like they were there experiencing it. So, we scoped out a safe position behind William’s friend that was not going to light the forest on fire. It was awesome because with each take, Al would increase the gasoline amount to the level that you see on the screen, 2.5 gallons that gets ignited inside a trapezoid mortar. Enjoy!!