By Oliver Peters
Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor and Arnold Schwarzenegger T-800 are back to save humanity from a dystopian future in this latest installment of the Terminator franchise. James Cameron is also back and brings with him writing and producing credits, which is fitting — Terminator: Dark Fate is in essence Cameron’s sequel to Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Tim Miller (Deadpool) is at the helm to direct the tale. It’s roughly two decades after the time of T2, and a new Rev-9 machine has been sent from an alternate future to kill Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), an unsuspecting auto plant worker in Mexico. But the new future’s resistance has sent back Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an enhanced super-soldier, to combat the Rev-9 and save her. They cross paths with Connor, and the story sets off on a mad dash to the finale at Hoover Dam.
Miller brought back much of his Deadpool team, including his VFX shop Blur, DP Ken Seng and editor Julian Clarke. This is also the second pairing of Miller and Clarke with Adobe. Both Deadpool and Terminator: Dark Fate were edited using Premiere Pro. In fact, Adobe was also happy to tie in with the film’s promotion through its own #CreateYourFate trailer remix challenge. Participants could re-edit their own trailer using supplied content from the film.
I recently spoke with Clarke about the challenges and fun of cutting this latest iteration of such an iconic film franchise.
Terminator: Dark Fate picks up two decades after Terminator 2, leaving out the timelines of the subsequent sequels. Was that always the plan, or did it evolve out of the process of making the film?
That had to do with the screenplay. You were written into a corner by the various sequels. We really wanted to bring Linda Hamilton’s character back. With Jim involved, we wanted to get back to first principles and have it based on Cameron’s mythology alone. To get back to the Linda/Arnold character arcs, and then add some new stuff to that.
Many fans were attracted to the franchise by Cameron’s two original Terminator films. Was there a conscious effort at integrating that nostalgia?
I come from a place of deep fandom for Terminator 2. As a teenager I had VHS copies of Aliens and Terminator 2 and watched them on repeat after school! Those films are deeply embedded in my psyche, and both of them have aged well — they still hold up. I watched the sequels, and they just didn’t feel like a Terminator film to me. So the goal was definitely to make it of the DNA of those first two movies. There’s going to be a chase. It’s going to be more grounded. It’s going to get back into the Sarah Connor character and have more heart.
This film tends to have elements of humor unlike most other action films. That must have posed a challenge to set the right tone without getting campy.
The humor thing is interesting. Terminator 2 has a lot of humor throughout. We have a little bit of humor in the first half and then more once Arnold shows up, but that’s really the way it had to be. The Dani Ramos character — who’s your entry point into the movie — is devastated when her whole family is killed. To have a lot of jokes happening would be terrible. It’s not the same in Terminator 2 because John Connor’s stepparents get very little screen time, and they don’t seem that nice. You feel bad for them, but it’s OK that you get into this funny stuff right off the bat. On this one we had to ease into the humor so you could [experience] the gravity of the situation at the start of the movie.
Did you have to do much to alter that balance during the edit?
There were one or two jokes that we nipped out, but it wasn’t like that whole first act was chock full of jokes. The tone of the first act is more like Terminator, which is more of a thriller or horror movie. Then it becomes more like T2 as the action gets bigger and the jokes come in. So the first half is like a bigger Terminator and the second half more like T2.
Deadpool, which Tim Miller also directed, used a very nonlinear story structure, balancing action, comedic moments and drama. Terminator was always designed with a linear, straightforward storyline. Right?
A movie hands you certain editing tools. Deadpool was designed to be nonlinear, with characters in different places, so there are a whole bunch of options for you. Terminator: Dark Fate is more like a road movie. The detonation of certain paths along the road are predetermined. You can’t be in Texas before Mexico. So the structural options you had were where to check in with the Rev-9, as well as the inter-scene structure. Once you are in the detention center, who are you cutting to? Sarah? Dani? However, where that is placed in the movie is pretty much set. All you can do is pace it up, pace it down, adjust how to get there. There aren’t a lot of mobile pieces that can be swapped around.
When we had talked after Deadpool, you discussed how you liked the assistants to build string-outs — what some call a Kem roll. Similar action is assembled back to back into a sequence in order from every take. Did you use that same organizational method on Terminator: Dark Fate?
Sometimes we were so swamped with material that there wasn’t time to create string-outs. I still like to have those. It’s a nice way to quickly see all the pieces that cover a moment. If you are trying to find the one take or action that’s 5% better than another, then it’s good to see them all in a row, rather than trying to keep it all in your head for a five-minute take. There was a lot of footage that we shot in the action scenes, but we didn’t do 11 or 12 takes for a dialogue scene. I didn’t feel like I needed some tool to quickly navigate through the dialogue takes. We would string out the ones that were more complicated.
Depending on the directing style, a series of takes may have increasingly calibrated performances with successive takes. With other directors, each take might be a lot different than the one before and after it. What is your approach to evaluating which is the best take to use?
It’s interesting when you use the earlier takes versus the later takes and what you get from them. The later takes are usually the ones that are most directed. The actors are warmed up and most closely nail what the director has in mind. So they are strong in that regard, but sometimes they can become more self-conscious. So sometimes the first take is more thrown away and may have less power but feels more real — more off the cuff. Sometimes a delivered dialogue line feels less written, and you’ll buy it more. Other times you’ll want that more dramatic quality of the later takes. My instinct is to first use the later takes, but as you start to revise a scene, you often go back to pieces of the earlier takes to ground it a little more.
How long did the production and post take?
It took a little over 100 days of shooting with a lot of units. I work on a lot of mid-budget films, so this seemed like a really long shoot. It was a little relentless for everyone — even squeezing it into those 100 days. Shooting action with a lot of VFX is slow due to the reset time needed between takes. The ending of the movie is 30 minutes of action in a row. That’s a big job shooting all of that stuff. When they have a couple of units cranking through the dialogue scenes plus shooting action sequences — that’s when I have to work hard to keep up. Once you hit the roadblocks of shooting just those little action pieces, you get a little time to catch up.
We had the usual director’s cut period and finished by the end of this September. The original plan was to finish by the beginning of September, but we needed the time for VFX. So everything piled up with the DI and the mix in order to still hit the release date. September got a little crazy. It seems like a long time — a total of 13 or 14 months — but it still was an absolute sprint to get the movie in shape and get the VFX into the film in time. This might be normal for some of these films, but compared to the other VFX movies I’ve done, it was definitely turning things up a notch!
I imagine that there was a fair amount of previz required to lay out the action for the large VFX and CG scenes. Did you have that to work with as placeholder shots? How did you handle adjusting the cut as the interim and final shots were delivered?
Tim is big into previz with his background in VFX and animation and owning his own VFX company. We had very detailed animatics going into production. Depending on a lot of factors, you still abandon a lot of things. For example, the freeway chases are quite a bit different because when you go there and do it with real cars, they do different things. Or only part of the cars look like they are going fast enough. Those scenes became quite different than the previz.
Others are almost 100% CG, so you can drop in the previz as placeholders. Although, even in those cases, sometimes the finished shot doesn’t feel real enough. In the “cartoon” world of previz, you can do wild camera moves and say, “Wow, that seems cool!” But when you start doing it at photoreal quality, then you go, “This seems really fake.” So we tried to get ahead of that stuff and find what to do with the camera to ground it. Kind of mess it up so it’s not too dynamic and perfect.
How involved were you with shaping the music? Did you use previous Terminator films’ scores as a temp track to cut with?
I was very involved with the music production. I definitely used a lot of temp music. Some of it was ripped from old Terminator movies, but there’s only so much Terminator 2 music you can put in. Those scores used a lot of synthesizers that date the sound. I did use “Desert Suite” from Terminator 2, when Sarah is in the hotel room. I loved having a very direct homage to a Sarah Connor moment while she’s talking about John. Then I begged our composer, Tom Holkenborg (from Junkie XL), to consider doing a version of it for our movie. So it is essentially the same chord progression.
That was an interesting musical and general question about how much do you lean into the homage thing. It’s powerful when you do it, but if you do it too much, it starts to feel artificial or pandering. So I tried to hit the sweet spot so you knew you were watching a Terminator movie, but not so much that it felt like Terminator karaoke. How many times can you go da-dum-dum-da-da-dum? You have to pick your moments for those Terminator motifs. It’s diminishing returns if you do it too much.
Another inspirational moment for me was another part in Terminator 2. There’s a disturbing industrial sound for the T-1000. It sounds more like a foghorn or something in a factory rather than music, and it created this unnerving quality to the T-1000 scenes, when he’s just scoping things out. So we came up with a modern-day electronic equivalent for the Rev-9 character, and that was very potent.
Was James Cameron involved much in the post production?
He’s quite busy with his Avatar movies. Some of the time he was in New Zealand, some of the time he was in Los Angeles. Depending on where he was and where we were in the process, we would hit milestones, like screenings or the first cut. We would send him versions and download a bunch of his thoughts.
Editing is very much a part of his wheelhouse. Unlike many other directors, he really thinks about this shot, then that shot, then the next shot. His mind really works that way. Sometimes he would give us pretty specific, dialed-in notes on things. Sometimes it would just be bigger suggestions, like, “Maybe the action cutting pattern could be more like this …” So we’d get his thoughts — and, of course, he’s Jim Cameron, and he knows the business and the Terminator franchise — so I listened pretty carefully to that input.
This is the second film that you’ve cut with Premiere Pro. Deadpool was first, and there were challenges using it on such a complex project. What was the experience like this time around?
Whenever you set out to use a new workflow — not to say Premiere is new because it’s been around a long time and has millions of users, but it’s unusual to use it on large VFX movies for specific reasons.
L-R: Matthew Carson and Julian Clarke
On Deadpool, that led to certain challenges, and that’s just what happens when you try to do something new. The fact that we had to split the movie into separate projects for each reel, instead of one large project. Even so, the size of our project files made it tough. They were so full of media that they would take five minutes to open. Nevertheless, we made it work, and there are lots of benefits to using Adobe over other applications.
In comparison, the interface to Avid Media Composer looks like it was designed 20 years ago, but they have multi-user collaboration nailed, and I love the trim tool. Yet, some things are old and creaky. Adobe’s not that at all. It’s nice and elegant in terms of the actual editing process. We got through it and sat down with Adobe to point out things that needed work, and they worked on them. When we started up Terminator, they had a whole new build for us. Project files now opened in 15 seconds. They are about halfway there in terms of multi-user editing. Now everyone can go into a big, shared project, and you can move bins back and forth. Although, only one user at a time has write access to the master project.
This is not simple software they are writing. Adobe is putting a lot of work into making it a more fitting tool for this type of movie. Even though this film was exponentially larger than Deadpool, from the Adobe side it was a smoother process. Props to them for doing that! The cool part about pioneering this stuff is the amount of work that Adobe is on board to do. They’ll have people work on stuff that is helpful to us, so we get to participate a little in how Adobe’s software gets made.
With two large Premiere Pro projects under your belt, what sort of new features would you like to see Adobe add to the application to make it even better for feature film editors?
They’ve built out the software from being a single-user application to being multi-user software, but the inherent software at the base level is still single-user. Sometimes your render files get unlinked when you go back and forth between multiple users. There’s probably stuff where they have to dig deep into the code to make those minor annoyances go away. Other items I’d like to see — let’s not use third-party software to send change lists to the mix stage.
I know Premiere Pro integrates beautifully with After Effects, but for me, After Effects is this precise tool for executing shots. I don’t want a fine tool for compositing — I want to work in broad strokes and then have someone come back and clean it up. I would love to have a tracking tool to composite two shots together for a seamless, split screen of two combined takes — features like that.
The After Effects integration and the color correction are awesome features for a single user to execute the film, but I don’t have the time to be the guy to execute the film at that high level. I just have to keep going. I want to be able to do a fast and dirty version so I know it’s not a terrible idea, and then turn to someone else and say, “OK, make that good.” After Effects is cool, but it’s more for VFX editors or single users who are trying to make a film on their own.
After all of these action films, are you ready to do a different type of film, like a period drama?
Funny you should say that. After Deadpool I worked on The Handmaid’s Tale pilot, and it was exactly that. I was working on this beautifully acted, elegant project with tons of women characters and almost everything was done in-camera. It was a lot of parlor room drama and power dynamics. And that was wonderful to work on after all of this VFX/action stuff. Periodically it’s nice to flex a different creative muscle.
It’s not that I only work on science-fiction/VFX projects — which I love — but, in part, people start associating you with a certain genre, and then that becomes an easy thing to pursue and get work for.
Much like acting, if you want to be known for doing a lot of different things, you have to actively pursue it. It’s easy to go where momentum will take you. If you want to be the editor who can cut any genre, you have to make it a mission to pursue those projects that will keep your resume looking diverse. For a brief moment after Deadpool, I might have been able to pivot to a comedy career (laughs). That was a real hybrid, so it was challenging to thread the needle of the different tones of the film and make it feel like one piece.
Any final thoughts on the challenges of editing Terminator: Dark Fate?
The biggest challenge of the film was that, in a way, the film was an ensemble with the Dani character, the Grace character, the Sarah character and Arnold’s character — the T-800. All of these characters are protagonists that all have their individual arcs. Feeling that you were adequately servicing those arcs without grinding the movie to a halt or not touching bases with a character often enough — finding out how to dial that in was the major challenge of the movie, plus the scale of the VFX and finessing all the action scenes. I learned a lot.
Oliver Peters is an experienced film and commercial editor/colorist. In addition, he regularly interviews editors for trade publications. He may be contacted through his website at oliverpeters.com