Cutting “Terminator: Dark Fate”

Cutting “Terminator: Dark Fate”

Gabriel Luna stars as the most deadly Terminator ever created, the Rev-9, in director Tim Miller’s action-packed “Terminator: Dark Fate.” All photos courtesy Paramount Pictures Corporation

Decades after Sarah Connor (played by actress Linda Hamilton) helped prevent a catastrophic ending for humanity, a new and improved Terminator—a killing machine, Rev-9—is sent to eliminate the future leader of the resistance. In a fight to once again save mankind, Sarah teams up with an unexpected ally, Skynet’s synthetically intelligent model T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and an enhanced super-soldier named Grace (Mackenzie Davis) to protect future resistance leader Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes).

While director Tim Miller was tasked to navigate us through this world teetering on the edge of extinction (at least for humans), it was editor Julian Clarke’s job to take the thousands of hours of “footage” and special effects and present them in a dramatic, spine-tingling cohesive manner in the 2019 film “Terminator: Dark Fate.” Not only was humanity’s future hanging in the balance, so was a multi-billion dollar franchise.

Digital Photo Pro: What was your workflow for the postproduction on “Terminator: Dark Fate?”

Julian Clarke: We encoded a ProRes offline version of the dailies that was not very compressed—it could be projected on the big screen, and it would look good. We cut those on iMac Pros.

Also, we were working in a proprietary version of Adobe Premiere: It’s actually an earlier prototype version of the new Productions feature set Adobe announced this past January. 

On the film “Deadpool” [which Clarke also edited], we used an earlier version of Premiere and gave Adobe feedback, which they incorporated into what we used on “Terminator.” The most notable request we and other editors had given was that we needed something that we had in Avid Nexis, where you could take multiple edit systems and network them so we could be in the same project file at the same time.

Cutting “Terminator: Dark Fate”
Grace (played by Mackenzie Davis) tries to protect future resistance leader Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) in “Terminator: Dark Fate.”

Sending projects back and forth to each other in a non-networked setup is totally inefficient. I had four assistants and three VFX editors working in the project simultaneously. So, Adobe made it so we could all work in the same master project, essentially turning the projects into bins, like in an Avid.

You would say, “Here is Scene 12.” The editor who opened up that project had read and write access. As soon as they closed it, then another user could enter that project. And all of this is visible through the new “Master Project” Adobe had created.

After Effects works seamlessly with Premiere, so that must have been a good fit as well.

Jon Carr, our VFX editor, did post-viz temps in-house using After Effects to make sure that the shots worked before sending them to the more costly visual effects vendors.

I think eventually the rest of the post-viz team, which was about 25 people, were using Nuke for that. It was an amazing way to work because we could quickly get this stuff out, see how the scenes would work and then turn them over to the expensive VFX vendor world and have confidence that they would work because we had tested them out with the temps.

What were your biggest challenges in cutting the film?

Just managing the quantity of effects was extremely daunting. I’ve worked on plenty of VFX movies, but nothing on this level. We had more than 2,000 VFX shots.

How do you decide on which takes to go with for the live-action scenes?

I watch the dailies, put a few selects on the timeline and start building it linearly forward. I watch the takes backwards because often the director’s suggestions after each take leads to the best material being in the latter ones.

Also, when I’m looking for the one take that’s better than the others, and the difference is often subtle, I think it’s a good idea to build string-outs so I can see them all in a row.

Paramount put out a DVD with bonus content, including play-by-play commentary by you and director Tim Miller. It was fascinating to hear you both discuss the flashback scene when the T-800 emerges from the water. Arnold looked exactly like he did when the franchise started.

We had a much longer scene there originally, with more interaction between Sarah Connor and her son, John, before Arnold—the T-800—arrives.

Cutting “Terminator: Dark Fate”
Editor Julian Clarke was able to use an early, proprietary version of Adobe Premiere, which included a
prototype version of the new Productions feature set.

These are pretty much the hardest VFX shots you could possibly create for yourself. You are trying to do photorealistic humans in full daylight doing emotional stuff, and they are also people that you know.

We kept working and working on them, and we got 90% there, but 90% is not good enough. It’s the difference between success and failure on those shots. Either the audience is immersed, or they’re out.

You can get away with other visual effects being less perfect, but when it comes to people, if you don’t believe they’re real, it’s just a failure. We had to make a difficult choice and go for a more impressionistic, slo-mo version of the scene where it’s more of a memory. I think it worked well and maybe lulled the audience into a false sense of security.

How did you make the adult actors look young to match the time the flashback was representing?

We found somebody who had the same build as 1990s Arnold and somebody who had the same body as 1990s Linda Hamilton. Then, we essentially did face replacements on them with CG hair and whatnot. Arnold was easier because his character is not emotive.

When do you get involved with the actual edit?

I try and stay one day behind the shooting. The stuff funnels down to me, and I put it together really quickly. I like to send it back to the director on PIX, our secure file sharing and streaming system, with temp music and sound effects, kind of dressed up so they can watch it at the end of the next day. They can go “this is working” or “that’s not working.” It can give them feedback on how we might want to course-correct.

And possibly do some pick-up shots while they’re still in the same location.

Right. If they’re in one location on a scene they’re shooting over several days, they might think, “Oh, maybe we want to pick up an angle because it feels like we’re having a little trouble here.”

The idea with the editing keeping up is that the production is very forward-focused. They’re always onto the next thing, and with editing, you can look backwards and say, “Wait, you didn’t get this!” or “We still need something here” or “This is going to be trouble.”

Sometimes you don’t even know what the solution is, but you know there’s a problem, and it’s good to be the squeaky wheel. You’re going to inherit all these problems eventually when the shooting wraps, so you can get ahead of them while the shooting’s happening and get the stuff you need…get options, then you’re in better shape.

Cutting “Terminator: Dark Fate”
Clarke at work on “Terminator: Dark Fate.”

Was the film shot somewhat sequentially?

We did more of the early stuff toward the beginning of the movie, shooting in Spain. Then, a lot of the very heavy visual effects stuff was saved for the very end. Most of the heavy visual effects were in the third act. That made it naturally a bit sequential, but it certainly wasn’t one scene after the other in order where the actors are getting that pure character continuity. There was still a lot of jumping around in time.

What were the actors actually seeing in the shots when they were fighting, in essence, a special effect?

In a lot of cases, such as when the Rev-9 splits, the actor Gabriel Luna would play the skeleton version of his character. He would have a suit on with tracking markers performing that character, giving the other cast members something to react to and to have an eye line. Things can get very flat when you’re playing to nothing. When it was animated, it might have changed slightly from what he was doing.

With all the special effects, your timeline in Adobe Premiere must have looked insane.

By the end, the timeline was insane because we were stacking up all the VFX versions. The audio timeline was also enormous because I’m a little obsessive with sound, and we edit in 3.1 to get it more movie-sounding when we screen it.

We had tons of temp sound. So, we’re often working with 20 or 30 tracks of audio as well as all the video. Eventually, the system does get a bit bogged down by the sheer amount that we’re throwing at it. We’re maxing our RAM out to give us the best chance of everything working properly.

How does the collaboration work between you, the director and the composer in terms of the score?

The editor does all the stuff in terms of adding music, sound effects, temp graphics, but then all the work gets redone. The music gets redone by the composer, the sound gets redone by the sound designer. What I’m doing is more instructive of our intentions, the ballpark to play in. “This is the sort of emotion we want to create here with the music, and these are the things that are important to us to tell the story.” Then they go on and do their own thing, and I’m involved with giving them feedback.

Are you keeping the pre-viz in the edit that were created to map out the big VFX and CG scenes, then replacing it as those scenes are shot and created?

I’ll very much intercut the pre-viz as placeholders with what we’re shooting. It gives a sense of, “Oh, we should still shoot something that covers this moment or this kind of angle.”

Cutting “Terminator: Dark Fate”
Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s characters take on the Rev-9 in “Terminator: Dark Fate.”

It’s funny, the pre-viz is kind of a double-edged sword. Sometimes, the stuff that is looking really good in pre-viz, once you start making it a 100% CG shot in a photorealistic way, you say, “Oh man, this looks really fake.” It feels not photographed. It looks too perfect, too magical.

Then, we say, “We’ve got to mess this up a bit more” or “Don’t go so wide” or “Don’t let the camera float around so much.” That’s the thing that can provoke the audience to step back and think, “This isn’t really real.” It becomes too larger-than-life, too cartoonish.

So, the key with this type of VFX-packed action film is to keep the audience in the film, in the moment, so to speak.

Editors are always into tone: “What is this movie trying to be?”

If you’re making a kind of Austin Powers movie, then the rules of how real or how cartoonish it has to be are different. When I think back to “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” what’s so impressive about it is that it feels very big, but it also feels very grounded and real. That’s always an aspiration, to try and hold onto that sense of reality. That becomes inherently challenging with CG because you’re faking it and doing things that you couldn’t do practically, so there’s a sort of temptation to keep doing more and more. It can get too larger than life.

Sometimes you have to steer it back to a place that’s not as over the top, simpler or messier, less perfect, and bring it closer to reality again.

That’s a battle you go through in a lot of action movies, striking the balance with CG, the right amount of jaw-dropping visuals while keeping it grounded and reality-based.

Part of what makes “Terminator: Dark Fate” such a success is its infusion of humor and “human” moments. The scene with Arnold’s character and his Terminator sunglasses, for instance. It’s so funny but real.

When you screen that for an audience, there’s always a segment that is disappointed that he doesn’t put on his sunglasses, but I think that would have gone too far. It’s the much smarter choice to not have him wear them because he’s not that killing machine anymore. It’s an acknowledgement of his humanity. 

Cutting “Terminator: Dark Fate”
Clarke says “the timeline was
insane because we were stacking up all the VFX versions. The audio timeline was also enormous…”

How does it get explained that he ages?

We didn’t delve into that one, but more or less I think it’s alluded to in “Terminator 2” and “Terminator Genisys” as well as in the pre-existing mythology for those who want to dig deep into it.

Basically, it’s living tissue, it’s not simulated tissue, so it can age. We debated as to whether we needed to put that in, but there is so much already going on in the scene when Sarah first encounters him, all this complex emotional stuff between them, and what Arnold’s character has been up to and what they’re going to do next.

What the scene certainly didn’t need was more exposition.

I think we’re just getting away with what we have there. You have to make these choices, especially in science fiction movies, where there’s often a lot of stuff that could be explained.

Intuitively you go with it. You have to figure out which ones you need for audience engagement and which ones are more pedantic. The testing process is very helpful with determining that. You can find out where the sticking points are, then correct them. We do our best to address those ones that come up.

Nobody gives an award to the most-explained movie. 

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