Q+A: T. rex to T-1000, a CGI Pioneer’s Take on Blockbuster Film Visual Effects Now and Then

JohnBertonTHUMBJohn Andrew Berton, Jr., an award-winning computer graphics animator and an assistant professor in Drexel University’s Westphal College, is one of a small group of visual effects professionals who have worked for virtuoso cinematic innovators James Cameron, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Berton, who worked at Lucas’s legendary visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic, was part of the effects teams for the original “Jurassic Park” (1993) and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991). Both films are widely considered historic benchmarks in progress of visual effects. This summer both movie franchises are releasing new installments: “Jurassic World” (June) and “Terminator Genisys” (July).

Berton, who has more than 30 years of experience in the visual effects industry, including work on “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (1991), “The Mummy” (1999), “Men in Black “(1997),“Men in Black II” (2002), and “I, Robot” (2006), recently reflected in a Philadelphia Inquirer feature on how the original pictures irrevocably changed the way movies are made. He further expounded for the Newsblog on his contributions to these historic films.

What was it like working on an iconic film like “Jurassic Park”— did you know you it was going to turn out to be something so groundbreaking even while you were working on it?

I think we all knew it was going to be something special. When you’re part of something as big as that with a legendary director and the best visual effects team in the business, everyone is paying very close attention to all the details and really taking it to a high level of perfection, because they know there’s a chance that this will be an important part of history.

Something you might not know about “Jurassic Park” is that Spielberg intended it to be entirely done with stop-motion—animated by hand. The effects were all planned to be photographic and the dinosaurs were to be puppets made by ILM veteran Phil Tippett or animatronics created by legendary effects man Stan Winston.

But two weeks before production a couple of CGI artists and animators decided to have a little fun and see if they could make a computer-generated dinosaur good enough to impress Steven Spielberg. This test, when shown to Spielberg, resulted in a complete re-think about how to create the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park.” At that time, computer-generated effects were being used in feature films but not prominently. “Terminator 2” was the only movie that had CGI (computer-generated imagery) front-and-center. The moment when Spielberg decided to go with CGI on such a highly anticipated project was essentially the moment when the Visual Effects field tipped in the direction of digital effects.

So how much of “Jurassic Park” was done with computer-generated effects?

In “Jurassic Park,” CGI was actually only used sparingly­­—in the big ensemble scenes with movement, like when the dinosaurs are running through the field, or in shots where you need full standing creatures, such as wide shots of the T. rex or the sauropods, which could not be done with animatronics. Only about 50 shots, roughly six minutes in the movie, involve computer-generated effects.

Many of the iconic scenes use practical effects as well as CGI. For example, when the T. rex steps in the puddle, we had someone smacking a puddle with a piece of wood to make the splash. Then, in post-production, we’d paint him out and add in the CGI dinosaur foot with the photographic water on top. There were some guys in raptor suits in a few shots in the kitchen as well—all integrated seamlessly with the CGI raptors.

How did the industry change after “Jurassic Park”?

Visual effects teams got a lot bigger. I personally went from creating the effects on films to building and managing teams of programmers and artists. ILM went from working on “Jurassic Park,” which had 50 shots that involved CGI, to “Casper” (1995), just two years later, which had 400 shots with CGI. At that time, I needed to assemble a team of 150 people to do all the graphics work for “Casper.” It’s really taken off since then. These days, there is more visual effects work being done than ever before, so much so that it’s often assumed to be the best and only solution to filmmaking problems. Fewer and fewer directors and producers will take the time to use practical effects and props, even if the end results would be improved by doing so.

Have computer-generated effects surpassed practical effects like the ones used in “Jurassic Park”?

I think there’s a way to effectively use both methods together. Live action lends reality to visual effects, while CGI can add spectacle to the photography.

There is a lot of information that can be conveyed in an instant of live action that might take days, weeks or months to properly duplicate with CGI—reality is infinite, computer graphics will always be limited by the power of the computers, which is not infinite, and by our ability to specify enough information quickly without sacrificing image quality and creative vision.

“T2” is hailed as a visual effects benchmark to this day. Did you know when you were working on it that it would have as lasting an impact as it has?  If so, what made you realize it?

I remember the first storyboards I saw for “T2” in 1990. The whole CGI business was buzzing about it. We were all doing commercials and flying logos and here was clearly the chance to do something amazing with CGI and to finally do a movie that showed what we all knew was possible. It was exciting and everyone wanted a piece of it. ILM took a big risk taking it all on themselves, but they knew the talent would come to them to make it happen and it did.

We all knew that was the moment to show our stuff. For most of us, it was our first feature film and, like anyone, we hoped it would have lasting impact. We thought it might because Cameron was already established as a visionary director and this was something that could only be done with CGI so, by definition, it would be unique, and maybe even historic, if we did it right.

What elements of the visual effect in “T2” do we still see in films today?

Morph is a really big part of visual effects today. You don’t see the transforming faces as much but the transitions that you don’t see until they are suddenly finished are all morphs. It’s a powerful tool in the visual effects toolbox. “T2” established practices for light matching, camera matching, the use of reference material, combination of practical photography and CGI effects, and more than anything, the idea that an effect is only as good as its ability to tell the story. In the end, that’s T2’s real impact. The movie is not about the visual effects, but without them, the story could not be told.

What was the inspiration for the liquid-metal T-1000 and how in the world did you pull it off so well?

As for the liquid metal man, I think this came largely from the scene in “The Abyss,” which ILM did for Cameron using CGI and morph technology. The fluidity of that creature opened up a lot of possibilities that were realized in the T-1000 in “Terminator 2.” The look and feel of the character was largely modeled on mercury. In fact, there are a few shots where the practical effects team under Michael Lantieri did actually pour mercury on a movable floor piece and roll it around to indicate the T-1000 reforming.

We had to match that realism with what we did in CG, which was a big challenge, but produced great results. In the end it was that attention to the detail of the reflections that made the T-1000 look real. We were careful to capture all the environments and use them as reflection data for the lighting of the T-1000 creature, and that detail makes a big difference.

The other aspect of the T-1000 that made it so compelling was performance animation. The work done by ILM’s animators was guided by Robert Patrick’s performance, right down to his unique walk, but made amazing by the nuances added by animators to make us believe in the brain behind the chrome metal finish. There’s personality there, not just a robot, and that’s the real deal, that’s what makes it great.

One of the interesting tidbits about Genisys is that the producers didn’t acquire the rights to use snippets of the original movie, so they had to recreate the opening scene (the Terminator’s arrival) using a body double and some visual effects magic.  If you had to re-do one of the iconic scenes from “T2,” which would it be, and how would you do it differently now?

I’ve done my share of special editions and director’s cuts and I have to say I’m not a great fan of redoing old movies, but having said that, there are always shots you’d like to have another run at because you didn’t have time, or know better now, or understand the movie better, or whatever.

I did the transitions between the CGI T-1000 and the real-life Robert Patrick and as far as that goes, I’d like to go back and be more bold with how those were done. Just getting it to work is the first step and that’s mostly where we landed in “T2.” Having a chance to really make each one of those transitions shine a little more would be my choice. As far as the iconic scenes go, (“Get out!”) they’re iconic, I wouldn’t touch ‘em!

Has the era of CGI ruined classic effects in movies?

I don’t think CGI is ruining movies, I think a lack of creativity in how visual effects are used is a disturbing trend. That puddle trick from “Jurassic Park” took 10 seconds for some guy to do with a piece of wood and a puddle of water. To recreate that with CGI would take a like six weeks and it wouldn’t look as good because there are elements of reality that we just can’t account for.

I think CGI is being used as a crutch at times when, instead of coming up with a good way to make an effect, the director opts to just deal with it later with some graphics magic.

How much has the technology evolved over the two decades since “T2” and “Jurassic Park”?

It’s come a long way as far as being more intuitive to use and having the ability to handle details a lot better. The muscle systems they’re turning out in “Jurassic World” are amazingly realistic. That’s stuff that we would have hidden in the dark for “Jurassic Park,” now they’re showing all of it. That’s a difference.

But even with the new technology, it still takes someone with the talent and creativity to really get the most out of it. When I started doing this in 1981 I thought it was the coolest job in the world. Now students are learning this stuff more because they see it as a lucrative profession rather than as an artistic passion. I like to remind them that what they’re doing is really amazing and to have fun with it, think about what you’re creating and what you can do with these tools.

The best part of the job is going to see a movie with an audience of people who weren’t involved with making it. To see their reactions for the first time to something that I helped create. For me, that’s what movie making is all about.

For media inquiries, contact Britt Faulstick, news officer, Drexel University, at bef29@drexel.edu.