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Interview Exclusive Interview with Sheldon Stopsack, VFX Supervisor on Terminator Genisys (1 Viewer)

Neil Middlemiss

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Home Theater Forum recently had the opportunity to speak with Visual Effects Supervisor - Sheldon Stopsack of Moving Picture Company (MPC), who created visual effects for three key elements in Paramount’s Terminator Genisys, including the pivotal, full-digital recreation of Arnold Schwarzenegger from 1984 and his introductory scene from the original Terminator film.


Sheldon, speaking to us from the UK, discussed the detailed work that went into fully recreating the young Arnold, the opportunity to work on the latest Terminator film, and how visual effects can best be used in film.


Terminator Genisys is available now in 2D and 3D Blu-ray, and from digital retail outlets.

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HTF: You and your team at MPC were tasked with several pivotal elements in Terminator Genysis; the LAX work camp, the endoskeletons, and of course what had to have been the greatest challenge - building a young Arnold Schwarzenegger far beyond the version of him that was created for the end of Terminator Salvation. I want to touch on each of those sequences – and the results are incredible, but first - Arnold Schwarzenegger recreated from his 1984 appearance the first scene with him (in The Terminator), what went into getting the look right? And to be faithful to his look and his performance from back in 1984?

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Sheldon Stopsack: How much time do you have Neil? [laughs].There was an awful lot of stuff that went in there. It's probably really hard to bring it all down in just a few sentences but I think one of the things worth considering and pointing out is [that] we spent an awful lot of time studying Arnold and studying not only the original footage in the original movies, but really studying his performance [in other] movies, studying his anatomy, studying subtleties from whether the tip of his nose slightly moves when he talks or not, or whether one of the eyelids are slightly lower than the other. It was an ongoing process of us comparing and cross referencing any piece of footage we could get our hands on. That was a big part of the recreation of him.


HTF: And I imagine his [appearance in] Pumping Iron was of particular value given he was naked most of the time, or mostly naked?


Sheldon Stopsack: It certainly was, and I think was a bit of a blessing really that this sort of footage existed. Mainly for really studying his anatomy and body physics; how they sort of worked out. It was incredibly helpful and we've kind of sourced a lot from that footage.

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HTF: Let's talk about the LAX work camp battle. Probably the best sequence [showing the future war] since Cameron's original, rear projection [sequence] back in the day. But it had so many moving parts, it had crowds, explosions, it had vehicles, terminators. Talk about all the work and the different elements that went into building that sequence.


Sheldon Stopsack: Yes. The work camp sequence was actually a very nice contrast to the work that we had to do for the young Arnold character because it was really the complete opposite of it. It was like a huge potpourri of getting all these different elements in harmony almost, and recreate a little bit of the sort of epic footage [of the kind] that existed from the original movie. And a huge part of the process of making this movie was being mindful of the designs of the original movies and the appearance back then. And we wanted to do something that dealt with it respectfully and brought it into sort of a modern concept.

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For the work and all the different characters and creatures that went in there, the first thing was creating this environment and creating this apocalyptic look; creating a canvas that we could work with. That development was a task in itself and we obviously went through various stages of design build ups, core designs, and then [layering in the elements]. Each individual character went in there like the HKs and the endoskeletons. Again we wanted to stay true to a large extent the appearance of the original movie, but [take advantage of] the opportunity to put it into a modern version of it. We went through a series of stages of developing each character. We sort of developed the characteristic of the endoskeletons, which is an interesting aspect because the endoskeletons were designed to mimic humans but in their nature they're obviously machines that are 350 kg heavy. So we had to find “what is the right balance for them” to sell the scale and the weight, and still bear in mind that these are actually machines that are supposed to act as human.


And the same goes for like HKs (Hunter Killers). In order to make them fit into this environment and sell them as menacing killing machines effectively, we needed to find the balance and find their weight and find their characteristics. The character development was actually a huge part and to some extent was really sort of an ongoing an animation cycle that we wanted to narrow that down. So we spent a lot of time there to find the right language before all the pieces actually came together.

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HTF: I always imagine that when people get to work on films like Terminator Genysis that it’s just a room full of excited people who are lifelong fans. Were you already a fan of the Terminator series? And working on the design for the endoskeletons - Stan Winston's marvelous design – what was it like to get to work on something that he had created?


Sheldon Stopsack: It was an honor basically. I mean there's a cheesy answer, but I definitely consider myself a bit of a fan boy of the original movies. I was at the right at the age when those movies came out. So it was great to be involved in this one and effectively continue what was started back then. I was certainly a bit of a fan boy myself from the start. It's always a great honor to kind of do this and be allowed to do this really and be involved in a show like that.

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HTF: What was the inspiration for you to go into the field of visual effects? And I know that in your career you've worked a considerable amount on lighting which I know is vital in selling the believe-ability of any sequence just as much as imperfections are, especially when you're recreating a human character - the imperfections almost sell it more than the perfections. But I was curious how you got into this line of work.


Sheldon Stopsack: It was actually a bit of a lucky accident to be honest with you. I wasn't naturally focused straight on to the visual effects. I studied graphic design and always had my hopes up to end up in the field of classical illustration. So I really have more like a graphics and illustration background. But at the time when studied in that field I happened to be lucky enough to do an internship at a company in the where I studied. And that company was basically doing like a full animated feature movie back then. And I did this internship and I really got stuck into it and I've never left since then to be honest so it was very much a lucky accident for me.


HTF: Do you have visual effects or practical effects or any kind of effect sequences that you still draw inspiration from today. I can remember first watching The Thing (1982) and being just blown away by the practical effects of that picture and then watching Aliens in 1986 and being taken aback by the rear screen project and then of course in 1989 watching The Abyss and the Pseudopod sequence and just having my mind blown so I wonder if there's anything that stands out to you as a particular inspiration or a favorite?

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Sheldon Stopsack: I think every movie that you end up watching to some extent becomes an inspiration. In particular in regards to visual effects I guess the movies that you've mentioned yourself, The Abyss, and the others, these are milestones in their skills in one way or another and I think they are for a very good reason. At the time when all those movies came out I wasn't really fully aware of [the visual effects] at that point - I was probably innocent enough to just appreciate them for what they were as movies that tried to tell a really good story. But obviously when I started to get into this field slowly you change your perception of it and start watching movies in a slightly different angle. And that can be a curse and can be a good thing I suppose. But you are a lot more cautious about what is it that people utilize to tell the story, and how well do they execute those things, whether it be practical effects or visual effects. If I had to pick one that struck me as something really ground breaking or inspiring I would say the [recent] Planet of the Apes movies (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Rise of the Planet of the Apes). All of these were very inspirational in the sense of taking things up to the next level. And I think that's kind of part of the fascination and the motivation that we all have in this industry that you want to step up the game basically with whatever you do. It was certainly the case with motivating us so much towards the young Arnold character - to take that on and really step up the game and taking us to a level where probably no one has been before.


HTF: It’s interesting that you mention the recent Planet of the Apes movies because I think, with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes especially, the motion capture and the visual effects for that [were so good] that you do find yourself at a point where you really can't tell where the digital seam is. Not only are you absorbed by the narrative but you are taken completely by what you are seeing on screen and you really can't tell where there's digital visual effects going on and where practical or real things on set exist. And I think that's pushing the boundaries of what's possible with visual effects and I certainly think that’s also the case with the sequence [in Terminator Genisys] with a young Arnold. And I watched the film knowing I would be talking to you, so I studied that sequence to see where I could see the digital seams. And I found it very hard at times to tell that I was looking at something that was recreated. And that's the achievement right there.

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Sheldon Stopsack: I think that's exactly it. That's what motivates and gets you going. Trying to basically dissolve the borders of it in a way. People don't really sort of think about it anymore and they just take it for what they see and what they perceive. And visual effects can cover really the most artificial magical effects where it's obviously visual effects - rightfully having the purpose in that moment. But what gets me personally excited are things where it becomes not quite there anymore, where the visual effects almost take a little bit of step back; they don't matter for the fact that they're visual effects, but they actually become more part of storytelling.


HTF: That's right and visual effects sometimes gets a bad rep. There's complaints that it's too much or there's not enough good visual effects. But I feel that visual effects like any other asset in film is a tool that can be used by the production team, by the director and it's how it's used and when it's used that is the success factor. So you know a film like the original Transformers had a considerable amount of visual effects but that film was based on that, on the ability to recreate inanimate objects and then sell them as these living, metal things and it's appropriate to that picture. But I wanted to ask you being in visual effects, clearly we know there are things that can't exist in the real world, but the use of visual effects runs the gamut and in plenty of cases you'll find visual effects in dramas, in thrillers, in romantic comedies, and it's not designed to stand out. So I wanted to ask how you feel about the positives and perils of visual effects in cinema today. How you respond when you hear, "Well there's just too much visual effects in movies today," knowing that what they see is just the tip of the iceberg for what's being used.


Sheldon Stopsack: That's a tricky one because you know like I say, "People only see the tip of the iceberg." So visual effects - if they have a bad rep then they’d probably have a better reputation for the fact that people see [it more] when they see bad visual effects, or visual effects that are standing out or not really serving the purpose of the story. At that point it probably becomes the target. I personally haven't had too many conversations where you have to stand up before visual effects. Not entirely sure why that is actually [laughs]. It's a very good point. I think if people don't really necessarily see [visual effects], or they don't recognize them or they take them for what they are - an instrument like telling a story and making a movie - at that point you've done a good job, and at that point people don't necessarily talk about them too much. And that's I guess a good thing in a way.


HTF: I'm sure that working on visual effects, especially on big summer tent pole pictures, can take you right up to the last minute, and there are of course enormous pressures that come along with that. So once all the late hours have been done and you've turned over the final contributions to be put into the final product, and then you see the final product fully edited with the score, what's it like seeing the work of you and your team up on screen in the rest of the picture? What's that moment like?

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Sheldon Stopsack: [Laughs] Well, it usually takes me a little bit of time until I actually manage to go and see the movie. I'm normally trying to get a little bit of space between myself and the movies simply because we've been so close for so long, looking at it day in and day out. You have a tendency of being literally a little bit too close to really appreciate the movie in itself. But when I get to see it, and in particular on Terminator Genesis, I was incredibly proud of it.


And proud not just because of the work that I'd done but I'm also proud of the work that the whole team involved did. Because I think really this was a very unique and special opportunity for everyone involved and everyone really recognizing that the team put an incredible amount of effort - and extra effort - that I can only thank them so much for. So watching Terminator Genisyis made me really proud, and really proud for everyone involved.


HTF: You mentioned that you had an incredibly hard working team and we see the names when the credits roll, and it can be hard to associate the massive amount of work and dedication that teams of effects artists and other put into these sequences. How big was your team that working on Terminator Genisys?

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Sheldon Stopsack: Terminator Genisys I believe we had around about 180 artists involved in that project – and that was from MPC globally where basically all the different sites were involved in it. They added up to 180 at least.


HTF: So that's a huge amount of people. And do you have a project that you're currently working on, perhaps already putting in overtime and not getting enough sleep for?


Sheldon Stopsack: [Laughs] Not much overtime just yet but yes I am heading up my next project which is Pirates of the Caribbean -Deadman Tell No Tales. So that's my next gig which I'm heading up.


HTF: I really appreciate you taking the time to speak to Home Theater Forum today. Congratulations on Terminator Genisys. All the best to you.


Sheldon Stopsack: Thank you very much!
 

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