Q+A: "The Terminator" FX Artist Mark Sawicki

A co-worker with a good script idea sounds like a usual day in Hollywood. In this story, that little idea became an influential sci-fi franchise!

Mark Sawicki was working on film director Roger Corman’s crew when someone from work shared his yet to be produced screenplay. That movie turned out to be James Cameron’s The Terminator, and he took Mr. Sawicki along for the ride when the film was made, hiring him for the film’s groundbreaking for the era visual effects. As of today, he has 90 special effects credits and counting on IMDb, working for directors like Martin Scorsese, Chris Nolan, and Baz Luhrmann. In April 2020, his book, Filming the Fantastic with Virtual Technology, will be available for sale so you at home can launch your own amazing virtual special effects in your indie filmmaking endeavors.

Mark Sawicki on the set of  Galaxy of Terror

Mark Sawicki on the set of Galaxy of Terror

People don’t seem to grasp, hands on effects continue next to standard CGI and sometimes advance together. You worked with Christopher Nolan on The Dark Knight Rises and too many film titles to count. Your special effects work isn’t some relic of the 1980’s on display at a dusty antique mall. Can you tell readers about how mirrors and stop motion animation are being used continuously in film?

For the most part, CGI has indeed replaced many of the older techniques due to safety, control of assets and the ability to be constantly iterative.  However, it comes at an aesthetic cost where the micromanagement opportunities offered by CGI also take away the magical "lightning in a bottle" of improvisational imagery such as real explosions, puppetry and creature makeup that is so effective when utilized by masters such as Nolan and Del Toro.

Mirrors as a technique have gone by the wayside but the endearing charm of stop motion persists in animation films such as Frankenweenie and Nightmare before Christmas.  I think that's why zombie pictures like The Walking Dead are so popular.  You have the sense that you are watching the performance as it was filmed rather than being polished to perfection.  When you watch Tom Cruise doing a stunt you are really watching Tom Cruise doing a stunt and not the customary digital double.

Roger Corman was known for starting people’s careers when they needed a push in the film and special effects industries. Because visual effects and camera work are so artistic, were you scared when you went to work for him about what if you had creative differences? What was working with him like, from his personality to daily employee expectations to things you learned from doing the job?

In a studio structure, an employee in my position rarely interacted with principles like Corman.  I only met him once.  He was the studio head who would meet from time to time with the directors of his picture but I as a graphics cameraman only closely interacted with Farino who did the designs and artwork for the panel readouts and graphic effects.  I never had creative differences with Ernest and would often collaborate with him on technical matters that had little to do with taste but more about time and cost-effectiveness.  The only issue that I can recall is he wanted me to slow down a bit because I was a pretty fast cameraman and it took a lot longer to create the art than for me to shoot it so he wanted to maintain a steady workflow with little idleness.

On the set of Galaxy of Terror, your co-worker, the production designer, was a gentleman named James Cameron. When did he first show you the script for the very first Terminator? Did everyone he showed it to at work like the story? Do you have any stories to share about this moment in time?

 I had left Corman at the time the Terminator script was passed about the studio.  My wife Juniko worked as a motion control operator at Corman's and she was the one who read it and passed it along.  Things were very informal back then.  Juniko related that the script had no fat.  All action very little description or ponderous exposition. She said it read like a script reader wants a script to read.  Right to the point.

You said you thought the movie would be a hit from the time you read it. Why?

I agree with Juniko.  The thing that impressed me was having the required exposition done during the car chase.  Very refreshing and fun.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was not the original actor in mind for playing the Terminator. Why are you happy that ultimately, the role went to him? I honestly love him millions of tears more because of the Austrian accent and believe it helped set him apart from everyone else in his career. He is one of my favorite actors.

I can't imagine anyone else.

When everyone sat down as a team discussing the special effects in the movie, which effects made it into the movie some people thought were, for the technology’s time period, impossible? What didn’t end up in the film?

My connection with the picture was unusual.  Ernest was working out of the Fantasy 2 effects studio that had an optical department.  At one point during post-production they suddenly lost their optical cameraman and needed someone at the last minute to hit the ground running.  Ernest put in an emergency call to me and I jumped in right away.  Farino was at the start of designing the Termovision effect and needed me to come up with a number of techniques that effected the live-action for him to evaluate.  I created a series of processes that involved high contrast extracts with color filtration, solarization and posterization.  Ernest chose one of the techniques and then he was off to the races adding text and other graphics to the images.

I recall from your FX class I took that some technology from Terminator could be done several hundred times faster. But fans will say they appreciate the first Terminator films because of the extra efforts everyone on the crew made on the films out of possibly the best combination of perfectionism, love, the will to prove people wrong, fun on the job, and crazy ideas. If the first two movies in the Terminator franchise came out today, do you think they would be as nostalgic? Would they look different? Would the Terminator character exist at all in this universe or did he have to be born in a future world that could only have been imagined before this time period?

Due to the fact that anything and everything can be accomplished in VFX today the "special" has been taken out of special effects.  Nothing today transcends due to effects which I think is fortunate because when effects were dominant they became faddish tricks such as when the streak effect or morphing became popularised.  The phrase "stop me before I morph again" became a widespread joke among effects people at the time.  The story should always take precedence over the presentation.  Yes, back in those days you could see the fingerprints of the artist and the manipulations of the puppeteer which was very romantic and of its time.  I feel today the theme of the Terminator resonates more than ever due to Google data gathering and the rise of AI.  Automation is a true blessing and decided threat to us today.  So if the Terminator was made today it may become nostalgic but for different reasons.  Hopefully, those reasons won't the ability to look back at the good old days before we were ruled by our AI masters.

What are you excited about seeing in the film when Terminator: Dark Fate comes out?

I haven't been paying attention to any of the marketing of the film but will most certainly go and enjoy it when it comes out.  I like to see films fresh without a lot of preview information.

You have done some acting mixed into your many effects film credits. Should more FX artists study acting at minimum to better understand special effects?

I think it may be other way around.  As we go forward we will have more actors who will need to develop even more imaginative skills when they are required to perform within the green stage.  There are processes that are moving more and more to helping the interaction between virtual and live performers but it remains helpful for actors to develop confidence and understanding of new filmmaking processes that involve VFX.

Look at this genuine negative Amazon review left on Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.

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This view is reflected across other classic films on Amazon with negative reviews. They are “boring” or “outdated.” Young people these days frequently don’t want to watch anything that doesn’t have that very current CGI look and fast paced dialogue. I love some CGI out there. Don’t get me wrong. But I don’t think this look will last forever. It too will be outdated in time when the new wave of advanced CGI takes over. How do you feel reading things like this E.T. review?

It doesn't bother me as tastes do change.  My generation of baby boomer audiences shaped the tastes of that period.  I was amazed when I rewatched an Outer Limits favorite of mine called "The Zanti Misfits" that absolutely terrified me when I was a kid.  I still found it charming but an incredibly slow-moving drama.  I enjoy films throughout the ages and can enjoy their pace and style of their time such as the Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series, the Universal Horror pictures and even silent films.  Some films hold up for some people no matter when they were made such as The Wizard of Oz.  In a brief time, CG will become indistinguishable from reality and the films will be judged more for their production design, performance and most of all story.  Will they stand the test of time?  Does it matter or need they do no more than entertain us for one brief shining moment?

Your book coming out tells people how to recreate motion capture like Avatar for independent films. How affordable is it for people to work with motion capture now that time has advanced the technology? Do you have a preference for any software? I recall reading some time ago, people said to wait until the next software came out because there were issues with it skipping when you recorded more than one individual.

Today, we're out of the secret lab era of proprietary software to be able to obtain off the shelf offerings.  All Beta software will have issues that come with the territory.  As far as motion capture goes I've been most impressed with the Qualysis product.  It is particularly robust because its roots are in medicine rather than entertainment.  Products made for entertainment often suffer from creating something for the least cost that is just good enough to get the current job done.  Errors in medicine have far more ramifications than an effect shot for a movie.

I am a big fan of Peter Jackson’s career path and how he has changed the film industry with inventing or perfecting film technology. He himself employs special effects staffers working on motion capture all the time. My favorite being, how he uses it in full on cartoon films. Why do you think more people aren’t making animation with motion capture?

I think it really depends on the project.  I've heard that traditional animators at Disney push back on motion capture because it doesn't allow for the additional squash and stretch of the characters that can be drawn.  As an example, I couldn't imagine doing Ren and Stimpy as a motion capture process.  While motion capture tech replicates movement exactly it is rigidly locked to the shape and form of the tracking markers.  It is in a way too natural for a cartoon.  One can override this with a lot of post effort but it winds up not being economical.  I very much enjoy Family Guy and love the simple look of the animation.  Limited animation can be very effective especially with humorous content.

Do you want to share any recent and upcoming projects you worked on?

Well, I'm very proud of the new book I authored with Juniko.  "Filming the Fantastic with Virtual Technology" will be published worldwide by Taylor and Francis and may be the first of its kind.  The book examines techniques of making movies on a digital backlot using Game Engine sets, motion capture and real-time green screen compositing with camera tracking.  I spent a little over a year hanging out with Irfan Merchant's Mobile Motion MoCap studio documenting any number of technologies that have just come out.  The studio is a vendor and a reseller so could allow me clear access to the tools without the customary non-disclosure agreements that I would have needed to sign if I worked on a studio film. The book covers the high end latest and greatest to low budget methods of achieving similar results for schools and independents.  After having written several Filming the Fantastic books it has become a bit of a franchise and I'm happy to say that we are now represented by Marasco management to turn the IP into television content.  We also are launching our how-to classes on Juniko's site http://pactekviz.thinkific.com/

In my interviews, it is a must readers find out about what people do for fun. I treat everyone like he or she is a Jones brother because millions of screaming fans need to know their hobbies. What do do you do for fun? What are your favorite foods? Favorite movie?

As I write this I am up 5000' at our mountain home north of Los Angeles.  I enjoy waking before dawn and watching the light dance across the valley as the clouds slowly disperse as the Sun rises.  I enjoy sculpting cartoon creations as a freelance artist.  I like teaching and creating tutorials.  One of my recent favorite foods is seared Ahi (when I can afford it) other than that chicken and vegetables are a mainstay.  My favorite drinks are a nice glass of Mumm's Champagne or a Gimlet made with Belvedere Vodka.  Favorite movie for me at the top of the demented list is" Revenge of the Living Dead" starring my friend and hero the late James Karen.

“I’ll Be Back”

To celebrate the release of Terminator: Dark Fate on November 1, I am interviewing people from the amazing franchise for my Apple News section and website. Stay tuned for more!