Shane Hurlbut, ASC, gets his bluescreen on for the latest entry in the hyper-action franchise, Terminator Salvation

“Robots of the world, you are ordered to exterminate the human race.”

—Karel Capek, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), 1921

R.U.R. premiered as a stage play in Prague with the premise that robots, created to serve mankind, turned against humanity in a quest to create a more perfect world. Terminator Salvation, the fourth chapter in a series of motion pictures about a life-and-death struggle between the remnants of the human race and Skynet, which leads an army of intelligent machines that are made of liquid steel, strikes ghostly visions of R.U.R.’s nihilistic world vision, and the film’s franchise original, The Terminator (1984), was actually a mirror image of Capek’s play. That screenplay was co-authored by Gale Anne Hurd and James Cameron, who directed the film. The future California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger played the titular role, while Adam Greenberg, ASC was the cinematographer. Cameron, Greenberg and Schwarzenegger encored in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991); Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was directed by Jonathon Mostow (2003), with Don Burgess, ASC behind the lens.

Terminator Salvation takes place in 2018 in a post-apocalyptic world that is dirty, grimy and perpetually smoky. Most of humanity has been destroyed in a nuclear holocaust. The machines are around 7-½ feet tall. They use 600-foot long transporters to harvest human beings for Skynet’s experiments. The resistance among the surviving humans is led by John Connor, played by Christian Bale.

Nothing and everything in his life prepared Shane Hurlbut, ASC, for this new chapter in his career. Terminator Salvation was the DP’s second collaboration with the film’s director, McG, in the wake of We Are Marshall, a feel-good, reality-based, 2006 drama about a college football team. Born and raised on a farm in upstate New York, Hurlbut was a movie buff and still photography hobbyist during his youth who went on to major in film and television studies at Emerson College in Boston. After graduation, he loaded grip and lighting gear on trucks for a rental company in Boston for $3.50 an hour. Hurlbut moved to Los Angeles in 1987, working as a grip and gaffer on music videos and commercials, before earning his first narrative cinematography credit in 1997.


Hurlbut’s diverse body of work includes some 20 feature films, including Mr. 3000, The Greatest Game Ever Played, Semi-Pro and Swing Vote, as well as many commercials. Terminator Salvation, his first science-fiction film, featured more than 1,100 visual effects shots that are blended with the live-action cinematography.

“During our first conversation, McG made it clear that he didn’t want it to look or feel like a dream or a fantasy,” Hurlbut recalls. “He wanted to create a believable story about empathetic human beings who are in a battle for survival.”

Beginning in November 2007, the cinematographer was involved every step of the way – McG’s team also included visual effects supervisor Charles Gibson and production designer Martin Laing. Every scene was discussed before decisions were made about storyboards and the pre-visualizations that were subsequently created.

“We were constantly referencing the three earlier Terminator films, because we wanted to be true to the ethos,” Hurlbut says. “The cinematography done by Adam Greenberg and Don Burgess was artfully transparent to the audience. They were my inspiration. I was well versed with bluescreen effects from my commercial work, but it was a new adventure shooting a film with such a variety of visual effects.”

An early decision was made to produce Terminator Salvation in Super 35 format. Hurlbut observes that was an obvious choice, because the scope of the story called for a widescreen 2.4:1 aspect ratio, coupled with digital intermediate (DI) postproduction to seamlessly integrate visual effects shots while adding painterly touches to the look.

Hurlbut shot a series of tests in collaboration with dailies timer Mike Zacharia at Technicolor Los Angeles, where the front-end lab work was done. “We used the Oz Process, which retains three to four times more of the silver in the negative,” Hurlbut explains. “That takes the black level down, desaturates colors, and creates creamy highlights without noticeable grain. Red tones that are the Terminator color became very dull, so through our process we had to go fluorescent red to keep in saturated. This process also emphasizes the silver tones of the machines, along with taking the cobalt blue skies of New Mexico and turning them into a silvery blue.”

After everyone agreed on the look, Hurlbut showed the tests to Stefan Sonnenfeld at Company 3 in Los Angeles, who was going to time the DI. He had previously collaborated with Sonnenfeld on various commercials. “We did a little experimenting, and decided on a more intense look that emphasizes contrast,” the DP adds.

Production began in May 2008. There were six stages at the New Mexico-based studio, with blue background screens ranging from 180 to 360 degrees. An exterior wall of one building was painted with a 60-foot-high and around 100-foot-wide bluescreen. Hurlbut chose a wall that was facing north to keep the sun off of it. There was also a 40-by-60-foot bluescreen painted on the ground for aerial shots.

“This was a total team effort from beginning to end,” Hurlbut says. “I had a terrific camera crew. Some of them had worked with me on Swing Vote, which was also produced in New Mexico. Todd Higgins is a talented gaffer, and we were working with great visual effects people from both Asylum and ILM.”

Panavision Hollywood provided the camera package, including two Platinums, one XL, four ARRI 435s, four ARRI 3s in crash housings, and two ARRI 235s, along with a complete range of Primo prime and zoom lenses. Hurlbut notes that he was able to interchangeably use prime and zoom lenses for bluescreen shots because the images they render match.

The palette that he chose included KODAK VISION2 5217 200T negative film for bluescreen shots, KODAK VISION2 5201 50D film for live-action daylight exteriors and KODAK VISION3 5219 500T for night scenes.

“Stefan and I came to an understanding that I would shoot close-ups of Christian Bale and Anton Yelchin, the actors portraying John Connor and Kyle Reese, with the 50-speed film, because it is so grainless you can feel the texture of the dirt on their skin. You also see the grime, and the grease dripping down the arms of the machines.”

In one of the aerial bluescreen shots, Connor crawls out of a hole and runs to a helicopter. He gets in and it lifts off just as the ground around it implodes. The scene transitions to a shot filmed in front of the exterior bluescreen that was painted on the building wall with the copter on a gimbal. The helicopter is spinning sideways and then it flies around in circles. There is another transition that takes the audience into the cabin where Connor is struggling to gain control.

“It all happens in one shot that ends with a crash landing,” Hurlbut says. “As the helicopter started taking off, we moved the camera up on a Technocrane. It looks like the helicopter is flying about 80 feet above ground when the explosion happens.

“The dramatic lighting effect produces a glare on Connor’s face as the helicopter gets blown around in circles. We pulled the Technocrane back to give the tail of the helicopter room to spin around. Then, the camera moved through the cargo door inside the helicopter. We switched to a handheld shot for a more tactile feeling as the camera came around for a close-up on Connor’s face as the helicopter spiraled out of control, slammed into the ground and rolled over. The camera was on the bottom of the scene looking up at Connor as he unclipped his safety harness and crawled out of the cargo bay.”

Hurlbut made a 180-degree camera move as the world turned right-side up from Connor’s perspective, and moved with him out of the helicopter door. At that point, the audience can see a huge nuclear cloud on the distant horizon.

“We wrapped around Connor as the Terminator grabbed and threw him against the helicopter. That was all done in one shot,” he says. “The lighting effect was created with a large bank of Dinos with double CTOs that we had on a Condor crane. It was a flashing effect that simulated the glare of the bomb blast. McG’s incredible vision all comes together in this single, breathtaking shot.”

Hurlbut generally covered bluescreen shots with two cameras from different angles to provide options for the visual effects team, the editor and McG. His assistant, Po Chan, took notes describing lighting set ups for visual effects shots, the T-stops that were used, the color temperature, where the light was coming from, what the keylight was, and what was overhead. The notes were then augmented by Adobe Illustrator drawings of the sets.

“The notes were tremendously useful when we did three days of reshoots on the Warner Bros. lot in Hollywood to accommodate a few rewrites in the script, including the close-up inserts,” Hurlbut notes.

There are scenes where Hurlbut augmented natural daylight to create a sense of heightened reality. In one of those sequences, the new Terminator, Marcus Wright  (played by Sam Worthington), walks into a decimated city of Los Angeles.

“The challenge was how to orient an international audience to the site of Los Angeles,” Hurlbut says. “We decided to insert the Hollywood sign, which sits on a hilltop, into the background. We filmed Marcus on the Warner Bros. lot simulating that he was coming over the hill. We waited until the sun was behind a building on the lot. Then, we put three 18Ks on a Condor with a 12-by-20-foot bluescreen on rollers in the background.

“We had three grips moving the bluescreen behind as Marcus walked toward us. The camera was panning on a Technocrane. I used the lights to create a flare that looked and felt like sunlight cutting through the smoke. The camera came around him and looked over his shoulder to reveal downtown from the perspective of the Hollywood sign.” The background was created by the Asylum visual effects team.

Smoke is a consistent theme throughout the story. It is drifting through the frame at all times, day and night, in all exteriors to visually punctuate the post-apocalyptic feeling.

“There are a lot of night exterior scenes, including an escape through a mine field, where we lit about 80 acres of cottonwood trees adjacent to the Rio Grande,” the DP reflects. “We lit it so we could choose to shoot from an aspect of a 360-degree angle.

“There were 120-foot Condors placed in a 360-degree circle deep in the cottonwoods to backlight the smoke and the set. We turned them off and on depending upon the camera angle. For our moonlight ambience, we used two 50-foot articulating Pettibones with 12-by-20 UltraBounces mounted on them that extended to a height of 50 feet. Then, we bounced four to 12 Lite Maxi-Brutes into each of them. We called them our moonlight fly swatters.”

There is a breathtaking night escape scene where Marcus and Blair (played by Moon Bloodgood) are running through the forest trying to avoid the resistance fighters and Connor, who are hunting them. Hurlbut had shot a night test with a Xenon light on a Condor shining a beam through the cottonwoods. That became his visual reference for what night might look like with gray moonlight. He had also shot tests of day exterior scenes that take place in shadows, in twilight, at dawn and in blazing sunlight during the late afternoon. The colorist dialed in all those looks. For interior scenes that were set in a missile silo, Hurlbut envisioned a greenish tone motivated by fluorescent lights.

Although Company 3 provided HD dailies Hurlbut says that he “discovered” that his inspiration did not come from the dailies, but rather from a collection of visual references, stills that he and Stefan Sonnenfeld pulled. “As we reviewed the stills, we would make decisions regarding the exact color tone,” Hurlbut recounts.

There is a sequence where a napalm bomb dropped from a helicopter creates a 300-yard blaze over the Rio Grande. Because of environmental issues, it was not possible to create a fire on the actual river. With McG’s approval, Hurlbut and Laing set about building an 80-foot-wide and 200-foot-long artificial river with rocks, eddies and swirls in the middle of the desert, which allowed for the creation of practical effects with controlled firelight.

Hurlbut adds, “Martin and his art directors, Troy Sizemore and Greg Hooper, did an amazing job creating this illusion. There were 90 believable cottonwood trees made from cement on the side of the artificial river with the fire coming through pipes that we could turn on and off to control the intensity.”

A helicopter flying over the water looking for hydro-robots that look like jet-propelled metal snakes provides an exciting visual effects sequence. One of the robots propels out of the water and grabs a gunner from a helicopter. Other robots come through the floorboards and the windows of the helicopter, which starts spiraling out of control and crash lands. Connor leaps into the water while shooting at the hydro-robots with a rifle until he’s out of bullets. Suddenly, Marcus, the Terminator, comes flying out of the water and wrestles with the robot and snaps its neck. They shot parts of that scene 18 feet underwater.

“The crashing of the helicopter was a wonderful practical effect thanks to the pilot, Bobby Zajonc,” Hurlbut says. “He made it spin over the artificial pond as if it were out of control. It looked incredibly realistic. We were shooting wide-angle shots of the fire at the pond with the chopper silhouetted 500 feet in the air.

“There’s a cut to a bluescreen shot of Connor on a stage that is spinning around. We intercut CG images of hydro-robots smashing through windows and used a big turntable to spin the helicopter around until it crashes into the water. A giant splash was created by Mike Meinardus and his effects team, using a winch drive that came down from about 20 feet above and ripped into the water. We put in blades in post and had them ricochet and shear off the water.”

As far as his first foray into science fiction, and on such a storied franchise no less, Hurlbut smiles and says, “There were surprises every day, including the weather and changes in the schedule. We were ad-libbing scenes that we didn’t know would be in the movie, because we were going to leave the location and didn’t know if we would be able to come back. Some of our ad-libbed shots made it through to the final cut!”

Terminator Salvation Photos by Richard Foreman

By Bob Fisher/ Shane Hurlbut portrait by Douglas Kirkland