For all the talk about the pioneering CGI in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," there's just as much practical wizardry worth celebrating. James Cameron's 1991 action touchstone is full of actual stunts and practical visual effects which alongside its genuinely innovative computer-aided effects have allowed the film to endure for decades. These days you'll hear directors talk about how CGI should be used to compliment whatever you can shoot in-camera, but that seems a rarely followed philosophy in 2022. Back in 1991, however, directors had no choice but to follow it, and Cameron did an exceptional job doing just that with "T2."
From the chase scene that involved jumping an actual truck into an LA drainage canal, to filming in miniature an entire nuclear blast that wipes out the city, "T2" comprised multiple practical effects and stunts that felt more real than ever CGI could. As Cameron, who seems far too happy to die for his own work, said in a 2017 Q&A: "If you're just going to crash a tow truck into a drainage canal, I think just crash a tow truck into a drainage canal. Don't you just want to see that happen?"
Indeed we did, James. But as we all know, creating these visually stunning stunt sequences for real comes with its own set of drawbacks — most saliently, the risk to the stunt performers. And as it turns out, the most dangerous stunt in "T2" wasn't the truck jump, or blowing up actual floors of the Cyberdyne building. No, the most dangerous stunt in the film, and apparently in James Cameron's career, came during the movie's final scenes. And filming it was a nail-biter for the veteran director.
'You Either Did It Right Or You Were Dead'
"T2" manages to maintain a sense of non-stop action throughout, with multiple large-scale stunts and set-pieces that bring a real sense of danger to proceedings. But when it came to the finale at the Steel Mill, where Arnold Schwarzenegger's T-800 faces off against Robert Patrick's T-1000 for the last time, things got a little dicey even for Cameron.
In the scenes leading up to the steel mill, Arnie's protagonist climbs from a small gardener's Chevy pickup onto the larger tanker and unloads his automatic rifle directly through the windshield into the driver's seat where the T-1000 is sitting. And as Cameron said in a 2017, interview, that moment was "the most dangerous stunt [he's] ever been involved with."
So dangerous was it, that Cameron would have no hesitation about using CGI were he to shoot the same thing today. The director elaborated on the danger surrounding what, honestly, appears to be one of the less perilous stunts in the film, but which was clearly anything but:
"Peter Kent was the stuntman … Peter did it perfectly and my heart was in my mouth, because there was no forgiveness with that stuff – you either did it right or you were dead. And I would not do that today, but we had no other way to do it then."
The stunt was risky due to the lack of any wires or rigs, which the crew decided to forgo to allow Kent the ability to bail if things went south. For the transition from the pickup to the tanker, Cameron said there was "no forgiveness," suggesting that if Kent made the slightest mistake, it would have been disastrous.
Crash That Tow Truck
According to the New York Times, Carolco Pictures, the studio behind "T2" had allocated a whopping (for the time) $1 million to stunts, which was apparently "the largest stunt budget ever." That figure is said to have been spent on 800 stuntman days — an amount unheard of back in 1991. In retrospect, nobody would say it wasn't worth it, and the movie clearly required that kind of commitment with its non-stop action sequences throughout.
But while the hard work of the stunt team paid off immeasurably in the case of "T2," there's no doubt sending people into potentially fatal situations for the sake of a blockbuster remains dubious at best. Cameron was obviously right to say he doesn't think "anybody should ever get killed or injured for a movie given what we can do today." When is it ok to rely on CGI? Seems like a pretty good rule of thumb is when it could potentially save someone's life.
That said, it really is thrilling to watch the stunts in "T2." With increasing scrutiny of movie studios, their use of CGI, and their treatment of VFX artists, there will hopefully be a return to the kind of tasteful visual effects and stunt work seen in Cameron's masterpiece in the near future. That doesn't mean anyone has to risk their lives to get the shots a director needs. But the next time a movie has to "crash a tow truck into a drainage canal," I hope they just "crash a tow truck into a drainage canal."
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