T2 is 25: Robert Skotak’s liquid metal effects

T2Mercury-3James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day is 25 years old. Soon on Cartoon Brew, I’ll have a full-length piece tracing the effects work by 4WARD Productions for the nuclear nightmare sequence, thanks to an in-depth conversation I had with 4WARD’s Robert Skotak. But first, a special preview and a look behind the scenes at some other work 4WARD produced for T2 – the T-1000 re-assembly sequence in the steel mill, where the pools of liquid metal start to re-form. 

For the melting T2 we got this metal; it was a very soft metal that you could melt with a hotplate. So we had these shards of the T-1000 that we made in miniature, actually in quarter scale, and made the floor of the factory out of a metal sheet. And we put a heating element underneath it. We cast these shards out of that, melted it, and shot that at maybe eight frames a second or six frames a second, to speed up the process. So those pieces melt down and then we switch to mercury. So we did the shot where all the mercury reassembles into one big pool of material.

There were these individual blobs of mercury and they would attract each other and form these pools of mercury, and then the mercury reassembled into a pool. And then it switched over to ILM’s effect of reassembling into the T-1000 re-assembling himself. But the mercury part of it is what I dealt with specifically myself because it’s very toxic, and as the owner of the company I felt I didn’t want to expose other people to it. There’s sort of a vapor, I’m not sure I’m using the correct term, where mercury gets vaporized into the air and you can breathe it in and it’s very toxic. So I was the one that was the mercury handler. And we had this sort of metal floor built, this little miniature setup, and I dealt with the mercury.

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We had it in a container and I would pull it out, put it onto this metal sheet which had a turnbuckle under it, and we would tighten the turnbuckle and it would deform the metal downward, make it concave. We’re talking about fractions of an inch and the mercury would flow to the center of this. So we’d have a perfectly level floor and then turn this turnbuckle underneath the set. I would tighten that so the set would dip down ever so slightly and the mercury would flow down into the center. So that’s how we did that.

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I was heavily protected with multiple layers of clothing, and I had breather masks, et cetera, et cetera. We surrounded the set with dry ice to keep the temperature down so the mercury wouldn’t vaporize and become a toxin, and I still wound up in the hospital with a level of mercury poisoning. But at least it was the owner of the company and not anybody else. This is my responsibility, had everybody stand away from it.

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Dealing with mercury was insane; I mean that stuff is impossible to deal with because it wouldn’t stay put. Even if you just set it down on a perfectly level surface it wanted to wander around by itself, these little beads. So I wound up using, I found out you can actually glue mercury down. So I had spray adhesive, and I would just spray a tiny bit of overspray onto this metal surface to get this mercury to stay in place. They were like little animals running around, or ants. All these little beads of mercury, this was crazy. We thought this was going to be easy to deal with mercury but it wasn’t. It was impossible.

More from Robert Skotak soon on Cartoon Brew where he discusses the nuclear nightmare sequence in Terminator 2, featuring a whole host of behind the scenes images like this one:

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