Van Ling Talks Terminator 2: Judgment Day

The visual effects coordinator and DVD producer talks about his multi-faceted involvement in this classic film

Van Ling got a pretty good start to a career in special effects with his first film The Abyss, which he got to work on after a chance encounter with director James Cameron. That lead to career which spanned such effects-heavy films as Twister, Starship Troopers and Titanic, which he transitioned into a career as a DVD producer, but Ling's second film was the blockbuster sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which will be released in a "Skynet Edition" Blu-ray and a six-disc limited edition Blu-ray (DVD editions that he himself also produced) on May 19. I had the chance to speak with Ling over the phone, and here's what he had to say.

Your first feature credit was with James Cameron on The Abyss, so were you talking about this film while you were working on that, or how did you come aboard for this?

Van Ling: Well, I met Jim through a very bizarre set of circumstances. I was a big fan of Aliens and I ended up building a Halloween costume in 1986 that was a PowerLoader and he basically found out about it and came down to my parents house where I was living to see it. We hit it off and he asked me if I wanted to work with him, so that's kind of how that started. The story of that, actually, is an easter egg on the Alien: Quadrilogy DVD set, so you can try to find that. So I had been involved with T2 since, literally, the day I met him, because he had an idea for it and he actually told me the basic concept of T2 the day I met him in 1986. Then, after he did The Abyss and it was time to work on T2, I was there for the whole process.

You're credited as the visual effects coordinator and the creative supervisor, so can you just talk a little bit about what your job entailed, especially on this film?

Van Ling: Well, on this particular film, I started off as his research assistant, because he realized I knew a lot about visual effects and was also an effects liaison for him. Really, what it comes down to, was I tried to be his extra RAM, which basically means helping him keep track of talking to different departments about effects and keeping track of all the shots and storyboards. On the research side, I was doing a lot of pre-research for him and working with him on figuring out a lot of things and working with him on production. So it was a little bit of everything. I also was his computer consultant, because it was about the time that he wanted to get a computer, instead of typing on a typewriter and, the day I met him, was also the day I got my first Macintosh, so I, of course, said, 'Use the Mac.' That's kind of how I ended up being involved on the computer side as well as the production side and the research side and the special effects stuff.

So how much of your job involved being on the set and how much was in post?

Van Ling: Oh, I went to South Carolina for months to shoot The Abyss. I was on the set, I had my own office to do computer stuff. I was working with all the visual effects houses. I would go out to the visual effects houses and work on models, all sorts of things. It was quite an education and I tried to bring a lot of that into the LaserDisc and now the DVD's and the Blu-ray's that we had from the films.

If I remember right, the film had the biggest budget in history at the time and I read that just the morphing effects cost $5 million and 8 months to create, so was the scope of this thing almost a little too much?

Van Ling: Not really. I mean, for me, I had gone to USC film school and learned about a lot of these techniques and seeing how these were developing and I was a genre fan and everything. It was an amazing opportunity to be on the ground floor of the development on a lot of these things and to work with ILM. It's really funny to look back and say, 'Wow. ' We would go through these periods where it's only a year before we're supposed to have this movie out in the theaters and we calculated that some of the rendering time for some of the shots, for the only 10 or 15 shots that we're going to do for The Abyss, we can't render, with the computers running night and day, all the shots we need in time so you have to cut shots from the movie, because we literally wouldn't have them ready in time. Then, going into T2, there's literally less than 50 digital effects shots in the whole movie. Everything else is Stan Winston and opticals and miniatures. Even going from 1989 to 1991, the growth of the digital effects technology, was astounding. I mean, nowadays, of course, I do visual effects for feature films when I'm not working on Blu-ray's and DVD's. I do visual effects for feature films... at home... on my Macintosh (Laughs). So it was an amazing kind of place to be in the industry, to see how all that developed and also participating in the development of that.

I remember when I watched it in the theater when I was a lot younger, the effects were just mind-blowing. There just wasn't that much out there like this at the time, but was there anything you guys kind of drew off of for the effects, or what kind of drove the whole process?

Van Ling: Well, what drove the effects, of course, is the story and Jim had an idea of a kind of shape-shifting thing he wanted to do, but he didn't want it to be fantasy. He didn't want it to be Willow or anything that was kind of magical. He wanted to kind of figure out if there was a way to give it sort of a technological edge. All the development that we had done, in terms of The Abyss, had then informed some of the things that he could do with T2 and, of course, there are obviously a lot of different ideas for how do you do a villain for this movie? Should it just be another version of Arnold? And we went through a number of storylines where it was just another version of Arnold and that sounded like it wasn't going to be as fun as coming up with something different, especially something that isn't just Arnold vs. Arnold. Jim had the idea of doing kind of a shape-shifting, more of a chameleonic infiltration unit, and I think that was actually one of his original ideas for The Terminator, to have it be more infiltrative and conscript, not a big guy. Of course, when Arnold came on board, that was one of the things that made the film greenlightable, because Arnold then was known from Conan The Barbarian, so that helped get the movie made. But, obviously, it changed the conception of who The Terminator was. It wasn't going to be a Lance Hendriksen-style guy, a creepy creepy guy who turns out to have a robot underneath him. He became this larger-than-life Panzer tank, as Jim would say, instead. As a foil for that, in Terminator 2, he wanted something like a Porsche, sleek, and we got the T-1000, so that was the conception.

I read that you actually have a cameo as one of the lab assistants in the Dyson lab.

Van Ling: Yeah. I'm the Asian guy sitting at the table talking as the scene begins where the camera wipes off a TV monitor and they're talking about testing out the prototype. That was hilarious because that's kind of some of the stuff I would do for the show anyway (Laughs), which was just sit in front of the computers and help set decorate that whole place and help set up graphics on the computers and things like that. That was kind of fun.

This new Blu-ray set has over eight hours of new features like the storyboard-to-script mode, quizzes, games. Do you have a particularly favorite feature on this DVD, or was there a favorite one that you created?

Van Ling: We took the 16 years worth of special features that I had worked on, since the movie came out, and tried to say, 'OK. We have all this great material. How do we utilize the specific characteristics of Blu-ray to really do something special with it?' So the Interactive Modes on the Skynet Edition is kind of the thing where we took all these different production snippets and storyboards and screenplays and information slideshows and kind of hung them on the movie, so that it was more than just a picture-in-picture track. It was graphics and audio and all sorts of things that branched out from the movie and we really wanted to try to do something interesting with this material. Obviously, one of the biggest challenges of that is that we had mined all this production material that we had shot, which was thousands of hours of material of the making of the movie itself, back in 1993, when we did the LaserDisc special edition, and then again used it as the basis for the DVD, the Ultimate Edition we did in 2000 and then in the Extreme Edition in 2003. The challenge was, what more can we do, without basically taking Jim away from Avatar and taking Arnold away from trying to deal with the California budget crisis (Laughs). So, what we really tried to do was take a lot of this material and try to assemble it and have it accessible in new ways. We have some new things in there, there are some new games and a couple of other things, to really bring it to, hopefully, a compelling package, and also in time for the release of Terminator Salvation.

Yeah, of course. I was going to ask you about this new film franchise and also the TV series, so now that the franchise is really expanded since this film, what are your thoughts on these new endeavors?

Van Ling: Well, the real challenge for us on a show like this is that this franchise, unlike a lot of franchises in town, is not owned by the same people. You know, you've got three different studios that have done four films and the TV series, so it becomes a challenge in that you really can't overlap. The folks who are doing Terminator Salvation or who do any new movies, can't have the T-1000 in it. It's one of those things where we can all respect each other's stuff, but we also can't touch it, we can't use it, we can't capitalize on it or any of those things. It makes it more of a challenge but, the way I look at it, is, you know what, T2 is one of the originals and what we can do is to try to give the best presentation of our film and hope everybody else does the same with theirs and pays due respect.

So I haven't seen many special effects credits for you lately, so besides DVD producing, you talked about other digital effects things, so is there anything else you're working on right now or looking to get into?

Van Ling: Well, a lot of stuff I can't talk about. I think that of the stuff I've worked on recently, I've worked on a number of visual effects shows. I did some visual effects for Public Enemies, the Johnny Depp/Michael Mann film. I worked on a number of other shows, just doing shots here and there, for shows like The X-Files: I Want to Believe, Milk, Starship Troopers 3: Marauder, the mini-series John Adams, different shows like that. Visual effects was my first love, but I, obviously, really got into doing home video stuff as well so I kind of split my time between the two different areas. Aside from all the DVD's of Terminator 2, I've worked on The Terminator and Star Wars films and Independence Day, which I recently just did on Blu-ray. The Blu-ray format has a lot of really interesting promise. It's just a question if whether or not the consumer is willing to accept it and adopt it, especially in this economy.

So, finally, there have been a number of Terminator 2 sets over the years, so would you say that this is the definitive T2 set and what would you like to say to those who might have these other sets to go pick this up on Blu-ray?

Van Ling: Well, one of the things I tried to do, especially as someone who worked on the movie, I really want to honor the film and make sure that I give people their money's worth. That's the unspoken contract we had when we were making the movie, we always wanted to make sure there was bang for the buck and I hope that we achieve that with this disc. A lot of people who love the film are always happy to take a look at it again and hopefully look at what new things we can come up with and new presentations and, most importantly, from my standpoint, I learned on the set and I really wanted to try to impart a lot of that to other people as well. The whole idea of doing film school on the disc is something that's very compelling to me.

Cool. Well, that's about all I have for you, Van. Thanks so much for your time and the best of luck with this new DVD set.

Van Ling: Sure thing. Thank you very much. I hope you enjoy it.

Be sure to check out the new Terminator 2: Judgment Day Skynet Edition Blu-ray and a six-disc limited edition Blu-ray on May 19.