It was on the screen all of 10 seconds, but in memory, it’s eternal: a hunter-killer robot from our war-torn future rides a Harley Fat Boy to the end of a retaining wall, careens off the end, and soars through the air and down for what seems like forever (again, it’s not even 10 seconds, but that’s your rational mind talking, and you’re not really watching this movie with your rational mind, which checked out somewhere between buying a ticket to Terminator 2 and the theater going dark). Eventually, majestically, the bike slams to Earth a hundred yards and four stories down from where it launched. Sparks fly off the undercarriage, but the sheer force of the Terminator’s implacable inhuman will holds the bike together, apparently, and as it thunders off, the viewer has gotten the message: This robot from the future cannot be stopped by man nor physics. It is well and truly on.
The T2 jump landed in motorcycling’s hindbrain almost three decades ago, in the brief era after digital effects became good enough to use on mainstream movies but before DVD extras and specialized subreddits let us behind the scenes of pretty much everything in pop culture. Because that spectacle was born in exactly the era it was, a small but surprisingly deep mythology was able to grow up around that single stunt; an amazing sight like that dropped into the pop-culture consciousness of millions of young bikers generated a pretty decent set of legends. We talked to Gary Davis, the stunt coordinator and second unit director on T2, and camera-bike driver Cotton Mather about the jump, and while we were at it, decided to see how some of our favorite myths lined up with what they had to say.
LEGEND: The jump was done straight up, with no wires. Arnold Schwarzenegger did his own stunts.
FACT: Er… Really? In any case, nope.
Cotton Mather: You know, of course, it wasn’t a jump, right? That it was on cables?
Gary Davis: It wasn’t a jump at all. We flew it in. We put a big crane at each end of this run, and the cranes were, I’m gonna say, about 150 yards apart, and then a cable ran between them pulled tight. Think of it as a curtain rod. Then we hung the Harley with two cables in the rear up to that curtain rod, then two cables in the front. So it just swung in the air. Then there was a third element, a fifth cable, attached to the Harley, and we would pull it along the top cable.
LEGEND: The bike was suspended on a wire.
FACT: “Biggest ones we could find.” —Davis
CM: What they would do is try to make it look as real as possible without breaking the motorcycle or killing the stunt double. It also couldn’t hit too softly, or else it wouldn’t look realistic either.
GD: Now, one of the tricks you have to do is not have the bike on the ground on the upper portion of the jump; otherwise, when the tires come off the ground, some weight transfers to the long cables and the bike moves strangely, and the viewer would see that.
CM: I don’t know how far down it was, maybe 40 feet? But certainly beyond what a Harley could do. I still show it to people on my reel just to see if they catch it or not, and even motorcyclists often are surprised that it’s on wires. You can see the wires on my demo, but even without that, if you know what you’re looking for, it goes through the air flat, it comes down flat, which it would never… [laughs] I mean, everything’s wrong. But hey! Suspension of disbelief.
GD: So, we kept it just a couple of inches off the ground the whole way coming in, so that way there’s no real transfer of weight when it “goes airborne” off the point of the wall. Then one of my operators on the crane would just give it a little slack and then take it up again, just so it would drop down and make contact with the ground as it “landed.”
CM: The Harley was being towed forward by a dually pickup on top of the canal, way down the canal, pulling a cable that was fed back through the farthest crane and back through the spreader to give forward motion, as well as the crane operator lowering the cable.
GD: In the early days, when we flew stuff around, we used piano wire, and we would do our best to dull it, hide it from cameras. If piano wire gets even a little kink in it, it’ll snap. This stunt came along just when [James] Cameron changed the way we were filming, using computers. So now we can use big cable and don’t have to hide it at all. In fact, the more visible, the better! That makes it easier for the computer to “read” the cable; it’s easier to make it disappear. Now everything we’re doing can be much safer. That Harley was hung with big cables, where once we would’ve been trying to fly it with the smallest cables possible. Which would have been really stupid, honestly.
LEGEND: Half the budget of Terminator 2 was for special effects.
FACT: Hard to quantify. Davis says the budget for his second unit was $100,000 a day; the first unit’s budget was $150,000. So that’s a 60/40 split, with Davis’ unit doing the bulk of the stunts. But this rough estimate doesn’t count anything except shooting, so take it as you will—but the special effects certainly weren’t cheap.
CM: The camera rig I operated was a VMAX with like a sidecar platform for the camera. The intention was to be able to take the cameraman with. Generally with motorcycles with cameras, they’re mounted somehow on the motorcycle and lean with the motorcycle. That’s good for that point of view only, and the camera can’t be operated by a cameraman. The VMAX rig lets the cameraman operate as if he’s on a camera car, but with the maneuverability and speed of an MC. And the low viewpoint is crucial; it makes 30 mph look like 60. And sometimes it’s simply a case of not being able to fit a larger vehicle, which can’t speed up and slow down like I could. Also, in this case, James Cameron liked it.
GD: We probably did it 18 or 20 times. We broke stuff off the bike, we added sparks, we took sparks away, we did all kinds of stuff to make it look good.
LEGEND: Cameron himself shot the stunt because the regular cameraman thought it was too dangerous.
FACT: Not only was the stunt itself not especially risky, the Steadicam operator, Jimmy Muro, was perfectly game. Cameron seems to have been across town shooting with the first unit that day.
CM: Did it a good number of times. I’d start farther up the canal, behind the Harley. I was able to see it up on top of the wall, and I raced ahead so that when he started to come down off the wall, I’m under him. The idea is, he winds up behind me. So, at that point, I’m fine-tuning the speed of the motorcycle, and I’m talking to a crane operator and to the guy driving the pickup towing the motorcycle from a distance—I don’t know if he could even see from there, so he’s doing it by radio. Then here’s me coming down the canal behind the Harley, which is above me and coming down. So, I follow it in, and as it comes down, I squirt in front of him so the camera, facing behind, can catch him. I did it all by eye; I looked around a lot, because he started at such a height, I couldn’t see him in the mirrors. So yeah. It was a good deal.
LEGEND: The crew went through a dozen Harleys shooting the scene.
FACT: Not even half that. All the bikes seem to have survived, some admittedly in rough shape. Schwarzenegger’s double, Peter Kent, may have even kept one of them for a while.
GD: We had four Harleys for the film, and two of them we put larger carburetors on and better pipes because, quite honestly, they’re dogs. We made those run pretty well so they’d be responsive for the street riding part of the deal, nothing to do with the jump. For the jump... If you’re aware of much about Harleys, the pegs are mounted to the cases. They come right out of the cases, which anything other than a cruiser is, you know, a really stupid idea. I could see it wasn’t going to take anything more than jumping off a curb to transfer enough weight to break the cases. And we had a number of broken cases.
CM: They actually broke the pegs off. I’ve done a bunch of that kind of stuff with Harleys over the years, and you can’t jump a Harley, really, not a full street machine like a Fat Boy. We hit the ground so hard one time that the footpads broke, and that was just coming from, say, 6 feet, because the way the cable was being fed out to allow the MC to lower to the ground was largely an arbitrary thing, one guy working a lever on a crane paying out cable. It took a long time to make it work to the point where it looked good enough to use on the film.
LEGEND: Schwarzenegger’s stunt double refused to do the jump.
FACT: Peter Kent, the man on the bike, was perfectly willing to do it, as were the other stuntmen on the shoot.
GD: Once we were satisfied that we had it working pretty well, that it was safe, we brought Peter Kent in. He was clearly the best-looking double. He had never been a stuntman to speak of—he was a stuntman that day, he was on a stunt contract. But normally his job is to be a stand-in and occasionally a photo double. We put him on the bike rig—he’s an ornament at this time—and we talk him through the whole thing. We’d change what we told him every time to get it to look good. He was learning same as we were, and that’s why we wound up doing it 20 times. There’s body English involved in motorcycle stuff, and you don’t want to make it look like there’s a garden gnome on top of the thing.
CM: Keep in mind that it wasn’t all that fast, no more than 30 mph. This was all done very safe, very methodical. Though it was dangerous for Peter—if the crane messes up, he’s free-falling. There’s considerable risk from the unknown in anything you’ve never done. And Peter did hit the ground pretty hard on that rig a few times.
LEGEND: The stuntman broke his back/foot/several ribs in the crash.
FACT: It probably wasn’t comfortable for Kent, but he seems to have survived the day’s shooting intact.
GD: None of my stuntmen looked as good as Peter when made up. He had the best bone structure in his face, especially after we put appliances on him to make him look even more like Arnold. In the testing for this whole thing, I had Billy Lucas and Gil Combs, guys who I normally had riding the motorcycle. I lobbied for a long time to use them, but Cameron wanted to shoot as close as possible, and you could do that with Peter.
CM: The Steadicam operator, Jimmy Muro, was pretty cool with all this. That’s partly because Steadicam operators are the cowboys of the camera world, but also because it’s a fast track to bigger and better things, instead of, say, paying your dues as a focus puller and so on. But T2 was all methodical, all safety first. Jimmy went on to do True Lies with me, and we had a scene in that movie where we’re running through a hotel with a horse, and he was in much greater jeopardy there than he was during this. At one point on that shoot the horse spooked, reared up over the bike, and squashed a camera on the bike’s deck, right next to Jimmy. Just destroyed the camera. So, you never can tell.
GD: If I’d really, really had to jump a Harley that distance, I would have started from scratch. It would have had a chrome-moly frame that we’d have had built at Trackmaster. I’d have had a smaller V-twin in it, eliminated as much weight as I could. I’d put as much suspension in as I could without it looking ridiculous.
LEGEND: Musician Billy Idol was originally cast as the adversary liquid-metal T-1000.
FACT: He was considered for the part in this cheekbone-dependent production but fell off the list when he ran a Hollywood stop sign on his own Harley and T-boned a car, breaking his leg and wrist. Idol may well have been safer on set.
CM: I guess that jump would be doable, on a modern dirt bike, at speed—speed’s your friend when you have a big vertical drop. But I still wouldn’t want to do it. Anybody with any motorcycle experience, if they’re being honest, if they’re watching it, they know right away that it’s not possible.
GD: I mean, I’d like to say I was bravado enough to just go for it, but…no. Jumping a Harley that far down? No. That’s sure to be bad. A bad, bad wreck.