“I wanted the story to have global impact,” says Bay, “so I was dead set about getting military cooperation. I’ve worked with the Department of Defense on several projects and we have a great working relationship, so I already knew many of their ground rules. But I was worried because there’s a war going on and so many troops are out there fighting terrorism, which is always going to be their focus, as it should be.”
The military was invited to collaborate and brought its own ideas to the table. Military installations used in the movie included Holloman, Kirtland and Edwards Air Force Bases, and the Pentagon.
Working with the different branches of the military, the production was able to “borrow” high end hardware not available elsewhere, from CV-22’s and F-117’s to C-130 cargo planes and the C-17, which Bay dubbed “the spooky gun ship.”
“We would never have been able to make this movie without the willingness of the DOD to embrace this project,” says Bryce. “Even though it’s a fantasy, they understood that our depiction of the military is grounded in reality and they wanted an accurate portrayal of their personnel and technology. The cooperation we received was outstanding. We’re proud of the fact that almost every military role, including extras, was played by military or ex-military personnel.
“The CV-22 is phenomenal,” says assistant location manger Mike Burmeister. “It’s like a combination helicopter-airplane; the prop turns 90 degrees and the helicopter becomes this jet that can fly at 500 miles per hour. The Air Force has three in their inventory and when they flew into Holloman, everyone, even the base commanders, came out to watch.”
Bryce was particularly awed by the sight of the F-22 Raptor® in an unrestricted climb to 15,000 feet. “I’m not sure how many people have seen that, but I was honored. It was just one of the many exciting things we were privileged to see.”
Major Daniel Ferris became a beloved member of the crew during the weeks filming at Holloman. As the primary Air Boss for the set, he was in constant contact with both Bay and his assistant director Simon Warnock as well as with his fellow Air Force pilots flying above. Ferris stepped onto the set and flawlessly coordinated Warthog bombing runs with the action taking place in front of cameras the ground. He also assisted in coordinating much of the air-to-air filming working with the movie’s aerial coordinator Alan Purwin and the director of aerial photography, David Nowell.
“TRANSFORMERS” was the first motion picture to be permitted to film in and around the Pentagon grounds since 9/11. Both cast and crew felt the weight of that responsibility and followed instructions to the letter. When filming was completed, the cast and crew were invited to visit and pay their respects at the private 9/11 Memorial Chapel.
“The military is inevitably brought in when an outside threat to our country or to world peace becomes significant,” says di Bonaventura. “So even though this is not a military movie by definition, it’s difficult to conceive of a world in which 30-foot tall metal people begin destroying cities where the military wouldn’t become involved pretty quickly.”
“I never imagined myself in an action film of this magnitude,” says LaBeouf. “Not that I’m giving myself kudos, but 90 percent of the actors I know could not have done what Megan and I did in this film. I mean there are action stars who wouldn’t have been as dumb,” he laughs, “hanging off the roof of a 15-story building from a single wire with nothing below but the asphalt alley. It was insane!”
Bay’s excitement and enthusiasm for monstrously large stunts seems to infect the entire cast every time. Sooner or later, on every film, actors find themselves agreeing to participate in acrobatics and physical feats they would never normally envision themselves attempting. Even 60-something Jon Voight loved what he calls “the physicality of his role.” Similar to the rest of the cast, Voight hit the ground running when need be and literally hit the floor as well. In one scene when his character is seriously injured, Voight shocked the crew when he threw himself to the cement floor of the soundstage as though he’d actually been shot by a stray bullet. “He kept pace with every 20-year-old on the movie,” says Michael Bay.
“I think Jon was trying to sell it a little hard,” says Anthony Anderson, “making us younger guys look bad. Michael would look at Tyrese and me and say, ‘Look, if Jon can run down there, you can run there!’ I’d tell Jon, ‘Relax, you could break a hip,’” he jokes.
“It’s like playing when you’re a kid,” says Voight. “When I was growing up, I liked physical comedy and I’m still amazed when I see people do anything extraordinarily physical. But you get shot, you fall on the ground. The only shocking thing is that I’m a little old to be playing at this kind of stuff, but I really like it. I’d hear the guys say, ‘Hey, did you see that?’ and I’d tell them, ‘Guys, I’m not gone yet, I’m still in the game here.’ I mean we’re not Cirque du Soleil.”
LaBeouf landed the role of Sam Witwicky while he was shooting DreamWorks’ “Disturbia.” At the time, he weighed 130 pounds but despite the action of the blockbuster thriller, the young actor needed to strengthen his body in preparation for this next job. He began working out five days a week for three months and gained 25 pounds of solid muscle by the time he arrived on set in New Mexico. His first evening, LaBeouf spent the night being chased by guard dogs around a dilapidated lumber mill. He quickly realized that his training, which had focused on building bulk and mass, was not what he needed. His role required stamina and speed.
“It was all running. I should have been doing calisthenics. And there’s the pain tolerance,” he laughs. “That’s not something you can train for.”
Actress Megan Fox swears that she gained 10 pounds of solid muscle during production from all the running and strength training the role required, and she gives the camera crew special accolades for keeping up with the pace. “They really deserve a lot of credit,” Fox says, “for being able to follow us the way they did. They’d give us general directions where to run and we’d head where we were told, but it’s almost impossible to hit exact marks on a movie like this.”
LaBeouf calls co-producer/stunt coordinator/second unit director Ken Bates a savior. “He’s the only reason I am alive,” LaBeouf jokes.
Bates disagrees. “Shia was very focused,” he says. “He’s a strong, agile kid and he’s smart. He pays attention and follows directions well, and he has respect for what we do, which really contributed to his being able to handle his own stunts.”
When Bay extended a challenge to LaBeouf to perform his own stunt at the top of the building, he knew his young star would never turn down the offer. To prepare LaBeouf, Bates put him on a wire to give him a feel for the system and had him walk a small parapet wall. Once the young actor was comfortable in his movement, Bates taught him to focus on the wall in front of him and pay attention to nothing else. When LaBeouf was steady walking a plank, Bates took him to the top of the building.
“That was all Shia up there,” says Bates. “In the midst of explosions and charges going off he remained calm and focused. It was a personal challenge that Bay put forth and Shia came away a winner.”
“But you’ve got to do things like that because Michael puts the cameras so close,” says LaBeouf. “The best part is that he puts the cameras in bulletproof boxes so they don’t break, but it’s your face right next to the camera and you start thinking, ‘Hey, they’re protecting these cameras and I’m sitting right here. Why don’t I have a bullet proof box? What the heck is going on?” he laughs.
Bates has been working with Bay since 1989, overseeing the stunt work not only on Bay-helmed movies and commercials, but also on his Platinum Dunes productions. Obviously familiar working with stunt people and actors, Bates also spent a good deal of time discussing action sequences with visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar. “We worked hand-in-hand, putting scenes together,” he says, “because half the fight sequence was built in CG. That direction isn’t written on a call sheet for people to follow. We work it out during prep, and then again once the film starts shooting and again when we rehearse right before we shoot. And with Michael, you always have to be three steps ahead.”
One of the most dangerous sequences of the film was shot at the end of Interstate 210, currently called the Foothill Freeway. Many film and television companies shoot on this section of the freeway in San Bernardino near the 215 junction because it remains unfinished with no end date in sight as construction seems to stretch further and further eastward. The sequence is one that Bay had in mind since he first accepted the movie – the robots transforming at 80 miles an hour – and he and Bates worked tirelessly to plan a stunt that would surpass Bay’s chase over the MacArthur Causeway (that links Miami with Miami Beach) conceived for “Bad Boys II.”
In the third act, as Megatron® realizes that Sam, Mikaela and the Auobots® have escaped with the “Allspark,” a chase ensues. Despite thorough planning, the stunt team had only one day to actually test the bus gag.
In the sequence, stuntman Richard Epper drives the bus as Bates follows in a camera car the crew lovingly calls the “Bay Bomber:” a small, souped-up go-cart that sits low to the ground in order to shoot a vehicle’s first-person point of view.
“Richard was towed into the action at 60 miles per hour,” Bates describes. “Once he reached speed, he threw the bus sideways, hit a charge, and cut away the tow cable. As the bus blows up, it splits in half and slides sideways, at which time Richard hit another button that triggered a ‘bomb’ that detonated three canons in the back of the bus that sent that back end tumbling end over end. The front half of the bus hits the median, jumps up and comes back down.
“The bus sequence on the 210 was something we’ve never done before,” says Bates. “Even though we planned it down to the last detail, we had no idea what the bus would actually do. Frazier’s guys rigged a separate set of wheels on the front of the bus so that Richard could brake when it snapped and he would have some form of control. But no one really knew what would happen. The effects guys made us look good.”
Bates, Epper, Corey Eubanks, and Steve Kelso were the main drivers responsible for the spectacular stunt driving throughout the film.
Bay’s usual agenda is to put safety above all else, but also to allow the scene, even a dramatic action sequence, to unfold realistically. Talent are given strict guidelines in terms of where and when to run as explosions are detonated, but they never know exactly which “bomb” will pop at what point during the scene.
“It’s like being on a football team,” LaBeouf says, likening the adrenaline rush of running a 100-yard field for a touchdown. “The effects guys point out every bomb, so that no one is in danger, but you never know which will go off first, second, third, fourth. I’m just a normal kid,” he says in mock desperation, “I’m not supposed to know how to do Jet Li-style acrobatics.”
LaBeouf got so deep into the action he would show up on set on days when he wasn’t scheduled to work. (He would also bring friends and sneak onto the stages to show off the phenomenal sets or into the garage to ooh and ah over the astounding cars and trucks.)
During Fox’s audition Bay asked her questions about her physical abilities. “He wanted to know if I could run and he asked if I had a nice stomach,” she laughs recalling their interview. “So I figured, all right, I’m going to be running in a belly shirt, but I had no idea I would be doing most of my own stunts and I am not a girl who likes to work out. I’m lazy. So to be honest, my stunt double did some incredible things that I can only pretend to have done. It’s just that Michael would rather never use stunt doubles if he can help it.
“My knees had no skin on them,” she says. “I ran, I jumped, I crawled around the Los Angeles River for days. At a certain point it was 90 percent running and 10 percent acting, but I think that’s appropriate because people are coming to see the action and the Transformers™, not Sam and Mikaela.”
Fox does, however, take umbrage with her character for not wearing a seatbelt. “Mikaela never once wears a seatbelt, except when she’s sitting on Sam’s lap, and you should definitely wear one when you’re driving 130 miles an hour in an alien robot car. It is the law,” she says in hopes of reminding her audience to always buckle up.
Acting with Transformers™ That Aren’t Really There
As visual effects become more sophisticated and computer-generated characters become more and more a part of mainstream films, the question remains: how does a real-life actor act when there’s no one on the other end of the conversation?
“People ask me all the time how do you know when you’re overacting,” says LaBeouf about his experience working on “TRANSFORMERS,” “but how do you determine what overacting is when there’s supposed to be a robot in your backyard? How can you be minimal about that?”
LaBeouf, Fox, and the other actors spent a good deal of their time craning their necks, looking at the top of an extension pole that could be lengthened to accommodate the height of any robot — 20 feet for Bumblebee™, 40 feet for Optimus®, etc. Sometimes the visual effects crew would tape a mask of the robot’s likeness to the top or stick a tennis ball onto the end of the pole, but more often than not, the cardboard cutout fell off or the tennis ball was forgotten in a trailer on the other side of location and the actors were forced to keep their eyes on the bare end of the pole.
“You’ve got to be in love with that pole,” says LaBeouf. I asked Turturro and Voight about it. Where do you pull from? How do you find the right place to go? These guys are legends, so I thought they’d know how to do this, but they were just as lost. It’s like soft dirt – you don’t know exactly where to step. It’s a completely different form of acting. But that’s also where the fun comes in because Michael will give you the freedom to play for six or seven takes just to see what works.”
“Sometimes it was a little weird,” says Turturro about the makeshift robot stick. “And for some reason that’s always the last thing anyone thinks about: where is the person, the image, the situation for the actor to react to? It’s the difference between having another actor off camera or having no one there during those close ups, it can really make your performance. It really helped when Michael had the guy [actor and voice-over artist Mark Ryan] on set doing the austere voice, but you would think that someone would invent a giant animated puppet for the actors to work with, but even that would pale by comparison to the robots that the audience will eventually see in the film.”
Fox, who does not like watching her own performance, is looking forward to seeing the film if only to watch a scene in which Mikaela and Sam spend the entire sequence in conversation with a group of Autobots®. “We were in an alley talking to nothing for three days,” recalls Fox. “It was just Shia and me talking to the sky. I’ll watch that for sure.”
Tyrese Gibson agrees, “It’s kind of wild, talking to robots that aren’t there, but that’s acting!” he says succinctly. “It’s our job to make you believe that Superman or Megatron® is coming down the street, even if we don’t see him. It’s all in a day’s work.”
“The animatics that Michael would show us from time to time really helped to give me a point of reference,” says Anthony Anderson, “especially when you hadn’t been on set in a few days. Michael enjoys showing people playback of scenes anyway, but he was great about having us watch the animatic or a piece of something the editors had cut so that we could get a grasp of what we were doing at any given point in the story.”
The comedian also points out that he is equally experienced at working opposite inanimate objects and animals. “Ever since working with a kangaroo, nothing seems too difficult,” he says. “Working with a tennis ball or a cardboard head on a pole doesn’t seem so bad. I am the consummate professional,” he jokes.
LaBeouf also points out that his job was not simply memorizing dialogue, but memorizing movement and motivation as well. “I needed to break it down line by line,” explains. “I would say line 1, 2, 3 standing here, looking up. Then the robot is going to flip me over and jump here and I need to say line 4 and 5, and then he’s moving here and he’s going to have this emotion, so I will say line 6, 7, 8 in reaction and then move away from the robot so that he’s behind me. It’s a choreographed dance. It’s difficult to maintain that continuity of character from scene to scene.
“My biggest concern was that the robots would be playing straight men to the actors,” he continues. “The acting was so extreme that ILM needed to match that intensity. They needed to think like an actor rather than just a technician or artist, or worse, a button pusher, and they did. I think the people at ILM did an incredible job.”
Michael Bay had his own taste of what it was like to direct actors and crew who weren’t really there when he came down with a horrendous bout of flu during production. Determined not to leave the set and lose a day in the shooting schedule, Bay assigned Dave Deever, his video assist, to hook up a remote video/sound system that allowed him to rest in his trailer parked outside the stage while watching scenes and talking the cast and crew through every move. The experience gave him a brand new perspective.
Production Design: The Robots, The Vehicles, The Sets
Bay hired production designer Jeff Mann whom he worked with on commercials. “Jeff’s a motor head,” says Bay, “he’s just a big car buff and had the sensitivity and understanding of the material.”
Although Mann just missed the generation of kids who played with Hasbro’s Transformers™, through study and determination, he has become one of the most knowledgeable artisans working on the film. Between DeSanto, Mann and writers Kurtzman and Orci, they were the “go to” guys for everything Transformers™ during production.
“We had an extensive crash course in Transformers™,” says Mann, “and access to a lot of archival stuff. My department had the best teachers at Hasbro so we understood very quickly that people were devoted to these characters and the toy line right from the start.
“Even though I have a number of movies and commercials under my belt and had done pretty big scale productions, I didn’t have extensive experience in character design so that was intriguing and a definite challenge,” Mann acknowledges.
The process was a lengthy one that came with its own idiosyncratic set of responsibilities. It took his team six months to develop the final concepts for the characters.
“Initially I focused on what each character needs to get done during the course of the story,” Mann says, “then I focused on the idea of what they are before they transform and finally, how do they transform? I wanted the designs to be rich and textured so that audiences would feel like somebody cared enough to create a backstory to enhance the viewing experience. Of course Michael’s mandate was that the robots be cool while respecting the designs that came before.”
Wild though it may seem, Mann unearthed some rather lofty theories about the transforming robots during his research; one such notion even suggested that the transformations had a basis in molecular nano engineering.
“The logic is something along the lines of every cell of the robot is a machine in itself and the robots essentially regenerate themselves,” he says, “which doesn’t make sense given that the robots are born, live in a society of other robots and can be destroyed. But I guess you just have to suspend disbelief when you’re trying to figure out the genesis of a robotic race of beings,” he says, shrugging his shoulders.
Despite such fanciful theories, Mann says the filmmakers did attempt to adhere to some rules when it came to the transformation process. “Our robots have the capacity to find a vehicle, scan it and replicate that vehicle,” he explains. “And each robot can only replicate into something equal to its own mass. For example, Jazz becomes a Pontiac® Solstice® whereas Optimus® becomes a big truck. It was important to Michael that the robots transform into similar sized objects. We even had evolutionary charts for each character.
“In the cartoon, the robot shapes are essentially a series of linked boxes, softened on the corners and stacked one on top of another when they transform,” Mann says. “But the cartoon robots could also become anything in any given situation, which was a bit too easy and would have felt like we were cheating if we did that. In our version the robots have limitations and cannot change form willy-nilly. Our Transformers™ are not endlessly malleable, they’re not gas; they do not have magic powers. They are simply technology beyond our understanding.”
“We assembled a team of about 25 artists to do conceptualized storyboards, to illustrate the updated look of the robot/cars. Each one had an expertise — one guy was designing eyes, one guy did overall facial structure, another did the feet. It took months and months. Hasbro helped us, but they also let me do my thing.
“With Optimus® we had to make the ears bigger to get more of a samurai look,” he explains, “but we would vet most of these changes through Transformers™ geeks to make sure we weren’t way off track because they know the lore and they know why certain robots look a certain way or have the ability to do certain things.”
Only two actual robots were fabricated for the film, Autobots Frenzy® and Bumblebee™. In order to create an animated Frenzy®, the art department did facial studies paying close attention to details like the eye sockets and mouth movements in different expressions. Their 3-D designs were furthered by prosthetics and puppet specialists at KNB who refined and built the 4-foot tall Frenzy® metal puppet.
Bumblebee™ was built by Academy Award-winning special effects legend John Frazier and his team at Fxperts. Created by Frazier’s skilled artisans Bumblebee™ stands close to 17 feet high with a footprint of eight feet, 10½ inches. Weighing in at solid 8,150 pounds, he is almost 13 feet wide and more than eight-and-a-half feet deep. When production began, it took several men most of the day to assemble the robot which was transported from location to location via flatbed truck. Since production wrapped, Frazier’s team has modified their design to accommodate Bumblebee’s™ schedule of public appearances around the world. He can now be assembled in only two to three hours.
Timing was also improved on screen. In the cartoon transformations lasted mere seconds, but the filmmakers knew that they had to do better than that for the film version and took great care in designing the intricate workings of each metamorphosis.
“I wanted the audience to see the elaborate alien clockworks of those changes,” says Mann, “the whirring and whizzing and telescoping of each piece so that even the simplest motion like turning a wrist had 17 fascinating mechanisms moving. And when the vehicles change back, a tire isn’t really a tire, it’s a shoulder. The minute you scratch the surface of the vehicle, you see it’s really an alien robot.”
“The visual effects were so complex it took a staggering 38 hours for ILM to render just one frame of movement,” reports Bay, “that’s unheard of in this industry.”
Because of time constraints, Mann’s department was forced to stick to line drawings rather than 3-D illustrations, with the exception of Scorponok® which the art department fully animated, from the Sikorsky® Pave Low® helicopter down to the metallic scorpion’s turbine bladed tentacles, before handing off to ILM’s creative team.
Both Bay and Mann are now some of the most learned Transformers™ scholars around. “I’ve probably thought about robots, how to make them, how to operate them, how to destroy the indestructible, more than anyone on earth in the last two years,” Bay laughs. “That should make me the head geek in Transformers™ study.”
Mann’s design process also labored under the added impetus of Hasbro’s manufacturing calendar since the company’s schedule demanded they begin fabricating new toys a year prior to the film’s release.
In talking about the design of the robots, the discussion invariably turns to the vehicles. When deciding what cars and trucks to use, the filmmakers opened the floor to any and all car companies, from Ferrari to Ford to Jaguar, the discussions were all over the map until Bay was invited to visit GM’s secret design warehouse.
“I went to their skunk works where they make their concept cars,” the director says. “It’s all very stealthy. They make clay models of designs for use way in the future. There was one design they wouldn’t let me see. I think it was for Rick Wagner, the president of GM. I was hoping to distract the people showing me around so that I could sneak a peek, but I just couldn’t do it,” he says with a mischievous glint.
During his visit Bay did see the initial stages of what has become the 2009 Camaro® used as the shiny new Bumblebee™. “It had a retro look,” says Bay, “like a muscle car. I knew it was Bumblebee™. After seeing that car I knew for sure my instincts were right; using the Volkswagen Bug wasn’t in the cards. I know it upsets some of the fans, but I think when they see this car, they’ll understand the reasoning.”
GM not only lent the production assets worth over a million dollars, they also helped with the physical labor of retrofitting many of their vehicles in order to make them look a bit different than what consumers see on the road. And keep in mind that in the magic world of movie making, each vehicle must have a stunt double and a photo double.
“When you shoot big action sequences, you need three of each car,” Bay says as a reminder. “If one crashes, or breaks down mechanically, you’ve got to be ready to keep filming.”
When it came to Optimus Prime®, Mann had an entire team drawing potential robot/trucks trying to zero in on just the right look. When Mann showed Bay a photo of the enormous tractor trailer, he was immediately taken by the lines and the size of the truck even though he knew he would face intense criticism yet again for his choice. The pick of a more aggressive truck was also done as a tip of the hat to Spielberg’s 1971 film, “Duel.”
Of course there were many discussions about Bumblebee™ before the filmmakers settled on their selection. “The quintessential Camaro® is a ’69,” says Mann. “It’s the most popular vintage, but we wanted to find the cheesiest version for Sam’s first car. The 70s was a very dark time for cars, so we thought that hillbilly hotrod era would be perfect because Sam didn’t have any money and could never afford a ’69, which is ten grand if it’s a dime.”
Mann also feels the scrappy 1976-77 Camaro® was a “friendly” choice that embodied a sense of “approachability” more than any of the other cars the filmmakers initially discussed, which was an important factor in the relationship between the car and Sam and Mikaela.
“Even though shape-shifting was a no-no for the other Transformers™, there were a number of reasons that Bumblebee™ was allowed to become a newer version of himself. It was like a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Mann explains, “and it was a way to showcase the new Camaro®.”
As the principal driver of this $500,000 prototype, Shia LaBeouf was more than a bit nervous. “You’re always thinking, ‘Don’t crash into a wall, there are only four of these things in existence,’ so there was no burning out the tires,” he jokes. “GM always had guys around to watch me. It was more like, ‘Wipe your feet off before you get in,’ or ‘Keep your hands on the steering wheel, don’t touch anything,’” he laughs.
Autobot Jazz® was always a sports car, originally established as a Martini Porsche 935 Turbo in the cartoon, but again, with the thought of updating the overall look of the film’s characters, the filmmakers decided to go with the Pontiac® Solstice® GXP roadster with reel-wheel drive.
“At first blush we didn’t want to have two of any make of car,” he continues, “but the Solstice® was something new and hot they were promoting and it just fit the bill. It has an interesting shape and one had been specifically modified for a SEMA show [a private showcase of specialty products for automotive manufacturers] in Las Vegas — it had some bitchin’ ground effects, a hard top and big wheels, so it was hard to resist.”
“Ratchet® was a kind of Hummer® H2®-based ambulance,” describes Mann, “which didn’t really exist so we designed and built that from scratch. We looked at some military Hummer® ambulances and some Red Cross vehicles from the 80s that had an H1® foundation which eventually evolved into a search and rescue vehicle with a crazy color, kind of chartreuse green.”
Ironhide® is a 4500 series GMC Topkick® fit with 46” Nitto Super Swamper tires which only arrived the morning before the character was to be used in a scene. The transportation and art departments also modified the bumpers and embossed the tailgate with the Autobot® logo.
“Even though we highlight a lot of expensive, cutting edge hardware throughout the movie, you’ll see right away that both the Autobots® and the Decepticons® are real characters with definite personalities,” says Bryce. “There’s as much room for them to appear heroic as there is for the actors.”
Starscream®, one of the most popular of the Decepticons®, transforms into the innovative F-22® Raptor® jet made by Lockheed Martin®. The plane is so new it is still being tweaked and is currently in the process of final flight testing at Edwards Air Force Base. When the production company shot with the prototype, security was at its absolute highest – not only were background checks required, everyone signed in and out of the area where the aircraft was parked, no one with cell phones as permitted within several hundred yards, and all recording equipment was pre-approved.
The image of Bonecrusher®, a Buffalo® MPCV™, was something the art department pulled off the web. “It’s actually a funny story,” recounts Mann. “We found this image of a mine-sweeping vehicle that had a huge arm with what appeared to be a fork on the end. So we called the people who owned it, hoping there was a chance we could rent it or buy it, but when we got the data, it turned out the fork was only 14 inches wide — they had totally cheated the whole thing in Photoshop,” he laughs. “In their picture, it looks like the thing could lift a bus. We had to make an appliance to fit over the existing arm, that wouldn’t bounce around too much because it was about 10 feet wide, but those are the logistical challenges you face.”
Picture car coordinator, Steve Mann (no relation to the production designer), worked closely with Jeff Mann to find all the vehicles used in the film, even the background cars and trucks, many of which were flood damaged insurance write-offs from Hurricane Katrina.
Steve found a tank (based on the M1 Abrams) to use for Devastator® that had already been retrofitted for another movie. “It was a marriage of convenience,” says Jeff Mann. “We modified it again and came up with a cool paint job, non-radar detectable, based on some camouflage that was being used on a futuristic battleship we researched.
The designer says that the filmmakers settled on the Sikorsky® MH-53 Pave Low® helicopter for Blackout® because it was a sexier look. “Cobras are too slight even though they carry a lot of fire power,” he says, “and the Huey is too old to be menacing, but the Pave Low® looks butch. And with our theory about mass, the size made it the logical choice.”
Barricade® changes into a sleek Saleen® S281™ Mustang® disguised as souped-up police cruiser with front headlights that convert into multi-bladed weapons with the flip of a switch.
All of the vehicles were selected with the audience in mind. “I started to realize that we had to make ‘TRANSFORMERS’ for someone who’s never seen it,” says Bay. “Some of the old designs just looked ridiculous in conjunction with more modern backgrounds.”
The sets that Mann designed and created with set decorator Larry Dias took on a life of their own once the production finalized the deal to shoot in and around Hoover Dam. The imaginary interiors they fashioned needed to harmonize with the real-life location built in the early 1930s.
In the story, the dam is built around a strange square-shaped object that seems to emit a signal through energy waves. In order to hide the peculiar device from possible enemies as well as from simple curiosity seekers, the government decides to hide it within a hydropower plant.
For Mann it was an opportunity to further the Art-Deco masterpiece of Gordon B. Kaufmann and Allen True, along with the help of sculptor Oskar J.W. Hansen, who took the design aesthetic of the dam to another level altogether. Initially planned and designed by engineers working for the Department of Reclamation, the plant was about function, not form, until it moved into the hands of artists.
From the look of the American Indian patterns on the terrazzo floors to the smooth concrete walls and stately bronzed statues adorning the exterior, Mann and Dias followed the natural flow of the building into Megatron’s® basement prison, through the library with it’s detailed books shelves and display cases, into the alien laboratory where Bumblebee™ is eventually laid bare on an operating table.
Anthony Anderson believes the detail and lavishness of the sets helped the actors to find the reality in each scene. Like everyone who walked into the Hughes Hangar, he was particularly enthralled with the continuation of what was shot at Hoover Dam.
“They brought an empty soundstage to life,” Anderson says. “It really gives us something to work with as actors as opposed to pretending we’re at the Pentagon or pretending we’re in the catacombs of the library under the Dam.”
With stage space at a premium in Los Angeles, many filmmakers are opting to use now-defunct manufacturing plants and warehouses wherever they can find them. Just such a place is Hughes Aircraft in Playa Vista, close to the Los Angeles Airport and the 405 Freeway. The site where the infamous Spruce Goose was first built, Hughes is now home to many motion pictures and television production companies. Its two main buildings are approximately 100 feet wide and 800 feet long, which allowed “TRANSFORMERS” to keep all its sets in one place rather than having to erect them at different studios spread across town.
“It does limit you a bit design wise,” says Mann, “especially when you’re designing for wide screen format. Those buildings are not your friends. It feels like you’re working in a cigar tube. When we built Megatron’s® set, I felt like the building was a curse because we couldn’t afford to cover up the structure itself. It was clapboard, diagonally sheathed with one-by-twelve’s; it looked like a barn inside those hangars. But we just had to embrace the shape and everything the buildings offered in terms of background. It helped that Michael thought he could light it so that the background would be a non-issue, especially with the elaborate special effects he had planned. And we gave the cameras as much scenery in the form of Megatron®.”
Despite months of anxiety, Jeff Mann had nothing to fear. When the cast and shooting crew first arrived at the Playa stages, no one was paying any attention to the walls or cared that the buildings are considered historical landmarks.
Location manager Ilt Jones likes to joke. “When Ian hired me, he never prepared me for the seventh ring of hell, but in fairness, we went way beyond that, so even though I’ve worked on some tough shows, this one set the Olympic gold standard,” he laughs. “I think dealing with the military and all the government-run facilities was the most complicated because of the climate we now live in post 9/11. It’s had a profound effect on my job.”
Jones and his staff worked closely with the Department of Homeland Security throughout the production, not only when it came to working at government sites, but also in terms of working in high-traffic tourist areas, handling fly zones for helicopters and camera ships, bringing weapons to public places for many of the big action sequences and on many other issues formerly the purview of local authorities. His staff also worked closely with the Department of Defense to move the entire shooting company onto different military bases throughout production – not a simple feat.
Filming commenced on April 19, 2006 with a pre-production shoot followed by full production start up on April 22 at Holloman Air Force Base, home of the 49th Fighter Wing, in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The film company spent the majority of their time on the White Sands Missile Range, test site of the first atomic bomb, which abuts Holloman and is the property of the US Army. For years the Missile Range has been used jointly by the Army and Air Force to train troops for combat.
Jones, along with assistant location manager Burmeister, who oversaw the Holloman shoot, and DreamWorks Safety and Environmental Consultant Jim Economos hired UXB International, one of the largest and most respected explosive ordnance disposal companies around, to search for live, unexploded mines and lost missiles. “They swept about 28 acres for us,” Jones states, “at a depth of about four feet so that we could build our Bedouin village (and ironically blow it up) without fear of someone stepping in the wrong area.”
Jones also made special arrangements for the film company to bring in their own special effects explosives. “We had to make sure that our humble bombs were tested before we brought them on base,” he laughs. “And when we did blow something up, their FOD [Foreign Object Debris] personnel were on hand to make sure it was assiduously cleared and nothing left behind. They checked out everything, from the radio frequencies on our walk-talkies to crew members who weren’t US citizens. We just had to make sure that filming didn’t interfere with their day-to-day operations.”
It is important to note that the production company paid for all services rendered, all fuel costs as well as salaries for military personnel who worked on the film. The men and women who volunteered to be extras worked on their off-duty hours and any shots of working military hardware were filmed during routine military activities and test missions. There was no cost to the US taxpayer in the making of this movie.
“We dovetailed filming of certain sequences with planned military operations,” Jones says. “It was a natural symbiosis. The Air Force constantly practice and practice with various aircraft and we’d make sure to catch them at the right time. We needed shots of C-130s, for example, so we went to Kirtland to shoot the transport planes as soldiers were boarding so in the movie it will look as if troops are being deployed.”
The company also traveled to Albuquerque to shoot in an old train yard and an adjacent industrial area that hasn’t been renovated since the early turn of the century.
The size of the sets, not to mention the real-life locations, enthralled the cast and crew, many of whom had never been to Hoover Dam before the company shot there. For LaBeouf, Fox, Duhamel, Turturro and Taylor, filming was their first visit to this architectural wonder.
Built between 1931 and 1935, Hoover Dam was originally called Boulder Dam when it was dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt on September 30, 1935. Located on the border of Arizona and Nevada, about 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States and has not been made available to any film or television crews since September 11, 2001. When the “TRANSFORMERS” company moved in, it was the beginning of peak summer tourist season.
Named after President Herbert Hoover, who was instrumental in its construction, the site takes on a more ominous role than that of power plant in the film. For writers Kurtzman and Orci, the dam was the perfect structure to imprison an alien creature from another planet — an imposing concrete barrier, Hoover Dam not only houses the cryogenically frozen Megatron® the government calls “The Iceman,” it also serves as the secret headquarters for a covert military unit, Sector 7, and their clandestine operations.
Unbeknownst to most people, there are nine different “Seven Wonders of the World” lists. Hoover Dam is one of the “Seven Forgotten Modern Wonders of the World.”
Although Jon Voight had visited the Dam before, both he and Turturro used the drama of the location to fuel their performances. “It’s like playing with my kids,” explains Turturro. “Everything around you helps create that reality.”
The film’s dramatic final sequence was shot in sections on the Universal back lot and then, over a period of six weekends, on the downtown streets of Los Angeles. As if by magic, the art, transportation and special effects departments would dress several blocks to look as if they’d been through Armageddon. Week after week, they would cart in seemingly endless loads of debris, build craters in public streets, fashion smoking, burned-out piles of rubble, overturn vehicles and create ruin as far as the eye could see, while a fascinated public stood gawking at cordoned intersections.
“TRANSFORMERS” was the first film permitted to shoot at the newly remodeled Griffith Park Observatory. The planetarium, which closed in early January 2002 for a major renovation that was supposed to have taken three years, was scheduled to reopen to the public less than a month after the film shot on the grounds. Because they were behind schedule, officials were worried the film company would slow the process even further, but luckily the construction crews left just as the production moved in. Jones and the company owe a debt of gratitude to city councilman Tom LaBonge and certainly to Dr. E.C. Krupp, director of the observatory, for even entertaining the idea of filming at the landmark.
Other locations used on the 83-day shoot include the intersection of the 110 and 105 freeways, the Adams district, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Los Angeles where the Witwickys lived; a defunct power plant in Redondo Beach sets the scene for Sam and Mikaela’s first major foray with the Decepticons®; City Hall stands in for various areas at the Department of Defense; Bobby Bolivia’s used car dealership was located in Pasadena; Maggie finds Glen at his grandmother’s house in the San Fernando Valley, and Long Beach sets the stage for a robot/car chase sequence. A reduced crew also traveled to locations in Detroit, Washington, D.C. and Alaska to complete important scenes.
“Long Beach was my Waterloo,” says Jones. “That was the trickiest location I’ve ever had to put together. We shot literally at the crossroads of the Port of Long Beach, the Port of Los Angeles, and the City of Long Beach, not to mention that we also dealt with the Union Pacific Railroad, the Burlington Northern, Pacific Harbor Lines and Cal-Trans. I think there were 17 different agencies that all had a say. We shot there for three nights, which will be but a micro-second in the film. But at least it was an important scene where the Autobots® rip off the top of an SUV to rescue Sam and Mikaela, so at least we knew it wouldn’t end up on the cutting room floor,” he laughs.
Bringing the Transformers™ to Life
A single Transformer™ is made up of thousands of separate pieces that combine to make a living machine. That is a fair assessment of how Michael Bay put together the film “TRANSFORMERS.” The famously meticulous director laid out his grand vision, assembled its many thousand pieces and kept his eye on each and every one of them as he moved through the development process during which the pieces were manipulated by hundreds of technical experts under Bay’s masterful command.
Then, once he had his mass-production factory set up just the way he liked it, he proceeded to guide his troops toward creating the ultimate action fun ride — a giddy, transcendental process of blowing things up on an epic scale.
When word got out in the CG community that Bay was going to make a live-action epic out of the concept of the early ’80s action figures, legions of long-time fans turned FX workers migrated to ILM to be a part of the process. Some, like Scott Benza, the film’s animation supervisor (“I’m responsible for a team of animators injecting life into the digital characters in the film”) were Transformers™ fans as preteens when the toy line first hit the shelves. Getting to play with these toys for a living became the realization of his particular kind of “American Dream.”
“As a kid I definitely thought there really wasn’t anything cooler than a vehicle that could transform into a robot,” he says. “So, when I heard that Michael Bay was going to be making a movie adaptation of the original property, I definitely wanted to be involved, as did a large group of the animators here at ILM. Many of the animators came to ILM specifically with the goal of working on this feature. So I was happy to see that a lot of them also got to live out their childhood dream to be a part of this project.”
And what do these “dream-weavers” actually get to do? There were several different divisions to Bay’s army, with the animators coming into play around the middle of the process. First there were phalanxes of conceptual artists who thought up the mechanisms – how these man-made “characters” would look and move. Then there were virtual mechanics who fabricated the machine parts and figured out how those parts would fit together. And then came the animators, the computer-generation “Gepettos” who actually breathed life into them.
“If you want to relate it to real-world terms,” Benza adds, “it’s like there’s a group of people who build the puppets, and then we are the puppeteers, only in this case it’s more of a virtual sense in which all of it happens in the computer. There’s nothing tangible to touch. Everyone works through a computer screen; a group of people build it, then we make it move and make the digital characters act.”
From a performance standpoint, how does one deal with the mechanical film stars’ facial expressions and make them move believably through the film’s intense action sequences? Well, one way was to get into Michael Bay’s head and find out who these characters are. Bay communicated his wishes by citing characters or performers from previous movies who embodied characteristics he wanted for his Transformers™ characters, then filtered their personas through his vision of what the original cartoon and the original Transformers™ property dictated.
According to Benza, “Michael J. Fox in ‘Back to the Future’ was the character Michael modeled around Bumblebee™. Liam Neeson, in several of his movie roles, was a good fit for us to start thinking about Optimus Prime®. And there were a few other examples he gave us that he thought would be a starting point in the development of the characters.”
From that beginning, the animator’s job was to consider the laws of physics — mass and weight — in determining how the characters would move. And then, after that, to throw out the laws of physics and make them move the way Michael Bay thought they should. In Bay’s vision these 50-foot-tall behemoths moved through space with the agility of martial arts masters — agile warriors who travel in a very fluid, elegant way. Bay was very specific that the robots had to be large warriors who weren’t constrained by their size.
The animators discovered that the closer things got to the camera, the faster they could move, and when they got further out, “we had to really kind of slow things down and keep them contained into a reasonable amount of speed to help sell their weight,” Benza said.
The kind of realism that Bay’s team of techno-geeks achieved would not have been possible as recently as three years ago, prior to the advent of the ultra-high resolution functions that are the hallmark of today’s 64-bit supercomputers. Hilmar Koch, ILM’s TD Supervisor, worked on the effects and lighting of the robots after principal photography was completed. His task was to make the action look super-real by replacing the images in the computer with details that were created digitally.
“Michael is very focused on the realism of the scene,” Koch says. “A lot of effort goes into rebuilding the scene in pretty much the identical way it was when Michael did his photography on set. We have a number of people from ILM who go to set — where they take not only measurements but record everything that is important to us in the scene. And then they bring the data back to us. From this, one thing we found out about our Transformers™ was that they were just not of a high enough resolution. So we took them from what was maybe 500 pixels to 8,000 pixels — 16 times higher — in resolution just to build up the environments. And that was an absolute necessity in order to get the robots to look the way they do in the movie.
“We’re at a stage now where we can mimic real-life lighting well enough and the computer offers us some additional controls on top of that,” Koch continues. “Or exactly the type of realism that Michael calls ‘pings’ — reflections of light sources in car panels or on little bits of chrome. We can just say, ‘you know what? I want a highlight right there’ – and it’s done.”
The level of sophistication that Bay’s technical crews have achieved — iridescent, lacquer-coated car finishes, colossal explosion scenes with robots that do their thing in previously unrealizable settings such as sandstorms, big hulking machines that interact with humans as if both species had equally compelling personalities — has set a new benchmark in what is possible in movies. And that could prove to be the film’s major drawing card.
“People in the special effects community have taken notice,” says Farrar. “They have been very flattering, saying that this is maybe akin to a new level of advancement for the type of work we do, similar to what ‘Jurassic Park’ was in its day. A big part of what we had to think about was if these guys were real, then how would they move? What would they look like? Animation and physics automatically came into it. But Michael Bay is the type of guy who also wants to make it look good at the same time, which I fully subscribe to. So if it doesn’t look cool, and it doesn’t look great in the shot, you have to do it differently. You might start with heavy robots, but we’ve all seen heavy robots — that’s boring. We wanted to make something that was much more elegant. That means you’re not always gonna abide by what a big heavy object would do because we wanted to have fighters that could maneuver in ways no one had ever seen before. It’s a lot like the way we think of Hong Kong-style filmmaking in which you have the actors moving on wires.”
Another fun aspect of a Michael Bay film is blowing things up, taking the little hobby-modeling pieces that were so painstakingly assembled and scattering them across the board. Bay likes to do things down and dirty, so he has his legions of painters and compositors go in and put some grime on a finish here, some dust on a chassis there. It’s called realism, and that’s the way he likes it.
The job of the digital compositing supervisor Patrick Tubach was to oversee the actual layering of the shots. “We started with a background plate that was shot in production. And then we took computer-generated elements and added them to the shot,” says Tubach. “But you have to make them look as if they were shot together, and that’s where the compositor comes in. They make it look photographic. They take the computer-generated stuff and create the illusion that everything was shot on the same day at the same time. And that these robots, who aren’t even real, were actually there. Ultimately, the quality of the final shot falls on the compositor and the compositing supervisor.
“Trying to make things look real is what it comes down to,” he continues. “And adding that stylized look that, sometimes, the director is looking for. You don’t get that until you get in there and start actually adding some artistry on top of everything that was shot.”
Tubach mentions one of his favorite scenes to illustrate his point. It’s the sequence in which Blackout®, in the form of a Sikorsky® MH-53 Pave Low® helicopter, lays waste to an Army base in the desert. Blackout® arrives at the base and this is the first time we actually see him in contact with humans. “He’s kind of a one-man army taking out the entire base by himself,” says Tubach. “And so our instruction on this shot was just that he has this weapon, we’re not exactly sure what it is, but it’s a really devastating weapon.
“At first we thought that maybe it would be something like an electromagnetic pulse that knocks out electrical devices. But when you think about that visually, that’s not the most exciting thing to look at. So we said, ‘OK, how do we make it a little more alien and make it look really exciting?’ So we started thinking about some sort of plasma wave that Blackout® has. It’s a pretty devastating weapon. He just fires into the ground and the thing mushrooms out around him. Visually we thought it looked very striking because it sort of vaporizes everything in its path.
“After looking at atomic bomb footage, we noticed that a lot of dust streams away from the center of the impact and kind of keeps going. So we added a lot of that into the shots. And then everything that he hits, everything that’s in the scene ahead of time, ends up just crumbling. All that’s left are the carcasses of the vehicles. The rest is kind of blown away and has a lot of energy. And that’s one thing that, you know, Michael was excited about, that when Blackout® lands and hits the ground it’s just complete devastation from that moment on.”
Bay and his compositing team were only just beginning to wreak havoc. To achieve the mayhem that followed, they played with the timing of the footage they shot. “We ended up re-timing a lot of things to get the glass to break exactly when we wanted it to,” continues Tubach. “We re-arranged things on the ground to create a more pleasing composition. We had a shot in a tower looking out at vehicles on the tarmac and we back timed the explosion to hit exactly when we wanted them to hit. We also wanted to keep the charges that were going off in the middle because we thought they looked great. But we had to make the moment of impact with the ground meet them. So we compressed time on the whole shot until it fit and did just what we wanted it to do. A lot of the tents hidden in the back were elements we added just so we’d have more stuff to destroy. We wanted to see more things breaking apart and flying out of frame.”
According to Tubach, part of the joy of working on a Michael Bay movie is that it enables the effects crew to work on epic-sized shots. “We knew when we started this that we wanted to have this wave roll through and blow everything up. But still, that leaves a lot of room for interpretation. One thing we were excited about in that sequence is that first, something amazing happens and then something amazing happens again, and then something else even more amazing happens. It just keeps coming at you. You have this wave, and you’re staring at it, and then there’s another one and another one. We’re really proud of all the work that went into it. The majority of those objects were there. And we were just having them to wipe them out and blow them to bits. Everything that happens after the pulse blast goes off is just completely fabricated all the way down to the ground plane.”
Building things up to blow them to smithereens with dash and panache could be called an aesthetic for the new era. Add to this brew the artistry of some real relationships, in which Shia LaBeouf displays some real acting chops and the animated machines match him riff for riff, and you have a cinematic energy force to contend with. All of it, says Farrar, is very purposefully achieved by an accomplished crew who keep pushing the envelope. “I’ve seen in my own career the different levels of progress that have been made,” he says, “and I come from a photographic background. A lot of the artists on my crew — some 350 people now come from CG, as well as other kinds of backgrounds. It’s taken a long time for the software and the artistic perceptions to get up to this new level where we are now. How do you make brass look like brass? How do you make a car part look like a real painted finish where it’s got the metal flake finish in it and the clear coat on top of it? We’ve got all that. That takes a high degree of artistry and technical support. We have really hit a new high-water mark with this movie.”
“For a movie of this scale, scope and complexity, we completed it under a very tight schedule,” Ian Bryce says, “which doesn’t take away from how richly textured it appears. Between the sets, the vehicles and the extraordinary ground breaking technology of the effects, it will be an exciting adventure for audiences.”
“I’m nervous for my grandmother to see this film,” LaBeouf laughs. “I hope she doesn’t have a grand mal in the middle of the theatre, there’s so much going on in this movie. But beyond the hardware, it’s about the story. ‘TRANSFORMERS’ really is a classic American tale.”
“Michael Bay doesn’t make small pictures,” states Spielberg. “There’s even more production value in this one than in ‘Armageddon’ and ‘Pearl Harbor’, in my humble opinion. It’s scary and dark when it has to be, and it’s surprisingly humorous in all the right places.”
As for Spielberg’s favorite Transformer™, it’s a toss up between “my father figure, Optimus Prime® and Bumblebee™,” he says, “but Bumbleebee™ wins out because you can drive him and sometimes he takes a turn and drives you.
“I’m really proud of ‘TRANSFORMERS,’ and the contributions of every person who worked on this film,” Spielberg says. “I hope “TRANSFORMERS” is the first in an enduring franchise.”