ILM, Digital Domain push the limits for director
By DAVID S. COHEN
After “Transformers” hit theaters in 2007, Michael Bay spoofed himself in a Verizon FiOS commercial, proclaiming, “I demand things to be awesome!” and proving it by flaunting his “awesome pussycat” (a tiger) and awesome (exploding) barbecue grill.
Turns out the helmer was only half-kidding. Just ask the visual effects studios on “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” who have their hands full keeping up with Bay’s itch for excess.
“He’s brilliant, but he’s a challenge,” says Matthew Butler, Digital Domain’s vfx supervisor on the film. Not only is Bay demanding, as top directors generally are, but “he’s incredibly fast-paced. He’s a whirlwind to keep up with, both on the set and in post.”
Scott Farrar of Industrial Light and Magic, lead vfx supervisor on both “Transformers” films, sounds somewhat awestruck as he compares the sequel to its predecessor.
“Michael took the production value up many, many notches,” he says. “Just the backgrounds alone are huge. It’s a combination of ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Ben-Hur,’ in regards to fantastic backgrounds and the unbelievable sets we worked at around the world.”
Everyone involved in “Revenge of the Fallen” is keeping the details under wraps, but Farrar says there are some 60 robot characters, and they play in settings around the world. Some, like refineries at night, were chosen to boost the visual drama and show off the scale of the giant ‘bots.
What’s more, this time the Transformers will interact much more with the world around them. Farrar highlights “the splashes and the hits and the fighting on dirt or moving, banging into trees,” explaining, “Things splinter and break, they spit, they outgas, they sweat, they snort.”
ILM, having developed the vfx for the first “Transformers,” is the lead shop on this one as well. But Bay is part owner of Digital Domain, which presents some unusual challenges for Butler and the DD team.
For Bay, co-owning the company puts him in a potential conflict of interest. The director always wants the best for his movie and usually asks for as much as possible from the vfx shop. The owner of a vfx shop, on the other hand, has to keep an eye on costs and margins.
Butler says Bay is remarkably good at balancing those roles: “Michael is very fiscally responsible. a director but he’s very much a producer too. In fact, whenever we’re talking about any shot or sequence, he’s thinking about what it costs, and he’s thinking about bang for the buck.”
One new challenge is that several sequences will be shown in Imax format, approximately 16 times larger than 35mm, which means the CG work must be finished at much higher resolution. At that scale, it can take several days to render a final frame.
All this is on top of creating a new family of giant robots. “(Bay) had to learn a whole litany of new things by getting into this robot culture on the first film,” Farrar says. “I don’t think he’d ever worked on a film where he’d done so much directing of animated characters. So he’s really taken it to heart, and I think not everybody does, but he actually enjoys the process.”
By PETER DEBRUGE
- No one makes movies on the scale of Michael Bay, though the director remembers a time when the studio wasn’t sure whether he could handle anything larger than a musicvideo.
- But as Bay saw it, he’d already logged more on-set experience than most feature helmers. “I’ve already directed over 500 days, and I know how to work a crew,” he told Sony before being allowed to make “Bad Boys.” Much of his team was already in place — and still works with him today. Bay occasionally even sacrifices some of his fee to shoot in California with his preferred crew.
- “Michael, to his credit, is an intensely loyal person,” says producer Ian Bryce, who met the director nearly 30 years earlier, when both were working in lowly Lucasfilm jobs. “Once he finds someone he likes and he trusts, they become part of the team.”
- Launched Platinum Dunes production shingle with Brad Fuller and Andrew Form in 2001, designed to give first-time helmers a shot by remaking such horror classics as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Friday the 13th.”
- In 2006, acquired Venice, Calif.-based vfx studio Digital Domain from James Cameron and Stan Winston.
- Directs commercials via The Institute for the Development of Enhanced Perceptual Awareness, which he opened with Scott Gardenhour, a producer Bay linked up with during his early days at Propaganda Films.
- First caught producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson’s attention by directing the Chicago musicvideo for “Days of Thunder.” Bay went on to make “Bad Boys” and “The Rock” for the duo, followed by another three movies for Bruckheimer. Bruckheimer and Bay currently have “Cocaine Cowboys” in the works for HBO.
- In his teens, Bay landed a job doing file storage for Steven Spielberg, who later handpicked him to direct “Transformers.”
- Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner has brought all sorts of goodies to Bay’s doorstep, including “Transformers” franchise and an upcoming adaptation of the Ouija board game.
SHOPS AND WARES
- Bay relies on Chapman/Leonard for equipment, trusts his digital intermediates to Company 3 and swears by Panavision, Deluxe, Dolby labs and Avid.
- He always uses ILM for visual effects work, but also sends repeat business to Asylum, KNB Effects and Gentle Giant Studios.
Many collaborators have been with Bay for years:
- Production designer Nigel Phelps dates back to Bay’s musicvideo days. Since “Bad Boys,” stunt co-ordinator Kenny Bates has found the best drivers.
- DPs come and go, but key grip Les Tomita has been with Bay since “The Rock.” So has hair and makeup duo Yolanda Toussieng and Ed Henriques, who handled everything from Sean Connery’s coif to Shia LaBeouf’s battle scars.
- Among Bay’s trusted team of editors, “Tom Muldoon has been with me since my very first musicvideo,” the director says. “He also comes in and works on my movies — every single one.” Other key cutters include Paul Rubell and Glen Scantlebury.
Others have worked their way up through the ranks:
- Mitchell Amundsen graduated from camera operator to d.p. under Bay’s watch.
- Bay gave ambitious ex-barista Mark Palansky (who’d bug Bay with questions over the Starbucks counter) a break on “Pearl Harbor.” When the young man tried to ankle his assistant job, Bay said, “I refuse for you to quit. This is the best film school you’re gonna get!” He went on to direct “Penelope.”
- Since assistant Edward Albolote wants to edit, Bay gave him an apprentice role on “Transformers.”
- Matthew Cohan, VP of development for Bay Films, worked his way up from a staff assistant position on “Pearl Harbor.”
- William Morris agents John Fogelman and Rob Carlson set up Bay’s last three features, while CAA’s David O’Connor reps Platinum Dunes.
- Bay and attorney Robert Offer (of Sloane, Offer, Weber and Dern) go back as far as nursery school. “I’ve known him longer than his wife,” Bay says of his counsel.