The huge visual effects movie Transformers racked up the biggest July 4th single-day gross in boxoffice history. We speak to director Michael Bay and, for a something different, guest writer Robin Rowe looks in depth at the editing of the megahit blockbuster.
The huge visual effects movie Transformers racked up the biggest July 4th single-day gross in box office history, $26 million, beating the $22 million of Spider-Man 2 in 2004. By the end of the week Transformers stood at a whopping $153 million.
The furious cutting in the first few minutes of the film, from the huge alien robot attack on an American base in Qatar to Sam’s everyday life in suburbia, keeps the story pumping. Unlike Spider-Man 3, there’s no slowing down to have a Peter Parker character moping over breaking up with Mary Jane. Transformers is constant trills. The rapid MTV-style of cutting is just what everyone expects from a movie directed by Michael Bay.
Some of the most important actors in any giant robots film are, of course, the giant robots. The alien robots hide in plain sight by transforming themselves into ordinary-looking machines. The conversion process, from cars and planes to bipod robots, is mesmerizing and convincing. Director Michael Bay kept throwing the robots back to ILM demanding they look more real. He wanted the robots absolutely photo-realistic. The robots look amazing, whether flying through the air, burrowing through the sand, or running down the highway. While the robots had to be created digitally, Bay prefers using real tanks and airplanes over faking it using blue screen visual effects. The military gear is expensive and there’s lots of it, lots more than Apocalypse Now. It’s the biggest military coordination with a motion picture ever.
Producer Steven Spielberg, together with DreamWorks SKG and Paramount Pictures, acquired the rights to Transformers in 2004. In 2005, Paramount Pictures acquired DreamWorks SKG for $1.6B. The genesis of Transformers was a line of toys from Hasbro and a successful television cartoon series in the 1980s.
The film was shot anamorphic on film in 83 days of principal photography, not counting a few days of pick-ups. Some plate shots used 8-perf VistaVision. Editorial started around May 22, 2006, and principal photography ended October 4, 2006. The scale of the Transformers editing process is enormous, with three credited editors and two additional editors.
<strong>Editing with Michael Bay</strong>
Director Michael Bay is very hands-on, with a shared project with an “Experimental Cuts” bin open on a community Avid for use working with him. “I don’t know how to push buttons to make my own edit”, says Bay. “I’ll never learn to make my own edits because I don’t want to go there.”
Editor Paul Rubell notes that Transformers is true to Michael Bay’s style. “Lots of action, lots of characters, lots of improvised humor, lots of visual effects, and lots of running time in the first cut”. Editor Glen Scantlebury adds, “It takes a lot of hammers to beat Michael Bay’s images into submission.” DreamWorks production head Adam Goodman says, “The massive scale of Transformers demanded editors with the experience and skills necessary to weave intense action, complex visual effects, and well-timed humor into a compelling story”.
Scantlebury has worked ten and a half months editing by the time they finish. “Alternative Edits?”, says Scantlebury. “What else would we be doing for ten months?!!” Rubell adds, “Sometimes it seems we do nothing but prepare alternate edits”. Scantlebury says, “Michael is in there every day pulling his selects by himself on ‘his Avid’ and slugging it out with us”. Bay says, “I like to see editors do their own thing first. The editor prepares his own cut. Then we’ll work on it for an hour or two. I don’t like to see the assembly. I just want to see scenes. My action takes a lot of cutting. I’ll do 60 to 70 set-ups in a day. Everything is very much in my head. There’s all this film. What do we do with it?”
“There’s an intense need for pre-visualization in the mind’s-eye of the editor”, notes Rubell. “Cutting scenes in which actors are interacting with characters who aren’t there is a challenge. There are action scenes with things being blown up by characters who aren’t there.”
The art department spent a year working on the “modernization” designs of the robots, the sets for the film and concept art for the visual effects. Concept art and design development continued through the shoot and well into post-production. Scantlebury says, “Steve Yamamoto and Rob Dressel did great pre-visualations for Michael before he shot, and we’d use them to help us figure out what the hell was going on when the plate shots arrived for a VFX scene.” To get the timing right, Steve Yamamoto came back to pri-vis his animations on top of a couple of the most complicated live action plate shots, so the editors could get the timing right before turning them over to ILM, .
Michael Bay assembled his own team of independent animatics artists during pre-production. They designed many of the hero scenes and served as a guide to us for preparation and during the shoot. In the end, some shots follow the animatics very closely and some are entirely developed from spontaneous ideas on set and during post-production.
Transformers uses six Meridian Avids on Unity with about 2 terabytes of storage. A Nitris is used for all screenings including their preview. There are three main edit rooms, a fourth system in a closet, the assistants have two systems, and director Michael Bay has one. There’s a Media Net hook-up used for daily transmissions between ILM and Bay.
“For 3d modeling ILM used mostly Maya, 3ds Max, Zeno and zBrush,” says Farrar. “For lighting and rendering we use Zeno with RenderMan and Mental Ray. For compositing it’s all Shake along with our Sabre systems, and editing uses Avids.”
Five EditorsTransformers has three main title editors: Rubell, Scantlebury and Muldoon; two additional editors: John Murray and Todd Miller, plus an associate editor: Ken Blackwell. To have so many editors on a film may sound like the casual sex of editing, but there’s method to the madness. All the editors had worked with Bay in the past and have extensive visual effects experience. “There’s 1.2M feet of film,” notes Bay. “Speed-wise, it’s important to have an editing team to bounce ideas. A lot of times we look at it together. With an effects film you have to do ‘turnovers’ [given to ILM by first assistant Calvin Wimmer] that cost $100k per shot. You have to cull through footage fast. The only way you can do that is with multiple editors.”
There’s been a trend of assigning one editor to handle the visual effects side when editing big effects films. Superman Returns and Charlotte’s Web are some recent movies with two editors. “At any given time, there have been two editors on Transformers”, notes Rubell. “But, five editors have worked on the film.” Scantlebury says, “Michael often picked which editor he wanted to start a scene, but by the end Paul, Tom and I had contributed to almost every scene.”
“I watched the first episode of the  TV series just to get a flavor”, says Rubell. “I didn’t want to be influenced beyond that. None of the editors are fan-boys, so we were often taken to the Bay woodshed for cutting out some important reference to the original series. But, we were able to bring a more mainstream perspective to the story.” Muldoon says, “The movie is so much bigger that nothing from before in the TV show applies. The movie is huge.” Scantlebury says, “I didn’t look at anything from prior Transformers because nothing can help you
cut a Michael Bay movie.”
Rubell says his biggest inspiration for editing Transformers is…Citizen Kane. “The point is, good editing is good editing regardless of genre”, says Rubell. “Is the rhythm organic? Do the characters live? Are the story points being made? Is there subtext, and if not, can we create it? There’s no such thing as a best take. There’s a best speech, or a best line, or a best word, or syllable, or look, or turn. It would be nice if actor performance could always be the sole criterion. What’s the other actor doing? What’s the camera doing? What’s the focus-puller doing? What’s the weather doing?” Scantlebury says, “I select the edit based on best performances always…if it’s in focus and you can cram a robot in there somewhere”.
Muldoon started by assembling a full-length guide cut using animatics. In the early stages of picture editing, the animatics were incorporated into the sequences with temp dialogue, music and sound effects. As plates were shot, the animatics were gradually replaced. At first, with no other guide and no time for feedback from Bay, the editors stuck as closely as possible to the storyboards. Later any idea was fair game. What was shot on set did not necessarily conform to what was pre-visualized. What was a 30-second animatic may become a 2-minute scene.
“Armageddon had a lot of visual effects as well”, says Muldoon . “But, I don’t think I’ve done a movie with so many effects. Scantlebury had previously done the big visual effects movie Tomb Raider in 2001. “The challenge with Transformers is trying to pick plate shots and imagine 3-D robots rummaging around,” says Scantlebury. “The robots have their own comic timing to go with the actors’ comic timing, an evolving interaction through animation stages down to the last ADR session.”
Dailies were delivered to the cutting room digitized. The negative was transferred to D5 tape and down-converted to Digibeta. Audio was delivered as files, imported and synched in the Avid. The Digibeta tapes were recycled. The D5 tapes were later used for the Nitris. All media was backed up on Firewire drives. There were no traditional dailies screenings on the big screen, something Scantlebury says he misses. Internally at ILM, dailies are reviewed each morning by the supervisor, then selects are made and reviewed with the director. “Once Michael gave the ok to release dailies to the studio”, says Blackwell, “we sent the telecine house an EDL and they assembled the dailies tapes for the studio.”
“In terms of Michael working with editors,” says Rubell, “he’s a very busy guy.” The editors had to maximize their limited access to him. “Michael likes the fact that we’re self-starters and tireless searchers for a better moment, a better juxtaposition, whatever,” says Rubell. “Eventually, he’ll sit at the Avid and pull selects for a given sequence, which invariably will revitalize it. He knows everything he shot, way better than we do. He has an artist’s eye and a great sense of humor. So when we’ve got him, we hang in and just try to keep up with him.”
What’s a typical day? “Bay would call in the morning,” says Muldoon. He got to see Spielberg a few times for input. “Steven and Michael had already talked about it”, says Muldoon. “Steven would talk about one reel. Towards the end we talked about whole movie. Obviously, you always select edit on performance. Sometime you can choose on action. Shia is really great on acting. We do a lot of alternative edits just because we can, and sort out the best way to integrate. We have the animatic, but sometimes the actors are ad libbing. You end up with different scenes and different moments. Bay doesn’t usually do things in one take, but we used one take on the Masked scene because Michael said, ‘I want to hold on shots and really show the Transformers’.”
“Michael is a final-cut director and as such, he remains firmly in control,” says Rubell. “Having said that, he loves to entertain ideas from every quarter.
<strong>The Associate Editor</strong>
“Ken Blackwell received the controversial ‘associate editor’ credit as a way of acknowledging his creative contributions as picture editor, visual effects editor, music editor, assistant editor, and technical guru”, says Rubell. “Ken is a Zen master on After Effects”, notes Scantlebury, “and may even have a shot or two in the movie.”
“Paul and I were finishing Miami Vice when Transformers started shooting”, says Blackwell. “I started at the end of July once we were finished with Miami Vice, and Paul started a month later. I have an After Effects station, which was used to create hundreds of temp comps for screenings and editing. We export TIFF sequence files of any elements we need from the Nitris [in high definition and kept up to date by assistant Adam Kimmerlin] and import them into After Effects. This is an inexpensive way to get immediate results for ideas that come up in the editing room. You can show the director immediate results of an idea. It has saved us a lot of time over the years and helped sell ideas.”
<strong>The Visual Effects</strong>
There are about 630 visual effects shots in the film. There are 430 executed at ILM, 91 at Digital Domain, 70 at the Asylum and the rest are 2D clean up and fixes done by CO3, ISolve and Ken Blackwell. Technical advancements were made in environments, lighting, and simulation of physical effects and integration of CG characters in a real environment.
“ILM did the bulk of the 3-D robots,” notes Scantlebury. “Incredible work, given the pressure of turning in shots up to the last minute…hold on…we just ordered two more 3-D shots three weeks before final delivery. Digital Domain picked up the rest, including turning a soft-drink machine into a crazed aluminum
can shooting Robot.”
“Overall, the most challenging shot is OH020 which is a 360 degree descending camera move on Optimus that rotating around to reveal all four Autobots transforming in an alley”, says ILM visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar. “The shot was filmed in two separate camera moves from two separate rigs: a Russian arm mounted to a camera car and a 50-foot Technocrane. The plates were combined and blended. The 768-frame-long shot moves from an overhead medium close up on Optimus finishing his transformation, into an extreme close up of all the moving parts, then widening out to reveal our hero talent. Shia and Megan watch all four robots individually transform with their own unique style.”
<strong>Challenges in 5.1 Music Editing</strong>
Quicktimes for the sound and music department were output via a firewire connection from a DVCAM deck into Final Cut Pro. “At a certain point we were called upon to screen the movie repeatedly and without notice, with a 5.1 soundtrack,” says Rubell. “We had a 5.1 temp but were making complicated picture changes around the clock. There was no time to get back to the stage to update the tracks. So I conceived of a way to make changes and screen 5.1 out of the Avid. We mixed down the 24-track stems into their respective left, center, right, surround, and low-frequency families. We then group-clipped the individual stems with their mixdowns. We edited with the mixdowns, and when it came time to screen, we expanded back to 5.1 by switching the grouped mixdowns back to their component stems. We then mixed the stems down into a 5.1 configuration and exported that to the Nitris. It worked flawlessly, except that after a few weeks of endless group-clip switching my crew threatened to kill me. I was forced to shelve the system until Avid comes up with a way to globally switch, from mark-in to mark-out, the clips on a given audio track.”
“There’s no one editor who’s good at cutting everything,” says Michael Bay. “Paul is the uber story editor. Glen cuts the best action. Tom is the best at getting the humor timing.” DreamWorks production head Adam Goodman says, “There’s no better fit for the task than editors Paul Rubell, Glen Scantlebury and Tom Muldoon.”
Next for Paul Rubell is Tonight, He Comes, the story of a depressed super-hero who’s hitting the bottle and flying into buildings (starring Will Smith, Charlize Theron and Jason Bateman). Tom Muldoon stays busy editing commercials at his post-production house NOMAD. Glen Scantlebury says next for him is “a vacation”.
Our world will be transformed on July 4 when aliens make Earth their final battleground in Transformers. Asked if there’s anything about Transformers that could forever change how future films are made, editor Glenn Scantlebury said, “If an Avid machine transforms into a robot editor, we’re all in trouble”.
<strong>Interview wth Michael Bay</strong>
To get the inside story on editing Transformers, we we able talk directly with director Michael Bay, the three main title editors Paul Rubell (ACE), Glen Scantlebury and Tom Muldoon, associate editor Ken Blackwell, and ILM visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar in Los Angeles.
fxg: Why are your movies so successful?
MB: My grandfather said the only way to make money is to sell to middle America. He was in the jeans business, a stone washer. Armageddon to me is a comedy, an average Joe saving the world. A lot of my movies deal with heroism or becoming a hero.
fxg: Steven Spielberg says you’re the perfect director for Transformers. What does he mean by that?
MB:I have a visual sensibility. Steven has said I’m one of the better shooters out there, that I’ve got the best eye in Hollywood. It’s amazing to sit in a room with Steven Spielberg and get to say, let’s talk about this scene or that scene. I like bouncing ideas off him. In the edit room, Spielberg is slapping me on the leg. Why is he doing that? Transformers brings out the kid in everyone.
fxg: Spielberg was working on Transformers before Paramount acquired DreamWorks. When did you come onboard?
MB:Three weeks after The Island. Steven Spielberg called. I said, I don’t know…
fxg: Steven Spielberg calls, and you say, I don’t know?
MB:I’ve been offered a lot of action movies. I wasn’t a fan of Transformers, wasn’t the right age to have been caught up in it. Hasbro sent me through Transformers school to learn all the characters and stories. I met with the writers. They didn’t want to show me the first script. We kind of threw that out. It was too kiddie. I said it would have to be cool for teenagers and fun for adults. Spielberg said it the best: “It’s about a boy buying his first car…that turns out to be an alien robot.” That’s what sold me.
Hasbro sent me through Transformers school…
fxg: Why do critics give you a hard time?
MB:I asked a well-known critic over lunch, why do I get so much shit? He said, “You made too much success too early. We build them up to tear them down. And, we got bored going after Jerry Bruckheimer.” Jerry taught me, don’t read the critics.
fxg: What’s a typical day for you?
MB:I have good days and bad days. I hang by the house, the pool. I read. I go to the office in Santa Monica where the edit bays are. Platinum Dunes is there.
fxg: How do you create your action scenes?
MB:The way I do action is the major beats. For a car chase, what are my big beats here? I use pre-viz. It’s put mostly in my head. I don’t storyboard the connecting pieces. I think storyboards are B.S. Crews don’t look at them anyway. I lay out a little road with Matchbox cars. You may think it’s silly. It’s important because you have stunt players, important they not crash into your event. I put the Matchbox cars on paper and say, right here at this cone you turn. For gunfights sometimes you can play act that on the set. You go to point B, C, then here, here. Storyboards take so many frames to show an action scene they don’t make sense. It’s better to walk it, talk it, or pre-viz.
fxg: Do you like to shoot?
MB:I like to camera operate. I won’t operate when the actors are acting. I need to see their eyes and too much is happening with the camera. I’ll put myself in dangerous positions to show my crew what we’re doing is actually safe. I started out wanting to be a DP…have a photo background. I can work with just about any DP.
fxg: Why did you become a director instead of a DP?
MB:I shot some student films. I’d ask, are you sure you want to do that shot? You don’t want that. Really…you don’t. This is a lame shot.
fxg: How do you decide what’s the best lens and framing for a shot? Do you have favorite lenses and shots?
MB:Panavision designed some wide anamorphics for me, a 20, a 24. I used the 30 quite a bit, and the 35. They widened them out a bit, made them flatter for me. I was the first to shoot with the 3600 anamorphic, which was used in the desert for the planes flying in and for some of the car chase stuff.
I own the Arri 235 that I shot maybe a quarter of the movie with. It’s so small. It’s a fun camera to shoot with. It’s been hot-wired for me. We build different rigs to do crazy hand-held stuff with it.
fxg: How do you get the best performance from actors?
MB:I work with actors quite a bit. I always hire improv actors. One of my strengths is creating funny on the set. I need actors who can roll with it. I create a tension on the set that you can see on the actors’ faces.
fxg: How do you get the most of humor?
MB:I don’t know. Either you’ve got it, or you don’t. It’s all about timing. You need good sound to hear the joke. Pause for the laugh. Tom [editor Tom Muldoon] and I did the Got Milk campaign. You can’t rush it. I always like to work with actors who can ad lib. Nicholas Cage in The Rock, Shia LeBouf, Owen Wilson, Will Smith…they all have a great improv sense. Martin Lawrence. Comedy has a cadence. You must not break the cadence of a joke.
fxg: Why so many editors on Transformers?
MB:There’s 1.2 million feet of film. Speed-wise, it’s important to have an editing team to bounce ideas. Started with Tom Muldoon, then Paul Rubell became available, then Glen Scantlebury. There’s no one editor who’s good at cutting everything. Paul is the uber story editor. Glen cuts the best action. Tom is the best at getting the humor timing. A lot of times we look at it together. With an effects film you have to do ‘turnovers’ that cost $100k per shot. [That is, turnover scenes to ILM for visual effects.] You have to cull through footage fast. The only way you can do that is with multiple editors.
fxg: How do you like editors to work?
MB:My action takes a lot of cutting. I’ll do 60 to 70 setups in a day. Everything is very much in my head. There’s all this film. What do we do with it? I like to see editors do their own thing first. I have a low budget film company [Platinum Dunes] to help young filmmakers. The editor prepares his own cut. Then we’ll work on it for an hour or two. I don’t like to see the assembly. I just want to see scenes.
fxg: How hands-on are you as an editor?
MB:I don’t know how to push buttons to make my own edit. I will never learn to make my own edits because I don’t want to go there. I make my own selects.
fxg: What’s your advice for editors starting out who wants to edit for you or someone like you?
MB:A good way is to start is as an assistant. Roger Barton was an assistant, became third editor on Bad Boys. Jim May is another, working at Platinum Dunes. Along the way doing sides jobs. If I have a big show I let an assistant try it. Platinum Dunes does movies you’d never show your mother…Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, The Hitcher. [And, The Birds for 2009.]
fxg: What’s next?
MB:I want to get into the game business. I bought 500-employee Digital Domain. I’m totally immersed in it. Sometimes I’m a control freak beyond control freaks. I try to keep people in top game, something I learned under Jerry Bruckheimer. It’s who you surround yourself with. I’ve worked with people for years. Once people know your sensibility it’s very easy to work.
fxg: What’s happening with Nuke and Digital Domain?
MB:I bought The Foundry in England, too. We’re taking all our software there. They’ll hot-wire Nuke. It needs add-ons and stuff. I brought some guys over from ILM.
fxg:You hired away guys from ILM while they were doing the effects for your movie?
MB:One of the guys was running ILM and another was their head tech guy. They were still nice about doing my movie. They’ll always get some of my business. I don’t use one sole source.
fxg: In general, are movies as good as they used to be?
MB:Things are more real now, more photo real. Look at the 70s and the 80s. Visual effects opened up a whole new world. Maybe there’s over-saturation. We’ve almost seen everything. In the 70s, Steven Spielberg invented dinosaurs. Now he’s hitting me in the leg. Why? Because he’s never seen robots doing that before. It’s hard to tell a fresh story now.
fxg:Do you have a special personal project you’d like to do?
MB:I have a Pulp Fiction type of story called Pain and Gain, a little 35-day shoot if I could find the time. They keep giving me these big action features.