Recently we were invited up to Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) in the Northern part of California's Presidio District to hear from certain Visual Effects people about the Transformers DVD. On tap to talk with us where Scott Farrar who served as the Visual Effects Supervisor and Second Unit Director on the film. We also talked with Associate Visual Effects Supervisor Russell Earl, Animation Supervisor Scott Benza and Creature Technical Director/Digital Production Supervisor Jeff White.
The day began when we entered one of the ILM's many theaters and were greeted by Scott Farrar. He opened by telling us that the hardest part of the movie was making "metallic shapes look real." He then explained that there were 10,108 parts and pieces to the Transformers and that all of them "had to be built, connected and painted." In addition to this, director Michael Bay made it clear that he wanted these guys to look like "nimble, ninja warriors" and that he was inspired by a lot of Hong Kong action movies. Over the course of this rigorous production he talked about "never being quite sure if you're going to get there," and that it was the rabid fanbase (and Michael Bay) of this franchise who wanted the robots to have lips. Farrar also explained that early on they realized that they needed people to understand that there was a difference between a "handrawn movie vs. something real on screen."
Farrar then fielded questions like were there any robots where were going to be in the movie but were cut for time reasons? "Not that I recall, due to budget reasons we had to up the ante on everything." He explained that so many of the robots were given unique characteristics that they had to make numerous appearances in the movie. "You kind of missed them so you had to see them," he explained. Where they limited by physics in making Transformers? "ILM has people for that, the rubble falling down, the springs on the robots bouncing... we got that physically correct," but Michael Bay's strongest mandate was "it's gotta look cool." The discussion then went into just how photo realistic was the actual robots transformation? "It's a cheat... we cheated Optimus more than others.
As for what fans can expect from Transformers 2? "We've improved on the processes that we did... reflections of the robots, we know how to do that faster. Michael's all about amazing action and we're open to that. The commitment is not to just chuck out a sequel. We want a deep story, lots of layers to the story... keep the characters rich. We learned about lighting, there'll be moodier lighting." What about the look of the Transformers? "The designs were pretty well set from the beginning. Would it be a puppet or a mix of plates? We figured it out at the beginning and we didn't add stuff."
Farrar then talked about how great working with CGI is. "When it's working there's nothing greater," he maintained. "We're still in the Stone Age as far as computer graphics because it's hard work, even with all the software we've got." As for things that changed during test screenings? "The momentum of Sam (Witwicky; Shia LaBeouf) killing was not there... so it became more of a heroic act, Sam protecting his friend Optimus Prime." What might fans expect to see on the DVD? "There will be visual effects in the DVD, we did some interviews."
After this we were escorted through ILM to another small theater where Associate Visual Effects Supervisor Russell Earl took the stage. He said that initially, "There was some concern about the how to turn the robot into a car" and vice versa, but that they "just focused on building it rather than worrying how to get there." After this Earl proceeded to break down the first transformation of the helicopter in the film. "This set the bar," Earl claims, "we said 'If this is what we're starting with this is going to be amazing.'" After that he proceeded to show us the actual footage of the plane and then explained how it was layered and built upon to bring about the final shot in the movie. After this Earl then broke down the scene on the freeway where the bus was ripped in half and Bonecrusher fights Optimus. We began with a look at the rough animation from the scene and again saw how it was built upon. Earl explained that there were "numerous passes" done on this scene to take care of "glints and glaring."
According to Earl, Michael Bay really focused on the actual shooting of the movie which is why many of the effects shots were being completed right up until the Transformers theatrical release on July 2 of this year. He said that the most challenging shots were those that gave the audience an "overall view... the 360 degree shots, lighting, accounting for reflections."
Once Earl was done, Animation Supervisor Scott Benza gave us a presentation on "Robot Athleticism vs. Weight Development." He started off by telling us that they knew from the very beginning "the robot transformations were going to be very difficult. Michael wanted the robots to be agile warriors." He then showed us some of the early animation tests which featured versions of the robots moving in a much clunkier fashion than they do in the movie. The purpose of these tests was to figure out what "Michael liked and didn't like... Michael wanted to collaborate." Benza also talked about doing the first combat test and realizing that "silhouettes weren't going to be a problem, in motion you get it easier." He then brought up Michael Bay's decision to show Optimus Prime's facial movements. After "making sure that that was what Michael wanted" they proceeded to mold the way the character talked after Liam Neeson. We then saw some fun examples of the robots being patterned after Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro in Heat.
Lastly, Benza, who also worked on Davey Jones for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest was asked who was harder to create, Jones or Optimus Prime? "Technically Davey was," Benza stated, "because he had more shots." In closing Benza commented on the animation team's working relationship with Michael Bay over the course of the film. "A lot of people didn't always agree with his behavior but they had a newfound respect for him."
Finishing up the day at ILM was Digital Production Supervisor Jeff White. He explained that they shot "tons of reference photos of cars" in order to create the Transformers in the film. For example with Bumble Bee, "Michael wanted the bodies of the robots to look like what you would see under the hood of a car. We would get static pieces and we would have to figure out how to make it move." After this, White showed us some shots of Megatron and explained that "the process of rigging is like bones in the body and each Transformer had 140,000 bones." To make their lives easier they created a process called Dynamic Rigging which allowed all the pieces of one area to move together. "There were a lot of facial transformations... making guns come out of nowhere." Was there a rule to how long each Transformer had to Transform? "It was all based on the shot. It was like solving a Rubik's cube where you pull all the stickers off and then put them in different locations." He then gave us some statistics on the hardware used to make Transformers. Apparently ILM used 5500 computer processors and 220 Terabytes of storage to house it all.
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In closing, White talked a little bit about his current project Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. "For someone at ILM, going from Transformers to Indiana Jones is like going through my childhood." He was then asked if working on the new Indiana Jones was challenging because those earlier movies were done with practical effects. "The practical work they used to do sets a really high bar. On Indy you work on how do you make our effects" undetectable to the human eye. How does he feel about moving from creating Transformers to effects for Indiana Jones? "It's a nice change of pace."
The Transformers comes to DVD and HD-DVD on October 16 from DreamWorks Home Video.
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