"TRANSFORMERS": The Story
In many ways Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf) is like every teenage boy. He's interested in girls and cars, and bored with school. But that's where the similarities end. Smart and witty, Sam is destined for bigger things than his peers. When his father agrees to match funds toward his first car, Sam's excitement quickly turns to disappointment with the purchase of a beater 1976 Chevy Camaro® that appears to have a mind of its own. But when the hottest girl in school, Mikaela (Megan Fox), needs a ride home, Sam can't resist, and before long the Camaro® steers the two of them together.
The next morning Sam awakens to a distinctive roar and screeching tires. Someone has stolen his car. In a valiant effort to pursue the thief, he chases the Camaro® only to find himself overpowered by a police cruiser that shockingly transforms into a menacing 20-foot robot. Looming over him, the robot attempts to interrogate Sam, but before he can comprehend his terrifying circumstances, Mikaela appears. As the two run from their mysterious attacker, Sam's Camaro® flies in to the rescue. Before the dust can settle, sections of the Camaro® peel back like a banana, grinding, rising before their very eyes and suddenly changing into another giant robot.
Saved by the yellow behemoth, Sam and Mikaela attempt to communicate with their new friend who cannot seem to speak without the aid of songs playing from his radio. Soon other vehicles join them, transforming one by one into enormous mechanical beings who explain that they are Autobots® from the planet Cybertron on a mission to recover the "Allspark," their life source, before their enemies, the evil Decepticons®, can find it.
Before Sam and Mikaela can implement their plan to help the Autobots®, they are arrested by a strange and officious government lackey (John Turturro) and taken to a clandestine command post.
Half a world away an Army Captain (Josh Duhamel), who is in charge of a small brigade of Special Forces Rangers, and the assigned Air Force combat controller, Sergeant Epps (Tyrese Gibson), find themselves the sole survivors of a bizarre attack on their base in Qatar. The soldiers soon discover they are the first present-day humans to come up against a powerful alien being that can shape-shift into a giant metallic scorpion but is really a powerful bullet and bomb-resistant robot.
When Lennox's squad is surreptitiously transferred back to the U.S., they know they have seen and experienced something earth shattering. They are part of a select group that includes the U.S. Secretary of Defense (Jon Voight), members of a top secret military unit called Sector 7 (Turturro and Michael O'Neill), along with a beautiful computer analyst (Rachael Taylor) and her associate, a smart but uptight hacker (Anthony Anderson), plus the most unlikely pair, a couple of high school kids who have befriended some of the robots, (LaBeouf and Fox) - all of whom know about the aliens that have come to Earth in a desperate search for the "Allspark."
Together the group strategizes a plan of attack to save the world from the battling Transformers™, but when Sam and Mikaela realize the government plans to destroy their new friends the Autobots®, along with the evil Decepticons®, they devise a plan of their own to save mankind.
When Spielberg first described the story to Bay, it was simple: It's about a boy and his car that just happens to be an alien robot. A great hook, to be sure, but generating an entertaining, engaging story necessitates more than the kernel of an idea; its success rests in the hands of talented, ingenious writers.
John Rogers, who has written comic books himself, took a first crack at the story. In hopes of calming the nerves of fervent Transformers™ fans, he went online to reassure them that the filmmakers understood the devotion that kept the franchise alive long enough to be worth making into a movie. With that sense of respect and dignity, he approached the story, following DreamWorks' edict to write a human tale.
"I had to start with human characters that could be expanded into larger roles," Rogers explains, "and at the same time show the global scale of the story in the three or four different plot lines that eventually intersect. The idea was a worldwide conspiracy in the form of an action movie where all these people's lives come together in the middle of the movie. So I started with Sam Witwicky and his love/hate relationship with his beater car; a group of soldiers who find some weird technology; and some scientists who are investigating that technology. That was the basic spine of it."
Next up were writing partners Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, both of whom are the perfect age to remember playing with the toys as kids, watching the television series, which ran from 1984 to 1987, and seeing the animated 1986 movie, "The Transformers: The Movie" written by Ron Friedman and directed by Nelson Shin.
Orci likens playing with the toys as "the ultimate peek-a-boo" game for eight-year-olds. "What is it, a truck?" he says, "No, it's not a truck. Oh my God, it talks! It's a robot. It's the ultimate jack-in-the-box with a constant surprise. And from a more sophisticated approach, you'd imagine all your toys coming to life. You imagine befriending all the technology around you. That was a cool concept in 1984, and it still is now."
Kurtzman agrees. "The idea behind the toy is that everything around us, our cars, and all technology, are sentient," he explains. "Every thing has emotions and feelings but we don't know it because they are in disguise. This seemed like a good jumping off point for a movie."
"Alex and Roberto are very skilled at drawing strong characters," says di Bonventura. "Once they came aboard, the project quickly found its feet."
"The Transformers™ may be robots on the outside but they all have very human souls," says DeSanto. "It's important not to lose that in the translation. As always it comes down to the classic good (the Autobots®) versus evil (the Decepticons®) with the future of humanity at stake."
"The writers really helped narrow the choice of robots," says Bay. "At the beginning I had some very elaborate plans for these newer robots called 'Combiners,' but ultimately it became too cost prohibitive to create them just in terms of manpower, let alone the technology to make them look real."
"Steven wanted to make it an even five against five," Bay continues, "so that's where it took off."
The filmmakers spent time watching the 1980s "The Transformers" television show as well as the animated movie until they were very familiar with the first generations of robots.
"It became obvious that we couldn't make a movie without Bumblebee™, Optimus Prime® and Megatron®," says di Bonaventura. "After that we took a poll amongst ourselves, found out who were our favorites and then asked fans who their favorites were. From there we put a list together that encompasses most peoples' favorite Transformers™. We know that people are going to feel, 'Oh I wish they'd have put in that one or that other one,' but there were only so many robots we could deal with in one movie."
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."
"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."
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