“We’re going to be blowing up a lot of little Furbies,” Michael Bay says proudly.
Last August I flew out to Los Angeles to visit the shoot of Transformers, the movie that’s set to dominate this July 4th weekend. A couple of blocks of downtown LA had been shut down, mostly for crew and equipment, but one full block had been turned into a total war zone. Cars were upended, and huge holes had been blown in the pavement (in reality the street had been built up with fake rubble, but it looked pretty good from where I was standing). A Furby truck stood on one end of the block atop a hydraulic lift; we were told that at some point that truck would explode, and we saw it being lifted up and shaken in dry runs. From what I was able to piece together the scene would involve a chase for the Energon cube, which powers the Transformers, and apparently sets off a truckload of the Furbies.
I was one of a group of journalists who were there for the day’s activities, and I was excited to see Michael Bay in action. To be honest with you, I wanted to be there when he would go into a shouting tirade, but the worst I saw him was when he was fed up with a bunch of background actors who were screwing up his take and he more moaned than yelled “These extras are killing me!” into his bullhorn (apparently I missed the good stuff. Someone intimately involved in the film would later tell me that while he had no problems with the notoriously tough Bay, female lead Megan Fox had been on the receiving end of some of his anger during shooting). There was specific interview time with many of the actors and the producers built into our day, but we weren’t sure if we’d get any time with Bay, who had been out sick the day before and was trying to make up lost time. We were lucky, though, and got a chance to talk with Bay in between set ups while he waited for the billowing green smoke that had blanketed the street to clear (more on that smoke and the bad extras in future installments).
So what's going to make this a Michael Bay movie?
I don't know if that makes any sense. It's got a lot of action, but at the same time it's very funny and it's got heart. I only wanted to do Transformers if I could do it realistically and from what I've seen with what we've done on the digital studies and putting [the CGI] in real world stuff with a lot of [practical] FX around… that's how we make it realistic.
When did you realize that there was a rabid fanbase for this property?
Well, I knew. Of course I knew.
When did it really hit you though?
Before I even took on the movie I knew that there was a huge following of this thing. I think that Steven [Spielberg] called me a year ago last April and my first thought was, 'No. I'm not interested.' It was just because I thought, 'Okay, how am I going to do a toy movie?' Then I realized when I went to Hasbro that we could start over and go for a realistic alien invasion robot movie on earth. So with that thinking in mind that's how I went about it.
Are you going for a movie that’s as intense as the usual Michael Bay film?
I mean, it's going to be pretty edgy for a family film, but it's definitely got stuff for families. It's PG-13, but it is edgy.
Some of these characters have pretty silly names. How are you going to explain names like Jazz and Optimus Prime?
Well, I'm not going to tell you, but we do justify it. I mean, we have logic stuff in the script to explain why we say it.
Obviously this is setup to be a franchise. So are you going to come back to it and do the sequel?
Well, I've had a great time making it. I really have. It's gone really smoothly, this movie, and it's been a lot of fun. So we'll see. It's really fun to actually – I've done a lot of visual FX before, but this is really fun because you're really animating characters who have a sort of different thing going on in the way that they walk or the way that their armor is scratched.
How do you make the characters work before you have the voice actors in place?
Well, first you write down what all the characters points are in your head. It is a tough thing. With [Peter] Cullen, he's not an actor actor, he's a voice actor. So when you see his face he's got a great face, but I need to hire another actor to do his voice. Does that make sense? He's going to do the voice and I'm going to have another actor study the video when he does it the way he does, and they're actually going to have to work in tandem. They do this on animation pieces as well. Like, we did a very funny study where we did [Robert] De Niro and the bad guy from The Matrix, Hugo Weaving, and we [animated] our Optimus Hugo to De Niro. It's hysterical and it looks just like them. [Note: We should have picked up on this hint that Weaving would be in the movie!]
So you're kind of motion capturing the faces?
It's not fully like a human face, but it does have certain human things to it. Otherwise, as humans, we wouldn't associate with this as much. We did a lot of different studies, like if you do nothing it doesn't hit us.
What did you try that didn't work?
If they are just frozen robots, pure metal that doesn't move and the eyebrow thing. We have these eye slits that kind of move and the eyes move – it's got to have some human things to it to make it successful for it because you look at the cartoons and that's 90% in the direction that we have to go - right now they're just big glowing eyes that have no emotions. What I keep trying to tell the fanboys is that it has to be so much more realistic than what they've seen in the past, but they're angry about everything anyway. They're doing a protest in front of my office by the way, but I won't be there [Laughs].
Can you talk about the Transformers that are here today?
I don't have time to go through the whole thing. Each one has about three paragraphs. That's Ratchet right there. That's Iron Hide in the black truck and then that's a newly transformed Bumblebee that started as an old Camaro [he’s a new model Camaro here]. Then you've got Jazz right here. When you have full height on Jazz I think that he's about thirteen feet tall. Bumblebee is, I think, sixteen or seventeen feet tall. Ratchet is about twenty three feet, twenty four feet. Iron Hide is very wide when he's transformed and he's about a twenty six foot tall robot and then Optimus is, I think, twenty eight. Megatron is like at thirty four feet.