January 17, 2018 at 10:00AM
Transformers: The Best Special Effects
More than 750 parts stretching a half-mile long. Some 350 engineers working round-the-clock. Thousands of rusty, old mechanic photos — clutch plates, transmissions, brake discs — spilling across the table. All for one beat-up Camaro? Sure doesn't sound like your average auto manufacturer.
"The idea is they're not fresh off the showroom floor," says Jeff White, the man charged with creating the yellow sports car and 13 others for a big new garage. He's right: They're supposed to look realer than that. And be from outer space. And turn into 30-ft. robots. And save the universe.
That's all in a day's work for the motor magicians at George Lucas's Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), who for the last two years have been juggling the limits of the possible (turning a real car into a fake robot and figuring out what the heck to put inside) and the demands of reality (studio budgets, GM sponsorship, the wrath of fanboys worldwide) to build the most painstaking — and maybe most believable — effects achievement in movie history: Transformers.
When it revs up at the box office this Fourth of July, Michael Bay's $150 million adaptation of the legendary 1980s cartoon and toy series will include nearly 50 so-called transformations. Hand-rendered metallic uncorkings of real-life cars, trucks and helicopters represented uncharted territory for the gooey-alien experts at ILM, each transformation taking six months to imagine and each re-engineering the way digital Hollywood does computer graphics imagery (CGI).
"How are we gonna get this thing from a car into the robot and back in a believable way?" White, the film's digital production supervisor, asked the Transformers crew in 2005, when, after their back-and-forth with toymaker Hasbro, the F/X plan consisted of little more than robot sketches and shiny new Hummers — and not much in between. "Of course, Michael Bay wants a lot of energy, he wants ninja-fighting warriors that can punch and put their arms over their heads and do all this crazy stuff," White says. "So we had to design these really complicated systems — how do all these systems match together and fly over each other to keep it looking real? And that was a huge challenge."
Under-prepared, a New Road Map
From Jar Jar Binks in the new Star Wars films to villains of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, the modern CGI pipeline has tended to work from the ground up: Pre-build a creature, film it with a stand-in on set, then animate it to react, to actors such as Samuel L. Jackson or Johnny Depp, in postproduction. But after realizing that the simple route, with one transformation per Autobot or Decepticon, might not look robotic enough, Bay and Co. pulled a 280-terabyte U-turn.
ILM designed a backwards interface, moving the beginning of CGI production out of the hands of creature development and onto the desktops of the animators. By allowing animators to get the first crack at rigging control — the way a computer-generated character is built, the way it walks and rotates — ILM's IT team could develop software for custom transformations designed on the fly that might satisfy Bay's notorious flying camera angles. Click a button here, and a flatbed's brake light can pivot into an Optimus Prime punch. Set a control function there, and an alien jetfighter wing can cock into a Megatron claw for any of a half-dozen different scenes.
"We start with the end result first, then work backwards from there," says animation supervisor Scott Benza. "We'll start Bumblebee standing up in his pose in the composition of the shot, then collapse him down into something of a car shape, where we fold his arms in and hover him down close to the street. And then we deal with what we have to fill in the in-between."
Under the Hood, the Superunknown
When that crucial "in-between" involves over 10,000 hand-modeled parts pulled out of actual autobody — as Optimus Prime did (his old-school toy had a mere 51 components) — there's a bit more filling in to do. "It's hugely complicated," says visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar. "It's no different than going out and machining these parts [in a real car]. Every one of those things has to be connected and travel in the right direction when an animation occurs."
It started with ILM's creature development team (well versed in children's movie animals but not so much in carburetors) heading to the autobody shop in early 2006 and lifting up the hoods of real-life cars to develop as many real-looking car parts as possible. These formed the innards underneath the exoskeleton provided to the animators. But building a design system that allowed the animators to move all those pieces quickly — and to fit them into the finished robot, designed almost a year earlier, without banging parts into each other — was the real headache.
The 30-year-old Camaro grille, then, may not have been the exact one that ended up on Bumblebee's chest, but it wasn't for lack of trying. Visual effects art director Alex Jaeger built frame-by-frame movements so an animator could take a thinly slatted grille and flip it into a three-slat grille like Venetian blinds. That way, at least, Bumblebee would become both muscular and recognizable (he takes seven different forms — used car, concept car and battered bot among them). Toying with the classic Camaro aside, this hero's transformation represented a massive CGI maneuver, with nearly 20,000 nodes in the movable rig: Jaeger had to break apart a fender close to the ground to unleash Bumbleebee's arm, then disassemble a brake disc attached to the arm before shifting out of the way that will eventually end up on his shoulder.
And Jaeger couldn't screw up. Not while he was working for the guy who reignited Pearl Harbor, who told Bruce Willis how to nuke an asteroid from a space shuttle. No way. "Michael's a very, very particular person when it comes to..." Jaeger trails off. Better be careful with Boss Bay. "This is a man who's shot many a car commercial, so he's very particular on the finishes and the materials on the cars as well as the robots."
Under the Gun, the Finishing Brushes
Optimus Prime has lips. Moving metal lips. The Autobot leader went to the grave in the original 1986 movie without ever having opened his voice box, but Bay hated the idea of action heroes wearing a mask. So he had ILM juice up each robot's jaws, eyes and metallic visage, from cartoony strobe light to winking, blinking, crackling Norelco blades.
But the most important finishing touch? Grease. Lots of it. Sure, stagehands dusted off the real Pontiac Solstice GXP before the cameras rolled, but digital painters at ILM were shading the doors and really mucking up each car's gearbox guts before they rolled up into robots. "Here we've got a car but we don't have any robots, so that's what made this project way harder than Pearl Harbor, where we had real planes to look at," says Ron Woodall, admitting that he painted some cars to look twice as dirty as their exteriors. "We don't have a target, and it's up to everyone's imagination."
Ultimately, that's the point of spending $150 million on car chases, explosions and millions of little CGI polygons: Drummed-up digital trickery is now at the level of turning the unreal into the real — as long as it doesn't seem too cheesy, and doesn't piss off too many fans. "Our goal is to please Michael Bay. He's got to answer to all the other folks," Benza says. "So top of the priority list? If it looks cool, that's where we start. That's the ultimate goal, then we can figure out ways to get the Chevy logo visible and the kind of signature things that the GM folks wanted in there. But I think ultimately even GM wanted Michael to have creative control over the coolness of the transformations."
What ends up on the silver screen this week is something that for once actually looks silver, justifiably chrome. Bay even had to send back one of the few non-CGI scale models made for the film — a painted fiberglass Bumblebee made for a scene when the Autobot savior is tied to train tracks — because it didn't look real enough. "It's been a struggle for all of us in this business to get the computer graphics looking as good as they are now, and I really do believe Transformers is a new high-water mark for making materials look good," says Farrar, the visual-effects supervisor and Bay's right-hand computer geek. "It's surprisingly complicated in the world of computer graphics to make objects look like what everybody in the world sees every day."