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."
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.
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."
This was a totally awesome movie! Being a big fan of the Original Transformers in the 80's, I was worried that they would screw this one up... but it was great! The special effects were so realistic, I found myself immersed in the movie and actually believing that the people were talking to the robots. Way to go, Michael Bay and ILM!!!