Posted on Friday, April 15th, 2011 by Peter Sciretta
It is Thursday, April 14th 2011, and I’ve been invited with a small group of colleagues to visit the Paramount Pictures studio lot to talk with filmmaker Michael Bay and see some footage from Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Editing bay visits are usually done, well, in an editing bay — which is usually a small room with an AVID editing system, a couch, and a 50 or 60 inch monitor. This is not how Michael Bay wants you to see his movies — he wants you to see them on the big screen. And what better big screen than the massive screen in the state of the art Paramount theatre.
We almost expected Bay to drive up to the theatre in a Ferrari, make some kind of grand entrance — and he may have if it weren’t for the fact that the Nickelodeon television series Big Time Rush was busy shooting in the courtyard in front of the theater. When Bay arrives, the studio publicists begin to escort us into the theater, but Bay has something else in mind. He asks us to sit with him outside to chat before the footage.
Bay has his own idea of how to do everything. The way he shoots movies allows him to capture a lot more footage than other action film directors. The choice to shoot the movie in 3D was only done after an exhaustive investigation into every possible technology available. And in the end, Bay settled on a workflow which has never been done before, allowing minimal complications to the way he shoots.
Some people might read his attitude as arrogant, but there is no denying that he is a man with vision. He is also a bit of an enigma. Bay likes to give you the impression that he doesn’t care what critics think, that he is just trying to create a fun movie. But he sits down and begins to list off the various things you won’t see in this movie: annoying robots, dorky jokes, deserts locales, instead they deal with more relatable locations. It is very clear that he’s read all of the reviews and made a checklist of what people hated about the sequel. But seconds later, he takes the defensive on Revenge of the Fallen:
“I think you’ve heard what I said about 2 and whatnot. You don’t make that much money on a movie, and it doesn’t become number one in the American box office that year if people hated the movie. You know what I’m saying? Yes, people might have been turned off by it. We might have gone a little south on the direction, but we were under the gun with a…it was a terrible writer strike and it was a shit position to be in. You promise a 1,000 people jobs and then, all of a sudden, uh-oh. A small group is on strike, three of our crew members. And it’s how do you keep the ball going?”
Despite the defensive bit, you can definitely tell that he wasn’t satisfied with how the last film turned out, and this is his chance to right the wrong.
“It’s like some agent said, “Bay’s a competitor.” And what he meant by that is a lot of people on the third one will just check out and just get a paycheck. It’s like I’ve been working every day for two years, every single day, because I want to make up for the second one and I want to leave this franchise as best I can.” … “But I think this one we had time…this time we talked about, with Ehren Kruger, what we liked from the first movie. You’re never going to match the innocence of the first movie. And the wonderment of…when the robots came out it was kind of new technology that’s lighting had really not be done successfully. So you won’t ever…the genie is out of the bottle there. So this one I think is a more mature storyline. It’s definitely darker. When people see the movie they feel it’s more emotional in the end. You feel the stakes are higher because it takes place in an American city. You’re not as disconnected as Egypt and the pyramids and kind of other worldly.”
We screened something like twenty minutes of footage, and another five to seven minutes of 3D selects. We were asked to not describe what we’ve seen in detail, and I’m not interested in printing spoilers, so I’ll give you my general thoughts and impressions:
Transformers: Dark of the Moon seems like more of a disaster movie than the previous films. We saw massive destruction, buildings destroyed, derailed crashed trains, post apocalyptic car destruction sprinkling the highways. The Decepticons have taken over Earth in a grand scale — this is Bay’s alien invasion movie, something like Battle: Los Angeles meets Independence Day on an epic scale. But at the same time, Bay has made a huge effort to have contained the story a bit this time around.When one of us made the comment that the story seems bigger, Bay was quick to respond:
“I didn’t want to say it’s bigger, because what I like about it is…And I’ve said this with Ehren. We were talking about concept. We used the term “Black Hawk Down” in just that it’s a small group and you follow. And there’s no cavalry coming. It’s a standard thing in movies: cavalry comes. We tried to make the cavalry unable to come. And it’s more fun to watch our heroes in this epic ending just a small group, which makes the movie more intimate.
The Decepticons seem to have newer, more powerful, weaponry which almost disintegrate anything that comes in their path, and this includes both humans and huge military missiles. At the same time, the Autobots have given Sam a couple pieces of alien tech which he uses t fight back.
Keeping his cards close to his vest this time around, we didn’t really learn much about the moon conspiracy storyline teased in the trailers. What we did learn is this: whatever happened was kept from the Autobots, and that leads to an all out alien invasion with the Decepticons turning Chicago, at very least, into a destroyed mess. Somewhere along the way they abduct Sam’s girlfriend Carly, and Sam must adventure into the dangerous city-turned-warzone to save his love. Yes, if you think about it, it is a bit like Cloverfield — but I already prefer the more character-based emotional core to that of the mindless mess of Revenge of the Fallen. And we’re told that the story becomes something more than that, that “it turns into a bigger problem.” Of course…
It is also clear that he taking more time to shoot the action sequences in wide, rather than the close-up fast cutting style that we’re use to. Bay explains that people only “really appreciate depths in 3-4 seconds.”
“So in a 3D movie, certain shots where you appreciate it, you really appreciate flying in 3D. Like those were base jumpers jumping off the Trump Tower and that was a cameraman with a 3D helmets falling behind him.”
Bay also said the heavy 3D equipment most of the time forced him to shoot in wider, longer, takes, from a crane.
“So what I was able to do was I shot a lot of my face stuff with 35 MM. And I used my A camera for the wide shot with 3D. And I kept it on this 50 foot techno-crane the whole time, and I’m rarely moving the camera. I was just rolling the crane around. We got these guys in the pace of my shooting style. So it worked out pretty effectively.”
Most of the movies shot and released in 3D thus far have been edited for 2D presentation. Even James Cameron planned and edited Avatar for 2D audiences, as most people would be watching the movie on home video without a third dimension. I don’t believe we’ll see the full abilities of 3D filmmaking for another decade, when filmmakers explore how to use the 3D depth to not only effect the composition of the image, but to use the full XYZ axes not as a gimmick, but to bring more depth to the visual storytelling and dramatic emotion. And I still think we’re years off from seeing filmmakers like Scorsese begin to explore the full potential that 3D brings to the film medium.
That said, it is clear that Michael Bay doesn’t do anything half-assed. When Bay decided to do Transformers in 3D, he didn’t just do so as an afterthought. It seems very clear that Bay has not only composed his images for 3D , but also developed sequences to take advantage of the XYZ depth. We saw one sequence which involved a plane over chicago being attacked by Decepticons. The group of men inside freedive over the city, using winged costumes to glide in and around buildings through the city. Here is a 60 Minutes piece on the guys Bay employed to do this stunt:
Now imagine following these guys in 3D (from a real 3D camera rigged to one of these guys heads) with decepticons flying after shooting, destroying buildings in their aftermath. It looked insane.
And talk about insane, another sequence we saw, which you will see briefly in the next trailer, features a huge sandworm-like Decepticon wrapping itself around a skyscraper, squeezing, tearing it apart. At the same time, our heroes are in an upper floor fending off Decepticons while the building is collapsing. Chairs and furniture are sliding as the building slowly falls over, and our heroes must find a way to survive, but can they? The whole sequence is worth the price of admission alone. Dare I say that the visuals outdo some of the more mind-perplexing stuff we saw in Inception. Bay had outdone himself on this one.
It should be noted that Bay also screened a bunch of non action footage so that we could get an idea of the film’s tone. The sequences where Sam first meets Carly and Sam goes to a job interview with John Malkovich feel like the lighter, fun, character moments from the first film, than the fart humor of the second film.
The new Transformers: Dark of the Moon trailer is due out on Thursday April 28th, and we can expect a slightly different 3D trailer attached to Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. I can’t wait to see more.