Quint spends a day in the desert with Michael Bay! TRANSFORMERS set visit here!!!
Published at: July 9, 2006, 5:44 a.m. CST by staff
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. I'm in Wellington, New Zealand at the moment, with just a little over a week left then I have to head out to Comic-Con in San Diego, enjoy that craziness and then I finally head back home to Austin after nearly 2 months. Wellington is great... it's nice and cold. Downright wintery it is. A sharp contrast to my adventures on the set of TRANSFORMERS which happened less than a week before I left for the Southern Hemisphere.
Michael Bay and crew were shooting on location, in the deserts of New Mexico. Specifically, they were shooting on the white sand dunes near Alamogordo, on the Holloman Air Force base. In the white sands desert. Desert. In late May.
To give you an example of how hot it was, I flew in to El Paso (it was about an hour and a half drive from there to Alamogordo) and the airport electricity was off. Completely off. Why? Because the heat was so extreme the air conditioners overloaded. No shit. If you've never walked through a dark airport, all monitors blank... it's pretty creepy.
I got in to my hotel, a Holiday Inn Express, the night before my visit and met with Karl from Paramount. He was a fellow LOST fanatic and that night was the big season 2 finale, so we grabbed some Taco Bell (dangerous, I know) and watched the events unfold.
This small town had one little stretch of civilization that began with an Applebee's and ended with the Holiday Inn Express, the biggest hotel there. In the middle was Chili's, where I ended up going for drinks with Karl and the newly arrived Mickey, Paramount dude expreme-o #1 (and also the guy who fights for internet content for geeks like us... he's the one behind the TRANSFORMERS website and the one that put he digital camera in Jack Black's hand for the NACHO confessionals). The place was jumping.
Being TRANSFORMERS and, maybe even more to blame, a Michael Bay movie, there was a huge crew and they were all at Chili's. Walking up we passed a group of actors, including Josh Duhamel and Zack Ward, who had had enough and were going back to the hotel. The place was rowdy, with grips, stunties and transpo people slugging away at the bar, as grips, stunties and transpo coordinators will do.
When we got back to the hotel, a car pulled up, bass pumping, and out steps Tyrese Gibson and his VP of Production for HQ Pictures, his new production company, Mike Le. At the Holiday Inn Express. I don't know why it struck me as funny, but the fact that Bay, Tyrese and all the cast and crew were all staying at a Holiday Inn Express... not a Holiday Inn, but a Holiday Inn Express... well, that just tickles my funny bone. It's not what one pictures as being the lifestyle of the stars and director of a huge budget summer giant robot film.
Karl had worked with Tyrese on FOUR BROTHERS and reintroduced himself and introduced me. Turns out Mike is a big reader of AICN and we had a nice little chat. The Paramount guys warned Tyrese to watch what he says around such an untrustworthy journalist as myself, so, naturally, he starts speaking gibberish. "Ablono bah, bushwah malakay." It was actually pretty funny. We said our goodnights and all hit the sack (individually, not together), preparing for a day of hot fun in the White Sands sun.
I was smart enough to bring a cap with me. It'll shield my face, I thought... I didn't think about the top of my ears until I was preparing to leave the hotel. I wore a bright red shirt (reflects sun and won't absorb it like black will), pants and my cap. It was a half an hour drive to the set, where we drove past many military checkpoints. I had a badge that I was to wear at all times. It was my government authorization of me being on the base. They actually had to run a background check on me before I could go. Good thing that dead hooker in Tahoe dropped off my record last year.
The White Sands of... well, White Sands were breathtaking. It's hard to believe they exist in reality. Just pure, virgin white dunes as far as the eye could see. The day was bright and cloudless. So it was just bright white on the bottom and bright blue on the top. It wasn't too long after sunup and it was already uncomfortably hot.
At base camp I covered up. Put about 3 layers of suntan lotion on my arms, face, neck, ears and hands. This is a process repeated at least 10 times during the day, whenever I'd notice my skin looking a little pink or if I felt the sun breaking down the sunblock. I was debriefed by an officer of some sort. I was told the hydration routine. I was to drink 3 bottles of water (16 ounce) and one bottle of Gatoraide, then repeat. I was told to always have fluids in my system. In short, never stop drinking. And I didn't. I think the final tally was 12 bottles of water and 5 bottles of Gatoraide. And I only peed once during the whole event. Interesting, eh? hehe
The set was a 3 or 4 minute walk from the road. They had built an entire Middle Eastern village in these dunes, tons of structures and tents surrounding a giant mosque. The mosque was aged, with tan rocks and sun bleached blue and white tile patterns for trim.
Bay greeted me and told the video assist guy to run some footage for me on the monitors as they were setting up the next shot.
Remember in my visit with Bay before production started where I saw tons of animatics and production art? Remember the scorpion decepticon I described jumping out of the sand and back in again like the sand worm from BEETLEJUICE? That attack is what I saw filming. Skorponok drops off the back of a larger decepticon and chases a band of military guys who escape an attack at the beginning of the film. This decepticon tracks them through the desert as they approach a small village to try to call in support.
None of their radio equipment works, so they have to find a cell phone and dial directly into the Pentagon to get help. Of course this is long distance and the operator won't plug them through without a credit card. So, while a giant metal robot is attacking the soldiers, blowing up this village piece by piece our heroes are on the cell phone trying to get help, looking for a credit card, etc.
Bay told me this really happened in Granada. Well, the cell phone call with credit card complications... not the giant robots. At least I don't think so...
The footage I saw from the previous few days shooting:
-A 300 frames per second shot of the group running towards the camera, Tyrese in the lead. Mortars are exploding on the ground around them, sending up giant clouds of sand behind them as they run. This is a shot I described seeing in animatic form in Bay's Santa Monica office, which has the army dudes running at camera with Skorponok leaping out of the sand behind them. Shot in super slow motion so you can actually see the pincers spinning, effectively becoming two large drills that allow it to dive in and out of the sand as it chases these guys. The Skorponok will be added digitally, but the onset explosions have already created the debris from his sand diving and leaping. This looked really cool and a total Michael Bay shot.
-Before the Skorponok pops up it trails the soldiers underground. Like a Graboid. The next shot I saw was of an actor in close-up on the right side of the screen. Behind him stands another soldier in front of a big, beat up metal sign. The sign falls over (Skorponok knocks it over from underground). The soldier in the background sidesteps as it crashes. The soldier up front doesn't flinch or look back. He just kind of says, "What was that?" The soldier behind him starts speaking very quickly in Spanish. Nonchalantly, the soldier in the foreground says, "English, man. English." That was the take. I'm pretty sure after this the Skorponok begins its attack, skewering soldiers with it's giant, barbed tail, and dragging them underground.
-Lots of shots of Josh Duhamel inside a building, on the cell phone arguing with the operator as windows and walls behind him blow inward, the desert light streaming into the dark room. Looked pretty top notch, actually.
-Lots of explosions in the sand, villagers running, army fighting. Chaos. Lots of what you'd expect from a Bay action scene. Lots of big set-ups, wide shots and lots of smooth dolly shots mixed with lots of handheld.
The shot they had set up was of a stunt double for a character called Fig. He's one of the army guys. He's crouching behind a low wall that juts off from the mosque, firing at the Skorponok. The Decepticon doesn't like this too much, apparently. The stunt double is on wires, preparing for the stunt. There are at least a half a dozen rehearsals. The man gets pulled off his feet and yanked backwards. Up, away and spinning.
When the shot is up I'm standing behind Bay as he's at his monitors. I'm maybe 20 feet away from the stunt double. I heard Bay say, "God, I hope this goes well..."
I wasn't really prepared for the explosion. The wall in front of the stunt double just goes up. This dude was damn near standing on top of the explosives. He gets pulled back, spinning and everything looks good, but I can't believe the guy isn't seriously injured if not out and out dead. I mean, I was 20 feet away and I still got hit by some small pieces of debris. But the dude stands up and shakes it off, no worse for the wear. I can't say the same for his character in the movie, though.
I've noticed something about watching Michael Bay direct. There are people who work on films with the title Assistant Director (A.D.) who are there to enforce the will of the director... and most of the time be a giant, demanding asshole. He or she keeps the set moving and allows the director to get his or her way while not being the bully. Mr. Bay had an assistant director, but he really didn't seem to need him.
I wouldn't go so far as to say Bay was an asshole onset, but he was certainly the General of his army, not afraid to voice his disapproval. "What happened to our big bomb out there, guys? C'mon, guys. We're moving like snails out here!" etc. He took on the responsibility of keeping the set moving, so you could always hear him during set-ups, shouting orders.
Speaking of Bay, he came up and told me what he was planning for the next set-up. "Next I'm going to get a POV for Skorponok. I think then I'll blow the minaret."
The top of the mosque had a few minarets and as shooting was going on there were explosive experts rigging them, the crew pulling back whenever cameras rolled below and popping up to continue their work whenever cut was called.
Let's talk about explosions a little bit. I deeply regret not keeping an explosion count from the very moment I stepped onto that white sand. I'd love to give you guys a completely accurate number of explosions on this single day of shooting. But I didn't even think of it until I was halfway through my visit and at that point it'd be useless to keep count. So, my guess is that I saw at least 40 explosions. Some single big explosions. Some a large grouping of 5 or 6 smaller explosions. Some explosions on buildings, walls, sand. It was nuts and just about the perfect example of a day on a Michael Bay set. I would have been pissed if I had gone out and spent the day on a stage watching 2 people talk.
So, Bay blows up the minaret. He has army guy up there firing at the Decepticon. When the minaret blows it really blows. Bay had been asked to move back, but refused. He was given a hard hat and his crew around him were warned of "burning debris." I stood farther back. Burning debris is not for me. Sure enough the thing blew, leaving barely a little raised stub of styrofoam made to look like rock. The whole thing was gone and the stunt man fell off this second story ledge. Burning debris did indeed fall, but Bay escaped injury.
Bay also has an extremely good relationship with the US Military. Hence the filming on government property. There were also US Air Force members around as well as Navy SEALS who had trained the actors. Some of the stunt guys were military as well. Part of this cooperation included the full use of Air Force planes.
As a child growing up in the Bay Area I remember it being the biggest event of the summer to go out and watch the Blue Angels do aerial tricks. I loved it and have clear memories of them flying close enough to the ground to actually see the pilots in the cockpit.
They were miles away compared with what I saw on this set.
They had a pair of A 10s, Warthogs, fly overhead for the rest of the day, sometimes as low as 20-25 feet overhead, just about brushing the tops of the set and fake trees. Also seen in the sky during my trip were helicopters (with the big clear ball on the nose that holds the film camera for arial shots), a Leer Jet (another camera plane) and another jet that I was pretty sure someone mentioned as a C-130, but it looked smaller than that aircraft. I do know it had heavy calibre machine guns that could pop out of the sides of the plane. Perhaps one of our plane geek readers will let me know what this is in the talkbacks below.
In the chaos of planes, explosions and Decepticon destruction I met Josh Josh Duhamel, who is scientifically impossible. He's tall, about 6'5", skinny, but muscular, good looking and extremely nice, without the air of one who knows they are genetically superior. It's just not fair. I can only thank the gods that he's the exception and he can't have all the girls.
In some of the down time I climbed up on top of one of the White Dunes, looking out at the expansive desert. The baby blue sky and white, rolling hills surrounded by far-off mountains were just gorgeous. I noticed a rusted out tank the Army had placed out there. It really looked unreal, like an old time matte painting. Then I realized I was baking and ran back to the cover of the sound guy's parasol attached to his sound cart. He had a thermometer attached to to the parasol stand, in the shade. It read 105 degrees. In the shade. Mid-day.
I came back to see Bay setting up the next shot. Remember that stunt man who took the up, up and away explosion blast from the beginning of the day? Well, that character, Fig, got messed up and this shot was of Josh Josh Duhamel and Tyrese finding him, covered in debris.
Keep in mind that this area has seen at least 20 explosions already and hasn't been cleared away. Bay walks through, calling for his art department. "This set looks like shit! I want this to look like a big explosion. I want cork and all that shit." The art department people do indeed grab cork and shit, the shit being palm fronds, charred pieces of wood, ash and chunks of rock.
In the shot, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese and the rest of the squad are waved to the downed soldier by a Bedouin Camp refugee. They clear the rubble off of him and Tyrese, with the cell phone, shouts orders.
"Pentagon. US Special Ops Officer requesting immediate MedEvac. Report 1 mile north marked by orange smoke!"
Ah, the orange smoke. We were alerted that the next shot was going to be a "bigger explosion than we had before..." by the AD. There was a clear area in front of the mosque, about 400-500 feet of level, flat ground. That's where the Skorponok was sitting, fucking up the town. And that's where the explosions hit. They threw out smoke grenades that pumped out orange smoke and at least 4 major explosions go off as Josh, Tyrese and the surviving outfit fire their weapons into the smoke. I'm told the Skorponok just shakes this barrage off.
Bay spent about 10 minutes filming Tyrese lobbing these smoke grenades from different angles. Of course, Tyrese is lobbing them over the camera where they have a wide area to land harmlessly in the sand. However that isn't always what happens. I don't know if he just got tired or maybe he couldn't see where he was throwing these giant metal canisters, but I'd say about a third of the time his grenades either almost hit the transpo vans or a camped out section of the crew (ie hair and make-up or video assist, etc). He'd figure it out as the canister was in the air, though and scream out, "Aw shit! Watch your heads!!!" There was one that almost hit the very expensive looking black SUV that took Bay and the cast to base camp and back. I watched the metal can spin down towards the automobile, following its arc... just sure it was going to go right onto the hood or through the windshield. It fell short, however, so the insurance man breathed a sigh of relief, I'm sure.
Shortly after the grenade throwings (each punctuated with a different improv line from Tyrese as he's shouting at the Skorponok), they have the A-10s back, circling the set for the shot that was the most Michael Bay of shot I saw captured. The camera pushes in low on Josh and Tyrese and tilts up at an extreme angle to see the sky above their heads.
Tyrese is on the cell, calling for backup. "Use the 105 shells! Bring the rain!" They did a half dozen takes with there being about 2 that were timed perfectly. Tyrese shouts, "Bring the rain," the camera tilts up just in time to see the A-10s rocketing directly over their heads. Bay himself was working the camera for this one.
My understanding is the surviving members of the squad circle the Skorponok, using their laser sights to "paint the target" for the air strike. It's like spokes on a wheel, the target being dead center. They had a few takes of the army dudes circling, guns up. They found ammo that hurts the Decepticon and have a chance to escape this thing with their lives. Skorpokon doesn't go quietly into the night, though. Before all is said and done there were a few dozen more explosions on the walls of the mosque, leaving a broken structure barely standing by the end of the day.
I heard whispers that KNB FX actually got to build pieces of the Skorponok, a head and a tail. The tail was used in a shot they snuck with second unit and I missed it. It was just a shot of the sandy floor of the desert as the boot-clad feet of the army dudes walk by. The tail glides across the surface and they jump back. Sneaky monkeys actually using a real piece of a Transformer and not telling me about it...
I did see that they left the tail out in the middle of the flat land in front of the mosque, so I decided to wander off and take a closer look at the actual physical transformer while the rest of the crew was distracted filming the front of the mosque.
I walked up to the tail laying on the ground, the non-pointy end buried in the sand. It was silver metal, almost like links in a chain as it got shorter and shorter until it got to the spear-tip. The tip had 4 nasty looking barbs all hooked with a giant skewer barb that would thrust out between the 4 barbs. I got a closer look and thought it was really funny that there were these tiny, orange wires that were half buried in the sand underneath and around the Skorpokon's tail.
Then my mind actually processed what I was seeing and I realized I was standing on a whole lot of explosives, buried under the sand around the tail. I nervously tip-toed back to the monitors and away from the live explosives.
And these packed the biggest boom of the day. No small feat, since I've seen a giant building chipped away piece by piece by explosions all day. The sun was setting and they spent much time setting up this final, big explosion to blow at the right moment, when the A-10s are flying overhead. I believe this is the defeat of the Skorpokon.
They had many cameras rolling, including aerial cameras mounted on the Leer jet, getting footage of the A-10s in the air as well as the destruction below. They moved everybody out of the immediate area so the aerial cameras can get the explosion without having random crew member #14 standing outside the blast zone.
This explosion was massive. I was sitting behind the whole village, a good 300 feet away from the blast area. It was a series of 2 explosions followed by a monster. The fire and smoke cloud went up at least 150 feet and I could feel the concussion. The crew cheered and when we wrapped I walked through the flat area in front of the destroyed mosque. The ground was pocked and black. Each step left a white sand foot print.
The whole side of one of the large white sand dunes was charred black from the explosion. It was a monster.
The sun was really starting to go and Mickey ran after Bay to get him to film an intro to the internet trailer for TRANSFORMERS, with the ruined city in the background.
And that was the end of my day. We wrapped up, everybody went to the Holiday Inn Express, washed a day's worth of sun block off our skin... and went to Chili's. Everybody was there, yet again. All the actors, grips, stunties, transpo, ADs, PAs... Everybody.
Such a bizarre trip.
Final thoughts... I'm now 100% certain we will get a Michael Bay movie. If that was ever in doubt in the first place. The only real question has to do with those Bots. How much of TRANSFORMERS as we know it will make its way into Bay's over-all vision? The flick will certainly be big. Bay loves putting every cent of his massive budgets on the screen, that's for damn sure. But that still doesn't answer a lot of fan's concerns.
I'm hoping that Paramount will show some stuff at Comic-Con. I know Bay was excited about the idea of showing a rough animatic to get the fans excited for the flick, but I haven't heard if Paramount actually went forward with that idea or not. I hope so. It'd also be good to get and update from the man about the Autobots and Decepticons. Voices, color schemes, etc. Sooner or later (hopefully sooner) Bay has to address these issues with the fans if he doesn't want to scare them off... well, not scare them off. Fans don't scare easily. Piss them off. That was the word I was looking for.
I'll have my eyes and ears open at Comic-Con. Hope you guys enjoyed reading about the trip... in your nice, cool air-conditioned homes/offices! Did I mention it was 105 degrees in the shade? But boy what a show I got. One can only hope the movie will be as entertaining.