In the last week or so, you’ve probably read some interviews from and heard bits and pieces about a set visit made by a group of online writers last year to the set of TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION. I’m not sure where the set visit happened, but I’m fairly certain it wasn’t in Chicago, where a great deal of the fourth in the TRANSFORMERS franchise was shot last year, and most memorably where the epic closing battle in TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON was shot several years back.
I didn’t take part in that particular group set visit or do any of the more formal interviews with the film’s cast, returning director Michael Bay, or any of the other behind-the-scenes folks that were on hand on that particular day. Instead, while the production was in Chicago for a couple months last summer and early fall, I spent a day shadowing Bay as he moved through the paces of several action sequences shot in Chicago, which was doubling for Hong Kong’s waterfront in this particular set of scenes.
Just for a little background, I didn’t see actually edited scenes (probably about 15-20 minutes worth) from the movie until the end of my visit. But I realized that the world’s attitude toward Transformers has changed. A shot of new lead actor Mark Wahlberg driving his pick-up truck down a Texas road past a billboard that reads “Remember Chicago” tells me all I need to know about how the Battle of Chicago has resonated with most humans—as an act of pure, unbridled aggression by alien robots. And now the world hates the all.
On my day on the AGE OF EXTINCTION set, none of the actors were there, but many of their stunt doubles were. I knew this going in, and was thrilled to be there for a full day of Michael Bay action scenes. I learned from my visit to the DARK OF THE MOON set many years ago that Bay runs his set hard and fast, and if something you’ve done slows him down, you’ll probably get yelled at. I’ve seen it many times, and even once was on the receiving end of an outburst for standing in the wrong place once the last time Chicago opened its doors and streets to him. But once the yelling is done, it’s out of his system and he’s ready to move on to the work at hand.
I’ve done enough set visits to know that sitting around on a slow day, waiting hours sometimes for actors to be ready to be interviewed by a group can get old very fast. I was there to watch and take notes, but I got much more than I bargained for during the course of this day. More on that later. On this day in Chicago, the production was about two-thirds of the way shooting the whole film. It was September 18, 2013, and the TRANSFORMERS team was set to wrap up in Chicago in early October, before moving onto the real Hong Kong to wrap shooting on the entire film.
From the film’s downtown Chicago production offices (where the film was code named E74), I was taken to the city’s far southeast side, right on the edge of Lake Michigan. For those familiar with the city, the last recognizable street name I saw was South Chicago Ave., somewhere around 87th Street. After a quick stop at basecamp, I was shuttled to the set where about 200 crew members, stunt people, and extras (all of Asian descent from what I could see) were swarming getting ready for the first shot of the day. The predominant building on the property was the concrete shell of what I believe was an old U.S. Steel plant, which now had Chinese characters painted on the side of walls, silos and vehicles. Later, when I was able to get around the side of the building along the waterfront, I could see billboards and other signs for companies and Hong Kong/Chinese businesses; shockingly enough, product placement will be a part of this film. There were also a smattering of small storefront facades pretending to sell trinkets. The detail was extraordinary; I was told at one point that great pains were made to get the writing correct. In fact, it’s a Hong Kong dialect of Chinese used on all signage.
The things I immediately noticed when I got to the set were how many cranes there were in a small space. As I got closer, I saw the each of them held wires that were attached to one of several vehicles lined up as if on a road running along the waterfront. I could see Bay moving around the set, as he often does, hand picked which extras should be in the foreground and background, and instructing various stuntpeople when, where and how to cower when some unseen terror moves over their heads and starts lifting and tossing vehicles around them.
Amid the cars, taxis and small vans is a full-size commuter bus filled with people, and it was then I noticed that it too was attached to a crane above. For some reason, this made me very nervous. I hadn’t been there more than 30 minutes, when Take 1 commenced, and suddenly the air right in front of me was filled with floating cars and people falling out of them. I remember a convertible with three businessmen in it being pulled into the air front first, and at least one of the passengers tumbling out from the backseat onto safety mats below. Other stunt people were left cowering under these floating vehicles, meant to look terrified that one of them might come crashing down on their heads.
But the first of many jaw-dropping moments of the day was seeing that bus take flight, roll over on its side, and seeing a handful passengers fall out of the windows onto the street below. And all of this took place probably 10-12 times in the course of a couple hours, with variations on camera angles, how the cars went up, and how the extras responded. And every time that bus went in the air, I froze with delight.
The first to people I spoke to on set were ILM Visual Effects Supervisor Scott Farrar and Visual Effects Executive Producer Wayne Billheimer, both of whom I’d met on the DARK OF THE MOON set (look up either one of these gentlemen’s credentials; you’ll be impressed), and walk me through the basics of what the scene is going to look like, including showing me what the massive object in the sky will look like. Apparently this craft is searching for Autobots, and is lifting any metal object in its path in search of them.
It’s at this point that Bay first spots me, and walks over to say hello. He informs me that I’ve lucked out because what’s be shot on this day was actually supposed to have been shot three days earlier but was delayed by rain. But then he’s called back by his cinematographer for consult, at which point another army of extras arrives, and Bay is suddenly busy arranging them for a sequence that will focus on a massive number of extras (dressed as businessmen, students, tourists, etc.). At one point, Bay yells to several of them “Everybody clear this path; I don’t want to tell you again.” They really don’t. Bay races back to me once the positioning is done and says, “Want to see the pre-viz?” Hell yeah! So we head over to his directors chair where he pulls out a a computer to show me an incredibly detailed representation of the scene at hand.
The sequence involves an alien ship (presumably of a villainous variety) flying over Hong Kong looking for Autobots using a magnetic device to pull up cars, buses, even tankers out of the water. When it decides that what it has lifted isn’t an Autobot, it drops it. Wahlberg and the other principles are driving along the waterfront road, dodging debris. Bay is especially proud that, for the first time in the franchise’s history, the truck manufacturer Western Star worked with his team to design the new Optimus Prime. “Usually we did it ourselves,” he explains.
Bay then goes on to tell me more of the big-picture plot involving a dark arm of the CIA/FBI (I’m guessing led by Kelsey Grammer) that is shutting down, capturing and destroying all Autobots and Decepticons. Also, the government has begun to build its own robots (Stanley Tucci plays the head of the company making these knock-offs), and there’s a healthy black market for Transformer parts in the world, apparently; I'm not sure how that figures into the main story. As a result, all of the robots in the film have been redesigned. Farrar joked with me, “It’s more work in less time.”
Bay was still learning 3-D while making DARK OF THE MOON, but he now claims that the lenses for this film (also shot in 3-D) have been adjusted for less ocular strain on the audience.
I asked Bay why he decided to come back to TRANSFORMERS after seemingly signing off on the series after DARK OF THE MOON. He admitted that it was finding out when the Transformers Ride opened at Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Studios Florida that the lines were the longest the parks had seen since the Jurassic Park ride opened. He say that the public still had an interest in the series, and he knew the studio was committed to making another. But what sealed the deal for him was working with Mark Wahlberg on PAIN & GAIN; it was then that he knew he had his new partner in crime for rebooting TRANSFORMERS without abandoning completely what he had started.
Despite his sometimes ramped-up demeanor, Bay is more often than not a calming force on set. After each take, he gives instructions to his crew, stunt team and extras, and comes back to me, still standing a safe distance away from the cars hovering 30 feet above the ground. We talk about the vastly improved 3-D system, the plot of the film (most of which I won’t reveal here), and how this film’s focus shifts to point of view of a father and failed inventor (Wahlberg) trying to protect his daughter (Nicola Peltz, recently of “Bates Motel”).
When the cameras shift to a position that is aiming right at us, we move to the other side of the action, and for the first time, I see the vendor shops set up along the concrete structure that dominates the property. We’re now much closer to the wired-up vehicles, so when they go up in the air, we get a great view of the folks falling out of the windows of the bus. I notice one truck on the side of the road near us says “Hsiung Seafood Co. Ltd.” with a giant photo of a plate of yummy-looking shrimp and prawns sprawled across the side of the vehicle. It is then I also notice that a second-unit team makes its way right under the vehicles the second they rise up into the air, and Bay is instructing the extras where to run in relation to the vehicles to avoid the cameras (and any danger).
Being this close to the bus allows me to also watch the reset crew quickly sweep up broken safety glass and replace windows in minutes. I also notice that as soon as the bus starts going up in the air, the door opens and the driver falls out. Once the sequence is finally complete, it’s time for lunch and a quick chat with producer Ian Bryce (I noticed that the director’s chair I’m sitting in says “LDB,” which I presume means it is usually occupied by Bryce’s fellow producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who is not around on this particular day.
Bryce clues me in on a few behind-the-scenes details about the film, including the fact that using the extra year that Bay took to make PAIN & GAIN helped the TRANSFORMERS team decide to bring in a new cast, redesign the robots, and make the new characters (human and robot) enhance to story. He also talked about the Chinese involvement in the film, including working closely with a Chinese team to handle product placement, using cities in China for locations, Chinese financing, and even using actors like Li Bingbing and Han Geng in major roles.
After my talk with Bryce, I noticed a few of the stunt doubles (for Wahlberg, Tucci and Peltz) get into a van and head to set. I was told the next scene would involve those three as well as the daughter’s boyfriend (Jack Reynor) in a car driving down a long oceanside road backwards to avoid getting his by a massive ship lifted out of the water and dropped onto the road by the alien ship above.
So far on this day, I’d kept a healthy distance from the action and Bay, and allowed the director to come back and forth to me when he had time. But once I came back to the set, Bay came up to me purposefully and said, “Walk with me.” And from that point on, I never left his side, shadowing him for six or seven hours until a violent thunderstorm rolled into Chicago just as we began losing light.
For most of the time I was alongside Bay, I tried to stay the silent observer. But there are times when I shoot out a question about something beyond what is going on at that exact moment in a scene. For example: Why was doing PAIN & GAIN important to you? “I was exhausted after TRANSFORMERS 3 and needed a quick, fast break. PAIN & GAIN re-energized me and gave me a break. [He pauses and looks around] I’m going to need a long break after this.”
Bay talks about the franchise craze in Hollywood and how tough it is to let go. Case in point, although he was not officially on for a fourth TRANSFORMERS film for a while, he was somewhat involved in the “Transformers Prime” animated series and eventually begin pre-production on AGE OF EXTINCTION early in the process. He seems pleased to point out that one of the biggest differences in this new film is that there are not military characters (at least on the good guys’ side). At one point, he looks at someone setting up the next seen and in classic Bay fashion shouts out, “Comprehension is not your high point today!”
It’s fascinating watching him prowl around his set, pointing, checking angles, asking about how big an explosion actually will be (and usually wanting it bigger). He’s got it clear in his head how it should look, and now it’s about making that vision come true. As a pure technician, few can top him. He’s figured out how the boat will land on the road, and it figuring out the order that the explosives should be triggered as it rolls across the road and hits the wall. He meticulously rehearses with his stunt team and extras, who will be running from the car driving backward at high speed. At one point, he even suggests some people should dive in the water.
It’s at this point where I spot a fantastic-looking mobile 3-D vehicle with a crane on front and the 3-D techs in the back seat, who seem tasked with driving forward in front of the stunt car driving backwards.
So Take 1 rolls, and right away one explosion goes off too late, so the explosives much be reloaded. A small boats heads out into the water to clean up a small amount of bomb debris that is floating. While the reloading takes place, Bay decides to shoot inserts of extras running away from the car and the giant boat that is in real danger of falling on them. This is easily stuff a second-unit team could have done, but Bay seems to take great pride in shooting it himself.
He manages to get the car-driving sequence with explosion scene off three times before the rain starts to pour down, cutting the day a couple of hours short. We use the downtown to head to his trailer—suitably souped up with a great entertainment center—to watch the sizzle reel and other scenes, many shot in Chicago, including a sequence that appears to have been shot inside the long-closed Uptown Theatre. In the film, it’s supposed to be in Texas, and it’s where Wahlberg discovers Optimus Prime in a sad state of disrepair.
Since almost none of the action sequences were complete, a lot of what Bay showed me were scenes from the set up of the film, and it revealed a completely different vibe than the other films. Gone is the comedic touches that Shia LaBeouf provided to the first three films. Instead there’s a touch of melancholy in this story of a single parent down on his luck.
So after a day of flying cars, massive explosions and torrential rain, I called it a day and said good bye to Bay and the few remaining crew members still around. You can say what you want about his films, but if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to step onto a non-stop, action film set, nothing quite matches one run by Michael Bay.