Quint sits down with Michael Bay and sees tons of TRANSFORMERS stuff!!!
Published at: April 23, 2006, 7:41 p.m. CST by staff
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here, currently writing from the seating area around gate 46B at LAX with about an hour and a half until my flight back to Austin leaves. I spent only 2 days in Los Angeles, but they were both filled to the brim.
I got a call on my first day in LA telling me I had a meeting set up the next day with talkback whipping boy Michael Bay to discuss TRANSFORMERS. It seems that I will be covering a lot of this film through all stages of production. As a child of the '80s (if you were a boy in the '80s you had Transformer toys... I don't care how poor your family was... my mom was a single mother working office jobs and waitress jobs to keep us going and I had a few Transformers in my toybox) I, of course, have a heavy interest in this production.
I'm also not as venomous towards Bay as many people seem to be. I love THE ROCK, ARMAGEDDON is overblown, but fun... I still haven't seen BAD BOYS 2 or THE ISLAND yet, so that might explain my confusion at the hardcore punishment the man gets. For me, the idea of the filmmaker of THE ROCK and ARMAGEDDON directing a giant fighting robots movie is a perfect match.
So, I met up with a Paramount dude named Mickey, another huge TRANSFORMERS buff, around the 3rd St. Promenade and he led me to Michael Bay's secret lair in Santa Monica. The outside was surrounded by palm trees and as we pulled in to the drive Bay was walking into the building, throwing a look over his shoulder at our approaching car.
We entered the building and I noticed 2 things straight away. One, the inside of Bay's office is very open, with bamboo stalks all around the middle of the lobby. It was also surprisingly quiet. The second thing I noticed were the two living, breathing bears he had guarding the inner offices. I'm not kidding. These animals were huge... The one sitting at a doorway (I would later find out that this doorway lead into the meeting room) raised its head as I walked in and growled.
When I got a closer look at this animal I discovered that it was not a bear, but the biggest fucking dog I've ever seen. He stood up (and I know it was a he... use your imagination to figure out how I knew that) walked towards me, slowly. Very slowly. "Uh... hey, puppy..." He still walked forward and about 5 feet in front of me he let out a deep, resounding bark that sounded like the devil. I looked around and no one at the office seemed to care that I was about to get eaten by this animal.
The dog finally got to me and sniffed my leg (due to its size, it actually sniffed my upper thigh and hip) and my hand that I had put out. He then lost interest in me and walked past, brushing me as he did, nearly knocking me over.
Then I met Bay. He introduced himself and I shook his hand. The very first thing he said when we sat down was, "I'm not telling you any of the story." I was like, "Okay... so... did you see that cast list that is starting to circulate on the internet?" He brightened up and said he hadn't, then asked who was mentioned. I ran through the names I could remember offhand. Michael Clarke Duncan, Jon Voight, Bernie Mac... He just smiled and nodded. After a long silence he said, "Well, it sure is a big cast." I thought that was a pretty nice dodge, but if I had to guess based on his reaction I think IGN's scoop is legit, at least as far as those names are concerned.
One thing I can confirm, straight from Bay's mouth (and this is something he wanted the fans to know) is that he is going to audition the original voice actors for the Autobots and Decepticons. He said it's no guarantee they'll get cast, but he's going to give them a listen. His main fear is that the actors have aged since the cartoon and that age may be noticeable in their voices.
Bay then showed me a rough design for the TRANSFORMERS teaser poster. It was a robotic eye overlooking planet Earth, kind of peeking over the curvature of the globe. The eye was in a brow the shape of a right triangle and looked very mechanical, iris and all. The tagline was "Their War. Our World."
I like the tagline and the poster was very polished, but it reminded me a little too much of the ID4 poster. And the font for TRANSFORMERS at the bottom of the poster looked like ROBOCOP's font, not enough like the the TRANSFORMERS font.
Bay was called away to talk to the screenwriters for a few minutes and when he returned he asked me into the meeting room. The monster dog was back at his guard post and I had to step over the beast to get into the room. The dog was very passive this time and even relented to a bit of a scratch behind the ears.
The meeting room had a long table in the middle of the room, a flat panel widescreen TV on the far wall, giant horizontal posters for BAD BOYS 2 and PEARL HARBOR on the adjacent wall, Leatherface's mask in a displace case underneath, a TRANSFORMERS toy above it (it was a shiny black toy with a customized Michael Bay head on it, a gift from Hasbro, Bay told me), People's Choice award surf boards (for 2004 and 2005) resting in 2 of the 4 corners of the room and the bomb from PEARL HARBOR in another corner.
I sat across from Bay as he held a stack of at least 150 rectangular papers with everything from preproduction art to character designs to character tests on them. He flipped through the stack as he was telling me that he has the full support of the US Armed Forces for this film and has met with them repeatedly to discuss how they are portrayed in the movie. With a smile, Bay said that if the world ever had a giant robot problem how we see the Armed Forces deal with them in TRANSFORMERS is how we'd see them deal with them in real life.
He plucked a piece of art from this stack, careful to keep everything he didn't want me to see hidden in the pile, and slid it across the desk to me. He said that TRANSFORMERS will be the first film to be able to use the new fighter jet, the F-22. The image he slid to me was of this jet, a very sleek looking machine. Apparently, this machine has all of its weaponry (bombs, etc) hidden inside it, with panels that slide back to allow the weapons out when needed. It's a stealth jet and, most importantly, it can stop suddenly and hover (think of it rising its nose at a 60 degree angle and just stopping) which would allow the jet to take out enemy fighters as they scream past, unable to stop or turn in time. It's supposed to be a pilot's dream of a machine.
Bay was flipping through more of the concept art and character designs and he seemed unsure of what to show me. Reluctantly, he plucked out another piece and slid it over. This one was the first robot design I saw. It was all silver metal and had many sharp angles. I didn't recognize it, but this started a discussion about the design of the robots in the film.
The biggest difference from the cartoon and toys is that the Autobots and Decepticons aren't going to be as blocky. Bay said that when they started breaking down how these robots transform from vehicles to robots the blocky end result didn't make any sense and looked pretty silly. So, you see the working parts of the vehicles much more on the robots, you see sharper angles, but they all stem from them transforming.
He showed me another robot, a Decepticon called Scorponok (if I remember correctly, although it could have been called Skorpikon), a giant robot scorpion which had three long, thin pliable blades for each of its pincers that could join together and rotate, becoming drills. The tail folded up over its body and had a long sharp barbed pole that would shoot out of the end (presumably to skewer anything in the immediate area).
It was around here that I got my first look at Optimus Prime. I saw three concept art pieces on Optimus. The first was a headshot. He is blue, like the cartoon, but I noticed a lack of red in the early stuff I saw. Mostly steel gray and blue. Not sure what I think about that. His face is a bit longer than I remember the cartoon being, but the image I think of when I picture Optimus Prime is when his face guard is up. Bay was quick to point out that the Optimus I was seeing was him without his battle mask. Like the other robot I saw, Optimus was more angular than the cartoon, but he was still hulking. He was by no means lithe and skinny. Bulky, but not blocky.
The second piece of art I saw had him standing full size, head to toe , on the right side and his vehicle form on the left. Yes, it's still a Mac truck.
The third piece was a close up on his eyes. There was actually 2 different pieces here, two different options for how the eyes would look. They still haven't decided on the eyes yet, but Bay said the robots, and Optimus Prime especially, had to show emotion and you couldn't do that with just glowing red eyes. The one I liked the most had the iris of the eye looking like a turbine engine. Very mechanical, but like a camera shutter it appeared that he could dilate the "pupils." There were metal slats around his eyes as well that looked like they could slide over each other to give the area around the eyes specific movement and life. The other option was exactly the same, but the iris had what looked like wires instead of slats (turbine engine thingys). It was very pretty and mimicked the look of a human iris a bit more, but felt out of place in the robotic skull.
It was very obvious to me that Bay was getting excited about the project as he was revealing these little bits to me, which was very cool to see. Mostly because the more excited he got, the more he wanted to share about the film. He picked another page and slid it to me and told me that when he was first approached he wasn't sure about the movie, thinking it would just a giant toy commercial. What hooked him was Shia LaBeouf's character, a teen that is getting his first car. He said that rite of passage for a teenage boy, that of getting your first car, is something he connected with and gave him a human angle to get involved emotionally with the story.
Of course, Shia's character ends up with a banana yellow '70s looking car with lots of wear... and of course, that car is a Transformer. The art Bay slid over to me was like the Optimus Prime work, with Shia's yellow beat up old car on the left and the car transformed into a giant robot on the right.
We talked a bit about the beginning of the movie. It starts in the Antarctica with a man chipping away at a giant ice wall. Something happens, his dogs run away and ice wall opens, the man falling into an icy cave, sliding down into the earth. When he stops, the camera pulls back and shows him resting in a giant robotic hand, half in and half out of the ice. I saw this piece in production art and it was very atmospheric with giant shapes in the surrounding ice walls and the tiny man resting in the palm of a robot.
Bay later revealed that although this is the beginning of the movie, it isn't the first thing we see. Bay's words were, "We will actually see Cybertron," which is the planet where the Autobots hail from.
I then saw about 10 minutes of animatics. For those that don't know what an animatic is, it's an animated storyboard using rough, rough animation to detail a complex action scene or a very visual sequence. Most of them were bits from various fight scenes that started in the middle of the action. I know there's going to be a fight between Megatron and Optimus Prime in downtown LA. Bay wanted to make sure I understood that they're still working on the physics involving the Transformers. He didn't want them to move like typical robots, but they had to have the weight of metal beings their size. He had considered doing Motion Capture work for the Autobots and Decepticons, but he ran a test of two stunt men fighting where he just mapped the animation over the men and he was happy with the results, at least in the rough animation tests.
From the animatics, the action seemed to be huge and what you'd want from a movie like this. Of course, Bay's fingerprints are all over them, even at this early stage of planning. I saw fights between fully transformed Autobots and Decepticons that had them plucking lamp posts out of the ground and smashing the other with the blocky concrete end, I saw them jumping all over each other, only to be shot back by an arm cannon, I saw mid-air transformations from a Jet into a robot as it collides a standing robot in downtown LA...
There was another bit I saw that brought back that scorpion Decepticon I mentioned earlier. This part takes place in the Middle East and shows US soldiers heading towards a small town as they're being followed by something under the sand (think Tremors with the surface sand rippling up as something passes underneath). In a flash it pops up and the tail skewers a soldier and in a sand cloud it disappears back under the ground, dragging the dead soldier with it. The other soldiers react, firing at the trail in the sand. In the chaos more get grabbed, this time the Decepticon jumping out of the sand like the Sand Worm in BEETLEJUICE. The soldiers run and then we get the most Michael Bay shot I saw in any of the animatics... Slow motion soldiers running towards camera, the Decepticon jumping out of the sand behind them. It's so slow that we can see the pincers acting as drills allowing it to dig under the sand. I thought it looked awesome.
The other animatic sequence I want to mention before I wrap up this report is a freeway chase. Bay said he has done many chase scenes in his career, but he wanted this one to feel different from his other chases. The sequence has Optimus and a Decepticon speeding along a crowded freeway, the Decepticon's truck flipping over any vehicle in its way. Optimus is catching up to him and transforms as he gets close, keeping the tires on the ground and avoiding as many cars as he can. The transformation was everything Transformers geeks would want to see big. It was smooth and ended with Optimus crouching, the wheels still on the ground.
We talked a little bit about Steven Spielberg and his role as producer on the film. Bay said that Spielberg was sitting in this very same meeting room a few short days ago brainstorming action scenes with Bay. Every word I've heard from sources close to the project say that Spielberg is very much a hands-on creative producer with this flick. Considering how Episode 3 seemed to benefit from Spielberg's input I can't imagine this is anything but great news for us Transformers fans.
One of the last things we talked about before I took off was the teaser trailer. I know it starts off in space and it will be released this 4th of July. The movie starts shooting next month.
Well, there you have it. My trip to Bay's offices. At the end of the meeting, I stepped back over the giant dog and, thinking we were friends, bent down to give him another scratch behind the ears and got an earthquake like growl in return. I guess he knew the meeting was over.
Everything I saw was very rough and still in development. And I still don't know much about the story, but I can say this... if there's one thing you can depend on Michael Bay for it's epic action and the animatics I saw definitely promised an epic sci-fi extravaganza. I also really got a sense that Bay wanted to hit that tough spot that balances respect for the source material and fans of the source material on one side and what's best for a feature film on the other. He could have just as easily said, "Fuck the fans, I'm making my movie," but he mentioned many times throughout the conversation how he wanted to make the fans happy.
Hopefully he knocks this one out of the park. He's got a lot to prove and a long road ahead of him. I think the foundation he has under him at the moment is pretty solid. I'll certainly be keeping a close eye on this project. If things go well, I'll be back soon with some cast interviews, maybe some more talks with the creative team and a set visit. Be sure to let us know your thoughts on what you read in this report in the talkbacks below.