Bay hired production designer Jeff Mann whom he worked with on commercials. “Jeff's a motor head,” says Bay, “he's just a big car buff and had the sensitivity and understanding of the material.”
Although Mann just missed the generation of kids who played with Hasbro's Transformers, through study and determination, he has become one of the most knowledgeable artisans working on the film. Between DeSanto, Mann and writers Kurtzman and Orci, they were the “go to” guys for everything Transformers during production.
“We had an extensive crash course in Transformers,” says Mann, “and access to a lot of archival stuff. My department had the best teachers at Hasbro so we understood very quickly that people were devoted to these characters and the toy line right from the start.
“Even though I have a number of movies and commercials under my belt and had done pretty big scale productions, I didn't have extensive experience in character design so that was intriguing and a definite challenge,” Mann acknowledges.
The process was a lengthy one that came with its own idiosyncratic set of responsibilities. It took his team six months to develop the final concepts for the characters.
“Initially I focused on what each character needs to get done during the course of the story,” Mann says, “then I focused on the idea of what they are before they transform and finally, how do they transform? I wanted the designs to be rich and textured so that audiences would feel like somebody cared enough to create a backstory to enhance the viewing experience. Of course Michael's mandate was that the robots be cool while respecting the designs that came before.”
Wild though it may seem, Mann unearthed some rather lofty theories about the transforming robots during his research; one such notion even suggested that the transformations had a basis in molecular nano engineering.
“The logic is something along the lines of every cell of the robot is a machine in itself and the robots essentially regenerate themselves,” he says, “which doesn't make sense given that the robots are born, live in a society of other robots and can be destroyed. But I guess you just have to suspend disbelief when you're trying to figure out the genesis of a robotic race of beings,” he says, shrugging his shoulders.
Despite such fanciful theories, Mann says the filmmakers did attempt to adhere to some rules when it came to the transformation process. “Our robots have the capacity to find a vehicle, scan it and replicate that vehicle,” he explains. “And each robot can only replicate into something equal to its own mass. For example, Jazz becomes a Pontiac Solstice whereas Optimus becomes a big truck. It was important to Michael that the robots transform into similar sized objects. We even had evolutionary charts for each character.
“In the cartoon, the robot shapes are essentially a series of linked boxes, softened on the corners and stacked one on top of another when they transform,” Mann says. “But the cartoon robots could also become anything in any given situation, which was a bit too easy and would have felt like we were cheating if we did that. In our version the robots have limitations and cannot change form willy-nilly. Our Transformers are not endlessly malleable, they're not gas; they do not have magic powers. They are simply technology beyond our understanding.”
“We assembled a team of about 25 artists to do conceptualized storyboards, to illustrate the updated look of the robot/cars. Each one had an expertise -- one guy was designing eyes, one guy did overall facial structure, another did the feet. It took months and months. Hasbro helped us, but they also let me do my thing.
“With Optimus we had to make the ears bigger to get more of a samurai look,” he explains, “but we would vet most of these changes through Transformers geeks to make sure we weren't way off track because they know the lore and they know why certain robots look a certain way or have the ability to do certain things.”
Only two actual robots were fabricated for the film, Autobots Frenzy and Bumblebee. In order to create an animated Frenzy, the art department did facial studies paying close attention to details like the eye sockets and mouth movements in different expressions. Their 3-D designs were furthered by prosthetics and puppet specialists at KNB who refined and built the 4-foot tall Frenzy metal puppet.
Bumblebee was built by Academy Award-winning special effects legend John Frazier and his team at Fxperts. Created by Frazier's skilled artisans Bumblebee stands close to 17 feet high with a footprint of eight feet, 10½ inches. Weighing in at solid 8,150 pounds, he is almost 13 feet wide and more than eight-and-a-half feet deep. When production began, it took several men most of the day to assemble the robot which was transported from location to location via flatbed truck. Since production wrapped, Frazier's team has modified their design to accommodate Bumblebee's schedule of public appearances around the world. He can now be assembled in only two to three hours.
Timing was also improved on screen. In the cartoon transformations lasted mere seconds, but the filmmakers knew that they had to do better than that for the film version and took great care in designing the intricate workings of each metamorphosis.
“I wanted the audience to see the elaborate alien clockworks of those changes,” says Mann, “the whirring and whizzing and telescoping of each piece so that even the simplest motion like turning a wrist had 17 fascinating mechanisms moving. And when the vehicles change back, a tire isn't really a tire, it's a shoulder. The minute you scratch the surface of the vehicle, you see it's really an alien robot.”
“The visual effects were so complex it took a staggering 38 hours for ILM to render just one frame of movement,” reports Bay, “that's unheard of in this industry.”
Because of time constraints, Mann's department was forced to stick to line drawings rather than 3-D illustrations, with the exception of Scorponok which the art department fully animated, from the Sikorsky Pave Low helicopter down to the metallic scorpion's turbine bladed tentacles, before handing off to ILM's creative team.
Both Bay and Mann are now some of the most learned Transformers scholars around. “I've probably thought about robots, how to make them, how to operate them, how to destroy the indestructible, more than anyone on earth in the last two years,” Bay laughs. “That should make me the head geek in Transformers study.”
Mann's design process also labored under the added impetus of Hasbro's manufacturing calendar since the company's schedule demanded they begin fabricating new toys a year prior to the film's release.
In talking about the design of the robots, the discussion invariably turns to the vehicles. When deciding what cars and trucks to use, the filmmakers opened the floor to any and all car companies, from Ferrari to Ford to Jaguar, the discussions were all over the map until Bay was invited to visit GM's secret design warehouse.
“I went to their skunk works where they make their concept cars,” the director says. “It's all very stealthy. They make clay models of designs for use way in the future. There was one design they wouldn't let me see. I think it was for Rick Wagner, the president of GM. I was hoping to distract the people showing me around so that I could sneak a peek, but I just couldn't do it,” he says with a mischievous glint.
During his visit Bay did see the initial stages of what has become the 2009 Camaro used as the shiny new Bumblebee. “It had a retro look,” says Bay, “like a muscle car. I knew it was Bumblebee. After seeing that car I knew for sure my instincts were right; using the Volkswagen Bug wasn't in the cards. I know it upsets some of the fans, but I think when they see this car, they'll understand the reasoning.”
GM not only lent the production assets worth over a million dollars, they also helped with the physical labor of retrofitting many of their vehicles in order to make them look a bit different than what consumers see on the road. And keep in mind that in the magic world of movie making, each vehicle must have a stunt double and a photo double.
“When you shoot big action sequences, you need three of each car,” Bay says as a reminder. “If one crashes, or breaks down mechanically, you've got to be ready to keep filming.”
When it came to Optimus Prime, Mann had an entire team drawing potential robot/trucks trying to zero in on just the right look. When Mann showed Bay a photo of the enormous tractor trailer, he was immediately taken by the lines and the size of the truck even though he knew he would face intense criticism yet again for his choice. The pick of a more aggressive truck was also done as a tip of the hat to Spielberg's 1971 film, “Duel.”
Of course there were many discussions about Bumblebee before the filmmakers settled on their selection. “The quintessential Camaro is a '69,” says Mann. “It's the most popular vintage, but we wanted to find the cheesiest version for Sam's first car. The 70s was a very dark time for cars, so we thought that hillbilly hotrod era would be perfect because Sam didn't have any money and could never afford a '69, which is ten grand if it's a dime.”
Mann also feels the scrappy 1976-77 Camaro was a “friendly” choice that embodied a sense of “approachability” more than any of the other cars the filmmakers initially discussed, which was an important factor in the relationship between the car and Sam and Mikaela.
“Even though shape-shifting was a no-no for the other Transformers, there were a number of reasons that Bumblebee was allowed to become a newer version of himself. It was like a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Mann explains, “and it was a way to showcase the new Camaro.”
As the principal driver of this $500,000 prototype, Shia LaBeouf was more than a bit nervous. “You're always thinking, `Don't crash into a wall, there are only four of these things in existence,' so there was no burning out the tires,” he jokes. “GM always had guys around to watch me. It was more like, `Wipe your feet off before you get in,' or `Keep your hands on the steering wheel, don't touch anything,'” he laughs.
Autobot Jazz was always a sports car, originally established as a Martini Porsche 935 Turbo in the cartoon, but again, with the thought of updating the overall look of the film's characters, the filmmakers decided to go with the Pontiac Solstice GXP roadster with reel-wheel drive.
“At first blush we didn't want to have two of any make of car,” he continues, “but the Solstice® was something new and hot they were promoting and it just fit the bill. It has an interesting shape and one had been specifically modified for a SEMA show [a private showcase of specialty products for automotive manufacturers] in Las Vegas -- it had some bitchin' ground effects, a hard top and big wheels, so it was hard to resist.”
“Ratchet was a kind of Hummer H2-based ambulance,” describes Mann, “which didn't really exist so we designed and built that from scratch. We looked at some military Hummer ambulances and some Red Cross vehicles from the 80s that had an H1 foundation which eventually evolved into a search and rescue vehicle with a crazy color, kind of chartreuse green.”
Ironhide is a 4500 series GMC Topkick fit with 46” Nitto Super Swamper tires which only arrived the morning before the character was to be used in a scene. The transportation and art departments also modified the bumpers and embossed the tailgate with the Autobot logo.
“Even though we highlight a lot of expensive, cutting edge hardware throughout the movie, you'll see right away that both the Autobots and the Decepticons are real characters with definite personalities,” says Bryce. “There's as much room for them to appear heroic as there is for the actors.”
Starscream, one of the most popular of the Decepticons, transforms into the innovative F-22 Raptor jet made by Lockheed Martin. The plane is so new it is still being tweaked and is currently in the process of final flight testing at Edwards Air Force Base. When the production company shot with the prototype, security was at its absolute highest - not only were background checks required, everyone signed in and out of the area where the aircraft was parked, no one with cell phones as permitted within several hundred yards, and all recording equipment was pre-approved.
The image of Bonecrusher, a Buffalo MPCV, was something the art department pulled off the web. “It's actually a funny story,” recounts Mann. “We found this image of a mine-sweeping vehicle that had a huge arm with what appeared to be a fork on the end. So we called the people who owned it, hoping there was a chance we could rent it or buy it, but when we got the data, it turned out the fork was only 14 inches wide -- they had totally cheated the whole thing in Photoshop,” he laughs.“In their picture, it looks like the thing could lift a bus. We had to make an appliance to fit over the existing arm, that wouldn't bounce around too much because it was about 10 feet wide, but those are the logistical challenges you face.”
Picture car coordinator, Steve Mann (no relation to the production designer), worked closely with Jeff Mann to find all the vehicles used in the film, even the background cars and trucks, many of which were flood damaged insurance write-offs from Hurricane Katrina.
Steve found a tank (based on the M1 Abrams) to use for Devastator that had already been retrofitted for another movie. “It was a marriage of convenience,” says Jeff Mann. “We modified it again and came up with a cool paint job, non-radar detectable, based on some camouflage that was being used on a futuristic battleship we researched.
The designer says that the filmmakers settled on the Sikorsky MH-53 Pave Low helicopter for Blackout because it was a sexier look. “Cobras are too slight even though they carry a lot of fire power,” he says, “and the Huey is too old to be menacing, but the Pave Low looks butch. And with our theory about mass, the size made it the logical choice.”
Barricade changes into a sleek Saleen S281 Mustang disguised as souped-up police cruiser with front headlights that convert into multi-bladed weapons with the flip of a switch.
All of the vehicles were selected with the audience in mind. “I started to realize that we had to make `Transformers' for someone who's never seen it,” says Bay. “Some of the old designs just looked ridiculous in conjunction with more modern backgrounds.”
The sets that Mann designed and created with set decorator Larry Dias took on a life of their own once the production finalized the deal to shoot in and around Hoover Dam. The imaginary interiors they fashioned needed to harmonize with the real-life location built in the early 1930s.
In the story, the dam is built around a strange square-shaped object that seems to emit a signal through energy waves. In order to hide the peculiar device from possible enemies as well as from simple curiosity seekers, the government decides to hide it within a hydropower plant.
For Mann it was an opportunity to further the Art-Deco masterpiece of Gordon B. Kaufmann and Allen True, along with the help of sculptor Oskar J.W. Hansen, who took the design aesthetic of the dam to another level altogether. Initially planned and designed by engineers working for the Department of Reclamation, the plant was about function, not form, until it moved into the hands of artists.
From the look of the American Indian patterns on the terrazzo floors to the smooth concrete walls and stately bronzed statues adorning the exterior, Mann and Dias followed the natural flow of the building into Megatron's basement prison, through the library with it's detailed books shelves and display cases, into the alien laboratory where Bumblebee is eventually laid bare on an operating table.
Anthony Anderson believes the detail and lavishness of the sets helped the actors to find the reality in each scene. Like everyone who walked into the Hughes Hangar, he was particularly enthralled with the continuation of what was shot at Hoover Dam.
“They brought an empty soundstage to life,” Anderson says. “It really gives us something to work with as actors as opposed to pretending we're at the Pentagon or pretending we're in the catacombs of the library under the Dam.”
With stage space at a premium in Los Angeles, many filmmakers are opting to use now-defunct manufacturing plants and warehouses wherever they can find them. Just such a place is Hughes Aircraft in Playa Vista, close to the Los Angeles Airport and the 405 Freeway. The site where the infamous Spruce Goose was first built, Hughes is now home to many motion pictures and television production companies. Its two main buildings are approximately 100 feet wide and 800 feet long, which allowed “Transformers” to keep all its sets in one place rather than having to erect them at different studios spread across town.
“It does limit you a bit design wise,” says Mann, “especially when you're designing for wide screen format. Those buildings are not your friends. It feels like you're working in a cigar tube. When we built Megatron's set, I felt like the building was a curse because we couldn't afford to cover up the structure itself. It was clapboard, diagonally sheathed with one-by-twelve's; it looked like a barn inside those hangars. But we just had to embrace the shape and everything the buildings offered in terms of background. It helped that Michael thought he could light it so that the background would be a non-issue, especially with the elaborate special effects he had planned. And we gave the cameras as much scenery in the form of Megatron.”
Despite months of anxiety, Jeff Mann had nothing to fear. When the cast and shooting crew first arrived at the Playa stages, no one was paying any attention to the walls or cared that the buildings are considered historical landmarks.
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