The wizardry of computer graphics has become so other-worldly that it's easy to imagine the army of specialists that worked on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen hidden in some underground laboratory-bunker, scurrying like super-intelligent lab rats to create "sights no one has ever seen before" under the excruciating pressure of a hugely expensive franchise picture.
But the role of visual effects supervisor is as hands-on and real-world as jobs come. Industrial Light and Magic's Scott Farrar has performed it to perfection on both Transformers pictures. His work begins long before the shooting starts, when producer-director Michael Bay and his colleagues begin brainstorming with Farrar and his colleagues on how far, this time out, they can push the art of the impossible. It ends when the film lands in the theaters.
Farrar gets to act as what he calls "a special-effects referee" when ILM begins constructing and animating the good-guy Autobots and bad-guy Decepticons at the ILM compound in San Francisco's Presidio. The title takes on weight when you realize that animators are doing tumbling turns and karate chops to figure out their characters.
And when the movie begins shooting, Farrar is on set during all six months of principal filming, in every locale from a Bethlehem, Pa., steel plant to the Jordanian desert. (He even earned a second-unit director credit on this movie.) During post-production, he kicks into overdrive, as the hundreds of people under his leadership bring so many miracles of light and action to life that they threaten to burst their disc space.
Farrar has become such an integral part of the Transformers experience that Paramount has turned him into a focus of the film's publicity. On the phone from San Francisco opening day, just back from the Los Angeles premiere, he laughs when I ask what he's doing next. He says, "My dance card is punched. These movies take a year and half for me to do - and when I say a year and a half, I mean that's constant work. I cannot commit to another movie until I know about Transformers 3."
From Day One, Farrar's job stretches from the blue-sky of ideas and imagination to the dates of the schedule and the dollars and cents of the budget. Bay relies on Farrar's expertise for drawing the game plan and putting a price on it. Once Paramount and DreamWorks grant their approval, "we start building robots right away." An average-size robot takes three months to create. It takes an additional three months to perfect the skeleton that allows it to move within a shot without any of its pieces flying away. Farrar also helps Bay guide the "animatics" and "previsualization" - the moving storyboards that allow filmmakers to test their ideas before they go on the set.
Once Bay signs off on the animation, it's time to go out and get the shots. "We filmed in seven states, Egypt and Jordan, and with a mini-unit in Paris."
Bay may be a critic's nightmare, but he's a visual-effects supervisor's best friend. "In many ways, he works like a second visual-effects supervisor, because he's got such a strong visual sense and so much skill and experience with the camera. If there's anything nightmarish about these films, it's that they're so big, and they have to be made so quickly." Farrar warms to the challenges Bay presents of seamlessly blending digital marvels with locations "the size and grandeur of Ben-Hur - and Apocalypse Now."
When Farrar started out as a special-effects camera operator in his early days at ILM, he did his effects shots on a separate VistaVision camera that had to be "locked down." The camera couldn't "pan or tilt or boom or dolly - no movement whatsoever." Farrar loves teaming up with Bay on a dynamic style where a regular 35mm anamorphic Panavision camera rarely stops moving and the effects keep pace with it. He helps Bay figure out the blocking as Farrar's team uses pink tennis balls and light poles to mark the position of the robots. Bay's camera units shoot from multiple angles, then ILM "adjusts the animation to the wild, willy-nilly flailings we come up with."
Bay insists on employing film rather than digital recording partly because he likes the grain and color range of film, and partly because he prefers spectacular natural locations. (Farrar scans the negative to create a pristine digital copy for ILM.) A high-def digital camera requires an unwieldy electronic "umbilical chord" that makes it hard to maintain out of the studio, especially in the Jordanian desert. It's heartening to think of Bay getting a thrill out of shooting in Wadi Rum, Jordan, where David Lean directed part of Lawrence of Arabia.
Outsiders tend to think of techies as slaves to the computer. Farrar, though, says, "Computers are dumb: they can't do anything unless they have a ton of information." ILM must translate into digital language every surface and texture in each shot, and set up lights within each scene's 3-D landscape according to "how a particular location looked at a particular time of night or day." Because of the shifts in shadows and light, the images in a sequence set in a deep forest could turn brownish, yellowish or vivid green. Since the robots are reflective they would look markedly different depending on the circumstances. An ILM craftsman on set stands at camera position for most of the set-ups and swings around in a circle to photograph the environment.
It's part of animation tradition that "character animators" observe the voice actors, then become mime performers themselves, acting out movements and expressions in a mirror and applying them to furry animals or magical objects. Farrar says they don't work any differently when they're doing robots. Bay always wanted the robot warriors to boast the speed and limberness of ninjas. "Our guys got so good at it that on this film they came up with unbelievable fight moves and bloodthirsty attack movements themselves, without the help of the stuntmen," even if these feints and thrusts stemmed from an animator growing up with three brothers rather than studying martial-arts or enlisting in the military.
"I'm always asked if the transformations would look right if we slowed them down," says Farrar. "The answer is, 'Yes.' " He says he relies on a couple of transformation experts who "like figuring out puzzles or creating them."
But I really wanted to know whether he thought that the different antagonists and protagonists would be clearer and stronger if the fight scenes had a more varied rhythm and choreography. "We're always conscious that you should be able to tell them apart, but sometimes just the framing of a battle sequence makes you go at a certain cadence. All I can say is that in L.A., with a huge audience of all ages, everyone seemed to get it - it was good and evil on epic scale, and all the 'Oooohs' and 'Aaaahs' and 'Yeahs' were coming in the right places."
Six months from now, the rest of us can do what I did to appreciate the first Transformers film. Fuel up the DVD or Blu-Ray, lower the sound and put on the subtitles, fast-forward through the exposition and the comedy and put the machine on slow-mo for the robot set pieces.
The Autobots and Decepticons (and their Gremlins-like underlings) - that's where the art and entertainment is in these movies, thanks to the wizards of ILM.