Event: Transformers: The Last Knight Set Visit (Part One)

in 2016, Event Report, The Last Knight

"Transformers: The Last Knight" Set Visit (Part One)

When the email came in I could barely believe it I thought perhaps I was being pranked. A representative from Paramount was asking me if I wanted to be part of a set visit on Michigan for “The Last Knight”. I had about a week’s notice and there was not a lot of time to plan, but when you are offered the chance of a lifetime you move heaven and Earth to take advantage of it.

In this case that meant begging my boss for the days off. Fortunately my boss is awesome and off I went on Monday August 8, 2016. For older “Transformers” fans, this date is significant. August 8th was the 30th anniversary of the 1986 animated film “Transformers: The Movie”, so it was appropriate that on this day a group of fans would visit the set of the fifth live action film in the “Transformers” franchise.

Disclaimer: A lot of what we saw on this day was top secret. Aside from those who had worked on the film, we were among the first “outsiders” to see a lot of the sets, costumes and imagery at the studio. A condition of our visit was that we would not reveal a lot of what we saw. Also note, in general we were not allowed to take photographs or video. The main exception to this was the vehicle garage. For photos from that part of my visit, check out my album on Facebook! The Paramount representative who stayed with us did take some photos that will be released at some future date (pending studio permissions). When those become available I will add them to BWTF.COM.

The Studio
Paramount maintains a studio in Michigan. The group visited the Michigan Studios, where many studios have rented space and shot movies, not just PP. This cavernous facility houses several sound stages and plenty of outdoor space. During my visit it appeared that every section of this enormous facility was dedicated to production of “The Last Knight”. This includes a building of offices across the street from the studios and a nearby facility where vehicles are stored and cared for. Spread throughout the facility were trailers that helped to create the sense of being in a small town whose sole purpose was to create a new “Transformers” film.

Set #1
The first set we were brought onto was an eye opening experience. It is easy to look at the spectacle in the live action “Transformers” films and assume everything you see (backgrounds, characters and all) are pure CGI creations, but this set put that thought to rest immediately. While I cannot describe what I saw in detail, words such as “Immense”, “Detailed”, “Amazing” and “Stunning” all come to mind as I think back to the set. Everyone in my group was in absolute awe, and we’re talking about seven fans who have been with this fandom from the beginning. We’re hardly new to this fandom and I would say we were all incredibly impressed. Yes, there were some green backdrops for CG work, but that did not subtract from the grandeur of this set.

Around late morning we were given a couple minutes to meet Michael Bay himself. Among fans he is a controversial figure and some may think he fits the cartoon image of a Hollywood director walking around in big pantaloons pants with a beret on yelling into a bullhorn, but that was not him at all. I sensed a very palpable excitement from him about the movie. We didn’t get much time with Bay as he was called back to his directing duties shortly after being introduced to us.

It was very interesting watching Bay work. He didn’t just bark orders to everyone. He actively took part in setting up the stage. Whether it meant sprinkling dirt on a prop or helping to pick things up, he was right there in the mix with his crew, his face set in deep concentration the whole time. When actors struggled with a scene, he would give them a few takes before he would go up to them and guide them. In one particularly interesting moment he wound up reviewing some papers (it could have been script pages or a storyboard, I couldn’t tell from a distance) with a production designer Jeffrey Beecroft, Wahlberg and Haddock before continuing. The physicality of the scene changed a bit after that. It was a fascinating process to watch.

Set #2
Do not think that one gigantic set was an exception rather than the rule. We were brought to another set that once again we were shown the massive scale of a film like “The Last Knight”. The set easily went three stories high and it stretched across far. The level of craftsmanship was extraordinary. I have heard from other actors in interviews that sets like this can help their performance, but standing there at the set I finally understood what that meant. We were not allowed to walk onto the actual set piece, but we skirted the edge (and got to touch a bit of it) and that was enough to make me feel like I was in another place, not a studio in Michigan!

In an unexpected treat, we were given the opportunity to speak with Harry Humphriess. Humphries is a former Navy SEAL who has worked with Bay as a technical advisor and liaison with the military since the 1996 film “The Rock”. As anyone who has watched Bay’s films know, he has a strong relationship with the military and Humphries talked to us about how this relationship has grown over the years. We also spent some time talking about "The Last Ship” a TV show where Bay serves as a producer and that Humphries has been involved in as an adviser. Fun fact, some of the background military characters you see in Bay productions (including “Transformers”) are actual former-military members! Humphries also corrected my understanding of an old story where it was said Michael Bay had cut a check to have the military turn a naval vessel around to get the perfect shot. In fact he offered, but they did not accept. Though our time was brief getting to chat with someone who has known and worked with Bay for so long as a very pleasant surprise.

A little later we had a chance to chat with Jason Smith, a visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic. Smith had worked primarily as the creature supervisor on the first two live action movies. He did not work on movies 3 and 4 but has returned for “The Last Knight”. Some of the more interesting take aways from this conversation include:

  • In addition to lighting sets and actors, the production crew also has to take light measurements to understand how lighting will reflect off Transformers added via CG later on. This helps give them a photo-realistic appearance on screen.
  • The movie studio sometimes comes up with designs that are then passed on to Hasbro to turn into toys. Smith marveled that some of the designs were turned into actual transforming toys.
  • The folks who create practical props such as the physical model of Sqweeks often go back and forth with the CG developers. This feedback cycle often helps in developing the models created by both teams.
  • Even as actors work against physical sets, the ILM team is on hand to figure out how they will be filling in any details required by CG work. It is a collaborative process.
  • Even “mediocre” CG work in films takes an extraordinary amount of work.
  • Some of the best work being done nowadays is a collaborative effort between practical special effects, make-up and CG effects all working together.

During our time on this set we were able to watch another scene be filmed and once again Bay’s style was there for us to see. We also saw some minor pyrotechnics and practical effects being used. Again, these were effects that I would have assumed were CG in the film, but they were happening right in front of my eyes.

Eventually we were shuffled off to the side of the set where a snack table (Craft Service) was set up including, most amusingly, a popcorn machine making fresh (and very tasty) popcorn! At one point Mark Wahlberg’s stunt double grabbed some popcorn and I had a minor freak out thinking it was him next to me. It’s very impressive how at a glance the two looked so much alike!

Photos above are courtesy of Paramount Studios. This concludes the first part of my set visit, but there's more to come tomorrow!