"Transformers: The Last Knight" Set Visit (August 2016)
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.
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.
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.
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!
Part two of my report focuses on the rest of my set visit, keeping in mind the shroud of secrecy that still surrounds a lot of what I saw. Here goes!
I had mentioned earlier in my set visit report that we were not allowed to take photos or video during much of our visit. This part of the visit was the exception! After climbing into a van we were all driven over to another part of the studio where the various vehicles used in production are stored and cared for. Part test track, part garage and part maintenance center this was a gearhead’s dream come true.
As we pulled up we were greeted by Randy Peters transportation coordinator and stunt driver for Optimus Prime himself! We were told that photos would be allowed here for any vehicles that have been revealed already, so I was personally ready to hop off the van and start snapping away at the gleaming form of Optimus Prime in vehicle mode in front of us.
Randy had other plans.
In a very generous offer Peters volunteered to show us Optimus Prime driving along the road behind us and swerving to a stop in dramatic fashion as the character has done in the films. We hustled into the van and were driven to the other end of the facility where we moved onto a grassy area and waited. The video below was the result!
This was already an incredible treat, but after some photo snapping and video taking Peters told us to “get in” and he’d take us back to the garage. We were a bit confused thinking he just meant for us to take photos of the interior (which we did). No, he meant get into Optimus Prime for a ride! We all squeezed in and amazingly we fit! As Optimus rumbled towards the garage I felt like a kid again. Deep down inside, my nine-year old self was losing his mind.
At the garage we saw many cars including several background vehicles. Our focus however was on the vehicles we could photograph. This included Bumblebee, Drift, Onslaught and Hound! Bumblebee was a really gorgeous and aggressive looking vehicle. Some of the lines and the spoiler look like they come from a futuristic science fiction film. Drift is now a Mercedes AMG GT R and the black and red color combination is my favorite. Onslaught Is not what most fans would expect being a tow truck, but the Autobot symbols with slashes through them on the back hint that this Decepticon is no slouch on the battlefield. Hound was an unexpected surprise. Due to licensing issues the OshKosh could no longer be used, so this truck was customized. The old World War II style decals and the bumper stickers on the figure show that Hound may be a medic now, but he still has not forgotten his warrior ways!
As someone who is a Transformers fan and admirer of vehicles, this particular part of the visit was an amazing experience.
As the day began to wind down we were taken into a different building (formerly General Motors offices) to visit three different departments: Costuming, The Art Department and Set Dressing. Often these two areas are the “unsung” heroes of a movie, so it was great to have a chance to get an up close look at both.
Production Art Room
Located in the offices at the studio is the Art Department where there were rooms full of people hunched over with determination as they stared at their monitors and worked on…well, whatever they were doing (I was not going to be rude and look over anyone’s shoulder). Lining the walls were amazing pieces of art. You’ve actually seen some of these in the form of artwork updates being released by the studio including Barricade and Drift. There were also awesome size charts which showed various characters in scale with each other down to height measurements! The group of us remarked several times how we would have loved a coffee table style book of this beautiful work.
This room didn’t just have artwork on paper, there were several small 3D cardboard and foamcore models of actual sets from the movie! I have seen models such as these in many “behind the scenes” videos from various science fiction movies over the years but it was super awesome to see them in person!
Imagine stepping into a department store sized clothing shop but among the various shirts, pants, dresses and socks are also military boots, body armor and an army of talented costumers hard at work on creating and fixing up costumes. That is what we were taken through by Lisa Lovaas, Costume Designer. It would be easy to think costuming was just one big department, but in fact it was divided up into several areas. One specialized in fixing up clothing, another focused on making clothing look “worn” while yet another area could be used to fabricate all new outfits. Here are some talking points that came out of our visit:
- In one scene in “Age of Extinction”, stuntmen had to be outfitted with a woman’s suit for an action scene. However the manufacturer did not make a suit large enough for the men to wear, so the staff had to recreate the exact suit in larger sizes.
- Details that are barely visible on screen (if at all) are given lots of consideration. For example, the camo pattern on the uniforms in the “G.I. Joe” films actually had the words “G.I. Joe” printed on them in tiny letters.
- The costume department believes in recycling costumes and material as much as possible. For example, some SWAT style outfits can easily be changed out from one organization to another just be removing a patch and replacing it with another.
- For some extras, costumes are created in certain sizes and then actors are found to fit the costumes.
- There were several racks of clothing divided by characters using photos of the actors as visual aids.
When we were told we would be going to costuming, I had no idea of the scope of what we were going to see would be so grand. It was also very eye opening in terms of the sheer number of people needed to costume up the actors in a film. Personal factoid: my mother was a seamstress for many years, so I spent a lot of time as a kid in garment factories so seeing these folks sitting at sewing machines, measuring fabric and so on brought back a surge of nostalgia for me.
You may be wondering why I say “set dressing” and not just ”props”, the more widely known term ofor objects used on a movie set such as the Allspark or fake weapons. Set dressing is a term referring to pieces that are present in a set, but will not necessarily be something an actor touches. Once they touch it, it “becomes” a prop, though it’s not a hard and fast rule. More of a guideline really. For example, if a character walks into a set that’s a restaurant and there’s a sign hanging on the wall, he or she may never do anything with it, but it helps sell the illusion that they are in a real restaurant.
Jeno Delli Colli, Assistant Set Decorator, was our guide through another room that seemed to contain more than you would think upon first walking in. This room looked like the best antique flea market sale ever mashed up with a workshop and electronics store. In one section there were promotional items to be featured in the movie (televisions mostly). In another section there were bicycles. Still yet another section had a pile of chairs. Still others had street signs. Taken as a whole there seemed to be little rhyme or reason. However if you imagine that these objects have to help sell the idea of a busy street or a restaurant they all made perfect sense.
This was near the last part of our visit, but there was one more surprise waiting for us before we left.
One last treat
As we stepped out of the set dressing department one of our group spotted something to the right: Barricade! Vehicles were being moved around and the Decepticon police car (a modified Mustang) was sitting there waiting for his close up. We got to see this awesome vehicle up close before we were hustled into the van to leave.
As I finish up this write up it has been almost a week since I went for this set visit and I still think now and then that I just dreamt it and it didn’t really happen. This was an amazing experience not just as a fan, but as someone who loves movies. If there is one take away from this set visit it is that everyone cares very deeply for doing the best job they can. Their joy and enthusiasm has given me new perspective into the effort and work that goes into a movie.
Ben’s World of Transformers would like to thank the kind folks at Paramount Public Relations for arranging this amazing trip. Also special thanks to all the folks who took time out of their busy workdays to give us mini-tours through their departments. You were all absolutely incredible to our group and it is deeply appreciated. "Transformers: The Last Night" is currently set for release on June 23, 2017.