Scott Farrar is a true master and veteran of visual effects, and has been working at ILM for decades. As visual effects supervisor for Michael Bay’s Transformers, his job was to turn robots into cars with a seamless imagination. And when you work for a perfectionist such as Bay, you’d better know your stuff. Farrar talked to Paul Fischer.
Question: How do you beat effects fatigue and really make a difference?
Answer: Good question. I’d like to tell you, I come from a photographic background. I started as a DP, visual effects photographer and I’m very good friends with Denis Muren. We work together a lot. We’re buddies and we’ve generally been displeased with how computer graphics work has looked for a long time. It’s been a tough crossover going from photochemical days where you photograph either shots on set or you shot miniatures or you shot real elements and you composited them. Okay, now we enter the world of computer graphics. What is that? Well, it’s a compositing tool, put the thing together, but it’s also a method of creating all kinds of things, simulations, dirt, debris, objects, what have you. But a lot of the stuff has not quite looked as good as what you could just go out and photograph. So the attempt in this movie was to ratchet up a little bit higher, hit a little bit higher watermark of making, in this case, hard body surfaces look real. I was kind of surprised it really hadn’t been done before, especially like a giant robot movie kind of lends itself to that kind of a thing. So that’s where we are with this. I think that was the beginning goal. We’re never quite sure if it’ll reach that or not but I think we did because I think there are many shots in this film, hopefully most of them, where it looks like a real world material that you can look at and you can say, “I know that that’s glass, that’s paint and painted metal, that looks like paint. That’s ???, that’s chrome, that’s glass. I can see the fibrous part of that ??? plate.”
Question: Was it all CG or were there some models?
Answer: It was 99% done in the computer. I’ll tell you the times when it was a puppet. Soundbite in Air Force One when he’s close up, a couple of little head turns and things like that. When he’s walking and prancing and all that sort of thing, that’s us. A couple shots where they had a Soundbite puppet attached to Shia when he was struggling in the parking lot, but that’s like quick stuff. Bumblebee when he’s tied down to the train car with the net over him, that’s a 16 foot model built by John Frasier’s group. KNB built the Soundbite model by the way. The Scorpinoc tail rising up when the guys are examining him, that was a puppet piece. The Bumblebee model then was used for a couple of shots when the helicopters are trying to hogtie him and he’s next to the river. What was that, 12 shots out of 600?
Question: Do you guys have a program that does the transformation? Did it have to be tweaked for each character?
Answer: We had separate artists, some of our resident braniacs, working on those. One guy who was Keiji, like his brain is just designed to do this sort of thing. He’s brilliant at it. I told Michael early on. Michael loves to know who the artists are. He gets gleeful pleasure to know the individual, which is cool. Not many directors get into it like that. He loves working directly with the artists. So Keiji was the one to figure out some of the earliest transformations. Then we had different other people assigned to do those sorts of things. But Keiji was the one that even after months of design, finally Michael came up to me with everybody and we told Michael about this passionate guy that was working on Optimus’ transformation, wanted to meet him, so Keiji came in and he said, “You’re exactly how I pictured you except I didn’t imagine the red sweater.” But Keiji said, “I don’t think Optimus looks heroic enough.” I go, “What? No. I think this is an insult. I think his head should be positioned…” So after a lot of designs, Michael listened to Keiji and he came up with a new design. Why would that happen? The people who were designing, Ben Procter was in the design group who was coming up with most of the designs for the robots but it’s all in 2D. Once you go to 3D, trying to get the 2D views to conform in a the three dimensional fashion, then things change.
Question: Going from vehicles to robots, is it different for each character?
Answer: A lot of that was just simply sketched out on paper by my art director, Alex Jaeger. And that was done very early on so that we would know kind of how the movement would occur. It was kind of based on some of the animatics that had been produced. It was also so that Hasbro would know what we were going to do so they would know what to build. There was a little back and forth on that. They’d say, “Hey, how about if you you do this?” We’d go, “Okay, we’ll do that.”
Question: Technologically though, is it an extension of morphing?
Answer: No. It’s actually physical pieces moving. This all is very complex. This toy in front of you has 51 pieces. Our Optimus Prime in the movie has 10,108. So what you’re talking about, and all that has to be chained. Chained means it’s all got to be hooked together so it all travels along together as it moves, whether it’s an arm move or a body movement or a transformation. That means it’s complex, yes, of course. There’s a lot of firepower that has to be in the computers to have all that information travel on, not only the pieces but all the information. The paint, the detail, the colors, the dirt, all the things that are textured onto it.
Question: Are you a slave to changing technology?
Answer: I personally don’t keep up with every single little detail. I know what all the programs can do but again, I’m artistically biased. We have our technically biased people who have kind of round robin mixtures. I think we’re still in the stone age as far as computers are concerned. Why does a movie like this get done? Because the brute force and perseverance of individual people outsmarting the computer. There’s no one program that does any of this. It’s constantly people looking and seeing and saying, “It’s not good enough.” That’s what I give a lot of tribute to the artists that work at ILM that work with me on these things. That’s why this kind of thing gets done. And I just look for the day when it’s a heck of a lot easier for all of us to do this sort of thing. It’s not easy.
Question: How does Michael Bay embrace real stunts with computer enhancement?
Answer: I just loved it, I’ve got to tell you. One of the first meetings, he said, “Yeah, Scott, I liked it.” And I hadn’t worked with Michael before so we were both learning to know each other. We hit it off well. We really got along on this movie and I really enjoyed working with him. He knew that I was very strong on what images looked like and just lighting and photography and composition, all the rest of it, and he is too. He’s a very smart filmmaker from the standpoint of just image. He said, “I like to shoot things messy. I like to shoot it dirty.” I said, “Fantastic” because I come from a world where everybody in visual effects, “Oh, we’ll shoot it clean and then we’re going to shoot layers and layers of stuff to muck it up afterwards. That’s kind of the classical training to follow. Again, I come from a photographic kind of bias and I said, “Fabulous.” Most directors don’t want to take the time to do that. You’re going to blow that up and flip the cars and knock that part of the building down for me? Okay, great, let’s do it.
Question: Are we losing something in the transition to digital?
Answer: We’re in a funny realm right now where you’re absolutely right, all those naturally occurring things that happen when some light hits emulsion that’s just magic. We’re now in this curious world where we’re in the computer graphics world mimicking what film looks like. Really odd. We spend most of our time, even the glints and reflactions, the flares. It’s all fake. 100%. But let me tell you, we do actually go out and we photograph as much as possible for our artists to know, Pat Tubach who’s our compositing supervisor. So we have this whole litany of flares that we use as different types of looks. A flat lens sees things completely different than an anamorphic lens. And anamorphic lens flare has its own look. So anyway, we copy all that and put it in and try to make it look just like film was run into a camera. Isn’t that werd.
Question: So why go digital when we’re attached to film?
Answer: Because you can’t do it on film. It’s that simple. We’re not there. We had to leave that behind. Fortunately, there’s a lot of HD that’s being shot these days but Michael shot as many as five cameras at one time so there’s no way we could have shot this movie as quickly as we did if we had HD running. So the advantage is we photograph background plates with the actors, the base action and whatever environment we’re in, and the beauty is we have all the reference of what the real light and what the response of the light hitting the film really looked like. Therefore, I believe that helps us make our synthetic parts of the shot look more real because we know what it should look like in terms of lighting and the conditions during photography.
Question: What’s next?
Answer: Reading a couple scripts. Nothing yet. Just finishing this.
Question: Maybe Spielberg’s next?
Answer: Maybe. Don’t know. Take a little time off first.
Question: You actually read to consider the job?
Answer: Oh yeah. We read them and always do a shot breakdown and bid at every one.
Question: Why did you bring the toy?
Answer: Just to show how many pieces are in this versus what’s in the movie. Just the complexity.