On August 9, 2016, TFormers was among a small group of Transformers websites invited to tour the filming set of Transformers: The Last Knight, just outside of Detroit, Michigan. During the all day visit, we had the honor of witnessing many steps and many layers of the ongoing process of filming the movie - including a great many things that, even now, nearly four months later I cannot talk about. I can't tell you about the specific details of many of the amazing things we were permitted to see, but what I learned through the course of the day was that the particulars of what will eventually be in front of everyone on a movie screen were not really the most important thing. Keep reading!
The true value of this day on set was the rare chance to witness the methods, witness the labors undertaken by people in every department who adore their professions, and pour everything of themselves in to their respective arts. From on set, starting with Michael Bay and his incredible hands-on-everything style, all the way to the people whose job is to work down to the last detail to make sure every piece, every object seen on screen is just right. This was about the people who are responsible for making this movie happen.
The tour began Tuesday morning, when our group was driven to the studio lot, and almost immediately taken to visit our first set. I cannot say in any way what we saw there, but I believe it is safe to say that it was an incredibly amazing sight, for the almost inconceivable level of detail down to the smallest thing, on absolutely massive practical set elements. We had a chance to talk briefly with Jason Smith from ILM, about some of where the industry is in terms of crafting sets - specifically how a great deal of huge or complex things will be rendered digitally and added to a filmed sequence in post production. Michael Bay doesn't do that. He wants physical, practical sets as much as possible. A phrase that was heard from a few different people was that he wants to do as much as possible in camera. While there was of course green screen layers all around, huge areas of set are built to give a scene as much realism as possible.
We had the chance to speak with Harry Humphries, a former Navy SEAL who acts as Michael Bay's liaison with the military who participate in the filming. This applies to any film Bay works on that incorporates the military, not just the Transformers series. Humphries has worked with Bay for many years, and enjoyed sharing his experiences, including how he's observed over time that particularly on TV shows he's worked on the cast and staff often will learn in the course of an extended production a lot of the details of realistically portraying military members, learning from the ongoing advice of Humphries and his people. We also were told that it's not unusual for Michael Bay to use actual members of the armed forces in these roles when possible. One thing that was impressed upon us a great deal was the immense respect that Michael Bay has for the men and women who serve in the military. And in turn, the military is happy to do whatever they reasonably can to accommodate Michael Bay's productions because of the very positive portrayal they know he will deliver of them. I found the nature of the relationship to be quite interesting.
During this part of the day, we watched the filming of the first of three scenes we were present for. Again, I cannot discuss any of the particulars of what was being filmed, but it was our first chance to see Michael Bay in action. I must say, through the course of the filming we witnessed, Bay was an amazing person to just watch work. There are of course no end to the stories from actors and others who have worked with him before, but it struck me that there is a certain quality to the way he operates that really never came across to me in text before. Michael Bay is almost literally everywhere on the set. He actively gets involved in everything going on. We saw multiple times that he was getting out in the middle of where shooting would happen and personally laying tiny details of set dressing to make sure that everything appears on film just right. We had it explained to us that Bay always has an incredibly clear, sharp vision in his mind of what a shot, a scene, and of course a whole movie should look like, and he's very active in the implementation of that. We thought this was something on the first scene we watched, but compared to the level we saw subsequently, this example was nothing.
Occasionally having view of the monitors on set, I found it interesting to watch the successive takes, where little things like movement or positioning of the camera and even the pathing of the actors were slightly altered. And then of course the retakes from alternate angles to allow that one specific vision of how the scene will lay out in the finished movie. I should clarify that this was my first visit to a filming set of any kind, so a great deal of the process was especially fascinating and novel to me. But seeing the process of a director like Michael Bay actually play out in real time was truly interesting, whether the realities of how a movie set works are a new experience to you or not.
After shooting finished on the first scene, we were taken for a special treat: a visit to the garages where the character vehicles were stored. Though photography and filming were incredibly tightly controlled on the set, we were given quite a bit of access around the cars, starting with a bit of a show from Randy Peters, the transportation coordinator for the Transformers movie series ...and one of the stunt drivers! We were permitted to take video as he raced the Optimus Prime semicab towards the end of the long driveway up to the garages, and ended with a nice flourish for us. Randy was very generous with his time and talked with us for quite a while about his experiences as a driver on the movies. And he gave us a demonstration first hand, as he let the entire group of us pile in to the Optimus Prime truck and drove us up to the garage while putting on a little bit of a show for us at the same time. Incidentally, the occupancy capacity of Optimus Prime is evidently 7 passengers and a driver!
Randy told us quite a bit about the behind the scenes of operating the vehicles. For instance, how he came to have the windows tinted in the vehicles, because in the first movie they weren't and looking at the film later he found places where he could see himself even as he had been doing his best to stay out of sight while driving. Window tinting satisfied that issue for him subsequently, but the tint on the windshield resulted in practically no visibility for driving at night. From how he spoke, it seemed that a great deal of his method in driving came down to feeling a sequence out as he was doing it. He also remarked to me that driving a semicab like the Optimus vehicle in some ways felt easier to him than driving a regular car! A great story he told us was about finding the truck that became Evasion Mode Optimus Prime in Age of Extinction, tracking down the specific style of cab-over-engine truck - in a scrapyard - and completely rehabilitated it as a running vehicle and decorated the outside to achieve the appearance it had in the movie. While Randy said he was himself quite mechanically capable, that his crew of people are the ones responsible for all the work that's done, under his direction.
As you've already seen by now, we had up close access with several vehicles. Optimus Prime of course, as well as two Bumblebee cars, one being the stunt modified version seen in an Instagram video ejecting Mark Wahlberg. Also shown to us was the new Mercedes representing Drift. It was later specified to me for the purpose of this article that this car is a Mercedes AMG GT R. They started this vehicle and pulled it out of the garage for us, giving us a chance to hear the fearsome engine sounds as they rolled it outside. The new vehicle form for Hound was available to us as well. Hound's new form is that of a modified Mercedes Unimog, and Randy explained to us that the "backpack" elements of the Hound truck were custom build parts added to the vehicle body after they obtained it.
Finally we got to take a look at the heavy tow truck that will be Onslaught. While not as extensively decorated as Hound, it had its cute touches, like the kill marks on the tow boom. Alas, some may be disappointed that nothing in our visit gave any indication of Onslaught having a team or otherwise leading to a movie implementation of Bruticus. As it came time for us to return to the set, Randy just couldn't let us leave without showing off one more secret to us. This truly was a person who enjoys his work, and loves sharing what he does with an interested audience. I think our non-stop ear-to-ear grins the entire time we were around all of the cars may have betrayed the depth of our interest just a bit!
Click above to see our complete movie vehicle gallery from our visit to the set!
When we got back to the studio we went to watch another scene being filmed. And for as awe inspiring as the first set we saw was, the new set was almost overwhelming for its scope, and again, incredible intricacy in design. And this is where Michael Bay's active participation really began to shine through. He was seen repeatedly with what some of us came to describe as a "dust gun", an implement that looks like a leaf blower that allows him to pump out puffs of powdery dust wherever he decides needs a little help to look, perhaps less shiny or clean, or just to help correct for where the actors have moved through so the environment keeps looking consistent. Watching such a thing, you can imagine that Bay is keeping a lot of the shot to shot continuity ongoing in his head. And that may come from that trait of having so clear a visual concept in his mind all the time, that he can maintain watch through the entire thing and make sure that all the elements line up from take to take to take, across angle changes and anything else that comes along in the course of shooting a scene. Bay was almost always on stage with the actors between takes, though I don't feel like that in particular is especially unusual for a good director. But all the various elements we saw of his interaction with the whole on set production really painted a larger picture for us that I don't think we had ever quite envisioned before.
During the course of work on the second scene, Michael Bay took a few moments to come and say hi to our group. He was very happy to explain to us some of the background of what we were seeing, though sadly that is all still top secret. He spoke a bit about how the writer's room project brought a lot to this movie, particularly mentioning how this would be much more of an adventure while acknowledging the greater military involvement, versus Age of Extinction. He did have to return to work at about this point, as there was still quite a lot to do to finish getting the current scene filmed, but we were very grateful for our opportunity to speak to him and also to express our awe at what we'd seen of the sets so far.
When scene two wrapped up, everyone broke for lunch. And by this time it was around 2:30 or 3 in the afternoon, and I and my companions certainly were ready to take a bit of a break! This is one of the things that you might not ever really think about, but the catering for the shoot was really good. The best piece of fried catfish I've ever eaten, and I'm not even a big fan of fish in the first place! This might seem an odd thing to include in a story about watching a Transformers movie being filmed, but as I said at the start, for me this turned in to something more about the genuine experience of the inner workings of a movie shoot, and the level of quality in what they feed the crew is an important piece of this puzzle.
After a while when everyone had started back to work, we began a tour of the offices across from the sets, and for me at least, this was where the true magic began. We first visited the wardrobe department, where costume designer Lisa Lovaas explained to us a great deal about the process. It started with comparatively standard things, like how wardrobe from previous movies is all kept in inventory, even if just because of its potential to be repurposed or otherwise altered to be some different costume in the future. Some items were labeled "DO NOT USE", and one such example we saw had a burnt sleeve, obviously damaged in the course of filming a previous installment in the movie series. An interesting thing explained to us was how wardrobe that appears in a Transformers movie then subsequently cannot be used on other movies - they become exclusive to the Transformers series. That was an aspect I had never even considered before, and it's these little things that made these office tours a real highlight.
As we went along, we started to learn about processes of sourcing and obtaining special costuming elements, which is sometimes a challenge if a situation comes up where you have to outfit a huge number of people in similarly styled costumes that all have to be custom designed to meet the needs of the situation. They do try, when it's more practical to do so, to come up with pre-made components, but even then making sure that there is authenticity to whatever they're hunting. Michael Bay wants everything to be real. And that goes right down to the very material a costume is made from.
This led to a visit in a very interesting department, where all the weathering and distressing of costuming is done. Their role is to take articles that have been freshly stitched together out of brand new materials maybe an hour earlier and start making it look like it's been around the block a few times. An example they showed us really made clear the importance of that. The work they do is very subtle, and that's almost the point. It isn't about making a flannel shirt look like an antique, but just giving it that bit of fraying at the edges, or fading the colors so when you see it on screen, you believe that whoever is wearing it isn't just wearing it for the first time today after pulling it out of shrink wrap. I was very impressed with the demonstration of methods they showed us, and the variety of ways their skills are put to use. Fabric is just the start. If a costume needs some sort of accessory, adornment or other kind of "hard goods" add on, it's this department that has to make sure every part of it is fatigued appropriately for whatever material they're working with. We got to see several such examples, and each time if we had a "before" and "after" available, the finished product looked so natural you could swear it was always that way, and not simply weathered a short time earlier.
They also explained how an important component of their job is to interpret Michael Bay's ideas, since his clear vision sometimes will be explained in a somewhat more vague way. As they described it, frequently the solution is to have multiple solutions to present all at once in order to get to the one that meets what Bay sees when he looks at his scene in his mind. This was described as going to Bay with a "Santa Bag" with all the options inside. And in fact as we concluded our visit, we got to see the artist we were talking to, Ivory Stanton, dash off with the Santa Bag as Bay was ready to review the pieces of costuming being worked on that day.
In the course of the day, we encountered Jeffrey Beecroft, the production designer a couple of times. Unfortunately, however, he was very busy and was unable to speak to us for any great length of time. More unfortunately, I can't really relate anything that he did have time to share with us as it basically all pertained to things that are still not able to be revealed. But in a more general sense, it was a privilege to get even a short time to hear about the inspirations that led to the visual style and themes present within the movie. There are things behind it that I would never have guessed, and that paint an interesting picture of how the story might work when all is said and done.
However, we were treated to a visit to the art department, which may have been the greatest single experience of the entire day. The space was lined with all manner of concept art, character design, vehicle reference photos, charts and more. A lot of the character reveals that have been published via the official social media channels is the same kind of art that they have hanging on the walls. We got to see a lot of assets for characters and alternate modes that have not been revealed or even rumored yet. We were told that in many cases the vehicle forms associated were still tentative and could be changed. I hope not, since there were interesting and unique vehicles - both in type as well as specific models that have not been utilized in Transformers previously that I would love to have get a debut. In all honesty, there was simply too much on display here to even be able to absorb completely. It was an overwhelming experience, and I wish I could have spent a couple of hours just in this one room so I could really study everything I was able to see. I will say that there were some design concepts on display that could give the movie very interesting and unexpected turns depending on how they come to be utilized.
And yet somehow this was not even the best part. A conference room off to the side was decorated with even more art assets, almost none of which I can even mention the nature of at all either because of their highly conceptual nature, serious spoiler value, or maybe even both at once. I was supremely impressed with the attention to detail on the things I saw, the vast majority of which I suspect will never even been seen publicly. One thing that I can mention which really blew me away was the tiny models for a variety of sets that might be used in the movie. I didn't have the opportunity to study them anywhere near as closely as I really would have liked to, but I was able to identify the models for the sets we had already visited earlier, and get a little look at more of them. Like I said before, I could have spent hours in either of these two rooms scrutinizing everything, trying to burn every last detail of them in to my memory. I think more than anything I saw during the visit, this is what resonated with me. Ever since, years and years ago, when I learned what the job of a production designer was, and what the purpose of an art department was to any sort of production, that has been of particular fascination. This was the place where the entire visual style of the movie, the look and feel of everything in it is born. It was a singular honor just to be allowed access even for a few brief minutes to see these kinds of things first hand, up close.
With the art department (sadly) now behind us, we went back to the sets to watch a third scene filmed. This was getting close to the end of the typical shooting day, and it understandably began to show through. The actors were keeping very focused on their work, I suspect partly to keep the potential forces of frustration in check through successive takes. Michael Bay and his Dust Gun were up and about again, and you might tell from how many times I've mentioned it, this was something I and my companions all enjoyed witnessing quite a lot. Due to our schedule, we weren't able to stay through to the completion of shooting the third scene, but we got to witness several takes. This and the first scene we saw exhibited what one might expect from standing behind the scenes of a Michael Bay set: lots of pyro, and the occasional smell of smoke in the air. In that sense, the experience I think was fairly complete. The final scene looked like it was being staged in a really interesting way as I watched how the cameras were being positioned and moved with each take. I was disappointed that I was nowhere near a monitor to get a sneak peek at the way these set ups would pay off.
It was getting close to time for us to call it a day and head back to the hotel, but before that we visited the set dressing department where we met assistant set decorator Jeno Delli Colli. The way this department was explained was that set dressing is all of the objects seen on a set, up to the point that an actor handles something, where it then is considered a prop. An example of the way this department works was that they might have a restaurant set needed for shooting, and while the actors may only ever be seen in one small part, they will set up the entire restaurant's space. Their job is both to make the sets look real, used, and lived in, but also to help the actors to have a natural feeling experience while they film. This too was something I'd never really given thought to, but which made a great deal of sense once it was explained to me.
During the time since we had gone in to watch filming for the last time, the new Barricade police car was brought to the studio lot and parked outside. So, in the last few minutes of our visit while we awaited our transportation back to the hotel, we had a chance for a quick walk around and up close look at the new police car model. And with that, the day that felt like it was two or three days long had come to an end. In retrospect it all seems like it happened so quickly, but in the moment while we were there, it was virtually timeless. I got to see and experience so many things, which I will probably never have the opportunity to witness again. I'm supremely grateful to everyone who took time out of their busy, busy day to talk with us, explain their jobs, and share with us the complete love they feel for what they do.
On behalf of TFormers, I'd like to thank Paramount for including us in this amazing event! I'd like to also extend my personal thanks to our liaisons from both Paramount and Michael Bay's crew for their care in touring us around the production, and for the trust placed in us at all stages of our visit. And I want to thank all of the people who took time out of their busy schedules in each department we visited in order to tell us a little about the work they do and the contribution it makes to a finished movie.
It was a true pleasure and genuine privilege to meet and talk with each and every one of you, to see you work, and learn about what you do. I have come away from this experience with a greater knowledge and better understanding of the things that make this movie possible, and I know I will be viewing it in a very different way when I'm in the theatre come summer 2017 than I would have without this incredible opportunity!
Originally written on August 10, 2016