Robot Wars


Transformers: The Last Knight requires heavy doses of VFX and some creative editing.

Optimus Prime has gone rogue and all-out war has broken out between humans and Transformers. To save Earth, the heroes of Transformers: The Last Knight have to learn the secrets of the transformers’ secret history, fighting alongside chainmail-clad knights of the old world to maintain order in an effort that’s lasted centuries.

It’s the latest in the long-running franchise about the Hasbro toy line that’s ten years old this year and has earned over $3.7bn at the global box office and which shows no signs of slowing down, with two more films after The Last Knight already greenlit.

Along with the action, the VFX requirements have only grown bigger, and wrangling the network of third party providers to design, program and bring it all together makes defeating invading alien robot armies seem like a breeze in comparison.

Industry titan Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) served as the central VFX hub, completing about 1,100 shots itself and farming further work out to other providers, and as ILM’s VFX supervisor David Fogler explains, it’s the way the company most likes to work. “It’s a luxury to be able to absorb an entire show. 10 years ago we gathered 10 artists in a room and started to put a show together. Now these shows need hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of artists at multiple facilities. Processes that we found daunting a while ago we’re good at now.”

As the primary VFX vendor, ILM has fingerprints in almost every scene. It works with vendors who specialize in certain areas like water or crowds, but depending on the workload the company will keep a lot in house and, as Fogler puts it, do, ‘absolutely everything under the sun’.

To do that, ILM uses a raft of digital tools. On Transformers: The Last Knight, Fogler and his team used Maya, Mari for texturing, Quintana products for lighting and what he says is a fair amount of Houdini effects.

The network effect

That said, Fogler says he spends less time thinking about software than ever these days, and for good reason. One such vendor that bought Transformers: The Last Knight to life was London’s The Moving Picture Company (MPC). Working primarily on the submarine and underwater scenes as well as a drone battle in an abandoned town, MPC contributed around 350 shots – 250 of which are in the final cut, and MPC VFX supervisor Sheldon Stopsack says the modern industry calls for a certain amount of standardization among networks of companies, tools and data.

“You have more of a chance of an artist pool where people are familiar with the technology they’re using to some extent,” he says, “also, obviously you’ve also got to share more data, and when we shared stuff with ILM it was easy by comparison to what it would have been a couple years back.”

Both Fogler and Stopsack confirm that such standardization means a lot of front-end work that goes into data pipeline and collaboration design – everything from sharing assets to technologies used to present clips to the director – but there’s always a new spanner in the works. On The Last Knight, it was the first time a Transformers movie had been shot natively in 3D.

To Fogler, it’s just another format to absorb into the fold. “The number of formats that came in was approaching 10 or 15,” he says, “and that happens more and more. People are practically shooting a shot on their iPhone and hoping to put it in their movie, so we have folks who ingest this stuff and try to keep it invisible and under the hood. By the time it makes it to animation and rendering it’s all been conformed and ready to go.”

Ready for anything

Having the data wrangling and working process baselines smoothed out and ready to produce work is essential because VFX teams have to be ready for every new challenge. For ILM, that came in form of Cogman, Sir Edmund Burton’s (Anthony Hookins) acerbic Transformer butler.

“It was the first time in a Transformers movie we had a character that functioned at a human level,” Fogler says to describe the clockwork-driven CGI character. “He was a joy, his design is fabulous and remarkably complex. I’m quite proud of him.”

Cogman is also a good example of taking what you know from experience and running with it. “I’ve worked on all five films and when you start these shows you really don’t know what you’re doing. But we’ve been working on robots now for twelve years or so and Cogman is every single thing we’ve ever developed for making robots at ILM.”

As Fogler explains, details exist about Cogman that are barely noticeable on screen but which combine to make him seem all the more real. His internal parts are all functioning, moving gears and clockwork, all built from scratch in the character rigs. Even his brass body – based on medieval armor – is covered with acid etching.

Which raises another question. Michael Bay is famously hands on, but he can’t be around to supervise the design of every gear in Cogman’s innards or every fusing together of the parts of planet Cybertron as it crashes to Earth. Exactly how is the authorial vision maintained through so many people with their own tastes and preferences?

MPC’s Stopsack says it was easier than you’d think because of how present Bay himself was through the process. He had so much to do it gave him less time with MPC, but what time he had to spare was invaluable because there was no intermediary to muddy the waters.

“It also comes down a little bit how you present your work,” he adds. “You have to make sure you get the right things in front of him in a meaningful fashion and you get the answers you need, because his time was so limited.”

The deepest cut

But after the shots are constructed and programmed and the VFX houses have gone on to their next gigs, it’s over to the editors, and as you might expect of a Michael Bay movie, it’s way too big a job for just one pair of hands. Adam Gerstel, Debra Neil-Fisher, John Refoua and Mark Sanger worked closely with Bay to lock down the final cut.

Now, here’s the thing. Bay has plenty of detractors, but you can’t deny what a visual storyteller he is. Over the course not just of his career but the Transformers franchise he’s developed a very distinctive style that could almost be called auteur; muscular, aggressive and very, very fast moving.

Within what seems like very tight tonal constraints, are you just a technician if you edit a Michael Bay film (particularly after Frazier and plenty others talk about Bay knowing exactly what he wants to see), or is there any room to experiment?

Mark Sanger, whose next project is the Andy Serkis-directed live action Jungle Book redux, says the rule of thumb on a big, successful franchise is less about wanting to break out and do something original and more about not messing with what’s worked before. “None of us had worked for Michael before or on this franchise, so we were plugging into a very big and powerful machine,” he says.

Simply because the task of an editor is to work with the director to assemble the final cut from the best possible shots collected on the day, it’s no surprise to learn that more to choose from makes an editor’s job easier. And that made Transformers: The Last Knight manna from heaven – Sanger estimates Bay shot and delivered the equivalent of three million feet of film (equivalent to about 550 hours of footage).

“Every scene is just take after take, setup after setup and they’re all great,” says John Refoua (The Equalizer, The Magnificent Seven). “I’ve never been on a movie where so much of the dailies just look great. There are so many different ways you can put these scenes together and he’s always pushing us saying ‘What can you do here that’s different?'”

“Pretty much every single frame of film is usable in one form or another,” Sanger agrees. “You could make six movies out of the material we’ve been given every single day.”

Too many cooks

But editing is of course a creative as much as a technical skill – Steven Spielberg was famously miffed when Verna Fields won an Oscar for Jaws for editing while he went home without the Best Director award.

So there’s a very delicate and balanced relationship between a director and his/her editor that relies on trust and respect, one you’d imagine has little room for ego or posturing. So how is the final film affected when you throw a team of four editors into the mix? Isn’t there a danger that the single vision of the creative lead (the director) could be diluted through too many authorial voices and styles?

Debra Neil-Fisher (Fifty Shades of Grey, The Brothers Grimsby) says even though the team was cohesive, each individual bought something separate and distinct to the process. “Michael was interested in hearing from us and bringing options to him,” she says. “We know the format we’re working within, but we all had ideas he was interested in hearing. That’s our individual contributions.”

Neil-Fisher says one example of the way each team member bought something unique was that, because of her background editing comedies, Bay initially had her working primarily on scenes that contained comedy. “But once I earned his respect and proved I could make him laugh, he started to have me cut scenes that were dramatic or action oriented too,” she says. “Each of us entered the show with certain strengths but by the end we were all cutting all the scenes.”

“It was constantly collaborative,” Sanger agrees, “there was never any ‘you take this scene, I’ll take that scene and I’ll see you later’, it was constantly ‘hey, what do you think of this, does this work for you’ and ‘I tried that here, how does this work with a scene you’re working on later?’ We were doors away from each other, always jumping in and having conversations.”

Adam Gerstel (Disney’s The Jungle Book, previs editor on Star Trek Into Darkness) says he found the open door policy a complete pleasure. “Normally when you’re under pressure cutting on your own and there’s a knock at the door it’s an intrusion,” he says, “but for us it meant someone’s showing you something or asking your opinion, and to be constantly moving from room to room we had a lot of fun.”

The digital dilemma

Like the on-set supervisor, the editing team has to deal with framing a lot of action that happened there on the day, but they have the added burden of all the digital effects too, and in a Transformers movie it’s even more critical. Not only are many of the main characters completely digital elements, they’re made of hard, shiny metal, which means a lot of effort ensuring the continuity about their movement and their interaction with light from the environment.

Refoua says everybody has to use their imagination quite a bit. “We’re using a lot of intense dialog and sound effects to know how long the scene should be. There’s so much there in terms of the environments and actors but you have to envision the Transformers that aren’t there yet. It’s not like there’s a previs to use for pacing it.”

“You come on and somebody’s already cut a whole bunch of sequences in previs form and they go back onto the set and shoot the footage to match them,” Sanger adds. “I can’t speak for John when he did Avatar because he was probably not as confined in that [all-digital] environment, but definitely big visual effects movies are often constrained by the shoots, the prep of the shoots are constrained by some of the editorial decisions that have gone on in pre-production.”

The modern previs

Without a digital previs (often in the form of an animatic – literally a series of stills from the storyboard with rough vocals or soundtrack), a big budget, effects-heavy movie production today would be a crap-shoot, and standing in the middle of a hundred million dollars worth of work and artists waiting for you to tell them what to do can be the worst time to try to figure out lighting effects and camera angles.

The previsualization (previs) lets the director decide how to do a shot before setting up and committing, and his/her department heads can weigh in – the DP can figure out how to light it, the stunt team can figure out how to execute it and even the editors can suggest how to pace it.

The previs came of age in Hollywood back in the mid 90s, when Transformers: The Last Knight VFX supervisor John Frazier worked on Jan de Bont’s Twister. “Steven Spielberg said ‘you show me a Twister, I’ll green light your movie’, so [ILM] head Dennis Muren did it, they went from there and I was astounded.

“We sat in the screening room to watch that clip where the camera was in the car with two people heading toward the twister and way in the background you see the car tire floating in the air and it comes and hits the windshield. The only pieces that were real in the whole clip were the two people in the car seat.”

Editing tech specs

Edit systems: Avid Media Composer 8.53 running on Mac Pros (‘trash cans’).

Storage/asset management infrastructure: A number of ISIS and Avid NEXIS servers.

Acquisition format: A combination of Alexa 65 and RED cameras in 3D and 2D ranging from 4K to 6K as well as a few smaller formats for drones and crash-cams.

Transfer pipeline to deliver footage to the edit: EFILM processed dailies into Avid DNX36 (2D) format for the offline edit.