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A Colossal 'Transformers' Sequel

ILM takes Transformers: Dark of the Moon to new 3-D heights.

Check out the Transformers: Dark of the Moon trailers and clips at AWNtv!

Optimus Prime returns in grand form in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. All Images Courtesy of ILM. © 2011 - Paramount Pictures

Michael Bay took James Cameron's advice to heart about shooting Transformers: Dark of the Moon in stereo, and the result is a dynamic 3-D experience that that's arguably the best poster child since Avatar. In fact, it helps put to rest the notion that conversion is necessarily bad. They had to split it up because there weren't enough stereo cameras and Industrial Light & Magic could only do so much, even with 300 + people working on the film (Digital Domain was a major contributor as well).

"There was a lot more compositing and double the work of the paint and roto artists," admits Scott Farrar, ILM's visual effects supervisor, who has been on the franchise for nearly six years. "And we were doing 3D shots that originated on a stereo rig, shot with two cameras, so at ILM we put all the renders in for two eyes and fit it all in to what was shot with two cameras. Every aerial plate was single camera; we have crash cameras that were single camera; and anamorphic lenses that were used; spherical lenses that were used; all the varieties of different distortions that all have to be completed in 2-D and shipped out to conversion houses and completely broken down in layers so they can do the conversion.

"The problem with conversion was they had to be done first before the stereo shots. We had multiple deadlines. But qualitatively it helped, as opposed to an all-conversion project. It gave the conversion companies a comparison to look at and we were able to make them conform to the look we were after."

To get the final shots rendered in stereo, ILM had to lock out parts of the render farm for days at a time. On the last scheduled weekend of production, for instance, Dark of the Moon took over the entire render farm, giving ILM more than 200,000 hours of rendering power a day. Or 22.8 years every 24 hours.

ILM closely collaborated on the Chicago shoot, the location of the epic final battle.

While 3-D provided additional complexity to ILM's workload (575 shots plus an additional 160 at its Singapore facility doesn't begin to tell the story), Bay granted greater creative collaboration to VFX powerhouse. Major actions sequences were designed by ILM and even story points were hatched there during meetings with screenwriter Ehren Kruger, including the idea of linking the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the giant drilling worm known as Colossus.

Even the nearly hour-long climactic battle in Chicago was shot in close collaboration with ILM. "There was very articulate movement around the buildings to get the desired shots, shooting real and adding all the devastation to that," suggests Farrar. "We weren't going to replace all the real buildings with CG buildings. We had to replace them in certain cases. We had a crew that did a technique I'm very excited about where we had a crew of four guys that went back to Chicago and photographed buildings from top to bottom at six different times of the day, hanging from window washing rigs half-way up, shooting spherically. We generate all these stills that can be stitched together and unfolded like a world map to recreate a virtual background for any time of day."

But the mainstay of any Transformers movie is the complex nature of the robots, and Dark of the Moon offered two new ones, each posing different challenges.

Colossus was the most complex asset that ILM has made to date, breaking the previous record by more than 2.5 times. Due to the enormous complexity only a few artists were able to load Colossus and the skyscraper on their machinesAs ILM added more detail and complexity to shots, the most powerful desktop machines it had were barely able to load the data. For those that could, they sometimes waited close to 60-minutes for the files to load, before they could start working.

"We usually have to have multiple versions of the model with different levels of detail, except this one had to be broken out into six different pieces so we could turn off tentacles and tails that weren't in use," explains Scott Benza, ILM animation supervisor. "They would then go in and animate them as a second or third pass."

Sentinel Prime sounds like Spock and looks like Bond, but he's all mechanical.

Then there's Sentinel Prime, the legendary warrior (patterned after Sean Connery, though voiced by Leonard Nimoy). "The design of it allowed us to create a more elaborate rig," Benza adds. "His face has a greater number of plates; and it was more human-like than any of the other robots. With that type of control, we were able to get a more expressive, believable performance out of him."

Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. He has a new blog, Immersed in Movies (, and is currently writing a book about the evolution of James Bond from Connery to Craig, scheduled for publication next year, which is the 50th anniversary of the franchise.