Oscar 2012: Scott Farrar Talks 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon'

ILM's Transformers guru has a blast going under the hood of the third movie.

Watch AWN's interview series with Scott Farrar at the recent VIEW Conference in Turin - exclusively on AWNtv!

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

ILM surpassed itself with the third Transformers movie, Dark of the Moon, not only by tackling 3-D but also with a lot more compositing and double the work of the paint and roto. Supervisor Scott Farrar, who's been on this franchise for nearly six years, revisits the challenges.

Bill Desowitz: You certainly raised the bar with more mayhem, improved animated performance, and the addition of 3-D.

Scott Farrar: Yeah, all those things and new locations always pose new issues but that's the fun of it.

BD: What was the impact of shooting in 3-D?

SF: I like stereo; I like other films when it's done well. It's not something you can rush. The big problem with conversion is that it's not based at all on the physical environment that's being seen in the shot. There's no formula. But I think conversion benefitted in our movie because we had back-to-back shots in certain cases where we showed the conversion house true stereo and they could watch it in stereo and see how their shot cut with ours. And so we have a volume, we have a distance, we perceive that it's so many feet or yards to something in the background or the back wall of whatever set we're looking at or exterior. And that's a true distance that reads a certain way to your eyes. It helped.

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

BD: And Michael Bay had to adapt his shooting style.

SF: And he did. Not only was he really patient with reloading or changing a lens, he's really good at setting up alternate camera setups to buy the guys some time while they change the Pace rig over to a new lens. And although he's prone to faster and more dynamic camera moves, he did slow down his shooting style. Let's pan fast but let's pause, so we built in pauses with our movements. He took to it.

BD: Sentinel Prime was new and key. Let's revisit him.

SF: Just building him, for one thing, never in your wildest imagination, did you think the color red would be so hard to duplicate in all the different lighting scenarios that we have in the movie. Basically, he's a red that is copied after this sophisticated fire truck. But trying to nail down a color; the sheen of a color; the sheen of the bounce of the light on the color. All these different artifacts that happen: whether it's sunlight or fluorescent lights or what have you. And the color red is one of the hardest there is in computer graphics because it goes purple or pink or green, so you're always fussing with each and every shot.  Then just as a key character we came up with all kinds of ideas: this beaded beard so it would wiggle with every move or talk. And we did our initial test with Sean Connery before any voice actor was cast. And then we have to have the facial design feel like it's a face and that means hundreds of moving parts on the face because they're just hard body surfaces. And if we don't have enough pieces, we put more pieces in and we do that practically every time, and then you usually have to plus out the eyes because you can't really tell all the nuances of the expressions. So we got that nailed. And then we cast Leonard Nimoy, and it wasn't far from the look of Sean Connery. So we made only a few minor adjustments on the face.

BD: And then your most render intensive character of all time, Colossus.

SF: Over 70,000 parts. You wouldn't think it, too. It's a worm. There are scenes where it's hard to see it, but we had to install almost a peristalsis-type of motion to the rings and to the innards. He's basically a long tube made of many, many tubes and giant rings that would turn and gears and so forth. And then lots of pointy pokers that stick out. So it's one of those characters you build and then you get into shot production and you realize you need to build some more things on him, so we came up with this huge library of parts. There were at least 70 basic parts: just barbs and pointy knife blades and hinges and different bony shapes that we could attach. And eventually he got rigged bigger and bigger and bigger. He had to slink in certain ways that we hadn't really set up in the first place for. And then was fully reflective with all those paints and so forth. When he arrives in the street of Chicago, he comes roaring around the corner and cuts through in front of the big iconic building. None of these robots ever really look good unless they have a little wear and tear.

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

BD: And what about the importance of lighting and the film noir influence?

SF: I thought it would be really fun since everybody knows the characters to rim light them and back light them and go darker whenever appropriate. And who doesn't love film noir and I showed Michael The Third Man, Double Indemnity -- classic stuff. It's really much more dramatic and fun. But my feeling is, OK, you've got to nail the animation, you've got to nail the materials, you've got to have fabulous rigging and all the paints. But eventually it's all about the lighting. And there are times when you don't have to show them off. You can go sketchy. And my background is as a cinematographer and that's all I'm trying to do: add a bit of theatricality.

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

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