The visual effects supe and second unit director discusses his work on Michael Bay’s biggest ‘Transformers’ film yet.
Regardless of your take on Michael Bay’s storytelling eccentricities, you have to admire the sheer audacity of his cinematic vision. P.T Barnum is surely smiling down from the heavens at Bay’s inability to merely tell his tales, but rather rocket-propel them in every direction, careening across movie screens to the cheers of adoring crowds and billion dollar grosses across the globe.
Helping Bay create the fourth and most ambitious installment of his Transformers franchise, Transformers: The Age of Extinction was ILM visual effects supervisor and second unit director Scott Farrar. One of ILM’s most storied veterans, Scott’s body of work is virtually unparalleled, and includes an Oscar for Best Visual Effects for his work on Cocoon (1985). From Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1987), to Backdraft (1991) and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), and more recently, the Transformers franchise (starting in 2007), for over 30 years Scott has had a direct hand in the critical and artistic success of many of the world’s top films.
In several recent conversations with Scott, he shared his insights on the challenges and rewards of working with Bay on his increasingly complex sci-fi epics, as well as the sense of satisfaction he feels when his team’s work on an enormous shot finally comes together.
Dan Sarto: As a second unit director, you’re out scouting as well as recording locations. On a film like Transformers: The Age of Extinction, what is your directive? You’ve had discussions with Michael Bay, you have your own ideas and opinions…what’s your mandate and what are you looking for when you scout all these different places?
Scott Farrar: Well first let me say it’s fantastic that Michael trusts me to do this because he is a stickler. He’s got an incredible photographic eye himself. That’s part of why we get along. I think he knows that I pretty much know what looks good. We might not agree on every kind of shot there is and how to get it but, for instance, he entrusted me to go to Iceland and shoot with my mini-unit. He said, “Oh great, you get to go to Iceland. Won’t that be beautiful?”
I’ll tell you, in my mind, that’s a lot of pressure because there’s a lot of money being spent and we have a small time window. I only had a little over three days to shoot all the aerial and ground-based shots. We’d gone through the previs. I had photographs I’d previously shot when I was there for a scout. I showed him all the locations I thought were good and then some others where I thought, “Well, what do you think about this? It’s not in the previs, but this is a possibility.” Like in the film, when the Night Ship is hovering in the snow. That really wasn’t in any previs. I just found a cool location.
So what I do is I go look for things beyond what has been thought about ahead of time. You’ve got to be open. That’s what I tell my guys all the time when we are doing computer graphics work. Keep your mind open about other possibilities for this shot design.
When I got there [Iceland], we had this whole setup of how the little dinosaur is going to run over and get the fish and run from the waterfall…there’s this whole big play with all these other dinosaurs out next to the stream bed. So we shot all that stuff. I’m looking at all this… and I go by what Michael goes by. Where does the light look good? Wait a minute. Look at this landscape back here, look at the birds hovering, look at the shadows on the cliff side. Let’s shoot that! That’s what I do. I shoot basically what’s cool or what speaks to me at a location. Even in the aerials, I’m looking around and thinking, “Well this is not what I had in mind but oh, this looks pretty good.” That’s what you’ve got to do. Make these decisions all the time. Your mind has to be open to new ideas, not a prior conceived idea that locks you up.
DS: Does your expertise in visual effects production help your second unit work? Do you approach location shoots differently knowing what the visual effects production might require?
SF: That helps, although I say to my guys all the time, “It almost doesn’t matter what we shoot, we can make it work later as long as it’s cool.” But you know visually, certain things work. Skimming close to something always looks cool. Going really fast at something or away from something really looks cool. Foreground object, foreground mid-ground background is always a good idea. Have things passing in front of the camera…always a good idea. There are just certain things about motion picture photography and photography in general that are always a truism. These are styles of composition that you should always keep in mind.
DS: I’ve heard you speak often about lighting, weather, things that affect your shots.
SF: What kills you is you go to a location that’s so beautiful on one day and then the lighting is all different [when you return]. Three-quarter backlight. “Wait a minute. I was going to look this way but the sun is wrong. Let’s go look at the other side.” The light will always push you around. Ansel Adams, a very famous photographer, always said there are only two times a day when the world looks good – sunrise and sunset. The middle of the day, not really. In a way, when you’re doing naturalistic photography or artificially-lit photography, you want to keep going for the classic lighting look, which is defining shape through shadow and light. So even on a classic portraiture, you will tend to have your key light three-quarter back and maybe a fill on the other side. But you’ll know because of where the no shadows are. When you get a beautiful no shadow, OK, you got a great look. Where you put your key and your fill, those are critical things. You do the same thing in landscape photography.
DS: Talking with your ILM colleague Roger Guyett about his second unit work on Cowboys & Aliens, he stressed the lighting, the lighting, the lighting. I hear it in what you’re saying - lighting and composition. Whether shot in camera or added later, it’s still serving a story and a film.
SF: On so many movies, a lot gets done on the computers. But there are different philosophical approaches to making movies. You can choose to build the movie with computer graphics – many directors do. It’s all CG. I could hammer that point further but that’s what we’ve tried not to do [on this film]. We try to avoid that. But we will supplement. We’ll photograph entire streets and areas of a city that will be used to make a virtual background. That background will be built from those photographs, not computer graphics. That’s a philosophically different approach.
DS: This type of film, the sheer enormity of this type of project, it never ceases me to amaze me how a film like this actually gets made. You’ve done a number of films with Michael. They’ve gotten bigger and bigger. This is nothing new to you. I heard you speak once about the scene in Dark of the Moon where Driller destroys a huge glass-plated building, and it took 10 days just to render a single shot. When you sit down with your team that first time, to figure out how do we get our arms around this film, what are the most important things you consider first? How do you begin to figure out what you need and how you’re going to tackle such an enormously complicated production?
SF: That’s a great question. A lot of it is dictated to us by what our estimates are, of how long a certain asset will take to build. Like the ship interior. That one was a little monster. We knew it right away. All right, we’ll start working on that day one and that will probably take us all the way to the end. And it did. It went right down to the finish line. Because, like Driller, there were days and days of rendering, difficult renders, high-high resolution, very difficult to do a simple camera change. It was cumbersome just because there was so much geometry inside the ship. It’s big numbers and all that and it gets kind of depressing and boring after a while. You know, you build this nice little building over here and then it’s “Now I want you to build this giant skyscraper and do it quick OK?” You know right away that’s going to be big darn deal. So those types of timelines, those set off the alarms. There are certain ones that are obvious; some are not so obvious, which are the ones that you just “discover.”
DS: Those are ones that blindside you.
SF: There were some deceptively simple things that became quite problematic. “Why is this so much trouble?” I remember in the beginning, we nailed the look of the steam and smoking things on the ship and on the streets. Then we went through some design ideas, didn’t want to keep using the same thing over and over again, then hit this wasteland of, “God, we’re not coming up with anything cool.” Then we’ve got all these shots piling up and we got to come up with something. We were trying all kinds of things.
Another thing was when we were coming up with the look for the blocks of Transformium. What should that be? There’s a brain trust of people that are brilliant at making this work. I sit there and my duty to myself and everybody else is to say, “Well, OK, that’s really complicated, really good. But it’s not entertaining. I don’t think that’s fun to look at. What are we going to do to juice this thing up?” That’s where you struggle. That’s what I struggle with.
DS: Ultimately that vision is what you bring to the production.
SF: That’s how I learned. I was taught, “What’s that oomph, that little pizzazz you can give something so that people go, “Wow!” I like it when people show me something – “Oh, that’s cool” - that’s what I want to feel. That’s all it is.
DS: There seems to be a special collaborative relationship between Michael Bay, you and the ILM group with regards to the exchange of ideas for key elements of his films…
SF: …There is...
DS: Is that unique with regards to the creative relationship you and your teams have with filmmakers?
SF: Yes. It is unique. First off, Michael is good at decision making. I always say that the biggest struggle for me, and I could use stronger words, but the worse thing is to work with a director that is indecisive. That’s not Michael. That to me is a big plus. He has his crazy stuff. He’s a crazy guy and you know he is unpredictable and doesn’t always tell you in advance what he is going to do. You just have to be ready. You have to know that going in. So once you know that then, all right, we can make something out of this. The collaboration comes from this trust that’s been built up over the years of working together. It’s phenomenal. Yes, it’s unique because this type of a dedicated loyalty, really, is unusual. He knows, if something is going to go wrong, I tell him. It’s back and forth, a two-way street. The relationship is unusual, it’s very very close and it’s always driving for that unique and difficult to attain goal of making new cool images. I find that and the relationship with Paramount, it’s unusual and it’s fantastic.
DS: You mentioned in your SIGGRAPH 2014 presentation that one of the best parts of the work you did in China was when you closed the door behind you and moved on. What were some of the challenges you faced filming in China?
SF: Well it’s unfair to say that “I” had huge challenges but I know it was difficult for the production. It’s a lot of things from a business standpoint. Negotiations just to get everything arranged and happening is arduous. Getting the helicopter to move along and having good weather to fly it in…how do you ship it…how do you get it there…you have to dismantle it…is it going on a train or the back of a truck...all this would be a lot easier in North America. I don’t know why. Maybe because we have…
DS: …There are language issues certainly…
SF: …It’s also new territory. Let’s face it, North America and even South America, there are a lot of movie people over here. So there is always somebody you can call. I don’t know if it’s that easy over there.
DS: No it’s not [laughs].
SF: No, it isn’t. Sometimes you think you’re talking to the right person and then you realize later that wasn’t the right person. So you think you are going to get a “yes” and then you realize, “Well, that was never going to happen.” Personally, in China, I was tired, had been shooting for seven months and I was ready to go home. That was the main thing.
DS: Yah. Get it done and get home.
SF: Get done and get out.
DS: Last thing. You’ve had such a tremendous career, worked on so many seminal films. In our interviews over the years, in presentations I’ve sat through, I still hear great passion in your voice. What do you enjoy most about your work and has that changed over time?
SF: Well, a couple things. Michael will tell you too. Everybody that chooses to do this stuff never starts out knowing exactly what path they’re going to take. Directors have faith we are going to do this monumental task with a monumental effort and somehow they trust you’re going to get it done. That’s awesome. It’s awesome to have that kind of faith placed in you. I remember being on crews where you were told, “OK, don’t say anything. Just listen.” If you want to be creative, to be involved, on a show with Michael, you’ll never find a bigger chance to be creative on any movie. Ever.
The second thing that’s always exciting day in and day out is what the crew comes up with. I don’t come up with all the ideas. I may make suggestions. But it’s always kind of weird and dumb to me in my own mind. I live with a shot and work on a shot, with all the teams involved. We’re right there designing the whole thing, trying to get things figured out. Then after months of all this work, it starts to come together and when I finally see it, it’s like I’ve never seen it before. “Oh my god, that’s awesome!” It all finally comes together. All that work pays off because of the awesome creative power of the crew. Wow, that’s what I like. That big payoff.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.