Interview: ‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’ Visual Effects Supervisor Scott Farrar

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CHICAGO – “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”, opening June 24th, is the second film in the series based on the Hasbro toy/cartoon. Scott Farrar, whose long career has roots in the first “Star Wars”, supervised all the complex visual effects. spoke to Farrar, who gave a precise overview of the challenges and proven results in upping the ante from the first Transformers film.

The Human Element: Megan Fox and Shia LaBeouf in 'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen'
The Human Element: Megan Fox and Shia LaBeouf in ‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’
Photo credit: ©2009 Paramount Pictures First things first for the geeks…What will be the most noticeable difference between the look of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen versus the first Transformers film?

Scott Farrar: The lighting is better, also the texturing on the robots and we’ve made big strides forward with more realism. There are sequences shot on IMAX so the resolution is 8 times higher than the first one, as far as how much render time is required for each frame of film.

There are close-ups of Optimus Prime that surprised us, when we would zoom in and say, ‘I can’t believe the quality and detail of the burnish on the metal.’

HC: For the uniformed, what are the distinct contrasts between a Visual Effects Supervisor and a Special Effects Supervisor?

SF: Special Effects, as handled by John Frazier, are physical effects, meaning if you need a car flipped it’s a cable that gets pulled. He does the pyro plants and the explosions, bullet hits, different mortar effects. Everything that is physical and arranged on the day is triggered by his team as the cameras roll.

The Visual Effects, which I handle, is essentially things that are not there on the day that I’m going to put in later. For example, a robot has to stand on mark ‘A’ and walk to mark ‘B’.

For that, I use what is called ‘low tech for high effect’, window washer poles with Production Assistants standing there. Then I might have a person walk from A to B, or have those poles extended to the proper height of the robot, because the camera operator needs to know what to look for, where to frame for a robot when they are looking through the camera. We can at least establish where a robot will be and how high he is.

I am there as a visual referee. I can imagine those robots much better than most, because that is what I’ve been doing for long time. It’s all imagination.

HC: Knowing that the essence of the Transformers are derived from a cartoon and a toy, how did your team maintain visually the innocence of the source while working in a real-world type of robotic look and power?

SF: Once you go from cartoon to photo real, a whole bunch of rules come into place. Some of the things that work in a cartoon just fly out the window when doing it in photo real. So many design decisions are made for you right off the bat.

They’ve got to look heavy, they’ve got to look like real metal and they’ve got to photograph as real. They have to look like car parts, and car finishes. When the camera gets up close, you’ll see the metal fleck paint with clear coat finish over the top of it with all the appropriate glints and gleams. That’s how exacting we got.

To compare changing the cartoon idea it’s like taking an oil painting and turning it into a photograph. Realism forces you to go that route.

HC: When creating realistic movement for something as subjective as a transforming robot, what man, animal or machine in real life did the effects team use to inspire that movement, and why did you think it works so well?

Transformers Visual Effects Supervisor Scott Farrar
Transformers Visual Effects Supervisor Scott Farrar
Photo credit: Industrial Light & Magic

SF: For inspiration we looked at Japanese anime, and our animators are very keen on this sort of thing. We do a lot of research before the project and we love seeing what has been done before, to see the ideas out there. In anime, there have been some fabulous transforming effects, very animal-like.

There also is this one animator from Japan on our team, Keiji Yamaguchi, who is an amazing ‘transformer’ guy. He can figure out the puzzle of transforming elements all by himself.

HC: Michael Bay is famous for his attention to a certain look and feel in his visual palette. How closely do you advise him on the approach to this palette during filming and what type of communication process with you is he most comfortable with?

SF: I’m one of the first people to start meeting with him once there is a script in place. As head of the visual effects team, I’m the first in and the last out. We finished the picture last week [two weeks before the release].

Everything we do starts with artwork. And Michael Bay is a fine artist and an excellent photographer in his own right. He is ultra strong visually and has an opinion about it.

For me, he guides us very quickly. He’s great about making decisions, and if he doesn’t know he tells us to figure it out and show him the result. And then he selects from that. For an artist like myself, it’s a very rewarding method.

HC: The term ‘green screen’ seems to be a catch-all word for a number of visual effects. What is your definition of green screen today based both on its evolution and its use as a tool in modern filmmaking?

SF: Green or blue screen is something you put behind an actor when you want to render in a different background, and then you bring the two elements together – the actor you film and the background put in later.

On the Michael Bay show, we use little of it if none at all. Essentially we use no green or blue screen whatsoever when shooting live action photography.

For a nighttime scene, for example, we have the actors and the real physical elements in place, like the truck before it transforms, with real set lighting. If you were to use blue or green screen, you get rid of all of the lighting, you wreck all the refraction and actor realism.

We fly by the seat of our pants with this technique. It’s dirty, live, with the flares right in the lens. And then we hope to heck we can match it later (laughs).

All the difficult articulate roto-animation is done around the hair, clothing and actors, whatever is required. It’s all hand work, but what it yields, with the lighting, is actually a much higher quality look.

HC: What type of coaching do live actors need the most when working against the “fill in the blanks” interaction with the yet-to-be-developed robot counterparts?

SF: I spend a lot of time with the actors when we’re doing all these set-ups. And Shia LaBeouf, he’s a great guy. He wants to know the bits and pieces of what I’ve got in mind.

I’m going to give you a trade secret. When I first met Shia, I told him when looking at the robot, whose face is 5 feet wide and 10 feet high, don’t just lock eye-to-eye, search around with your eyes around the robot’s face. And he really sells that. He is tremendous at it.

HC: I wanted to ask you a few career questions. “Artificial Intelligence: AI” was famously a collaboration between Steven Spielberg and the late Stanley Kubrick. What visual elements did you use to successfully conjure up a Kubrick feel through the lens and eye of Spielberg?

SF: That again goes back to artwork. There was this British fellow who had been working with Stanley, as the project had been in the cooker for awhile. So we had hundreds of storyboards the two had produced together. When Stanley passed away, we still had his artist on the production and basically we used a lot of their ideas.

HC: In your bio it states that when you were a freelance cameraman in Los Angeles in the mid 1970s, you were privileged to visit the visual effects set of the first Stars Wars movie. What do you remember most about that experience and how did it inspire your journey towards what you are doing now?

SF: I was working on this cheap sci-fi film in Canoga Park, about two miles away. I was doing frame-by-frame flight effects, with no playback, using tape markings in the hopes I was getting it right.

Their was a friend I knew from UCLA who was working on what was to become Star Wars. He asked me to come to the set, and I got to meet Dennis Muren [Miniature and Optical Effects] for the first time and I was stunned.

They had this technique called icebox, which was a method of recording moves and playing them back – radical technology in 1975. It was like a bolt of lightning from the sky. It was so cool I thought to myself, ‘I want to do this’.

You see a good idea and you think ‘that makes so much sense’.

‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’ opens June 24th everywhere and features Megan Fox, Shia LaBeouf, John Turturro, Ramon Rodriguez and Rainn Wilson, directed by Michael Bay.

StarRead our “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” film review. staff writer Patrick McDonald

Staff Writer

© 2009 Patrick McDonald,

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