“We’re going to be blowing up a lot of little Furbies,” Michael Bay says proudly.

Last August I flew out to Los Angeles to visit the shoot of Transformers,
the movie that’s set to dominate this July 4th weekend. A couple of
blocks of downtown LA had been shut down, mostly for crew and
equipment, but one full block had been turned into a total war zone.
Cars were upended, and huge holes had been blown in the pavement (in
reality the street had been built up with fake rubble, but it looked
pretty good from where I was standing). A Furby truck stood on one end
of the block atop a hydraulic lift; we were told that at some point
that truck would explode, and we saw it being lifted up and shaken in
dry runs. From what I was able to piece together the scene would
involve a chase for the Energon cube, which powers the Transformers,
and apparently sets off a truckload of the Furbies.

I was one of a group of journalists who were there for the day’s
activities, and I was excited to see Michael Bay in action. To be
honest with you, I wanted to be there when he would go into a shouting
tirade, but the worst I saw him was when he was fed up with a bunch of
background actors who were screwing up his take and he more moaned than
yelled “These extras are killing me!” into
his bullhorn (apparently I missed the good stuff. Someone intimately
involved in the film would later tell me that while he had no problems
with the notoriously tough Bay, female lead Megan Fox had been on the
receiving end of some of his anger during shooting). There was specific
interview time with many of the actors and the producers built into our
day, but we weren’t sure if we’d get any time with Bay, who had been
out sick the day before and was trying to make up lost time. We were
lucky, though, and got a chance to talk with Bay in between set ups
while he waited for the billowing green smoke that had blanketed the
street to clear (more on that smoke and the bad extras in future installments).

So what’s going to make this a Michael Bay movie?

don’t know if that makes any sense. It’s got a lot of action, but at
the same time it’s very funny and it’s got heart. I only wanted to do
Transformers if I could do it realistically and from what I’ve seen
with what we’ve done on the digital studies and putting [the CGI] in
real world stuff with a lot of [practical] FX around… that’s how we
make it realistic.

When did you realize that there was a rabid fanbase for this property?

Well, I knew. Of course I knew.

When did it really hit you though?

Before I even took on the
movie I knew that there was a huge following of this thing. I think
that Steven [Spielberg] called me a year ago last April and my first
thought was, ‘No. I’m not interested.’ It was just because I thought,
‘Okay, how am I going to do a toy movie?’ Then I realized when I went
to Hasbro that we could start over and go for a realistic alien
invasion robot movie on earth. So with that thinking in mind that’s how
I went about it.

Are you going for a movie that’s as intense as the usual Michael Bay film?

I mean, it’s going to be pretty edgy for a family film, but it’s definitely got stuff for families. It’s PG-13, but it is edgy. of these characters have pretty silly names. How are you going to explain names like Jazz and Optimus Prime?

Well, I’m not going to tell you, but we do justify it. I mean, we have logic stuff in the script to explain why we say it.

Obviously this is setup to be a franchise. So are you going to come back to it and do the sequel?

Well, I’ve had a great time
making it. I really have. It’s gone really smoothly, this movie, and
it’s been a lot of fun. So we’ll see. It’s really fun to actually –
I’ve done a lot of visual FX before, but this is really fun because
you’re really animating characters who have a sort of different thing
going on in the way that they walk or the way that their armor is

How do you make the characters work before you have the voice actors in place?

Well, first you write down
what all the characters points are in your head. It is a tough thing.
With [Peter] Cullen, he’s not an actor actor, he’s a voice actor. So
when you see his face he’s got a great face, but I need to hire another
actor to do his voice. Does that make sense? He’s going to do the voice
and I’m going to have another actor study the video when he does it the
way he does, and they’re actually going to have to work in tandem. They
do this on animation pieces as well. Like, we did a very funny study
where we did [Robert] De Niro and the bad guy from The Matrix, Hugo
Weaving, and we [animated] our Optimus Hugo to De Niro. It’s hysterical
and it looks just like them. [Note: We should have picked up on this
hint that Weaving would be in the movie!]

So you’re kind of motion capturing the faces?

It’s not fully like a human
face, but it does have certain human things to it. Otherwise, as
humans, we wouldn’t associate with this as much. We did a lot of
different studies, like if you do nothing it doesn’t hit us.

What did you try that didn’t work?

If they are just frozen
robots, pure metal that doesn’t move and the eyebrow thing. We have
these eye slits that kind of move and the eyes move – it’s got to have
some human things to it to make it successful for it because you look
at the cartoons and that’s 90% in the direction that we have to go –
right now they’re just big glowing eyes that have no emotions. What I
keep trying to tell the fanboys is that it has to be so much more
realistic than what they’ve seen in the past, but they’re angry about
everything anyway. They’re doing a protest in front of my office by the
way, but I won’t be there [Laughs].

Can you talk about the Transformers that are here today?

I don’t have time to go
through the whole thing. Each one has about three paragraphs. That’s
Ratchet right there. That’s Iron Hide in the black truck and then
that’s a newly transformed Bumblebee that started as an old Camaro
[he’s a new model Camaro here]. Then you’ve got Jazz right here. When
you have full height on Jazz I think that he’s about thirteen feet
tall. Bumblebee is, I think, sixteen or seventeen feet tall. Ratchet is
about twenty three feet, twenty four feet. Iron Hide is very wide when
he’s transformed and he’s about a twenty six foot tall robot and then
Optimus is, I think, twenty eight. Megatron is like at thirty four feet.