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Friday, May 20, 2011

Transformers 3: Or, How James Cameron Got Michael Bay to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love 3-D


Leader image for Transformers 3: Or, How James Cameron Got Michael Bay to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love 3-D

When Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon barrels into theaters this summer in 3-D — the first 3-D outing for the film series and for Bay himself — you’ll have one man to thank for it: James Cameron. Fittingly, Bay took the stage at a Transformers 3 footage screening Wednesday night on the Paramount Studios lot to compare notes on the format, its future, and its frustrating limitations with none other than Cameron himself.

Sitting side-by-side with moderator Jay Fernandez of The Hollywood Reporter leading a conversation filled with tech details and friendly banter, Bay and Cameron took it back to the beginning, when Avatar had yet to prove itself worth the giant leap of faith and money and Bay was still hesitant to leave his comfort zone.

Having once invited Bay years ago to the set of Titanic, a film whose vertical sinking ship set piece is evoked in a building-toppling sequence from Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Cameron welcomed Bay onto the set of Avatar while he was in production. But Bay, a purist at heart who still prefers film over digital, felt alienated by Cameron’s tech-heavy production. “3-D is all ones and zeroes,” Bay explained to the audience of journalists and film students. When Paramount asked him to make Transformers 3 in 3-D, Bay says, Cameron (“the man who talked me into it”) insisted he give it a shot: “[He said] Michael, we’ve done everything. You’ve got to look at it as a toy, another tool to get emotion and character in the experience.”

Cameron, meanwhile, has been drinking the 3-D Kool-Aid for years. It was his desire to make 3-D a viable cinematic form that led him to abandon film for digital in 1997, knowing that the advancement of digital tools was a prerequisite for working in 3-D.

[SLIDESHOW: Click for images from Transformers: Dark of the Moon.]

But current 3-D rigs aren’t yet ideal in weight or versatility — at least, current to the time when Bay was filming Transformers 3. So in order to shoot his film in 3-D, Bay had to adjust his preferred methods: shooting 10 shots per day instead of 50, for example. And the unique risks involved were unprecedented to the director. After the first day of filming on Dark of the Moon, Bay woke up exclaiming, “I’m in love with 3-D,” only to discover that the hard drives housing that day’s worth of footage had been corrupted and his precious footage lost.

Bay, then, is much more frustrated with the limitations of current 3-D filmmaking than Cameron seems to be; practically speaking, it requires him to change the way he shoots. But judging from the approximately 10 minutes of footage shown, including the first five minutes of Dark of the Moon and an extended reel of footage, 3-D might have been one of the best things to happen to him.

Perhaps because working with 3-D required him to slow things down in terms of action, Bay’s action sequences appear to be clearer and more discernible. Extensive hand to hand robot fight sequences, robot transformations, aerial scenes, and a show-stopping set piece involving a massive robot constricting itself around a skyscraper in downtown Chicago are much easier to follow than similar scenes in the first two films. Also impressive are scenes of a squadron of military paratroopers, led by Josh Duhamel, who leap out of a plane mid-air and wind their way through a cityscape in freefall like flying squirrels caught on the wind.

More on the footage, briefly: [SPOILER ALERT] The opening first five minutes set up the premise of Dark of the Moon. A massive Star Wars-esque battle between robots is raging on Cybertron, where an escaping bot is attacked and crash-lands on the moon. Meanwhile, in 1960s America — think Michael Bay’s version of Mad MenNASA and the government catch wind of the landing and race to put a man in space to beat the Russians to the crash site. Mixing archival footage with face-replicating CGI, Bay depicts the secret U.S. mission that we never knew about: Neil Armstrong isn’t on the moon to make one small step for man, he’s there to investigate the Transformers landing, bringing back to Earth the knowledge that we’re not alone in the galaxy. [END SPOILERS]

Reaction to the footage was mixed, though the reel drew applause. The 3-D looks fantastic — and, as Cameron himself complimented, one can’t tell the difference between native-shot footage and converted footage. (The percentages, according to Bay: 60 percent native 3-D, 15 percent digital, and the rest conversion.) “I like that you’re using 3-D aggressively,” he told Bay.

“The question is, how many millions more will it make in 3-D?” Cameron asked, turning to Bay. “I guarantee more than $30 million.”

But 3-D isn’t just an involving process, requiring complex added technical steps to shoot — it’s expensive, given the labor, equipment, and added post work involved. Bay spent seven months testing various conversion houses to find companies he trusted with the job, and made sure his fx techs got footage well in advance. The extra cost of 3-D for a film, Bay estimates, is $30 million. To Cameron, that $30 million is worth every penny. “The question is, how many millions more will it make in 3-D?” Cameron asked, turning to Bay. “I guarantee more than $30 million.”

Finally, conversation turned to the problem with the current state of 3-D filmmaking: Bad 3-D conversion jobs. “Bullshit 3-D is turning off audiences,” said Bay. Cameron agreed, citing bad 3-D as a step backwards in the struggle to get audiences back in theaters. The appeal of 3-D, he claims, is a direct solution to the threat of VOD. “But we’re abusing it,” he said, blaming studios for rushing through the time-consuming process of fine-tuning the 3-D treatment.

Another problem facing would-be 3-D filmmakers? Brightness levels in theatrical projection, another result of money-saving efforts, only controlled by theater owners. “Laser projectors are the future,” he predicted. Also in the near future, according to Cameron: Passive vs. active shutter home 3-D glasses, “tablets and laptops that don’t require glasses and are auto-stereoscopic,” and within 5 years, glasses-free 3-D television screens. We’re in the 3-D equivalent of the auto industry circa 1905, Cameron insisted.

Bay had a slightly different take: “It’s the Wild Wild West,” he said, of the current disconnect between filmmakers, exhibitors, technology, and the audience. But if Cameron has his way, it won’t be this way for long.