All the stories you've heard about a Michael Bay film set are true. It's fast, loud, intense and frankly, it's kind of amazing. Six cameras shoot simultaneously, ranging from 2D to IMAX 3D. Dozens of real Navy SEALS pour out of a crashed ship. Hundreds of live rounds are being fired. Several massive explosions go off. All on behalf of Transformers: The Last Knight.
We know. Say the words "Transformers movie" and you're bound to elicit some eye rolls. In general, Michael Bay's Transformers franchise has been the poster child for expensive, loud, terrible Hollywood movies that make billions. But with each instalment providing diminishing returns in terms of story quality, the people behind the scenes decided to do something about it.
Overseen by Steven Spielberg and Bay himself, last year Paramount installed a brain trust of writers to break down stories not just for the fifth Transformers film, but others down the road. The result was a huge pool of ideas, which were eventually pitched to Bay a dozen at a time. Some will become spinoffs, other sequels, but landing on the next film, The Last Knight, was the first order of business.
"It was not immediately obvious that this was going to be the choice. It evolved over time," said producer Lorenzo DiBonaventura. "As it turned out, there was not one idea that won the day for this movie. It ended up being two ideas in particular, so there was a bit of a combination thing that happened over time."
The Last Knight, whose first trailer debuted yesterday, is a "deep dive" into the mythology of Transformers. It will feature two storylines from two different timelines through the robot mythology running concurrently and converging at the end. "Having the time to actually look at the mythology and really build it, [The Last Knight] has an idea base that I think gives it a weight that's different," said DeBonavantura. The storylines will explore how what happened in the historical evolution of the Transformers which created the divide between Autobot and Decepticon (a parallel to Republicans and Democrats is not a silly one, suggested DiBonaventra). Autobot leader Optimus Prime will question who he is and what he's done, and we'll see where he came from.
For Bay, who has famously announced he wasn't coming back to the franchise numerous times, these story elements meant he could play in a whole new world of visuals. That's what brought him back for The Last Knight. "What I'm excited about, the palette on this one is the most different I've ever done," Bay said. "The third act is spectacular looking. I tell [my team] 'I have no fucking idea how we're going to shoot this.' That's the fun of it."
The beginning of that third act is what, we think, we saw filmed on August 5. We were among a group of journalists on set at Raleigh Michigan Studios in Pontiac, Mich., to watch Bay and his team work. Under blazing sunshine and in 32C+ temperatures, Bay and his crew set up in a wide open lot, which is "a postage stamp" snapshot of what a familiar alien planet is going to look like. It makes sense since Age of Extinction ended with Optimus Prime flying into space to confront the creators.
Michael Bay locked in on the set of Transformers: The Last Knight.
At the moment, a V-22 Osprey has crashed on the alien planet. In it are an elite SEAL team lead once again lead by William Lennox, played by Josh Duhamel (returning after being off a movie). He's joined by Cade Yeager, played by Mark Wahlberg (returning for his second film) as well as a young homeless girl named Izabella (Isabela Moner) and a mysterious British woman named Vivian (Laura Haddock), two new characters. And by "alien planet" we mean a small slice of Michigan parking lot with huge mountains of painted black foam and half a dilapidated aeroplane. (Additional shooting in Wales and Iceland will be combined to create the three-level look of the planet.)
"Everyone needs ear protection," screams assistant director K.C. Hodenfield. "It's going to be loud as… are there any kids present?" (There are). "Well, it's louder than me."
Bay calls "action", and loud is an understatement. As the SEALs pour out of the crashed Osprey we get the aforementioned explosions, gun shots including a mini-gun and debris flies everywhere as the three civilians escape from behind.
And right there, literally in the middle of everything, is Bay. Dressed in green cargo pants, a long-sleeved blue shirt and weathered Miami-Dade police hat, Bay operates one of the six cameras himself. He wears a white mask over his nose and mouth, full glass protection over his face and soundproof headphones. He's on his knees in the midst of the explosions, then even lays on the ground to capture footage of these soldiers fighting. "Camera is in my blood, man," says Bay. "This is the fun stuff. This is why I do what I do."
This footage was taken the day we were on set. That's Bay on the far right and you can see at least two other cameras.
"When I work with other directors, the first question they ask me is 'How does [Bay] do it?'" said camera operator Jacques Jouffret. "If you take one director directing one scene in one movie, he's going to use one tool. But Michael is the only director I work with where every tool is used for a single scene. So in one scene we use handheld, track, dolly, long lens, techno crane, the pursuit car coming in and swinging around and once you see the scene together, everything matches."
Watching all of those things happen in tandem looks like total chaos. But after "Cut" is yelled, it turns out it wasn't quite as chaotic as planned. It seems several of the guns carried by the soldiers didn't fire, and Bay launches into what has now become a trademark legendary outburst. "We paid a lot of money for these fucking guns," Bay screams. "Whose gun didn't fire?" About five people put up their hands. It's unacceptable and Bay storms off to cool off. The anger doesn't last long, though. He doesn't have time.
Every single person on this set knows what he or she signed up for. "Look, Michael Bay told me years ago when I got into working with him," said effects supervisor John Frazier. "He said, 'Here's how it is. It's real simple. This is how I make movies. You either get on or get off.' I chose to get on, so I got no problem with that."
Bay on set with his stars Mark Wahlberg and Laura Haddock.
Bay is a notoriously fast director, demanding his crews do things at speeds other filmmakers would laugh at. Only 42 days into shooting Transformers: The Last Knight, he's already done two days of 90 setups each, meaning 90 times in a day (twice) he's made his crew move the camera and lights. On a huge scale action scene like today's, it's less, but in the several hours on set, we saw the crew completely flip the set, north to south, in about 10 minutes. It's like filmmaking on fast-forward. Things get so crazy that over 60 members of the crew had joined a pool to figure out when the day would end.
Bay's work is so fast they literally invented a mobile 3D van for him. Inside this van, a team of three checks on the 3D footage the director is capturing in real time, catalogues it, sends it to edit stations, then can quickly drive over to the next location for whatever the director has planned. This way, Bay's footage is always just a few steps away, and he can make any changes or tweaks he wants the same day. "Don't tell anyone," jokes Bay. "That's a secret weapon."
Another secret? During pre-production, Bay himself cut 20 days off his own schedule. "I'm like 'You know what, fuck it,'" said Bay. "It's too much time. Pump a little harder you can just shoot a little more efficient. These movies sometimes have a tendency to get bloated. I'm talking about all big movies, there's a lot of wasted stuff, equipment and people." He also plans on "breaking" the computers at visual effects house Industrial Light and Magic with the amount of detail in the digital effects of the film, which will be largely presented in full-screen 3D IMAX.
Transformers: The Last Knight is a global affair, with a shooting schedule that will take Bay and his crew all over the world. At the time of our visit, they'd already been filming in Arizona and Michigan; next up was the United Kingdom, including Wales, Isle of Skye, San Diego, and they even shot a few plates in Cuba.
However, everyone on set wanted to talk about the UK, because that's part of the new flavour for The Last Knight. "We have a Braveheart sequence in one element, and then we have a Saving Private Ryan sequence in another," said stunt coordinator Mike Gunther. So yes, you're going to get a huge battle scene with people on horseback. In a Transformers movie. Sounds pretty different.
While no one would get into specifics a year from release, the UK setting also makes sense because there will be some major historical connections in The Last Knight. The title itself suggests some links to famous mythology, and those seem likely. The movie will also have major underwater components, a first for the Transformers franchise.
What other teases were there? Well, there will be baby Dinobots. After introducing the popular characters in the fourth film, now they will somehow have offspring. Fan favourite Dinobot Grimlock is also back in what's likely to be an expanded role.
One of the new Transformers: Squeeks
A potential break-out character is Squeeks, a beat-up blue Vespa that's the sidekick of new character Izabella. Izabella is not only a new character, though, but a link to the previous films. "She was actually involved in the battle of Chicago [in the third film], her family," said Moner. "From that stems dark memories and the reason why she's been living there and then joins [Cade]."
Apparently, Squeaks can't fully transform from his current state, which is played for comedy but also sets the stage for one of the film's bigger moments. "He's a pretty seemingly inconsequential Autobot [that] is going to rise to a really great fucking moment," said DiBonaventura. "It's incredibly great from a story point of view, but you'll laugh so fucking hard, because it's a great way for him to finally show his mettle."
As for who the new villain is this time, all anyone would say is that there is one. The producer confirmed the Quintessons are in this movie, along with new hero Hot Rod and a few others they weren't ready to name. Megatron will, of course, still be around, and we'll see the early forms of him and Optimus Prime.
Here's what Hot Rod will look like in The Last Knight. What car, or cars, he'll transform to are currently being kept a secret.
The question is whether Bay will still be around after The Last Knight. DiBonaventura confirmed they have outlines for two new Transformers movies, a script in progress for a Bumblebee movie, and an animated movie set on Cybertron in production. That's a lot of Transformers and, up until now, Bay has directed them all. "It's tiring, man," is all he said when asked about coming back. "We haven't talked about anyone else directing any of the movies," DiBonaventura said. "I'll say that much."
And after being on set, it's hard to imagine anyone else in the director's chair. Eventually someone will. Multiple people, most likely. But a Michael Bay set will always be its own unique thing, a place of beautiful chaos. It's a living, breathing, crazy organism.
...with lots of explosions.
Transformers: The Last Knight opens 22 June 2017.
Note: Paramount paid for Gizmodo's travel to Michigan to report this piece.