Keeping up with Marvel isn’t easy, but Michael Bay and Industrial Light & Magic have brought new life to the badass Hasbro bots in "Transformers: Age of Extinction," introducing a sleek new sci-fi design and a new army of fire-breathing Dinobots. At the same time, Bay has smartly ventured into China and has replaced Shia LaBeouf with Mark Wahlberg as a single dad and failed inventor, which also kicks the franchise into higher gear.
Taking a cue from grizzled warrior Optimus Prime, who warns, "The rules have changed — we are all targets now," ILM’s Scott Farrar was ready to unleash a new trilogy with Mohen Leo of the ILM Singapore Studio. "There’s a coolness factor applied to old friends," Farrar suggests. "There are different dimensions on their physique. We made both Optimus and Bumblebee a little more majestic and a little more powerful."
There are new Decepticons as well, such as Lockdown, a bounty hunter whose head transforms into a canon but otherwise hides behind a gray 2013 Lamborghini Aventador LP 700-4 Coupe. However, the Dinobots are the latest addition. They include leader Grimlock, who transforms into a horned, mechanical Tyrannosaurus Rex; Strafe, an assault infantry specialist who transforms into a two-headed and two-tailed Pteranodon; Slug, a savage destroyer who becomes a spiked and bestial Triceratops; Scorn, the demolition expert who transforms into a three-sailed Spinosaurus; and Slash, the stealthy fighter who transforms into a Velociraptor.
A new wrinkle, though, is that the Dinobots transform from humanoids, not vehicles. "The transformation happens fast but is not as complicated," adds Farrar, who also served as second unit director in charge of a prehistoric sequence shot in Iceland. "But it’s still a bit of a puzzle and takes several tries to look right for the particular camera angle that they’re setting. And they’re still metallic. The Dinobots are bony with pivots and joints and hinges and shock absorbers and other identifiable objects."
"Dinobots are more primitive and raw — they are meant to be ancient versions of Transformers," adds Leo, who supervised two sequences in Singapore: an early one in which the Autobots are being hunted and a climactic battle with Optimus. "Every time you change or adjust the design," according to Leo, "it has an influence on how they can move around and what their restrictions are in terms of motion and how you get around that. The Singapore team had to evolve a style that fits the way the characters look. They are less lumbering, and less like big heavy giants."
With a larger cast of characters, ILM required a larger animation crew (second only to the Oscar-winning "Rango") and an expansion of the render farm to handle several million polygons. Remember: Optimus alone has nearly 11,000 parts and in "Extinction" contains three different styles and four different levels of damage.
The fighting styles are different as well — more martial arts influenced — and they’re more violent and extend up in the air and on ships. "We did mocap sessions with stunt guys and they come up with new fight moves that can be translated into the fight choreography," Farrar says. The fights are also messier with more stabs and cuts as antifreeze and hydraulic fluid spew out and splatter the lens. Photographically, Farrar believes it makes everything look more realistic.
Speaking of which, "Extinction" was shot more confidently in IMAX 3-D and more ambitiously in China (utilizing the Great Wall and the Wolong national park with its rocky formations). But partnering with China, the fastest-growing region, represents a brave new undertaking for Hollywood, witness Pangu Investments’ recent spat with Paramount about the inclusion of its Pangu Plaza in the movie.
Thus, when Farrar says that "everything is harder and more complicated," he’s not just talking about the VFX for "Extinction." Still, it was quite an undertaking to oversee a 500-member crew from ILM on a shorter schedule than the previous "Transformers" movies.
But it all comes down to one general rule: "A robot must be dirty." With the launch of a new trilogy built around second chances, it sounds like Farrar still enjoys messing it up with these old mechanical warriors.