What makes up a ‘Transformers’ scene

How MPC orchestrated the first meeting between Noah and the Autobots in ‘Transformers: Rise of the Beasts’.

After discovering that a car he is trying to steal is actually the Porsche 911 Autobot Mirage in disguise, Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos) is soon introduced to the rest of the Autobots, including Optimus Prime.

This scene from Steven Caple Jr.’s Transformers: Rise of the Beasts made use of a live action shoot featuring Ramos, sometimes real vehicles, Autobot stand-ins, and then CG from MPC for the Autobots.

Here, MPC visual effects supervisor Richard Little breaks down for befores & afters how this meeting scene was achieved, from shoot to final.

b&a: Tell me about the shoot for this scene of Noah meeting the Autobots, what was involved on set?

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Richard Little: I was able to be on set with production VFX supervisor Gary Brozenich for this scene. We would shoot a lot of empty plates and a lot of tiles. We wanted to give a sense of scale to these robots, so if you’re shooting them at head height, they lose their presence a little bit, so there was a lot of shooting from lower down.

For on set, they created some maquettes and stand-ins. Some of it was very rudimentary stuff, just stands so that we could understand where their shoulders were and where their heads would be. We’d get them to be the right size. Optimus is 18 feet high and Bumblebee is around 16 feet high. We also had poles. If the robots were moving, we’d put somebody in a blue suit and then we’d actually have them with tennis balls on poles, that type of thing, so at least we gave everybody something to focus on.

For interaction, we see Noah getting picked up and interacting personally with Optimus. We had Anthony on a rig and we wrapped it around so we understood the size of Optimus’ hands and the scale of his forearm. Then we would enhance the interaction if need be. We also did make a fully CG Noah, which would allow us to go super close.

b&a: What early blocking or even mocap did you do to start animating the robots?

Richard Little: We had some early previs, and it gave everyone an idea of what Steven was trying to achieve. Our animation director, Emile Ghorayeb, then spent several weeks in mocap with the filmmakers to plan out scenes. We hired stunt performers, including those who had worked in principal photography, in Montreal to work on the scenes. Steven came in as well and would direct them on specifics.

So we would shoot mocap, and then within a short space of time we would turn it around and then apply the actual mocap data to our basic models so Steven could see what he’d shot and understand the physicalities of taking that information and placing it onto the robot and what it did, how it reacted.

Obviously, using actors or stunt guys is slightly different to putting it onto Optimus because Optimus is obviously is effectively a lot of square boxes. His performance, or the mocap performance, would leave you with a slightly different interpretation sometimes because of just the mechanics and the constraints of his design.

b&a: Mirage is obviously a central character in that meeting scene, and in the way he and Noah connect. What was his build process, given that there was a real Porsche?

Richard Little: We LiDAR’d every piece of the real car. We even got them to lift it up so we could LiDAR the underside. We took the bonnet lid off, the boot, the interiors, everything. Then did a massively extensive texture shoot, knowing that we could potentially see every piece and more in the transformations. In fact, every time a car appeared I, or one of my data wranglers, would take a lot of reference photography after the initial scan and texture shoot just to make sure that we were getting as close as possible to how the paint would react in any given light source. I really got passionate about understanding how car makers create the layering of the paint, how the polish is applied, the specularity. the actual color quality of it.

Then for the actual robot Mirage, we wanted to make sure that it had a grittiness, a grounding, a natural quality about it. We looked at the scratches, the clear coat, the veneer of everything, the balance of the components on his body. We did many, many iterations and had many discussions with Steven, Paramount, Hasbro. Even Porsche at one point.

For example, Mirage has this fan belt fan on his stomach. We’d sent a version to hopefully get approval from Porsche. They came back and said, ‘Well, actually, the Porsche fan has 12 blades. Yours only has 10.’ I love that attention to detail. So of course we changed it.

b&a: When it came to transformations, you can have a car that you can transform, but these things are art directed and really you’re putting a robot inside a car. Did you accommodate transformations to work to camera?

Richard Little: Exactly. It generally was to camera, but there was some marketing that we had to do for Paramount at the latter stages of us completing the film where we had to make sure that the transformation in whatever angle worked, which is a very demanding thing because, as you rightly pointed out, usually you tilt the camera around 10 degrees and it just looks like a mess.

We created our own proprietary transformation tool to allow animators to break any piece of geometry–whether it would be a gear, a tire, a panel, a bit of glass–into as many pieces as possible and still animate it and still get it ‘released’ into our pipeline,

b&a: There’s that fun opening shot where Mirage dumps Noah out of the car and then transforms. Tell me about what they filmed with the actor there, and then any takeovers you had to do.

Richard Little: We had a physical Porsche coming in, sliding into that position, creating all the smoke, everything like that. We’d use that to get an understanding of the dynamics. Then we did actually shoot Noah doing the moves himself as well. He would just leap out of the car. The car would be stationary and he would leap out onto crash mats. Then we’d film a clean plate.

We’d do a basic assembly of all the components and then work out where we would transition from a Noah digi-double into the live action. Ultimately, we pretty much replaced all of the real car.

b&a: I also just wanted to make sure to give a great shout out to lighting and comp here, because in that particular scene the robots are so well integrated into the environment. What do you feel were some of the particular challenges here?

Richard Little: Fortunately, there was a lot of fantastic reference, as in the production allowed us to get the real cars into the scene. We had a very, very clear idea of how everything should respond. I thought our asset team had done a phenomenal job just building them. They reacted as we expected in any environment.

Our CG sup EriK Gonzalez is an exceptionally talented guy. Erik’s got a fantastic understanding of exactly how the process works when you’re on set. He understands, what’s the most important thing in the shot? How would a director of photography actually light a robot or a car in the shot to make it be the star of the actual plate itself?

Then, in turn, gets passed down to our comp team. And what I really like about this sequence is, it’s quite a slow sequence in terms of they’re not quick cuts. You get time to really enjoy the transformations. That’s what everybody pays their money for.

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