Interviews with “Transformers: Age of Extinction” VFX Supervisor Scott Farrar

For those with interest in the computer wizardry behind Transformers: Age of Extinction, here are two interviews with Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) visual effects supervisor and Academy Award winner Scott Farrar, plus an article on how the CGI has transformed since the first film!

With Gizmodo, Farrar explains how creating the CGI Transformers is getting harder, the different techniques used in AoE compared to the first three films, and photo-realism.

We’ve all been students of how to make the Transformers characters look more real, more metallic, better acting, more photographically real in each of the films. Certainly the robots look better than they have before in this one. They’re sharper, the colors are more detailed, and the biggest change is, I think, the large amount of work that we had that was all robots, lots and lots of shots in the film don’t have human actors in them at all. In fact, our work accounts for about 90 minutes of the movie. It’s data-heavy, it’s the largest film I’ve ever done, and it’s the largest data push through in ILM history.
Every single cityscape is real. Let’s talk about Chicago, the aerials. We developed a new camera, we’re developing new camera rigs, we use every toy and tool there is in the business to photograph these movies. We use the latest rigs, and I shoot a lot from a helicopter. We’ve developed a new rolling gimbal to mount on the helicopters so it looks like you’re roving and you’re turning and you’re banking through the turn around all the buildings in Chicago, which are real places, all actually shot from the helicopter. Likewise, Hong Kong.

Courtesy of Nuke the Fridge, there’s an audio interview with Farrar, plus a glance at how special effects in general have changed from the first film. Here’s a transcript of the audio interview for those having difficulties playing it.

Louise Love: Hi, Scott!
Scott Farrar: Hi, how are you doing?
Love: How are you doing man? It’s an honor today to speak with you, and, you know, I announced that I was going to have an interview with you, and the website went crazy. Of course, you’re an Oscar winner, you’ve worked on all the films most people are into movies for, which is, gone from Star Wars, Star Trek to Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, and now Transformers. Now everything you’ve done has pushed the envelope. What do you have in store for us in Age of Extinction?
Farrar: Well, this one… Really, this is a brand new cast, and a lot of new robots. This is been an incredibly crazy push for us at ILM, especially in terms for character animation and huge expansive digital sets, both completely synthetic or extending areas that are built around major cities we shot in, like Hong Kong, Detroit, Beijing, Chicago. And there’s lots of pretty incredible robot animation that has a much more dense story and many more characters with speaking parts that I think are going to be pretty amazing for the film goers.
Love: So you’re saying this film is going to be more Transformer character driven? Since the speaking parts?
Farrar: Well, it’s… It is. You know, it’s really… It’s a continuation of the previous three films, but it’s really kind of a reboot of the franchise and it’s a new trilogy led by Mark Wahlberg’s character. So it’s a continuation of the story in which the biggest enemy of the Transformers and humanity have ever faced isn’t war, it’s extinction. So it’s a big… It’s a big issue.
Love: Now I’m a big fan of Star Wars and I saw it at Mann’s Chinese Theatre. They just redid the theater into IMAX. I saw the trailer for the new Transformers there. It looks fantastic.
Farrar: Wow, that’s good to hear.
Love: It looks incredible. There’s scenes going on in the background with Grimlock, the new Dinobots, and there’s stuff going in front… And how demanding is Michael Bay, I mean, do you ever go wild? Do you ever have trouble with meeting the demands? How does that work?
Farrar: Well, we see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. That’s why I think I’ve gotten along with him. He can be very chaotic on set, but you know, one big reason I’m there is to constantly make sure that as he… I mean, he shoots more camera set ups than I’ve ever seen any director do on any set I’ve ever worked on. He works really fast. So the big part of my job is to be like a visual referee. I make sure that as we’re moving quickly, he’s setting four or five camera positions all the time and I make sure with him, constantly, and say ‘Hey, we might need this angle, we might need this view, we might need this lens position.’ And he goes, ‘Okay, yeah yeah yeah yeah’, and so we work really well together. I think we’re both fast on the set, and at his very core, he’s all about design. And that’s what this movie is, I think, really great about. All the new designs and features of the looks and the feels and textures of color, and architectural designs. And new locations, completely new robots. And, does he push? He pushes all the the time. It’s all about making the shots look as good as possible, as REALISTIC – photo-real – as possible. And, in fact, we’re still finishing up a couple shots today, even as I speak with you, but we’re still just tweaking until we absolutely get them to the point where everything kinda fits together, so to speak. So it all comes up to the same great level that we all want it to.
Love: The film looks really, really good. You’ve been there, you know, since the beginning of… We’re talking about Star Wars. That looks pretty real to me. How- What’s the main difference filming like, Star Wars, and now, Transformers? What has evolved the most in?
Farrar: That’s a very good question. This is the longest job I’ve ever had and I loved every minute of it, and I- A big difference is that- Look at what we started with. Always start with models and miniatures. And actors, and, you know, locations, and sets, and what-have-you. And, what would we do. We did stop-motion animation or we did track camera work, where we could repeat motions so that we could get all the exposures right, on a spaceship for instance. Motion-control camera rigs of various types, and then we’d have animation fit in.  Okay, but it’s still real locations, real people and then real models. Then, we entered an age where there’s a lot of computer graphics. A replacement of locations, buildings, models, characters, what-have-you. What I do with Michael on these films is a bit different. We try and shoot at many things real as possible. We still shoot miniatures when possible. We start with real locations, we don’t start with a synthetic city, we start with a real city. We might have to piece together parts of the city that has to be destroyed, but we start with the real Hong Kong. Or the Beijing, or the Chicago. And then we make everything. Therefore, you can’t just put in a CG thing – a computer graphics thing- that doesn’t look as good as the real thing. You gotta do a lot of work to make sure that they… The models, and the texturing, and the paint all looks photo-real. Which requires a lot of firepower in our render farm, and a lot of attention to detail on a part of our artists. But it gives a better look, basically photo-real.
Love: That’s awesome. Uhm. You know, my audience… I’m kind of putting myself on the spot. They want me to ask you this: What would [bar] you with Episode VII?
Farrar: Uh, not at all. I’ve been one hundred percent on this. I’ve been on this, oh gosh, since, uh… like November of 2012. So… The way it works for those of us who are supervisors… I’m basically the director of my visual effects team, back here at ILM. And once you’re dedicated to one movie, you really have no time for another movie. This is full time, all the time.
Love: You have a favorite- Sorry. You have a favorite Transformer? Like one that you really like onscreen?
Farrar: Well, I’ve always liked Bumblebee a lot. Because, I’d tell people he reminds me of silent movie era actor, like Charlie Chaplin, that didn’t use words, but he uses… Yeah, he plays things back that are recorded, but you know, we try and tell a lot with the face, the eyes, the… You know, the windows to the soul is the eyes. And we do a lot of things with his expressions that I think are really cute. And then there are sounds that go with him. So he’s always been a favorite character, but we have new characters in this film that are quite interesting, so… But not as good as Bumblebee! He’s my favorite.
Love: *laughs* Speaking of new characters, what can you tell us about Grimlock? Because everyone seems to be excited about Grimlock and the Dinobots.
Farrar: Yes, well, there’s reason to be excited. It’s that instead of a character that turns into a robot, kinda humanoid-style or a car, these characters are humanoids that turns into Dinobots. And it gave us a new opportunity to do flying scenes, to do running scenes, to do charging scenes, like a John Ford Western with John Wayne riding the stallion down the boulevard… Kind of iconic imagery, what, really. We just borrow a little bit from other movies. And so I think… It basically we have the bad guys against the good guys, we’ve had heroes riding to the rescue, like our favorite, Optimus Prime. So… Exciting stuff.
Love: And my last question is Transformers 5 already in the works?
Farrar: Ah, they’re talking about it. Well, they’ve talked about 5 and 6. We’ll see what happens.
Love: Excellent. Looking forward to checking out Age of Extinction, and I’m going to watch it Mann’s Chinese Theatre, personally.
Farrar: That’s actually pretty cool.
Love: Hopefully we’ll get a group to show up, get together for the first showing. So, it’s an honor to talk to you.
Farrar: You, too as well. Thank you, enjoy.

Don’t forget to share your thought of the movie at our discussion thread!