LOS ANGELES — Throughout history, great leaders have stood in marvel at the foot of the pyramids of Giza —Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte. Now it's Optimus Prime's turn.
Moviegoers who helped Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen earn $200.1 million in its opening five days, just short of record-holder The Dark Knight, know the computer-effects-heavy film plays a lot of tricks on the eye. One thing they're seeing for real are the pyramids, because director Michael Bay was determined to shoot the shapeshifting-robot finale on the surface of the ancient structures.
"The studio was saying: 'You can't do that, you can't go there. It's dangerous. A-lah-lah-lah-lah,' " Bay said recently as sound editors tweaked the roar and grind of robot carnage as the battle in question played out on a giant theater screen before them.
"They always try to discourage an American crew from going to a Muslim country. "But that's kind of flawed, because when I went on a scout, it's very different than people perceive in the news. It's a great place, and people are very friendly there.
"I almost put it in my contract that I'm not doing this movie if I don't shoot in Egypt. I finally got their word: 'OK, you can shoot there.' "
That wasn't the last piece of red tape to be cut through. Though the producers had contracted with Henry Kissinger's consulting firm to negotiate access more than a year in advance, the permit they had been promised wasn't ready when Bay and Co. finally arrived.
"My producer was panicking because they said 'Yes, you're approved,' and we had went through their state department, prime minister, the major generals ... everything. They kept saying 'It's OK, it's OK.' But then you get there, and it's not OK when the police surround your trucks," Bay says. "No one wants to take responsibility for anything. No one wants to say, 'Yeah.' "
Some voted to go home, even with millions of dollars on the line, Bay says. "But I said, 'We are going to shoot on those (expletive) pyramids!' Somehow, by the grace of God, there was a loophole." They reached out to the head of the nation's ancient cultural heritage, who gave them the green light.
"Dr. (Zahi) Hawass, who controls all the antiquities in Egypt, he can say whatever goes," Bay says. "So we were finally invited in to shoot, literally, on the pyramids."
In the final cut, much of that scene is dominated by CG-animated alien robots, including Devastator — the new villain made out of seven individual robots who hide in the form of construction equipment. But the flesh-and-blood actors also got to romp on the pyramids.
Bay himself stood on a high ledge filming scenes with actor John Turturro (reprising his role as the blowhard former government agent who's a Transformers expert). "We're 30 rows up, and it's just neat. Pictures don't do justice to it, but on this movie, you get the scale of what the pyramid really is because John's right there," Bay says.
The filmmaker says it was overwhelming for both of them, a feeling that struck a few days later when they were in Jordan shooting atop a mountainside-carved temple in the ancient city of Petra. "(Turturro) was looking at Petra, and it was the morning of, just setting up, and he had a tear in his eye. I was like 'What's going on?' " Bay recalls. "He said, 'You never get to do this. I was at the pyramids just the other day, and now I'm here. You just never get to do this.' "
That was the final problem: an awestruck crew.
"I actually had to yell once: 'Anyone pulls out a (expletive) video camera again, you're going home!' We were shooting on top of this palace right next to the pyramids. The sun has just dropped, and you've got literally 15 minutes of light — one chance, and you've got to get the scene. You have to be ready to knock it out. But the crew is there with the video cameras, posing and taking photos, because it's a once-in-a-lifetime place. I was like, 'Guys! This is my time now!' " he says, laughing.
"It was the end of the show, and it was funny," he says, shrugging. "We barely made it."
With effects work on 38 films to his credit, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more seasoned effects man than Scott Farrar. After accepting an invitation to the set of “Star Wars,” Farrar saw the first motion control system in action. Inspired, he embarked on a career that would see him work on some of the most groundbreaking effects films in history.
Five times nominated for an Academy Award (he won in 1986 for his work on “Cocoon”), his resume also includes work on “Return of the Jedi” “”Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and its sequel, “The Wrath of Khan,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Jurassic Park,” “Men in Black,” “Minority Report,” “Deep Impact,” and “Star Wars: Episode I.”
As Visual Effects Supervisor on both “Transformers” films, Farrar continues to work on the cutting edge of visual effects. I caught up with him to discuss his work, how effects have changed over the years, and working with Michael Bay.
JS: Let’s start off by talking about the improvements over the first film.
SF: Sure. You’ll see in this film there are a lot of refinements. The robots look better, the details are better. We tried to move further into a more realistic style of lighting this time. If you know effects, you know the lighting is hard to do with something like robots, especially these that have a lot of refined surfaces. The action is better too, and we learned quite from the last film about what to do and what not to do. As you know, there are a lot of sequences shot on IMAX cameras, where the resolution is eight times larger than a normal camera. The sharpness and overall look a lot better. As a result at one point you see a full-sized Optimus Prime. It’s going to be thrilling. IMAX is designed for big sequences like this, and I think we’ve met the challenge and then some.. We’ve really pushed the envelope with this film quite a bit.
In the shadow of the biggest Transformers event since ... well, since the last huge Transformers movie, I finished dotting the jays and crossing the cues on these two books and uploaded the final image files to IDW over the weekend. Obviously, the vast bulk of the work was done months and months ago, but last week I got the copy edits back and had to go in and make sure that all my quotation marks faced the right way and that I never used a dash when I meant to use a hyphen. I have to say, I'm really impressed with how IDW's stepped up its editorial process. They've always been good, now they're hitting excellence. At BotCon, we shared some pages that will be appearing in the book - I figured I'd post a few of them here, along with some impressions of each book.
The Complete Ark is a fun book. Character models remain one of my strong loves, and this book is chock-a-block with them. If you have either volume, you've got a pretty good idea what this will be like. If you have both volumes, well, I like to think that the more compact size and the extra material I managed to cram in makes it worth your while. This is probably old news by now, but by removing material that was duplicated across both volumes, I had enough space to expand on the Masterforce section of the book. Now the Godmasters get just as much love as the Headmasters and Pretenders before them, something that always bothered me about The Ark II. I also added in a few other pages here and there, like the Decepticon's underwater headquarters as shown off at BotCon this year. Finally, there were quite a lot of pages where I had some extra model appropriate to a character, like say Motormaster's heads, so I added those in when I could. I even got the chance to speak to a few of the original series designers and get their input. But extras aside, I think that a combined volume is the ideal way to consume this material. This book puts models together from every Generation One Transformers season and show, and is as comprehensive as I could make it. I hope you enjoy it.
As fun as The Ark is, my magnum opus (that sounds vaguely like a Transformers name, doesn't it?) is definitely The AllSpark Almanac. So many things made that book fun to put together. Just getting the chance to work with people like Derrick Wyatt and Marty Isenberg was an amazing experience. We were also fortunate enough that other stakeholders in the Animated universe, like Hasbro, Takara-Tomy, Titan Magazines, even the writers of Bee in the City, were willing to lend us their time to make sure that every aspect of this amazing universe got its due.
But the big difference was the availability of material. With The Ark, I had to hunt down old models, most of which required restoration. Even today, many models from G1 have eluded me, like the episode-specific fembots or the main characters from 1989 and 1990. With the Almanac, I had access to the entire Cartoon Network archives. Color or black&white, characters or props, background paintings, scripts and storyboards .... having this much material to work with was a sheer delight. It shifted the focus of the book from the acquisition of material to the disposition of material. As much as I love the b&w designs, getting to lay out color models and write up bios and character histories is much more creatively satisfying. Some of the pages we got quite experimental with, but given the whimsy that is Animated I think it all works. The decision to do the whole book from an in-universe perspective, while challenging in some spots (I'm looking at you, episode guides!), helped make this an absolute joy to write. I hope you find it as entertaining to read.
Big couple of weeks for Transformers in general and me in particular. Next week, once it's calmed down a bit, the blog will most likely return to its regularly scheduled program of Ark Addendums on Tuesdays. See you there!
How big will "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" get? The movie was closing in on $400 million on Monday, a number that surprised even some of the people at Paramount Pictures. We've had tons of coverage on the film, which is breaking records at the box office, and we're not done yet. Here's a longer version of the Los Angeles Times Calendar story I have in today's paper on one of the new faces in Hollywood, Ramon Rodriguez, who plays Leo Spitz in the No. 1 movie in America right now. A lot of people are expecting big things from Ramon in the future, including Michael Bay, who hinted to me that the third film in the franchise will have a meatier role for the new cast member.
Ramon Rodriguez in Transformers Revenge of the Fallen
It turns out that filmmaker Michael Bay runs an audition a lot like he makes movies.
Last year, Ramon Rodriguez visited Bay’s Santa Monica offices seeking a key role in “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and, instead of a sedate line-reading, the young actor was told to basically run for his life.
“For 90 minutes, he had me jumping, running, diving over the furniture in his office -- that was the audition,” said Rodriguez, who was adept enough to land the role of Shia LaBeouf’s sidekick in the biggest movie of the year. “I was drenched in sweat. He told me, ‘OK, hide behind the desk!’ ‘Now, run over here!’ And man, I was looking in his eyes, and he was enjoying it. He’s got a passion for action. It shows in the movies too.”
Critics may cringe, but audiences are feeling it: “Revenge of the Fallen,” as of Monday, was closing in on $400 million worldwide. That's a staggering number, and the domestic gross, $201 million, fell just short of the five-day record of $203 million set last year by “The Dark Knight.”
It’s been dizzying to watch from a distance, but it’s an especially wild ride for newcomer Rodriguez, whose career surged this summer with the “Transformers” role as well as his work in Tony Scott’s “The Taking of Pelham 123,” which put him side by side with Denzel Washington and John Travolta.
“I’m coming out of nowhere this summer,” Rodriguez said on recent bright afternoon on a basketball court in Studio City. “At least that’s how it seems to people. It feels that way to me sometimes too. And it’s been a major education.”
For Rodriguez, this summer is the equivalent of a half-court shot that hits nothing but net.
The actor, who grew up on Manhattan’s lower east side but also spent much of his youth in his family’s native Puerto Rico, was a college and prep-school basketball star but didn’t have the height needed to achieve his NBA dream.
After picking up a sports-management degree at New York University, he was working for the New York Knicks in their community relations department but hating it. “You would think I would love it, but working for a team that’s losing is just no fun,” he said. “It was so gray, so dark, there were layoffs and turmoil."
Transformers Revenge of the Fallen cast with Michael Bay
A friend coaxed him to enter a Nike basketball-trick competition and, with the lure of a free pair of sneakers, a disinterested Rodriguez agreed. He ended up winning by spinning a ball, putting it on the tip of a pen and then gripping the pen with his teeth without interrupting the revolving ball.
It was a heck of a trick: It led to the ballplayer joining the Nike freestyle team and a tour of Asia and Europe as a sort of latter-day Harlem Globetrotter. At NBA games, Rodriguez performed in front of stars he had hoped would be his peers.
“They were checking us at halftime, I could see out of the corner of my eye that they were smiling,” he said. “We got paid, we traveled, people cheered. And then there’s another thing: When you’re the halftime show, you never lose.”
His work in Nike commercials gave him a foothold in a new sector: acting. That path became more than a lark in 2005 when Rodriguez had an eye-catching, two-episode guest appearance on “Rescue Me,” FX's firehouse drama, in which he played a young man who had been molested by a priest.
“The firefighters went to the priest and at the end of the story arc, in front of everyone, I kill myself,” Rodriguez said. “I put a gun to my head in the middle of the church. I was finding out what it meant to be an actor.”
Transformers Revenge of the Fallen
Rodriguez then immersed himself in acting studies even as he did an eight-episode run on “The Wire” in the role of Renaldo, the dangerous lover of stick-up man Omar Little. Next was Rodriguez’s memorable turn in Alejandro Gomez Monteverde’s “Bella,” the 2006 film that won the people’s choice award at the Toronto International Film Festival.
That set the stage for “Transformers,” which allowed Rodriguez to get in touch with his youth – he used to watch the cartoon series while munching on sugary cereal. The role of the fast-talking Princeton freshman Leonardo Ponce De Leon Spitz – who is the new college roommate to LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky — makes Rodriguez the comic relief in the film about giant alien robots.
Director Michael Bay has a third "Transformers" film in mind, and if it plays out as he expects, the next installment would have a more substantial role for Rodriguez. The filmmaker, speaking at his office a few weeks before "Revenge of the Fallen" was released, seemed to have some pride of discovery when talking about Rodriguez.
"I've worked with big stars, people like Will Smith, Sean Connery and Bruce Willis, but casting is a weird thing, it takes you places you don’t expect," Bay said. "We went looking for a sidekick in this movie, Shia’s sidekick, and we find this new kid who really pops on screen. I think he’s going to have a real bright career. It’s great to work with big stars, but it’s always fun to discover people."
Bay said the actor is a mix of rough charm and refined intellect.
"He’s got a street edge and a realness to him," said the director, whose past films include "The Rock" and "Bad Boys.” "He’s a New York kid with a street feel to him. He adapted to the actors very well, which isn’t always easy in a big movie, a sequel, where a lot of the cast chemistry has been set already. He’s funny, charming, comes off cool and accessible.”
Rodriguez is eager to diversify his résumé and do arty films and ensemble pieces as well as the huge summer fare. But he said, no matter what comes next, he won’t soon forget this summer.
“It was the full deal: I remember flying to Egypt to climb the Pyramids … and then taking a Blackhawk helicopter to Petra to shoot there,” he said. “We shot on an aircraft carrier. I mean, all of it, it was just mind-blowing. I got my shot and, man, it was a good one.”
-- Geoff Boucher
ore than meets the eye? The motto of "Transformers," whose sequel, "Revenge of the Fallen," is opening at midnight tonight at both Champaign's Carmike Beverly Cinema and the Goodrich Savoy 16, could also describe Champaign native Josh Nizzi, a 32-year-old freelance artist whose designs of transforming alien robots such as Megatron will grace big screens around the world.
Nizzi, who now lives in Cary, N.C., tapped into a more typical machine to tell The News-Gazette how he broke into film, and how a Transformer goes from sketch to screen.
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What is your connection to the Champaign area?
Josh Nizzi: My parents (Patrick and Andrea Nizzi) live there, I was born there, went to the (University of Illinois), my first job out of college was at Volition, I met my wife at Vineyard Church, and had two of our three kids at Carle.
How did you first get involved in "Transformers?"
JN: I have been a fan of Transformers since I was a kid. After seeing the first movie, I loved how the robots were brought to life and wanted to work on the sequel. But breaking into any industry is hard, especially films – there is like no information on the Web about how to do it. So I decided my best bet was to design a robot that would likely be in the sequel and put it on the Web. I figured that Devastator would probably be in the next film so I designed one of the robots that combines to create him – Long Haul. I put the image on the Web and got a lot of nice fan feedback.
Freelance artist Josh Nizzi, a Champaign native and University of Illinois graduate who now lives in Cary, N.C., is the designer behind several of the robots featured in 'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.'
Then a few months later, I got an e-mail from the design director of boys' toys at Hasbro, Aaron Archer, asking if I wanted to do concepts for "Transformers 2." After dancing around the house a bit and talking with my wife, I signed on. Soon after that, (film director) Michael Bay's studio hired me on and I was making trips to L.A. to work on site as well as remotely.
N-G: What are the robots you designed and what was your design process like?
JN: The robots I'm primarily responsible for are Megatron, Jetfire, Power Up Optimus, and Long Haul.
The design process usually goes something like this:
– Brainstorming/rough sketches.
– Refine a few roughs that are most promising.
– Pick one and do a finished painting.
– Do a rear view.
– Do a close-up of the face.
Depending on how fleshed out a character is in the director or production designer's mind, this process can be quick or there can be a lot of iterations. For example, Long Haul, the design I did before I was hired was the first design approved for "Revenge of the Fallen"; there were no iterations at all. Megatron had many iterations because Michael was still figuring out what to do with the character as I was working on him.
N-G: What kinds of machines can the robots you designed morph into?
JN: Megatron transforms into a Cybertronian tank. Long Haul is a giant dump truck. Jetfire is an SR-71 ("Blackbird" reconnaissance aircraft). What happens with Optimus is one of the big plot points in the movie, so I don't want to give that away.
N-G: Have you worked on other movies, and if so, what have you done?
JN: I've worked on "G.I. Joe," "Robot Taekwon V," "Tarzan" and other movies that don't have titles yet. But I also do a lot of work in other entertainment such as video games, comics, toys and theme parks.
N-G: How did you get into this field?
JN: I've always loved drawing. My parents did a great job of nurturing my interests and talents. I went to the U of I and got a degree in graphic design. After college, I got a job at Volition and worked on a number of games there. I went to work at Day 1 Studios in Chicago before going freelance and expanding into films and other areas besides video games.
N-G: Have you seen the final cut of the new "Transformers" movie yet? How does it compare to the first film?
JN: I have not seen the final cut. I'm probably more excited than anybody to see it, though. From what I have seen, it looks like the movie is going to be a lot like the first one, but with more of everything – and I like more.
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