How a Long Career in the VFX Trenches Led to Better-Than-Real Robots

Pushing pedal to the metal at the box office, the alien robots in Michael Bay’s Transformers crashed through the record books during the film’s debut week, hauled in $246.1 million internationally, and easily recouped production and marketing costs for co-producers DreamWorks SKG and Paramount. By the end of the second weekend, box office receipts for the blockbuster visual effects film neared $370 million.
“[Transformers] is really a turning point,” says Oscar-winning visual-effects supervisor Scott Farrar of Industrial Light & Magic, which created most of the visual-effects shots and the 14 hero robots. (Digital Domain also contributed to the show.) “Robots have been in lots of films – Robbie the Robot, Star Wars‘ C-3PO, of course – but when we were researching films, we could find nothing with giant robots other than guys in rubber suits shot against miniatures. We found ourselves confronting a situation where we had to develop something that had never been done before.”

That something, or rather, those 14 somethings, were robots that transformed on the move to and from cars, trucks, military vehicles, and jets. The Autobot leader, Optimus Prime, who transforms into and out of a red, white and blue semi-tractor rig, stands 28 feet tall and contains more than 10,000 pieces of geometry. His face alone has 200 parts, any one of which animators could move to create expressions. His nemesis, the silvery spiky Megatron, is 35 feet tall. With rare exceptions, the robots are digital, and, without exception, they are digital any time they move.

To animate the robots transforming to and from their vehicles, ILM developed dynamic rigs that let animators arbitrarily group selected parts – all the bolts on a door, for example. To handle reflections, ILM devised a way to use ray-tracing selectively within scenes rendered using 8K-resolution environment maps. You can see street scenes reflected in the robots’ surfaces, or the reflection of an actor sitting in a robot’s hand.

Modelers created the robots from the doors, fenders, wings, headlights, and engine parts of familiar vehicles, which were sometimes real, sometimes digital; the digital robots and digital vehicles appear in live-action shots with real vehicles, sometimes side by side. And that put extra pressure on the studio. Without exception, all the digital models had to look as photoreal as the real vehicles.

“I think Transformers is a new high-water mark in terms of image,” Farrar says. “For a long time, [computer graphics] didn’t look as good as miniatures. But the tools and our artists have gotten to the point that there’s a crossover. The digital models are more real than what we can build.”

More Experience Than Most
Farrar is better able than most to know. He photographed one of the first CG sequences to appear in a film, the legendary “Genesis” sequence in Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn, which was released in 1982. Directed by Alvy Ray Smith, who would later co-found Pixar Animation Studios, the sequence had fractal mountains and star fields created by Loren Carpenter and fires created with Bill Reeves’ particle systems, two other Pixar pioneers.

“The only way to get it on film was straight off the monitor,” says Farrar, who was a special-visual-effects cameraman for the film. “We set up a VistaVision camera, waited for the image to come on the screen, opened the shutter, closed the shutter. It took all night.”

He was also an effects cameraman for Young Sherlock Holmes, which featured the first CG character in a film, again created by the team at ILM that would eventually become Pixar.

“It was so difficult to produce that type of thing. It seems uncanny that in Transformers, we’re bringing robots to life that look photoreal,” he says. “But that’s always the situation. There’s never been a film that’s easier than the one we did last.”

A graduate of UCLA film school and graduate school, one right after the other, Farrar began his career as a director of photography for small companies. He worked on non-union, live-action films. “The DP ran the shoot, and we also quite often edited whatever we shot,” he says. “It was really good training.”

Then, a friend from UCLA told him about a film he was working on. “He said it was a little film that he thought might be called Star Wars,” Farrar says. He joined the shoot. “I used hand-driven motorized stuff to fly space ships in front of a screen.”

Four years later, he joined the Los Angeles-based Robert Abel & Associates to handle the photographic effects camera for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, released in 1979, and that got him into the International Cinematographers Guild. “It was a crossroads for me,” he says. “I kept working in visual effects. It was great training. We did the Buck Rogers TV shows. We shot everything; I learned about lighting.”

In 1980, a friend working in the optical department at Industrial Light & Magic in San Rafael, CA, called. “They needed a union cameraman,” says Farrar. “They were starting to get more shows in and wanted someone who knew visual effects but who could also shoot plates on set.” He signed on for a seven-month gig to work on Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn and never left.

“My daughter was one month old then,” he says. “Now, she’s 25 and a production manager here at ILM.”

During his 25 years at ILM, Farrar helped Dennis Muren shoot the speeder-bike chase for Return of the Jedi. He was a visual-effects cameraman for Willow, which had the first CG morph, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, with its groundbreaking interaction between live and animated characters. He won an Oscar for his camera work on Cocoon.

With Cocoon: The Return, released in 1988, Farrar became a visual-effects supervisor. He has received Oscar nominations for Backdraft, AI: Artificial Intelligence, and, most recently, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. In addition, he supervised effects for Peter Pan, Minority Report, and a dozen other films as well as acting as special-visual-effects supervisor and plate supervisor for several films. His experience as a DP, with miniatures and CG made him the go-to person for a variety of effects.

“I had expertise on many levels,” he says. “But the big thing is that you just keep looking at the shot. Does it look real? Does it look right? You have to be a student all the time.”

Muscle Cars
On Transformers, for example, Farrar learned about cars. “We learned what car finishes look like. We studied what the paint looks like in the shade, in the morning, at noon, indoors, in xenon light, in fluorescent lighting. What does chrome look like? What does polished brass look like? Car finishes and car paint are difficult to recreate in CG because a car can have completely different tones at any angle. And, whether you realize it or not, everyone knows what the shadowing, glints, and sun specularity should look like.”

Moreover, the vehicles in Transformers, as well as the robots created from the vehicle parts, needed to reflect the environment. “It added another layer of complexity,” says Farrar. “Having reflections in our street scenes all drawn from photographs was a key element in making the shots look real.”

To make the action shots look real, the animators working from animatics started with motion capture data of choreographed stunts. “Eventually, Michael had his stunt choreographer sweeten the action and redo the stunts based on the camera point of view, which was totally different from the analysis camera,” says Farrar. “You might get something really cool by watching a couple of guys doing a stunt and a fall from eye level, but we needed to address the action to our camera. We tried to treat these things as physical beings.”

Similarly, Farrar lit the robots as if they were actors. “I tried to think of it from a DP’s standpoint,” he says. “When Optimus, who is about 28 feet tall, stands above Shia [LaBeouf], who plays Sam, he's a certain distance away. When he leans down, if he were really in the set or out on the street, he’d be leaning forward 15 or 20 feet. So, we have him going in and out of a right key, a left key and a right key so he moves in and out of light. It took a lot of imagining and constant, constant internal debate to make the things look good.”

That debate happened largely between Farrar, associate visual-effects supe Russell Earl, and compositing supervisor Pat Tubach. “If any one of us was unhappy with a shot, we kept pushing, pushing,” Farrar says. One problem: Although some shots of robot mayhem are completely CG, rather than shooting clean plates for ILM to sweeten later with explosions, dust, dirt, and so forth, Bay shot as much as possible on set.

"A Messy, Dirty Film"
“This is what I like to call a messy, dirty film,” says Farrar. “That makes it harder for our paint artists and compositors to put in our creatures. We have peek-a-boo shots where you sometimes see the robots through dust with translucency and some where you don’t. It’s very difficult.” He cites a slow reveal, for example, of the robot Bumblebee as dust dissipates.

Farrar and Muren, who have worked on films together since the first Star Wars, often talk about trying to keep the magic, the “wow” factor in visual effects. “I think that sometimes when Dennis talks about visual effects not being so special any more, it’s because so many people can do the work we do at home on a computer,” he says.

But it’s hard to imagine anyone at home creating a shot of Bumblebee walking through the dust, or Blackout transforming from a helicopter, or, giant robots trying to hide in a suburban backyard.

“Anyone can build a street scene,” Farrar says. “And artistry is not at the core of the business itself. But I hope that artistry is what we bring to effects, the part of a shot that’s not the pedestrian execution of the shot. Everything I think about starts with the art and the design, not so much the razzle dazzle. I like to think that we’re high-end craftspeople who are first and foremost, artists. No one is going to tell you to add a little flourish. But that flourish in the execution is what makes special effects a little more special.”

And, after 25 years in the business, Farrar eagerly wants to do more. In fact, as Transformers was wrapping, he was already starting a new project. “My wife asks me what I’d like to do after I retire, but I don’t think about retiring,” he says. “I think about things to do to stay involved. I love this stuff. I love it.”