Unbiased Coverage Of All Things HD: HD-DVD, Blu-Ray and Beyond
Transformers in HD
Paramount's first major release since declaring HD DVD exclusivity will be Michael Bay's Transformers. To celebrate the release of this 2-disc set on DVD and HD DVD, I took a trip to Industrial Light and Magic in San Francisco. The company behind some of the greatest visual effects of all time, from Star Wars to Jurassic Park to Pirates of the Caribbean, ILM is still the undisputed leader in the effects industry. And Transformers is their greatest achievement yet. With the seamless blend of practical and computer effects, the film is a new landmark. And I got a chance to see how it was done.
Industrial Light and Magic moved to the Presidio in 2005, and as a result, one of the most striking aspects of their operation is the building in which they work. Before you even set one foot in the building, you encounter a fountain. Perched on top of the fountain is that wise old Jedi Master, Yoda. From there you'll find your way into the lobby, which is framed on one side by Darth Vader and Boba Fett, and on the other by...a receptionist desk. I guess even the Imperial Empire needs secretaries. Lining the walls are vintage film posters, culled from the personal collection of George Lucas.
After gaping at the assorted memorabilia, we were lead into an imposingly massive theater. We were introduced to Scott Farrar, Visual Effects Supervisor on Transformers. But that's just the latest credit in his distinguished career, which includes stints on Return of the Jedi, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, Back To The Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Minority Report, among others. He had an Optimus Prime toy in his hand, which set the tone for the open and playful round table interview.
"This little guy," Scott said, indicating the toy, "Has fifty one pieces. Our Optimus Prime has ten thousand one hundred and eight. So, with all those pieces, every one has to be built, modeled, painted, connected...and it takes a lot of computer power to do that. Takes a lot of talent here at ILM to get the levels of complexity and layers so that the stuff looks right." He then discussed Michael Bay's maxim when it came to the robots: "I want them to look like nimble ninja warriors. I want them to look heavy and have mass, but at the same time they have to look cool. So with Michael we studied quite a bit of Hong Kong fighting movies where they use a lot of wire work, where they're sort of anti-gravity. Of course we looked at lots of stunt work, and Michael's guy, his stunt coordinator, produced lots of different stunts for us to copy. So with all that we developed an idea of what these guys would look like."
The first question was the most obvious: Why change the look of the Transformers from the classic TV show? "There was a lot of written things coming from the fans saying, 'Oh, you can't do that, can't do that,' but there's a big difference between doing an animated series with that hand-drawn style of animation versus when you go to making this thing look real. I have to tell you, it just looked strange without a mouth. We tried different mouths. We showed Michael a variety. So I said, let's just put segmented lips, three pieces upper, three pieces lower, so that you can form an O and all the different E's and R's, all the different shapes that mouths have to make, and try it. And we showed Michael and he said it looks great. Emotionally we weren't really keen on doing that. But logically it was the only way to go." Scott also confirmed that all the Transformers planned for the film made it into the film.
"It's a cheat," Scott admitted when asked if there was a realistic transformation from car to robot. "There's scaling up and down, in other words a part may enlarge or may decrease. The upshot was we added tremendous amounts of parts and pieces beyond what our first designs had shown. Optimus got a huge layering of parts and things. Again, you're making a movie and you're always judging your work by what the camera will see. As the camera caresses this guy and moves around him, you start to see that we need a wheel, we need a hubcap, we need a bunch of pieces and just pepper this thing with more objects."
I asked about working with Michael Bay, about how cognizant he was of the computer effects, and how involved he was with their development. "[Michael Bay] is very hands on and we had video conferences just about every day. We see him, he sees us, we talk about the shots, we run the shots. He's the kind of guy that will get really upset about something and our duty is to figure what is it that he's really talking about. It could be the smallest thing but he's very specific. Sometimes, like all directors, he has difficulty expressing exactly what it is about the shot, so my job is to nail that down, figure out what we we have to do. And it's usually something like not enough bling [ILM's term for the small points of light that reflect off the robots and cars], or not enough glint. He's really sharp, visually, about the lighting, about what things should look like. That's why it's a good relationship, because we all want the same thing in the end. He comes up here, and he'll say, 'Oh, oh, who's working on this shot? I want to see him right now!' And we'll take him out to the area where all the artists work and he'll go work right with the artist."
Scott had a lot to say, but we were on a schedule, and had to keep moving. We wound up in a smaller screening room normally used for viewing dailies. There we were met by Russel Earl, Associate Visual Effects Supervisor on the film, Scott Benza, Animation Supervisor, and Jeff White, the Creature Technical Director. This was a full-on presentation, with slides and videos projected onto the screen behind the participants. Included were early tests, layer passes (adding reflections, dirt, bling and glint, and more), renderings, art department designs, and more. The best part was when they showed us how they were able to model Optimus' facial design off of pre-existing performances by real actors, all without changing the shape of his face or the parts that made up his face. To that end, we saw Optimus aping performances by Liam Neeson (the actor they eventually used as the basic model), Al Pacino, Peter O'Toole, and Robert De Niro. They were hilarious, and also illuminating. It was pretty amazing to see how versatile Optimus' animation could be.
A common theme of the presentation was Michael Bay's preferred method of shooting. The phrase "Michael Bay likes to shoot dirty" was used so often that day that we probably could have made a drinking game out of it. He would schedule shots without any kind of reference for the special effects, leading to the on-set effects supervisors having to grab shots with the crew while Bay was discussing the next shot with his DP, and that's if they were lucky. If they weren't, they just had to fix it all in post. The fact that the effects do blend in so easily is just a testament to how skilled and talented the ILM team is.
After the event, we got to take a tour of the building. And while the Letterman Digital Arts Center boasts some notable architecture and what would have been breathtaking views (were it not for all that San Francisco fog), we were more concerned with the items that filled the rooms. What do I mean? Oh, take Slimer from Ghostbusters for instance. Or vehicles from Star Wars. A bust of Davy Jones, and models for the T-1000 and the Rocketeer, among many others. It was a veritable wonderland of movie making merriment, and our time there was too short by half. Hopefully I'll get invited there again when Transformers 2 is ready to make its high def debut. Until then, I'll have to be content with the Transformers HD DVD when it comes out on October 16th.
Well, not entirely different. We're still talking about HD DVD, just a different movie and a different focus. The movie? Evan Almighty. The focus? Web-enabled content. I took a drive up the 101 to Universal Studios to have a look at some of the latest features to hit HD DVD. I was joined by Ken Graffeo, Universal's Executive Vice President of high def strategic marketing, and Kevin Collins, one of Microsoft's HD DVD Directors.
Ken opened with a statement of commitment to HD DVD. He felt that the biggest issue facing the format right now is the glut of customer confusion. Many consumers don't actually realize that they need to have HD content to feed into their HDTV, and others don't understand the difference between an upconverting DVD player and an HD DVD or Blu-ray player. To that end, what HD DVD is trying to do is push the technological envelope, so there can be no mistake as to which format is which.
And where is our technology leading us? To the internet. Without it, I wouldn't even be reporting about this to you. The HD DVD group understand this, and Universal and Warner have taken point to provide web-enabled content. Popping in Evan Almighty, we took a look at the web store that offered eco-friendly products for use around the home. "But we're not interested in opening up a store," Graffeo was kick to mention, "NBC just happens to be a green company. We already had these products available." Next we took a look at Knocked Up, which offered deleted scenes for download that were not available on the DVD. Kevin also mentioned that Heroes on HD DVD offered sneak peeks of season 2 before they aired, though the web.
The heart of the presentation seemed to be in the potential of these features. Sure, a store and some deleted scenes are fun, but they don't have much lasting value. But what the web-enabled features offer is the ability to continually update your discs. If you buy Knocked Up today, and in six months Jonah Hill wants to record a new commentary for it, that commentary could be delivered to HD DVD owners without forcing them to buy a new disc. Or Steve Carrell could do a live webcast while watching Evan Almighty and we at home would be able to interact with him. The features can be played simultaneously with the film, as long as they're coded to work that way. And the web access can be had at any time, just like any other part of the pop-up menu HD DVD features.
The downloaded features are stored in the player. Kevin stressed that since HD DVD requires internal storage space and an internet connection as part of its standard spec, studios can make use of these features and know that every HD DVD owner will be able to run them, no matter what player they're using. To date, Blu-ray has not yet finalized a spec that allows for internet connectivity, and even once they do, players manufactured before that specification becomes active may not be able to access those features.
With the way the technology is progressing, it seems we're only limited by the imagination of the filmmakers and DVD producers. So while the currently available web-enabled features may seem underwhelming, they have the potential to change the way we interact with our home media.
In news that is sure to please film aficionados everywhere, New Line Home Entertainment has announced that Pan's Labyrinth will be made available on both HD DVD and Blu-ray on December 26th. Both formats will offer a lossless DTS-HD MA 7.1 mix (annoyingly, only one player in each format can currently play this audio, and the HD DVD player requires a receiver that is capable of decoding the compressed signal) and a video commentary. The HD DVD will also offer web-enabled features (see above for more on that subject). New Line will also be porting over many of the extras from the 2-disc DVD edition.
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