Generations of kids, myself included, grew up watching Transformers on TV. The tale of the Autobots versus the Decepticons thrilled us and prompted us to harass our parents into buying an endless sea of toys. I moved on after Transformers: The Movie (1986), but Hasbro has kept the name alive through numerous television series, comic books, and of course, toys. To date, the Transformers brand has made over one billion dollars worldwide. In 2005, Steven Spielberg decided to spearhead a live action feature film, and approached Michael Bay to direct it.
Many of the kids who watched the show in the 80's grew up to be very active on the internet. And there's nothing more fashionable on the internet than to bash Michael Bay. So when he was announced as the director of Transformers, people went nuts. Things got even worse when early design artwork leaked and showed some radically different ideas of what the robots would be. An extreme air of pessimism surrounded the fan reactions, and it looked like the picture might be a massive disappointment.
That is, things did look that way until the teaser trailers made their way into theaters. Everyone who saw them realized that Transformers was going to be dynamic, breathtaking, and utterly exhilarating. Moreover, those much maligned designs worked perfectly when put into real world environments and blown up onto fifty foot screens. All of a sudden, the film went from the most disappointing of the year to most anticipated of the summer. Thankfully, when the movie was released on July 2nd, 2007, it met all those expectations of both fanboys and action audiences alike.
The heart of Transformers is the story of a boy and his car. The boy in question is Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) and his car is Bumblebee, a Camaro that transforms into a giant alien robot. But he doesn't know that when he first buys the car. His only thought is to impress Mikaela (Megan Fox), the hottest girl in school. But soon things go beyond his control when he finds himself the target of a group of evil organic robots called Decepticons. Bumblebee was sent to help and protect Sam as an emissary of a group of good-hearted robots known as the Autobots, led by Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen, the actor who voiced Optimus in the original television show). Sam's grandfather discovered the frozen leader of the Decepticons, Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving) at the beginning of the 20th century, and now both sides need Sam to find Megatron and his reason for coming to Earth, the Allspark. Now Sam and Mikaela, aided by a varied group of humans ranging from the Secretary of Defense (Jon Voight) to a military team who encountered the Decepticons, have to save the world from being dominated by Megatron and his followers.
It sounds kind of silly on paper, but Transformers was THE ultimate thrill ride of summer 2007. Much of the film's success has to be attributed to ILM and Digital Domain's work on the robots. Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Blackout, Megatron, and all the rest blend seamlessly into the live action. Lately filmmakers find themselves under fire for relying on computer technology too much, but this film could not have been made any other way. However, when the effects are so good that they're virtually indistinguishable from an object photographed live, what is there to criticize? Part of what makes the effects look so real is that the Autobots and Decepticons look like they have actual mass and volume. When they walk, they make cracks in the cement below their feet. When they clash, buildings quake and tremble. They're not clumsy, though. Michael Bay's directive was to make them "nimble ninja warriors" and ILM accomplished it. They don't move like Robbie The Robot. They completely sell the illusion in just about every way possible.
But the film would be nothing without the human actors to ground the piece and connect with the audience. I'll admit I was not a fan of Shia LaBeouf prior to Transformers, but I cannot imagine anyone else playing Sam. He exudes charisma without ever becoming arrogant. He's also really funny, and keeps pace with many of the veteran comedic actors, including Bernie Mac and Kevin Dunn. He also acts very naturally with the visual effects, which once again helps the audience believe in their total integration. Megan Fox is a nice mix of strength and vulnerability. She's willing to take charge when Sam can't or won't, and Michael Bay shoots her beautifully. Josh Duhamel works well as a leading man with compassion. And the aforementioned Mac, Dunn, and John Turturro add some fun humor to make sure things don't stay serious all the time. Bay's decision to bring back Peter Cullen to voice Optimus Prime was a stroke of brilliance. For many fans around the world, Cullen is Prime, and from the moment you hear it's voice, you get a sense of rightness. The film feels authentic thanks to him.
Not everything works. Jon Voight doesn't have much to do as the Secretary of Defense. Not only that, it seems like the only reason his character isn't the President is so Bay could include a really bad joke aimed at Bush. In fact, there's a whole subplot involving the Secretary of Defense, a systems analyst played by Rachel Taylor, and a hacker played by Anthony Anderson that feels entirely useless. Taylor and Anderson's characters accomplish nothing that could not have been achieved by having a pre-existing character handing Jon Voight a piece of paper, saying, "Sir, an analyst just showed me this..." The scenes add nothing, often have failed stabs at humor that don't jive with the jokes made at other times, and generally bring the film to a screeching halt. The audience cares about Sam, about Mikaela, about the military team led by Duhamel. No one cares about Voight or Taylor or Anderson.
The action, on the other hand, is about the best you'll see all year. Bay is known for his dynamic action, especially with vehicles. Here he uses every trick he knows (including re-using shots from past pictures) and was forced to develop some new ones. Bay used as many practical effects as he could to make the shots look as real as possible. The most famous example is in the scene where Bonecrusher rips a bus in half. On the set, Michael Bay actually ripped a bus in half, live, and filled with explosives. ILM later inserted Bonecrusher and Optimus Prime into the scene, but everything else in the shot is real. Bay also mixes things up, so that some of the action sequences use clear long slow motion shots, while others make use of his trademark quick-cutting where he gives the audience a taste of a lot of different views. Often he'll blend the styles into any given sequence for maximum effect. The end result thrilled audiences the world over, and don't look to lost their impact any time soon.
Transformers isn't perfect, but it is a highly successful re-envisioning of the brand that has already captured millions of followers. To meet the lofty expectations of pre-existing fans and newcomers alike was no easy feat, but Bay and company pulled it off. They did it with style, and with humor, and it works. As Optimus Prime might say, there's more to it than meets the eye.
The HD DVD:
I was recently at Paramount Pictures and spoke with Chris Saito, Vice President of Marketing for the studio. He called Transformers the "Signature HD DVD of the year." Of course, when you hear such talk from a man whose very job is marketing, you feel a little skeptical. But after looking at the phenomenal job Paramount did with this disc, I think he may be right. Every aspect of this title has been handled immaculately, from the animated menus to the picture and sound to the groundbreaking web-enabled extras. Let's take a closer look at what may very well be the must-buy HD optical disc of the year.
Transformers comes loaded with themed menus, and you'll be able to download new ones via the web.
For my day job, I work at a movie theater. I was there when Transformers opened. Michael Bay came to our theater personally and told us that we had the best presentation of any theater in Los Angeles. Later, when Transformers got an IMAX release, Michael Bay chose our theater to take his friends and family to. I have seen the film under scrupulously calibrated conditions and have in fact assisted with said calibrations. I have seen and ran the movie in 35mm and 2K digital, and watched it several times in IMAX. I don't say this to gloat, but rather to inform all of you that I know a hell of a lot about the technical presentation of Transformers.
With that in mind, this 2.35:1 AVC-encoded 1080p transfer is about the best home video representation of Transformers that you can expect to see for a very, very long time. The movie had an incredible digital interpositive made that became the source of the digital prints, IMAX prints, and presumably this HD DVD. I could make out every detail that I saw in the theaters, including the Cybertronian characters etched into the bodies of the Autobots and Decepticons. Color reproduction was perfect. Bay shot the film with many orange and blue hues, and this transfer does not wipe those away in favor of a more neutral palette. The movie was also much grainier than most people probably noticed, but we get all the grain just as if we were seeing it in the theater. What most impressed me that Paramount made no changes to this transfer was that in the film, many of the blacks are actually a dark blue. Same thing on the disc. There were no artifacts or other compression problems that I could find, including during sunset sequences, which are notoriously difficult to compress.
In other words, this transfer maintains all the character and vivaciousness of the theatrical exhibition. I watched several sequences from this disc in a screening room at Paramount, and if someone had told me I was watching an actual print of the movie, I would have believed them. That's how good it looks. While at times Bay's shooting style may be a little too grainy or dirty for aficionados who want nothing but a crystal clear image that looks like it was shot with the latest HD cameras, there's no doubt in my mind that this is exactly what both formats should be aiming for: A perfect recreation of the filmmakers' intentions.
Although Paramount has used lossless audio on a few of their other releases, the space of everything they wanted to include in this set meant that instead of including a Dolby True HD or a DTS-HD MA track, they went for a Dolby Digital Plus track encoded at 1.5 mbps. There's been a lot of buzz about the difference between 1.5 mbps DD+ and Dolby True HD, with many knowledgeable people saying that there is no audible difference even on professional equipment, while others claim to be able to hear the difference right in their own homes. I was very vocal about my outrage that Transformers, which aims to be a benchmark HD DVD, does not feature a lossless track of any kind. But now, having heard the audio for myself, I can understand why professional film mixers, HD DVD technical directors, and more claim that the difference is negligible.
Put simply, this 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus track rocks hard. The level of aural detail is most impressive. I could hear every click and whine of the transforming parts, the grinding of metal when the robots fought, and even the startup sound of the 360 when it comes alive. During big action sequences, the surrounds were often used to assault the senses, but I noticed that the mixers would often use the rears for isolated sounds that they wanted to highlight, such as Frenzy's gibbering when he's on Air Force One. The bass has to be felt to be believed. At times it was so thunderous that I thought it might actually affect my bowels. Everything about this track just screams "REFERENCE!" and it holds up easily to the best PCM and True HD mixes that I have heard. Call me a doubter no more.
This is where Paramount really set Transformers apart from the pack. This is a two-disc set where all of the special features, with the exception of the PiP display, are in 1080p high definition. All of the extras from the DVD set have been ported over, including the easter eggs, and all of those are also in high definition. So far, so good, but that's not what makes the set so noteworthy. No, that honor goes to the web-enabled content, which goes so far beyond what any other studio has done to date that I am amazed it has occurred so quickly in the format's life cycle. As of my writing this, Paramount has not yet taken their servers live, so I am going off of a presentation I attended on the studio lot. But what they showed me was in fact the final product, and believe me when I tell you that it truly opened my eyes to the potential of this new and uncharted aspect of the format.
Disc-one features material that plays in conjunction with the film itself.
- Commentary by Director Michael Bay: Bay sits down to give his thoughts on the picture. He's generally candid, although tends to toot his own horn quite a lot. Still, he gives his honest reactions to the film and the people that put it together with him. Several of the comments found here do get repeated among the other features, but some are pretty priceless.
- Transformers H.U.D.: Part PiP commentary, part trivia track, this feature is exclusive to the HD DVD. We get pop-up video style factoids that mostly focus on the production or information about the cast and crew. Alternating with that is a PiP window, that shows everything from deleted scenes to b-roll footage and outtakes, animatics to interviews. Considering how much footage and information was available, I thought that we could have gotten more video or pop-ups or both, but even as it is, we get a nice little feature that isn't on the DVD and has some really invaluable stuff.
- Web-Enabled Content: This is the heart and soul of the set, as far as I'm concerned. Another HD DVD exclusive, Paramount has set the bar with what a studio can do with web-enabled content, offering a multitude of downloadable options. The whole thing exists in a framework that you can access from the main menu of the disc. This download manager tells you how much space you have on your player, and lets you navigate the various features. It will also tell you when new content is available when you log on.
The Download Manager guides you through the web experience.
The main centerpiece is a widget called Intelligence Mode that plays as you watch the film. You will get real time information about which robots are in the scene, what their health and energy levels are, the longitude and latitude of the location, and fun facts. This is done through a graphical interface that frames the screen (the movie itself is resized for the presentation). Note that what you're downloading is only the widget, which then runs while the main HD feature plays. It is not downloading a whole new smaller version of the film with this information burned in on top.
In the "Sector 7" section will be a selection of videos that contain footage not available anywhere else. Paramount intends to release a new video every day for a week starting on October 16th, and will be releasing more videos from time to time, and certainly more as we get closer to the release of the sequel.
Also in the works are new menus based around individual Autobots and Decepticons, as well as a widget that will allow you to get a closer look at the technical details of the cars and robots as the movie plays. From my talks with people at Paramount, it seems they have even more up their sleeve and are looking to take a very future rich disc to which they can add more and more content over time instead of going to the trouble of releasing more and more versions to diminishing returns. It's nice to see a studio so determined to use the technology of these formats to their fullest, and it gives me hope as to what we will see down the line.
One thing worth nothing is that all HD DVD players (note that this does not pertain to the LG combo player currently on the market, as it does not meet HD DVD specs) have the capabilities to play the web content. In fact, the disc comes with a guide that tells the user how to set up their player to take advantage of these features. So whether you have an A1, and A35, or the 360 add-on, this disc will work.
Intelligence Mode is a leap forward in interactive supplements.
Disc two is split into three sections, titled "Our World," which focuses on production and the human characters, "Their War," with an emphasis on post-production and the robots, and "More Than Meets The Eye," which is everything else. The first two sections are essentially one documentary split into smaller sections. They all contain a mix of on-set footage, interviews, and animatics/design drawings. Combined, there's more than two hours of footage available. Everything on disc two is in 1080p.
- The Story Sparks: The origins of the project. Steven Spielberg, Michael Bay, the screenwriters, and Habsro representatives are interviewed. Clips from the original show are also presented. A nice primer on how things got off the ground.
- Human Allies: A look at the human characters that make up the cast. The interviews tend to be light on substance in this particular case, but there's some behind the scenes footage that makes up for it.
- I Fight Giant Robots: Michael Bay is proud of his association with the military, and this featurette examines how they were involved with Transformers. The best parts are the sequences where we see the actors training and learning to eat military food.
- Battleground: The best of the production-based featurettes, this one focuses on the shooting of the action sequences. One of the big components of all Michael Bay's films is a go-cart to which a camera is attached that can go up to 100 mph and allows for many of the kinetic car chases for which Bay is known.
- Rise of the Robots: An examination of the development of the robots from G1 to big screen. Included are design sketches, Bay's explanation of how he used fan criticism, and footage of Peter Cullen and Hugo Weaving recording their parts. Bay also discusses why he didn't use Frank Welker to voice Megatron, which has been a big bone of contention among many fans (although I myself think Welker's take on the character would have not fit well with Bay's vision at all).
- Autobots Roll Out: More of a look at the cars into which the Autobots transform, there's some really excellent technical information here. Bay talks about how he chose the Camaro for Bumblebee, how to light cars, and the Hasbro reps talk about their feelings on the changes.
- Decepticons Strike: The Decepticon vehicles get their turn in the limelight. This one has the added twist that the production company had to convince the American military to let their newest and most expensive equipment be portrayed as villains. There's less technical talk here, because to delve into the guts of these machines would require a military rank, but everyone talks about them as much as they are allowed.
- Inside The Allspark: A too short look at the all important computer effects used. Interviewed are several ILM employees, including Scott Farrar and Jeff White, whom I both met recently at ILM's San Francisco headquarters. Obviously there's a ton of information here, and the creation of the effects could be the subject of its own 2-hour documentary. A nice overview, but it leaves you wanting so much more.
- Transformers Tech Inspector An HD DVD exclusive, this feature lets you take a close-up look at the computer models ILM used for six of the robots, including Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, and Megatron. Quick snaps of these can be seen in the previous featurette, but here you get the chance to view them at your leisure, as well as get closer to the models. A nice little addition.
The Tech Inspector is exclusive to HD DVD and features ILM's computer models.
- From Script To Sand - The Skorponok Desert Attack: Just like it sounds, this features on Skorponok. The screenwriters talk about their reasons for using him, and then we get a lot of on-set footage. Seeing as how this focuses on one specific sequence, there's more detail than in any of the other features.
- Concepts: About two minutes of really cool conceptual art. I could have watched hours of this.
- Trailers: Three trailers, all in high definition. I love these trailers, they show plenty trying to tell the whole story.
Transformers was one of 2007's biggest films, and easily the most exciting. Michael Bay perfectly melded state of the art visual effects with some strong and funny actors to create his best effort yet. This HD DVD offers both reference picture and sound, as well as all of its special features in high definition. Not only that, but it also provides web-enabled content that marks a major leap forward in what HD DVD can do as a format. For fans of the film, for tech heads, for HD geeks alike, this disc is absolutely essential. DVD Talk Collector Series.
If you can't get enough Transformers, read up on my trip to ILM.
If "Inside The Allspark" whetted your appetite for the computer effects, you can listen to my ILM interviews here and here.
The images presented in this review do not represent the image quality of the HD DVD.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.