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January 03
2019

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

BUMBLEBEE‘s Visual Journey Brings New Heart and Soul to TRANSFORMERS

By TREVOR HOGG

A full-size torso was built for Bumblebee which allowed for interactive light to be reflected upon Hailee Steinfeld. (All images copyright © 2018 Paramount Pictures. HASBRO, TRANSFORMERS, and all related characters are trademarks of Hasbro copyright © 2018 Hasbro.)

Since 2007, filmmaker Michael Bay has helmed all of the Transformers movies, but with the release of Bumblebee, the keys to the blockbuster franchise have been handed to Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings), who is best known for establishing the multi-Oscar-nominated stop-motion animation company Laika. Bumblebee centers on a battle-scarred intergalactic robot bonding with a grieving teenager.

Transitioning to live-action from animation was not a huge leap for Knight. “There’s a lot of analogous experience in those disciplines,” Knight says. “You’re building sets, making costumes, and using cameras and lights. The live-action pace is considerably faster. While shooting Bumblebee we could get through four pages of the script in a day. However, on a stop-motion film in a good week you’ll get through two pages.”

Director Travis Knight and director of photography Enrique Chediak behind the scenes on the set of Bumblebee. (Photo: Jaimie Trueblood)

Hailee Steinfeld is captured running during the climatic Mare Island sequence. (Photo: Jaimie Trueblood)

“It’s only through the imagination and toil of a whole host of artists and technicians that Bumblebee became fully alive, and, for me, that’s magic.”

—Travis Knight, Director

The director is also visual effects savvy. “Travis is a visual storyteller and enjoyed picking up the bits that are unique to live-action visual effects,” remarks Visual Effects Supervisor Jason Smith (Transformers: The Last Knight). “There seemed to be some level of comfort knowing that Animation Director Scott Benza and I and the team at ILM have done this type of work many times before.”

Inspiration came from the original cartoon series produced by Hasbro and Toei Animation that aired from 1984 to 1987. “I was a kid of the 1980s who grew up with the first wave of Transformers cartoons, toys and comic books,” explains Knight. “It was something that blew my mind. Origin stories are exciting because you try to get into a character to see what makes them tick and find different layers to who they are.”

A Transformers spin-off movie was a welcome change, says Smith. “One key difference is that we have this nice chance to focus so much on a single robot character, Bumblebee. He has always been my favorite, and I know I’m not alone there!”

Left to right: Director of photography Enrique Chediak, “A” camera/Steadicam operator Bela Trutz, director Travis Knight and Visual Effects Supervisor Jason Smith on set. (Photo: Jaimie Trueblood)

Left to right: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena and director Travis Knight behind the scenes. (Photo: Jaimie Trueblood)

“Travis is a visual storyteller and enjoyed picking up the bits that are unique to live-action visual effects. There seemed to be some level of comfort knowing that Animation Supervisor Scott Benza and I and the team at ILM have done this type of work many times before.”

—Jason Smith, Visual Effects Supervisor

Another aspect connected with animation was having to digitally produce a believable protagonist. “Having that animation background came into play when I was trying to figure out how I would give life to Bumblebee,” notes Knight. “He’s not a glossy rendering of 1’s and 0’s, but a living, breathing character with emotions and feelings that audiences can feel empathy for.” A hero-detailed head, torso and upper arms were physically built for Bumblebee. “They were used anytime Charlie Watson [played by Hailee Steinfeld] was supposed to interact with Bumblebee. This really helped to root their contact in reality and bring him another step into our world.” The practical elements were helpful in producing interactive light for cinematographer Enrique Chediak (Deepwater Horizon). “We put that torso in a lot of the shots to give ILM a reference of how the light should hit on Bumblebee. It also helped in terms of light bounces coming off of him onto Hailee.”

“With the CG asset, we were influenced by Bumblebee’s G1 look and gave him an updated facial design that’s a bit cleaner,” states Smith. “That simplicity allows us to be very expressive in the animation. Since this character isn’t a big talker, he has to say a lot with his facial expressions.”

Nothing was easily achieved when producing the digital character. “From the design to the animation to the rendering and compositing, you have to try to figure out a way to make it feel completely real in every possible way,” notes Knight. “It’s only through the imagination and toil of a whole host of artists and technicians that Bumblebee became fully alive, and, for me, that’s magic.”

Hailee Steinfeld appears in the forest setting that combines smoke and light to create a moody atmosphere. (Photo: Will McCoy)

The garage sequence where Charlie meets Bumblebee was storyboarded to help with her interaction with the CG character.

“Even though this is more of a character-driven Transformers movie, we did have our fair share of action and thus explosions. Some of the bigger shots were started late in the schedule, and I think that was the main challenge. There were a few big simulation shots that came together much faster than usual for their complexity.”

—Jason Smith, Visual Effects Supervisor

Key influences on the script from the 1980s were Amblin movies like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, John Hughes (The Breakfast Club) and John Carpenter (The Thing). “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was the first movie that moved me to tears,” recalls Knight. “I saw it in the theater with my mom when I was eight years old. I was spellbound by this flickering world that painted this incredible and devastating portrait of childhood loneliness. It felt like someone had peered into me, figured out who I was, and somehow put that on the screen. It made me feel less alone knowing that somebody out there thought and felt like I did. It was the first time in my life where I became consciously aware of the power of movies. Film in its finest form doesn’t just entertain, but reminds us of the shared humanity that we all participate in.”

The signature epic battles seen in Transformers movies have not been abandoned in Bumblebee. “It is a Transformers movie, so you’re going to have to have robots beating the hell out of each other,” notes Knight. “There are some incredible action sequences in Bumblebee that I’m proud of, but it’s not just noise and fury. It forwards the characters and the evolution of who they are. We brought some of that 1980s filmmaking aesthetic to the way the shots were composed. The action was choreographed, so when the audience is watching what’s transpiring on the screen it’s always clear what’s going on.”

Each robot has a unique silhouette and color pallet. “Travis wanted to make sure it was always a very clear read for the audience which robot was on screen at any time,” states Smith. “We looked to the original G1 designs for inspiration, which was a lot of fun for the many people on the crew who are fans of the original robot designs.”

The interior of the house that Charlie and her family lives in was built onstage to accommodate the size of Bumblebee. 

More detail was built into the face of Bumblebee compared to previous versions to increase his expressiveness.

“There are some incredible action sequences in Bumblebee that I’m proud of, but it’s not just noise and fury. It forwards the characters and the evolution of who they are.”

—Travis Knight, Director

Pre-production lasted 13 weeks while principal photography began on July 31, 2017, and concluded on November 10, 2017, with the primary locations being Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vallejo and Mare Island, California. For the finale that takes place on Mare Island, a massive light needed to be constructed that was a 100-by-100-foot box consisting of 72 ARRI SkyPanel S60s supported by a 280-foot, 350-ton crane. “That was the biggest light that I’ve built in my career!” marvels Chediak. “It gave us complete freedom to shoot the sequence quickly. It was originally to be three weeks of shooting, but we ended up finishing in eight days.” The footage was shot full-screen ARRIRAW, with the final color grading overseen by Stephen Nakamura at Company 3.

“I suggested to Travis first and then to [producer] Lorenzo di Bonaventura and the producers going with the 1.85 aspect ratio,” remarks Chediak. “Travis loved it immediately. However, the producers were hesitant because all of the other Transformers had been done in the 2.40 aspect ratio. Amblin movies were 1.85. I also liked the idea that even though this is a Transformers character, we didn’t want to play by the rules of the other Transformers movies. We wanted to create our own rules. The other important thing was that the movie is about the relationship between a girl and a robot; they have these very different heights. The 1.85 helped us maintain both of them in the frame in a comfortable way.”

“The hardest setting to find was the home of Charlie Watson and her family,” recalls Knight. “We scoured all over California trying to find the perfect house and environment. In the end we found this beautiful location and built a house. It was like what I’ve been used to, but on a full-scale!”

The interior of the house was built on a stage in Los Angeles with a beautiful backing of the neighborhood. “We wanted to see through the windows but at the same time needed to have a dark, moody environment inside,” remarks Chediak. “The SkyPanels helped with backing because we were able to easily change the colors or have it become night.”

Decepticons Shatter and Dropkick seek to destroy Bumblebee. 

Oil and dirt were simulated to provide Bumblebee with a battle-scarred appearance. 

“Travis wasn’t afraid to have Charlie interacting with Bumblebee. This was a smart move because it makes Bee more tactile for the audience as well. We also had the usual challenges, like making sure we were aware of his mass at all times and respecting how much room he would need both vertically and horizontally.”

—Jason Smith, Visual Effects Supervisor

The main challenge of the garage scene, when Bumblebee and Charlie meet for the first time, was all of the contact between them. “Travis wasn’t afraid to have Charlie interacting with Bumblebee,” remarks Smith. “This was a smart move, because it makes Bee more tactile for the audience as well. We also had the usual challenges, like making sure we were aware of his mass at all times and respecting how much room he would need both vertically and horizontally.

“We were definitely tuning some arcane rendering knobs to get the show finished,” reveals Smith. “When you’re ray-tracing assets like these, with sharp, specular reflections and diffuse-to-diffuse bounce light, noise is always an issue. We pushed the shots to creative final with renders that were fairly light on samples, and thus pretty noisy. We were lucky Travis understood the process and could trust that we would take care of the noise as a final step.

For her 18th birthday, Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) buys her first car which turns out to be Bumblebee. 

Travis Knight wanted to have Bumblebee shot in the same manner as previous movies from the 1980s. 

“On a film this size, the biggest challenge is seldom what you expect. It can really come out of left field. In this case, it was a number of shots added near the end of the schedule, requiring a staggering amount of asset work, both robot and environment. We solved the issue by aggressively building everything to camera.”

—Jason Smith, Visual Effects Supervisor

“Also key,” adds Smith, “because we had to develop a large number of robots quickly, we developed a system to generate first-pass weathering for the robot paint automatically, which helped us get the robots into shots much more quickly.” Heavy simulations and atmospherics also needed to be produced. “Even though this is more of a character-driven Transformers movie, we did have our fair share of action and thus explosions. Some of the bigger shots were started late in the schedule, and I think that was the main challenge. There were a few big simulation shots that came together much faster than usual for their complexity.”

For Knight, the editorial process was different going from animation to live action. “You can’t shoot coverage in animation because it’s too slow and costly, so you board everything,” explains Knight. “In live action you shoot tons of footage and then hone it in editorial afterwards. It’s been exciting for me to do it in that way. You find little miracles as you’re scouring through the hours and hours of footage. I’m fortunate that my editor Paul Rubell is extraordinary. We had an instant rapport and were completely in sync with the story that we’re telling. Working with Chediak, we focused on the things I knew that I needed for the sequences. Then we tried to get other stuff to play around with that often times make a difference between a scene singing or just lying there.”

Music has played a big part of every movie that Knight has produced. “We all react, interpret and experience music in a different way. It’s so evocative of emotion. Music is the way that our lead character, Charlie, reacts to the world and processes her grief. For many teenagers, music gives voice to those inarticulate emotions that are rolling around inside of them, and that’s true for her. In this film, music literally gives Bumblebee his voice. Getting the right songs and score was absolutely critical in balancing the tone and emotion of the movie. This is the third time that I’ve collaborated with composer Dario Marianelli. The score is beautiful and drives home what Bumblebee is about.”

Left to right: Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as Memo and Hailee Steinfeld as Charlie.

Critical to the success of Bumblebee was creating a believable bond between Hailee Steinfeld and the digitally-created title character. 

“[A physical hero-detailed head, torso and upper arms built for Bumblebee] were used anytime Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) was supposed to interact with him. This really helped to root their contact in reality, and bring him another step into our world.”

—Travis Knight, Director

Casting was critical when it came to the human lead character. “So much of the film lies on the shoulders of Charlie,” remarks Knight. “If you don’t get that role right everything is going to fall apart. It’s funny. During my first meeting with the producers and the studio I was talking about my vision for the film, what I would do with it, and the first name that came out of my mouth of who I saw when I thought of Charlie was Hailee Steinfeld – not thinking that it would come to anything. She’s an incredibly intuitive actress. There are very few people in that age range who have that kind of emotional depth that springs to life on the screen. Within a handful of months, she was on the film, and we embarked on this incredible journey together where we brought this character to life.”

“On a film this size, the biggest challenge is seldom what you expect,” observes Smith. “It can really come out of left field. In this case, it was a number of shots added near the end of the schedule, requiring a staggering amount of asset work, both robot and environment. We solved the issue by aggressively building everything to camera.”

John Cena as Agent Burns and Bumblebee.

The first series of Transformers toys known as G1 served as the inspiration when designing key characters like Bumblebee.

“Having that animation background came into play when I was trying to figure out how I would give life to Bumblebee. He’s not a glossy rendering of 1’s and 0’s, but a living, breathing character with emotions and feelings that audiences can feel empathy for.”

—Travis Knight, Director

Working with an entirely new crew was a major challenge for Knight. “Every key collaborator I’ve worked with at Laika I’ve known for 10, 15 or 20 years. We have a shorthand with each other. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. On this film, every single key collaborator I worked with was someone I had never met before. We had to get to know each other while we were creating something. As I look back, it was terrifying, but also invigorating and incredibly exciting to be able to find those new people and perspectives to bring this thing to life. I couldn’t have asked for a better crew. It could have been a tragedy, but ended up being a joy.”

A particular planet important to the Transformers franchise makes an appearance. “We get to see Cybertron in a meaningful way,” remarks Knight. “We completely re-designed that whole universe. That’s one sequence I can’t wait for people to see. But, for me, what it comes down to is seeing the relationship between Charlie and Bumblebee come to life on the big screen. They’re the heart and soul of the movie.”

Smith agrees with the filmmaker. “I’m really looking forward to enjoying some of the quiet character moments between Charlie and Bumblebee, and the visual effects are center stage.”


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