Say what you want about the Transformers sequels: they give good mass destruction. We spoke to Industrial Light and Magic's Michael Balog, who was "destruction supervisor" on the last two Transformers movies, plus Pacific Rim. And he told us the secrets of making destruction look real. And real awesome.
We were lucky enough to speak to Balog on the phone for half an hour the other day, and he broke down all the secrets of the destruction in Transformers: Age of Extinction. Plus here's a ton of new Transformers: AoE concept art, from artists Wesley Burt, Robert Simons and John J. Park.
Minor spoilers for Transformers 3 and 4, plus Pacific Rim, ahead...
What's the difference between supervising destruction on Pacific Rim versus the Transformers movies?
There are two main differences, according to Balog: First, Pacific Rim took place mostly at night and in the rain, which presents "certain challenges," but also makes it much easier to "hide behind" the darkness and sheets of water. The action in the Transformers movies takes place during the day, and it's "sunny [and] right in your face."
And secondly, the Jaegers and Kaiju in Pacific Rim are so huge, they "take out entire buildings." Adds Balog:
You can get away with a lot more when you completely simulate something and take it completely to the ground versus, when you're only nicking stuff, it's more in-your-face, and it's a little more difficult to hide some of our effects. Once a whole building starts to come down, if you've ever watched a demolition, it just turns into a dust cloud. And after a while you don't see most of what goes on in the simulation because it gets overtaken by dust and things of that nature. Whereas stuff that we were doing in Transformers was a lot of surface detail and ripping and stuff, which, you can't hide behind dust and things like that very often, so the level of detail is a little higher.
When the Transformers inflict damage on a building, they leave part of it standing, so you have to simulate the inside of the building after it's been wrecked. If a Dinobot just clips the side of a building, ripping the side off, you'll be able to see "office furniture, and ceiling tiles, and lighting fixtures, and all this other stuff," says Balog. Plus you'll keep circling that same building, so you need to be able to see a much higher level of detail, including the history of all the previous damage that we saw being done to that building. "We're constantly moving our damage and stuff from shot to shot, to kind of make the whole thing work together," he adds.
In Pacific Rim, the characters are so large that "they're literally running through buildings and it's kind of over pretty quickly."
Transformers 4 showed the Transformers getting trashed more than ever before
This movie features a lot more destruction of actual Transformers than the first three films combined. "We did tend to push some of the robot damage a lot further than we had" in the previous films, says Balog. "Optimus takes a lot of damage in this film." There's the scene where Optimus "tames" Grimlock, in which he actually seems to be breaking Grimlock's head.
"We're cutting Transformers in half, and they're getting eaten, which is something that we've never dealt with before," says Balog. "We probably did destroy or kill a lot more Transformers in this film than we had in some of the other ones, just because of the sheer number of them." If you count the robots created by the evil corporation KSI as Transformers, then this film features an entire army of Transformers — who wind up getting killed in large numbers.
"I think we went through and probably destroyed a lot more on this film than maybe the other ones combined," says Balog. In the first couple of films, you see "a little bit of surface damage here and there, and they lost one every once in a while." But in this film, Balog's team is constantly simulating tons of damage to the Transformers.
This film also has "more screen time for the Transformers than any of the others," adds Balog. And simulating damage from hand-to-hand combat is time-consuming on the Transformers. For example:
A lot of the times we'll go in and simulate damage on the robots themselves. Like the Hound sequence, where Hound is fighting all the KSI robots. We would go in and add pieces getting blown off him. We were constantly keeping track of the weapons he's losing, we're injecting shells out of the machine guns, doing all that kind of stuff. From a standpoint of technically difficult, a sequence like the Hound sequence doesn't present too many technical challenges, but just trying to get all the levels of detail into all those shots: how he reacts to the environment, whether it's the ground, or if he touches the side of a building. The shell casings that we eject from his weapons, or the bullet hits that he's taking, or every time they punch each other pieces break off, and all that kind of stuff when you play out that whole sequence.
That was like the Blackhawk Down of Transformers for me, that sequence. It's just constantly all this chaos around him, and he's just kind of trying to survive as long as he can. The Dinobots show up and it all just goes to, you know, there's a sequence where the Bugatti is just flung on a sword and just slicing robots in half. You've got fluids coming out of them. And then Grimlock is just eating and fighting robots so parts we'll go in and we'll simulate crushing and all that kind of stuff. There's lots of little events that add two or three days to pull off, but then you start adding them all up, and before you know it it's man-years' worth of work, just trying to get it all in there.
The Dinobots added a whole new level of chaos to this film
One thing that Transformers: Age of Extinction features that wasn't in the other films is "road destruction," where you can see the street being cracked and particulate dust flying up when there's a big fight scene on a street. "We're just kind of blowing that up all over the place," says Balog.
This is especially important with the Dinobot charge, because you have to be able to see the Dinobots tearing up the street: "We have these large, dinosaur creatures that have claws and stuff. So every time they run down the street, we tend to go in and crack up and kick up dirt and that kind of stuff," says Balog.
The Dinobots in general, a lot more massive than the Transformers themselves. They have a lot more mass to them and I always say that they're a little clumsy. You know, they're not used to being in an environment like a city, so they're not really aware of their environment. We had to go in and kind of, nick buildings and kick out cars and lampposts and anything they come in contact with. They run into sky bridges, and that kind of stuff. They were a lot of fun to work with, [because] Autobots and Decepticons are a little more aware of their environment, and they tend to walk over things or around things. Whereas the Dinobots just tend to not really care in the film and just kind of smash through everything.
And there was some debate about how much an American film that was going to be marketed in China could show Hong Kong being destroyed. But Balog argued that as soon as you get Dinobots involved, there's going to be tons of destruction. They tried, in general, not to knock down buildings in Hong Kong, but they did inflict the kind of structural damage that's going to result in buildings coming down eventually. "The consensus toward the end was, you know, let's just kind of go for it."
"I was a big proponent of trying to damage and rip [the buildings] up as much as possible, just because of the level of detail" you can show, says Balog. "My argument was, you have these large, sixty-foot, dinosaurs that are smashing into the side of a building. They're not just gonna scrape it or nick it up a little bit. They're really gonna do some heavy damage to these things."
The magnet sequence was the hardest to get right
The biggest challenge, this time around, was the sequence where the spaceship sets off a giant magnet and pulls tons of stuff into the air, including the roof of the Hong Kong Convention Center. "A lot of the films I worked on were usually smashing or were usually dropping or busting through buildings," says Balog. "Actually pulling a building apart, with a magnet, was a new challenge for us. When you're looking online for reference and stuff, to get an idea of what something would look like in the real world, there isn't a lot of reference to really look for for something like that." They tried to imagine what a building imploding would look like in reverse, as the closest thing to a building being pulled apart.
Not only does the Convention Center get torn and pulled apart, "it also has to form into a funnel and then go into the center of the ship," says Balog. This means simulating glass, concrete, rebar and steel, and animating them so they go where they need to.
But also, the magnet is pulling lots of objects including cars, bicycles, and air conditioners, all flying up in the air and then falling down again. "There's so many particles of stuff," says Balog. Director Michael Bay "just asked us to kind of throw everything in there," says Balog.
I think the biggest challenge we had, other than the convention center, was the ferryboat. There's two ferryboats in the film that get picked up and then dropped, once the magnet gets turned off. There's like 4 or 5 shots where there's a large ferryboat that drops out of the sky, and Optimus and Bumblebee are running down the street. It crashes on the ground, it breaks in half, cars start flipping out of it, there's bicycles coming out of it, it's splintering wood and cracking glass and pyro explosions. Once the ferryboat breaks in half it's smashing through walls and kind of everything. We pretty much threw the kitchen sink into that sequence.
On top of that there's trains coming down and smashing into the ground, and cars, and there's a big neon sign. I mean, those four or five shots were probably one of the more challenging rigid dynamic shots we've done here at ILM in quite some time, just because of the sheer complexity and how close it was to the camera. We weren't able to "cheat" too much. We really had to put that level of detail into our models. And actually spend a lot of time tweaking our simulations and making sure everything kind of played out the way it would in the real world. There was one or two artists that worked on that, that probably spent, you know, 2 or 3 months working on those shots.
And later on, we dropped another ferryboat onto a building and it, you know, crashes through a building and, you know, hits a train, and it's just, you know, what he [Bay] usually has us try to achieve in these films is, every film he tends to ask us to go a little farther. The complexity tends to get a lot more intense.
The shot where the ferry actually hits the ground is especially challenging, because of its "sheer complexity," says Balog. There's no reference material for that, and they had to build a ferryboat, from the inside out, in CG. "When we tend to build models for destruction we don't tend to completely build them completely accurate to what it might look like in the real world. But because this was so detailed and it was so thorough we kind of had to go in and figure out how an actual ferryboat might be constructed and kind of build it, you know, plate by plate, bolt by bolt." You had to see splitting wood on the top of the deck, and all the materials breaking.
Usually, when you simulate a building that's getting destroyed, you're building a lot of cubes. "If you think about it, walls are a cube, exteriors are a cubes, windows are a cube," says Balog. "In CG, a lot of that is 'primitive,' which, really [low-res] geometry. When you're building something that's a little more organic, like a boat, the level of detail tends to go up quite a bit."
For these huge complex shots, there will be whole separate teams of artists working on them, adds Balog. There are two main groups: "one is a particle group, and one is more of a geometry-based group." The particle group works on all the types of debris that's getting pulled up by the magnet or thrown around. But they use "geometry-based simulation" for anything that's having collisions, or interacting with the characters or parts of the environment.
So in the magnet sequence, you have stuff being pulled up from the ground, but also effects from the top of the ship, like sparks and explosions. Plus a lot of environmental effects. And " when a lot of this debris got picked up, it would also bring particulates into the air, like dirt, and concrete dust, and, just, paper, and all this other kind of stuff. When you have some of these large wide shots, with the amount of stuff that's being interacted with in the scene, it's pretty complex, and it took a lot of people to pull that off."
Destroying glass buildings is an especially difficult task
Michael Bay always likes to destroy glass buildings instead of concrete ones, for some reason. In this movie, there's a large glass building that the designers called "the government building," which the Dinobots interact with as they're getting pulled off the ground. In the third movie, they had objects smashing in and out of buildings, and in this one "we had these large Dinobots pulling and scraping all the way up the side of the building. So it was more surface destruction than it was more of the internal stuff that we did on the third film," says Balog.
From a destruction standpoint, one of the hardest things to get right is glass, believe it or not, just because of how reflective it is, and things of that nature... Making that actually look interesting, too, because most skyscrapers that are made out of glass don't have a lot of structure to them on the outside. It gets pretty repetitive after a while, that you're just shooting glass and a couple pieces of metal and things of that nature, from the outside surface. So we tend to go in and add office furniture, concrete from the inside structure, and things like that. Anything we can do to mess it up a little bit more. So if you look at something you'll see, like, couches coming out of buildings. He [Bay] had us add a window-washer to the side of one of the shots just to give it a little more realism, and just to add something different to it.