“TRANSFORMERS 2” DIRECTOR MICHAEL BAY TAKES THE ALABAMA HILLS BY STORM
By Chris Langley, Inyo County Film Commission
Big movies often star the director rather than the actors or even the special effects. While the first “Transformers,” hardly a darling of the critics, made Shia LeBeouf and Megan Fox action stars the world over, it made its director Michael Bay larger than life.
One time he bumped into candidate Barrack Obama in a Las Vegas airport after a stump speech there. Bay introduced himself and told Obama he liked what the president-to-be had to say. When Obama asked him what films the director had helmed, Bay mentioned “Transformers,” “Pearl Harbor” and “The Rock”. Bay quotes Obama as saying that Bay was a “big ass director.” Obama had it right. Michael Bay is really bigger than life.
|Michael Bay directing in the Alabama Hills |
It was the year before when I had first been approached by a Scout looking for an area with very large trees that could be a bowl shaped landscape for a battle between the autobots and decepticons. I thought briefly of the Whitney Portal area until they assured me that any large trees they destroyed would be replaced. I knew the Inyo National Forest folks would never go for it. The Scout then asked did we have anything with substantial vertical elements to be knocked down. I thought of pit mining, but it wasn’t going to work. That seemed the end of our next big movie on location.
It turned out Bay had seen pictures of the Alabama Hills and he wanted to film there. The Producer, who told me this on location, said Michael had looked all over the southwest but never found a comparable look. When LaBeouf was injured, they moved up filming and the BLM worked hard to push through the permits.
This second unit had over one hundred twenty-five crew and talent, mostly stuntmen, on location. Because it was the season for visitors, many of the personnel had to stay in Bishop. Bay did not want to waste time traveling so he asked to stay with some key people in the Alabamas, camping Hollywood style. They had a couple of state-of-the-art modular units, which had all the comforts of home. They even asked to have a campfire so they could sit around under the stars after a hard day of filming. I don’t think they sang cowboy songs, but you never know.
I was told that the scene was a hunt by cavemen. They were pursuing tigers ten thousand years ago and one of the Transformer robots comes to the rescue of the tiger, severely disciplining one of the hunters. When I was there, the hunters were stuntmen in breechcloths, their significant muscles covered by mud and their hair looking more like Australian aborigines. The tigers were beautiful and large and it appeared the director intended to let them loose running up one of the hills, pursued by a band of hunters.
The Location Manager asked if I could get a sharpshooter for safety of the crew. When I asked was it for a tranquilizer gun, he said “No, we already have one of those. It is for safety of the crew should a tiger attack a crew man.”
“You mean you are going to kill a $50,000 tiger that is eating a twelve dollar an hour crewman?” I asked facetiously. “That doesn’t sound like Hollywood financials.” He explained it was a requirement of the union rules. Leon Boyer stood by, the tigers performed perfectly and everyone was happy. The BLM guys and I were asked to stand back some during this shoot, part of it filmed by helicopter. I don’t know if they were worried about us being eaten, or if there was some concern we might see some “brush crushed.” We had made sure everyone, including Bay himself, who was quite charming to us, had the prerequisite “Don’t crush the brush” buttons to wear.
Michael Bay was the most hands-on director I had ever seen. He was behind the camera most of the time, making certain he got exactly what he wanted on film. The second day they shot one of the stuntmen being picked up by a giant Transformer, shaken and dropped to the ground. Since all the robots are computer-generated images (CGI), you might assume the hunter would also be computerized.
|Michael Bay is one of the most hands-on directors|
Bay realizes that the drama of the shot was anchored in the danger faced by an actual person, so he had a giant crane in place near the big turn on Movie Road. The stuntman was suspended on cables and he was pulled left and right by two cables (to simulate being shaken by the Autobot) and then actually dropped on a bungee cable to the ground, a hundred feet below. The robot would be added later. It is that attention to detail that displays Michael Bay’s creative force and insistence on a shot based in as real a situation as possible. It also explains why industry estimates of the budget for the film are 200 million dollars.
I couldn’t wait to see it. Michael Bay used hundreds of locations and 2500-person crew all over the world to capture his vision of a world of giant toys come to life. I still have two of my kids’ Transformer toys they had when young. They are forty now. I always thought they were pretty cool.
The footage is right at the beginning of the film, used as establishing shot. Optimus Prime narrates the story of the first contact between the Autobots and Decepticons and humans, in this case cavemen/aborigine stuntmen. It is 17000 B.C. and the Alabama Hills look great, if just a bit manipulated. The Sierra Nevada Peaks are equally as spectacular and the look is one of a dramatic if ancient landscape. The locations appear again further into the picture but not for too long.
Michael Bay had spent a lot of time making sure no other location was better and the results were good enough to start the picture. It was another great historic moment for Inyo County and Lone Pine’s cinematic heritage.