Thursday, June 25, 2009

Lessons in Film Directing From Michael Bay

This column, now missing somewhere inside In Utah This Week's intertubes, coincided with the release of the first "Transformers" film and is, I think, a helpful primer on the director's work.

There are many people who knew everything there was to know about the characters in "Transformers" before the film came out. I must confess, however, that I am not one of them.

While I hoped that "Transformers" would be a fun showcase for its much-hyped special effects, I knew little about the shape-shifting robots who are sentient alien beings (or whatever). So I relied entirely on the filmmaking techniques of director Michael Bay to entertain me and bring me up to speed.

But Bay didn't make it easy to follow the characters or, in most cases, even tell them apart. I figured out the semi-truck Optimus Prime thanks to the tacky paint job, and the lovable loser Bumblebee because he had the most screen time. But it was still hard to discern Bumblebee from the other yellow one ("There was another yellow one?" a colleague asked at the end of the screening). And although all the evil Transformers (Decepticons) used cool army vehicles as their disguises, the only one who had any personality was the little one who pretended to be a boom box and a cell phone.

William Shakespeare put it best when he wrote about a Bay film, "It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" (or was that a Tony Scott review?). How does Bay turn even the simplest silly popcorn movie into a headache? He spent years developing his technique, fine-tuning it from the slick, over-blown, in-your-face action of "The Rock" to the disorienting nonsense of "Armageddon." Through an intense study of his films—and in the case of Bay films, "intense study" doesn't imply multiple viewings—I have uncovered a few of his filmmaking secrets.

Character development: The trick is to wait until a robot dies, then have another robot call him "brother," to signify a deep, meaningful connection. It's so much easier than making the characters interesting throughout the whole film. Also, a love triangle makes a historic bombing much more engaging.

Sound design: By cranking up his sound mix with so many ear-shattering clanks and explosions, Bay deftly removes any sense of dynamics from his films, hence depriving the audience of a sense of surprise or importance when the bigger dramatic moments arrive. In "Transformers," he even ruins what should be a funny gag about a phone operator who refuses to put a soldier through to the Pentagon, insisting on a constant barrage of background explosions instead of carefully placed comedic punctuation. Bay may have outdone the barrage of "Armageddon" with the last hour of "Transformers," which is simply one big high-volume drone. It even outdoes "The Island," which had an intriguing start before Bay punished the audience for being interested.

Constant cuts and unclear compositions: Bay matches his love for loud, piercing noises with loud, piercing visuals. Watch any clip from "Armageddon" and see a bunch of random shots work against each other to deprive the audience of any sense of what's happening. The trick is never to stop, thus never giving the audience time to realize that nothing happened. What should be a cool shot of a Transformer running, jumping and turning into a a car before hitting the ground loses its awe due to an arbitrary angle and a cut that actually makes it harder to see the wow moment. After watching "Transformers," I saw an ad for the "Transformers" video game and got more of an impression of how the characters look and move than I did in all 144 minutes of the movie.

Cool shots, no point: Bay has devised some rather remarkable visual ideas, but he doesn't let that diminish his reputation as a Hollywood hack. He usually finds a way to use his ideas to detract from whatever story he's allegedly telling. In "Pearl Harbor," there's a rather amazing shot over the top of a bomb as it drops on the U.S. naval fleet. But rather than use the shot for the first bomb that dropped, or another bomb that had a significant impact on the film's characters, Bay buries it amongst a collection of meaningless explosions. During a "Transformers" fight scene, the camera rattles around inside the car of two characters who have nothing to do with the movie. The important action is barely visible through their window. Remarkable.

Dialogue: No matter who wrote the screenplay, Bay will make sure there are a few classic lines. From "Pearl Harbor:" "It's your nose that hurts." "I think it's my heart." From "Transformers:" "We were deceived by the Decepticons." (Yup—you'd think they'd have seen it coming.) Honorable mention goes to, "Put the cube in my chest," which Optimus Prime repeats five times in as many minutes. A different phrase kept repeating in my head: "Sneak out and see and see what else is playing in the multiplex."

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