For the first collaboration between the Autobots and the Maximals in the “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” prequel, director Steven Caple Jr. (“Creed II”) was given a lot of creative freedom in character design and animation. Gone ILM from the previous six films, giving way to MPC and Wētā FX. MPC was the lead VFX studio and did all the design work, but both helped overhaul the Autobots and introduce the beast-like Maximals, who mix fur and flesh with their metal parts.
Production visual effects supervisor Gary Brozenich (of MPC) supervised the work. After researching the previous films, he met with Caple to discuss his vision of adapting animation and also consulted with former director Michael Bay (who is still producing). Rather than continue to push the hyperrealism of Bay’s films, Caple wanted to make them look simpler, with a nod to the G1 design of the original toys and animated TV series from the 1980s.
“It wasn’t the kind of movie Steven wanted,” Brozenich told IndieWire. “But what I came up with talking about it with Bay was the power of being able to find the equivalent of what you would do with a bouncy card on set or a reflective card next to an actor. We played with it throughout the film with these walking, talking, metallic and thoughtful characters, straddling the line between (photorealism and hyperrealism).
Caple’s first goal was to give the mighty Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) a character arc as part of his pre-2007 film origin story. This facilitates the world-weary warrior to join the Maximals (led by the gorilla Optimus Primal, voiced by Ron Perlman) to protect the Earth from the planet-devouring Unicron (voiced by Colman Domingo) and the henchman Scourge (voiced by Peter Dinklage).
“We wanted to give (Prime) a lot more human depth and for us to take that journey with him to get to a very dark place where he’s down,” Brozenich said. “And he needs to find the beauty of mankind again, in order to save it.”
As a result, the director encouraged MPC to alter Prime’s design, returning to his original, boxer look. They also modeled his face after voice actor Cullen’s and added more emotion during the dialogue scenes. Another important character was the new sidekick, Mirage (voiced by Pete Davidson), the Autobot spy who projects holograms and transforms into a silver-blue Porsche 964 Carrera RS 3.8. “When Steven and I first met, the first character we talked about was Mirage, and that was long before Pete Davidson came into the frame,” Brozenich added. “But his opinion of him was street-level like Tyler Durden from ‘Fight Club.’ He loved the fluidity of Brad Pitt’s character in that film and the kind of schizophrenic nature he turned into on a dime.
But with Davidson providing many entertaining ad-libs, this allowed the animators to tailor the animation to his mood. The sporty look of the curvaceous Porsche also played a role in shaping the performance. “He really fit with the camera, in a way that a lot of other characters didn’t because they had such a boxy design,” Brozenich said.
One of the most significant developments was how MPC reinvented critical transformations from vehicles to robots with their new proprietary tool. This allowed animators to merge, ungroup, and rearrange geometry on a model, in a given shot, and on any asset.
“For example, if at any point I reached for the car door, I could tell them it doesn’t look complex enough,” Brozenich continued. “Typically, there’s a tendency to make things go at a perpendicular angle of more than 90 degrees to each other. But when you start introducing non-linear angles and rotations, that’s when you start to feel the complexity of the changing object.”
Wētā, meanwhile, was recruited late in production to handle the initial introduction of the planet Maximal and the high-octane climactic battle inside a volcanic crater. They used their suite of proprietary tools to apply facial performance capture to hard-surface robotic models. In addition, they created their own tool to deal with transformations, including one-time transformations for the Maximals as they prepare for battle. This one was more involved with animals turning into robots. Since Wētā’s sequences were just them, the transfer of MPC’s design work was pretty straightforward.
“Obviously everyone has their own proprietary rendering and shader technology, so we had to do that side of the thing and make their designs work within the language of our pipeline,” visual effects supervisor Matt Aitken of Wētā told IndieWire. .
While the beastly Maximals are very much in Wētā’s wheelhouse (they’ve leaned on their “Planet of the Apes” expertise), the mechanical DNA of the Transformers was a new challenge for their rigging team. “That giant robot has to move in a way that supports their scale, and animation is really important,” Aitken continued. “We are used to applying detail to our creature work, making it authentic to help sell the realism. And details matter with Transformers in a different way, with mechanical details and a lot of moving parts, to make all that sense of detail work.
There was also the opportunity for more nuanced facial performances (with the help of mo-capped doubles for reference) than in previous “Transformer” films. But it was on a very compressed schedule. “We wanted to provide our facial animators with an interface they could instantly adapt to,” said Aitken. “So we decided early on to take the experiences our facial animators have and combine that with a facial rig they’re used to. So within each of our Transformers, we have a human face that has been modified to fit the robot’s form.”
In terms of Wētā transformations, they had their own variation of the dice-and-dice method, but they pushed the task to the end when they could give it more attention. “While they’re making the transformation, they’re cutting it into little pieces,” Aitken added. “But we needed to get the articulation they need: splitting, beveling edges, and edge extrusions that happen dynamically during the transform process.”