TRANSFORMATIONS ON FILM: A Conversation with ILM Animation Supervisor Paul Kavanagh
Transformers: The Last Knight shatters the core myths of the Transformers franchise, and redefines what it means to be a hero. Humans and Transformers are at war, Optimus Prime is gone. The key to saving our future lies buried in the secrets of the past, in the hidden history of Transformers on Earth. Saving our world falls upon the shoulders of an unlikely alliance: Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg); Bumblebee; an English Lord (Sir Anthony Hopkins); and an Oxford Professor (Laura Haddock).
There comes a moment in everyone’s life when we are called upon to make a difference. In Transformers: The Last Knight, the hunted will become heroes. Heroes will become villains. Only one world will survive: theirs, or ours.
The Fan Carpet’s Marc Jason Ali had the honour of speaking to Animation Supervisor Paul Kavanagh about Transformers: The Last Knight, his credits include Avatar, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone.
In our interview, Paul tells us about the intricacies of working with transformations, working with Michael Bay and ILM Founder George Lucas…
It’s an absolute honour to speak to you and it’s such a phenomenal film, just the effects work that goes in there, you guys at ILM seem to just outdo yourselves with every Transformers film. How’s it been for you, that progression from Transformers, to create what a lot of us grew up watching as children, to now with The Last Knight, what’s that progression been like for you?
It’s interesting because obviously the first movie was a massive leap in technology for ILM because we hadn’t really done something like that before, you know, massive robots fighting and transformations, turning cars into robots and all that kind of stuff, we hadn’t done that before, it was a real steep learning curve on that movie.
But you know, that’s kind of what we love, those challenges, you know. With this movie we’d already done four of the movies and Michael (Bay) really wanted to do something a little different here, we tried different types of transformations with them breaking down into cubes and you know just trying various things in the other movies, and in this movie he really wanted to go back to the original movies and sort of ground it in that kind of original world he set up through Transformers 1 and have real life sort of, making it feel like you’re really with the robots, in the environments we make it feel like a really huge and rich world that we’re creating and that the transformations, we wanted to see the transformations, it’s not about the transformations, there’s not that many transformations in it but it’s when we do them I just really want to really feel them you know, I just want to make sure we’re going back to the original movie and we’re doing something nice, honest, true sort of transformations. So it was nice to go back to that, you know.
Yeah absolutely, especially when we’re, I remember it was either on the DVD extras or I’d read about it, but there’s like 15,000 or something moving parts in Optimus Prime alone…
And you’ve got to work out the geometry of where each part of that moves to so that he can move seamlessly between a humanoid robot and a car, that’s just incredible and obviously ILM have been at the forefront with this sort of technology what with Star Wars, Indiana Jones and the like. With such a huge body of work it must be like a “pinch yourself” moment when you’re handed these franchises to bring to life.
Yeah it really is. I mean, you know, we do that kind of thing really well and sort of re-imagining something, looking at a new way of doing something and not being scared about or being intimidated about about what we can do, you know, we can do pretty much anything these days and you’re only limited by your imagination.
Michael came up with this great idea of doing Transformers 5 with Bumblebee having this mag tech so he breaks apart and sort of magnetically comes back together again, which we thought was a really great idea and we build that whole sequence around that idea when he comes in to save Cade from the military and he comes in and breaks apart as the car and then the pieces all come back together again and while he’s doing that he’s taking out all the guys, you know, while he saves Cade, you know that was a really fun sequence and it just came out of that idea, so sometimes ideas like that just end up being great sequences in movies and it’s just great fleshing them out.
When you talk about transformations, we only have a few people here at the company who have the eye for that, who can do it, have the skills and the eye for it, because it’s a tough thing to do you’ve got to have the technical savvy to work out exactly how to do it, but also you really got to have a good artistic eye for animation as far as making the pieces move, so it’s really hard to find the right people to do it.
We have one guy whose the expert at it and he’s worked on all the Transformers movies from the very beginning and he worked out all the transformations on the first movie and he was working out transformations on this movie too, and we have a bunch of other people who he’s really showed the ropes to, but it’s a small group you know, it’s intimidating because you’ve gotta get it right one of those shots takes a long time to do because you have to do it right, you know.
Yeah absolutely. Even in Dark of the Moon where you actually see Ironhide’s transformation up close, that is just so impressive, unfortunately his character didn’t stick around for much longer after that but it was still impressive very impressive. I mean Transformers is something that I grew up watching, I’m 34 so I remember watching the original cartoon when I was a kid, and I’ve stuck with the franchise for all that time and it makes sense to me that they’re not going to look the same as they did in Generation 1 that just wouldn’t work on the big screen, like back in the 80s they where all blocky and it just wouldn’t work. What worked back then wouldn’t work in 2017.
Obviously the Transformers franchise is a very big FX heavy spectacle just in the way that the robots and there fighting with each other and I’m looking forward to what comes next. Are you able to talk about any challenges that you’ve got coming up without giving too much away?
Well we are working on the Independent Bee Movie (Bumblebee standalone) I’m not actually working on that movie right now so I can’t.
I don’t want to look at it, I want to be surprised when I go to the movies and see where they go with that movie because I’m sure they’ll take it down some new direction again, you know, making it retro and hopefully again it’ll be a departure because it’s always interesting when you mix it up. But yeah excited to be working on that for sure. I mean it’s really on the heels of Transformers 5, so you know, diving right back into it.
Yeah just building out a whole universe. I mean there’s so much story to mine from, Hasbro have got Bible’s of this stuff, there’s so much stuff to mine from. Is there anything in particular that you’ve grown up with that hasn’t made it into the films that you’d like to see, or like to see interpreted in the films? Because obviously this time we had the headmasters kind of twist on that with Cogman he was great and getting Jim Carter to voice him was just a stroke of genius.
We where very excited when Michael said that “we’re going to be getting the dude from Downtown Abbey” and we were like “oh you mean Carson?” and he was like “Yeah that guy”, and we though “oh that’s great”. So you know that’s fun because I actually watch Downtown Abbey with my wife, she loves that show and I do to, and I thought “oh that’s a great idea” and then of course when you’re watching it you know we’re referencing Downtown Abbey when you’re watching Cogman and we’re thinking we should really make him look like an English butler and he holds his chest plate in a certain way, the way he puts his hand up into his chest plate and holds it a certain way, like a butler would hold his jacket standing with his white glove on, standing with his (can’t make out) over there. So we really tried to reference Downtown Abbey when we’re doing the movie, so the head master thing came in which was super exciting because we hadn’t seen that before in a Transformers movie it’s totally badass, so that was exciting a lot of people here where excited to see that, the people that knew we where going to do something with that.
His character is so small and he looks so delicate and refined and what have you, but then he can just kick ass so easily and so that was really fun to play with as well.
And then of course, well everyone, I thought it was a great little thing at the end of 5 when they allude to the fact that Unicron because we’ve not seen Unicron or alluded to Unicron in any of the any movies thus far so it was cool to have that little thing at the end, coming up the whole and that’s sort of Unicron and you think “oh” and they allude to Unicron being on Earth and that’s something completely different so hopefully they’ll go somewhere with that in the next franchise movies, so yeah I think that’s very exciting.
Yeah that’s very exciting like even down to the casting, like Gemma Chan as the Quintessa and obviously Peter Cullen coming back, well he is the only voice of Optimus Prime…
The only one
He is, it’s like when people ask you who the quintessential Batman, people don’t think about it but Kevin Conroy is kind of that because he originated the voice for the animated series and Cullen is the same with Optimus Prime and obviously Peter Cullen has been in so many things over the years like Eeyore for Disney and all sorts he’s just great.
When you watch Peter Cullen deliver those lines it’s so interesting because we get the recordings of all of those and Michael goes through and chooses which ones he wants for the edit, but to see how many different ways Peter Cullen can deliver that line is unbelievable and he rattles them off, in a million different ways and it’s incredible, he gives Michael so many options and then you can really see them when he strings them together in the movie which are the strong takes in which he emphasises certain words to get across, so he is amazing when he does Optimus Prime. Amazing.
Yeah it must be. So, obviously you’re with the project from conception like with the animatics and the rest of it, is there still the element of surprise for you when you know what’s coming up to see it all pull together, such as the mag tech with Bumblebee? Are you able to just watch it as like a fan and think “yeah that’s awesome” or working on it so closely do you ever find yourself ever being a little bit spoiled by the fact that you already know what’s coming?
Michael throws curveballs at us all the time especially when I was doing pre vis, he’ll call us our cell phone numbers, he calls us up and he says “I’ve got this idea for a sequence, there’s part of the script I want to elaborate, there’s part of the script I want to make a bigger thing, I want to try that” and he explains these wild ideas to us and we’re like “wow, okay, right, yeah” and he goes “alright let’s go man”.
And you know, there’s a couple of us and we just sit down and we go for it, we show him take after take and we put something together, he likes to see a finished piece with sound effects, music and everything put over the top to really sort of flesh it out so he can really judge it in context, but that’s a really fun experience to doing that with him because he loves creating those really sort of cool action sequences within the movie where you didn’t expect you’d get an action sequence, he really comes up with those great ideas.
So yeah it’s always interesting and surprising when you work on these movies you know, just how they developed and where they want to take it, you know from conception.
And it doesn’t really matter any more, you know when you’re working on a movie it’s all spoilers, so you’re so close to it’s just like “bring it on”, I’m not going to go to the movie theatre and be surprised when I go in to see the film because so close to me, you know. You’re just trying to think of ideas and Michael is very very open about you coming to him with concepts and ideas and one of the ideas was for the time bubble stuff, the time gun from Hot Rod, Rick came up with this great idea that a time bubble would freeze Megatron and load all the bullets from Hound’s gun into the bubble and then unfreeze it and then all of that arsenal just goes straight into Megatron and throws him off.
It’s those moments when pitching those ideas to Michael all the time, you know we do a little sketch in 3D to show him that idea and he goes “yeah”, sometimes he goes “that’s dumb, that’s lame, nope” and you’ll go “ugh disappointed”, but other times he looks at it and goes “yeah okay let’s do that” and so those moments end up in the movie which is you know just great.
Yeah. I mean there’s so many Transformers aficionados that grew up with the series, in the case of Hot Rod, I believe there’s like 3 or 4 different ways that he transforms from a car into a robot because that was something that was in the animated film. Is that just something that you’re conscious of, that you just put in as a nod and a wink as to how far it’s actually come?
Yeah, transformations are actually tricky because they’re really all about what the camera angle is playing to, where you’re going and you know what angle the camera’s at because you just hide everything, you play the transformations to the camera, so sometimes the transformations are just widely different because all transformations will not work from that camera angle, we don’t have a button that goes let’s work out that transformation from Bumblebee to Camaro, we can’t do that, we don’t have a set transformation that works for every camera angle, every one is unique and we just go for and we just go “okay this is the transformation on this to block it out”, Michael approves it and goes “we’re going for transformation on this” and then we give it to somebody and they sit at their desk for practically months and agonise over all those thousands upon thousands of parts, how it should work, but there’s a lot of trickery going on as well to hide it, but really we just want to make pieces that end up wheel to wheel goes on his back, doors go over there you know all that, you know where you’re going and you make it interesting. So a lot of times we’ll do sort of fight moves in the transformations so we’ll have spinning and jumping and kicking while we’re doing the transformation because it just makes it more exciting and we’re just trying to make them more and more dynamic every time.
Absolutely. For you personally in your career was working on special effects something you always wanted to do?
Oh yeah definitely I always wanted to work here at ILM, I’m from Newcastle originally, England. You know I originally had a map on my wall in (can’t make out) where ILM used to be and that was when I was 8 years old and I was like “that’s where I want to be, that’s what I want to do” yeah. Going to the movies seeing all the special effects in the movies, the Star Wars obviously when I was 11, it blew my mind and that was what I wanted to do and work at ILM and so yeah I was very very influenced by all of that.
Really for me I was in the right place at the right time because computer graphics came along when I was in my early 20s and actually when I went to college in Bournemouth to study animation when I was sort of 17/18 and it was just a fledgeling thing at that time and I didn’t realise that at the time we where going to be creating crazy effects like we do with computer graphics, it just evolved, computer graphics, it just really evolved into this art form and I just went along for that ride, sort of the right place at the right time and lucky I am at ILM at the right time when they where hiring for computer animators and they stupidly said “yes”, now I’ve been here over 20 years now it’s just been an amazing experience, and ride, incredible.
Wow congratulations that is incredible. I’m sure you get asked this all the time, George Lucas we owe a lot to him in terms of like ILM and cinema in general, have you ever had the pleasure of meeting the great man?
Oh yeah. George is great. I worked on the original prequels, Star Wars prequels so that was a really fun experience and obviously George is directing all of those, he would come to ILM twice a week and we would sit with him and go through the work, so yeah I would get to meet him professionally and animating and showing him stuff, he’s also got a great sense of humour and he’s relaxed, very informal he’s knows what he likes, he’s very very good at seeing films from an editorial stand point, the movies to him is really made in the edit room, a lot of directors work that way but he loves being in the edit and he can really see a movie and re-imagining a movie in the edit room, he loves the process of integrating all the special effects and everything, it’s a really great experience.
Brilliant, yeah we owe George so much like with Star Wars and ILM and Pixar even, so the mind boggles.
So many times it’s unbelievable. He’s a really smart dude (laughs).
Obviously you’re going to be working on the Bumblebee and I’m looking forward to that, that’s going to be so cool…
Yeah that’s going to be great, I’m not personally working on that , but ILM is working on it right now so I haven’t seen anything, I have no idea, I want to be surprised when I see that movie, they’ll want to show me stuff and I’ll go “don’t show me”.
(laughs) Okay sounds good. So for you personally, what do you have coming up that you’re working on?
Various projects, you know there’s always lots of projects sort of going around here at ILM so right now I’m doing a few Star Wars tie-in commercials that’s been a lot of fun and I’m doing a VR project, again something new, the next movie projects don’t stop, they don’t start again until the new year there’s few options out there but I don’t know what’s going to happen, but something different and exciting I’m sure.
I’m sure, whatever comes out of ILM is just gold as far as I’m concerned.
TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT IS OUT NOW TO OWN DIGITALLY, DVD AND BLU-RAY