BitDepth 802 - October 04

Movies still use actors, but they are increasingly being shunted off to the margins. My evidence? Michael Bay's Transformers 3.
Transforming movies
The third Transformers film is now out on disc and it will change movies forever, just not in the way we think.

It’s shocking to realise this, but it all began with a cute little Japanese toy. I’d seen these little creations when they first surfaced, mostly in comics shops in the US and actually bought one.
I think it was one of the Microman toys, tiny, insanely intricate robot figurines that were modelled on the Gundam battle suits so popular in Japanese animation of the time, but with a nutty twist. 

Twist and fold them and they became a little model car, or truck, or plane. Unfold them and the bits that made up the surfaces of the vehicle became huge feet, shield like appendages on the robot figure’s arms or even parts of their chests.
It was absolutely the coolest toy I’d ever seen, and only the fact that I was a grown man prevented me from collecting more of them. I’d get over that in time of course, finally realising that becoming an adult could be completely divorced from actually growing up.

Hasbro, the toy company, riding high on the success they were having with a reintroduction of their GiJoe toy line as smaller, less ornately accessorised figurines with an accompanying Saturday morning show, had no such hesitation.
First developing a story around the toys using Marvel’s creative minds and then quickly introducing an animated show. 

How, I had to wonder, did we go so quickly from the beautiful, intricate beauty of those Japanese toys and the innocent, hammy adventuring of the television show, to Transformers: Dark of the moon?

Perhaps Michael Bay’s latest creation is really a bluntly obvious distillation of what big budget cinema entertainment is on the verge of evolving into.
There are, for instance, no actors in the film. There are human characters, inhabited by actual professional troupers – people like John Turturro and Frances McDormand have been known to live by these skills – but their roles don’t aspire to become cardboard cutouts. 

They are the rough sketches you might doodle with a plan to define them later with a scissors. There’s the angry intelligence officer (McDormand), the mildly deranged nutjob (Turturro), the earnest sweating grunt (Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson) the unlikeable preening boss (John Malkovich) and the creepily professional villain (Patrick Dempsey).

We know who all these people are just by looking at their clothes, there’s no need to have actual, recognisable actors playing them, but after spending so much on digital rendering and compositing, it’s nice that Michael Bay thought that puny humans might be worth a scraping of his budget.

The star of the show remains Sam Witwicky (Shia La Beouf), an irritating idiot who will, if justice is finally served in the world of the transformers, be found one day dangling from a string on the rear view mirror of the truck that Optimus Prime morphs into.

These films, inevitably require Witwicky to show up a lot, so many times; in fact, that he usually stumbles into the plot MacGuffin and saves the day.
Far more compelling are the Autobots and Decepticons, who have more implied character in their digital bits than any of the human characters are allowed in their terse, largely shouted dialogue. 

Setting aside the narrative convention that allows people to be fooled by robots who don’t choose to call themselves truthticons, we can fully explore all the nuances of delightful character that the designers, programmers and digital artists have granted to these robots.
Optimus Prime, for instance, is all red and blue, a gritty, often grimy good old bot who’s clearly wrapped in the principles, as well as the colours of the US of A. His team are all variations on that primary form, in a dazzling rainbow of colours, all earnest, teambot players.

The Decepticons, however, don’t have any interest in paint. They live in the robot chic version of the SS uniform, a gleaming bronzed finish that speaks of practicality, utilitiarian gearing and yes, dental tools.

They chitter and emit skittering, fluttering sounds that sound like cockroaches might if their wings were the size of a buzzard's. And they bleed. Their mouth units spurt red and green fluids when they hit each other with mighty blows that seem to shake the screen. Is this oil? Or touchup paint they carry in their gut units? Who knows? 

Nobody human actually bleeds in this film. People fall to their deaths from tall buildings, which probably means that the post 9/11 moratorium on that is now up, and they get blasted to ash and skeletons, but there’s no blood. Which makes sense, because they are made of cardboard.
This then, is the future of the big budget film, according to Michael Bay. Some token old people, including fondly remembered actors are cast (Leonard Nimoy has a particularly pleasing voice acting job) so that people know that cameras shot at least part of the film.

The other young human protagonists become us. Screaming, helpless bags of meat that stumble across the screen desperate to make sense of what they/we are seeing.
And the digital creations, the delightful databases of rendered pixels that stream across the screen, their every turn, and smile and glowing sword hands beginning with wireframes that can be storyboarded and tested and programmed, reign supreme as the real reason we spend billions to sit in a darkened room with strangers watching the world crumble and burn.
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