‘Transformers,’ Michael Bay and the sound of awards season


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Hero Complex robot expert Yvonne Villarreal gives a listen to ‘Transformers’ director Michael Bay and his sound team as they wave the flag for trophy time in Hollywood.


Imagine Demolisher and Optimus Prime wreaking havoc on the Earth as they battle -- but doing it in complete silence.

Not very thrilling, huh? The hunky pieces of metal in the ‘Transformers’ films lose a lot of their thunderous power without all that sound. It’s the clinks and whooshes and BOOMS caused by the massive appliances that complete the larger-than-life experience of the films.

Director Michael Bay recently joined sound re-recording mixers Greg P. Russell and Gary Summers, and supervising sound editors Ethan Van Der Ryn and Erik Aadahl to discuss the sound art (and science) of ‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’ at the Cary Grant Theatre on the Sony Pictures lot.

“I have like 2,000 people — through their artistry — making my dreams a film,” Bay said. “The artistry of this sound group is just amazing. I love, love sound. It’s 45-50% of the movies.”

It’s a welcomed percentage. The acting by Megan Fox and Shia LaBeouf may not stir the soul of Academy voters, but the franchise’s high-quality sound performance has made up for that. The first ‘Transformers’ film was nominated for three Academy Awards in 2008 in the categories of sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects.

“All of our sounds are performing almost like actors,” said Aadahl, whom Bay described as the “secret weapon” of the films. “They’re just performing the scene through sound.”

From explosions and car chases to clinking metal and pounding footsteps, every piece of sound is carefully produced. “It’s like,’ Russell said, ‘painting with sound.”

Aadahl continued the thought: “It just takes a lot of playing around with different elements. With sound, we are completely unfettered by the laws of physics.”

And with a film bursting with auditory bombast, a mellow scene can be a welcome challenge. Take the Reedman scene from the second installment of the franchise. After Soundwave finds out the location of the All Spark fragment needed to revive Megatron, Ravage was dispatched to the island of Diego Garcia, where the human-autobot alliance NEST was stationed, to recover the shard. The shadowy robot infiltrated the base with microcons, a swarm of ball bearings. Thousands of the tiny spheres combined to form Reedman, a mantis-like figure.


It was a scene meant to “cleanse the palate” from the booming sound featured throughout most of the film. The volume was turned down to enhance the sound created by the energy sparks. So where did the inspiration for the muted, vibrating zing of the microcons come from? A couple of magnets. Spread an inch apart and tossed in the air, they meet to create a quivering sound that -- when amplified by a microphone -- resembles the chattering of insects.

“It’s all about thinking ‘How can we take organic things in the real world and twist them around to give them a synthetic edge?’ ” Van der Ryn said.

Many times, the thunderous sounds heard in the theater aren’t synthetically produced. Sometimes everyday household fare (when magnified) can serve as the source. Aadahl said the vibrating hum from his electrical shaver resembled an bug buzz — perfect for a tiny Decepticon scout. The creak from opening the stove door? That served as the central sound for an older (more rusty) Decepticon. And a slamming dryer door was used as the thud for Devastator’s footsteps -- proving that that it doesn’t always take a large element to produce a big sound. “Those huge things seem small in comparison to the small things,” Aadahl said. “We find the macro in the micro.”

So can we expect more thunderous sound in the third installment? Although the number of robots increased significantly from the first film for the second, the third film -- which will hit theaters in summer 2011, won’t be as robot-heavy and there will be fewer explosions, a tight-lipped Bay said after the Q+A.

“There will be a nice crescendo ending,” Bay said. “It gets much more into the robot character. The last time you kind of met a few of the robots; this time you’re gonna get a much cooler landscape.”

--Yvonne Villarreal


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PHOTOS: Top and bottom, scenes from ‘Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen’ (Paramount Pictures). Middle, filmmaker Michael Bay and a friend. (Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times)

FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this post had an incorrect release date for the third robot movie.