When it comes to pyrotechnics, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” has earned its place in cinema history. Director Michael Bay’s just-released follow-up to his 2007 summer movie blockbuster features the biggest explosion ever filmed with live actors, according to special effects supervisor John Frazier.
The sequence, in which a fleet of bombers flies in to annihilate a group of combative robots, required more than 1,000 gallons of gasoline and more than 300 sticks of dynamite.
“We did it in White Sands, N.M., but the scene takes place in Egypt,” Frazier explained. “While [the film’s stars] Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox and Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson were running, we started the explosions. When they started running, they were 25 feet away. When the first bomb went off, they were 75 feet away. The heat was just intense. That was a big, big shot.”
Although Frazier originally studied construction and engineering at Los Angeles Trade Technical College with the intention of building high-rises, his career took a different path when, in 1965, a producer friend recommended him for a job at NBC.
“I went to the studio thinking I was going to build sets,” Frazier said. “I got there, and they just pointed at me and said, ‘You go over and work with those guys.’ And it happened to be the special effects department.”
A year later, he was promoted to head of the special effects department at the network, where he spent the next eight years working with Elvis Presley, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson and Dean Martin.
In the ‘70s, Frazier transitioned into movies and signed on for Wes Craven’s desert horror film “The Hills Have Eyes.” Since then, Frazier has worked on more than 100 features, creating a host of special effects -- standouts include designing an underwater gimbal for “The Perfect Storm” and blowing up a $60-million house for Bay’s “Bad Boys II.”
“If it moves, it’s on fire or it blows up, we do it,” Frazier said. “We wear a lot of hats.”
Dynamite 101: All bombs are not created equal. “What we call a lifter is a low explosive -- it’s black powder,” Frazier explained. “Dynamite is a high explosive. A lot of times when you’re using high explosives, you have to shoot high speed because it’s so fast you don’t see it. High explosives cut things and tear things up. That’s what Michael Bay likes. What Michael loves is this stuff we call Kinepak. It’s dynamite, but you mix it on set. You just take a syringe, and you mix a powder and a liquid together and you have a stick of dynamite. And it’s still totally safe until you put the blasting cap on it. The great thing about it is you can ship it. And if you want to get rid of it, just throw it on your lawn because that’s what it is. It’s fertilizer.”
Coming down the pipe: Frazier tries to take care when pelting actors with large debris. For the “Transformers” sequel, “We were in Pittsburgh at a steel mill, and we ‘blew up’ all of these big concrete culvert pipes,” he recalled. “They’re about 8 feet in diameter. We made all of those out of foam, and we launched those in the air at the actors. We have what’s called a car flipper that we developed when we did ‘Armageddon.’ It looks like a floor jack. You set it underneath a car, you put about 2,500 pounds of pressure on it, and it launches the car about 25 feet and looks like a bomb’s going off. But we use them to launch everything. So we put these underneath all these big foam culvert pipes, and we launched those 50 feet! And then we do little mini explosions in the background. Well, they weren’t exactly that little.”
Pretty choppy: Frazier uses similar restraint when threatening actors with falling helicopters. “We brought in this big construction crane from Albuquerque, and it was about 150 feet in the air or so, and it had a guide cable that ran right down to the ground,” he explained. “It was the guide for the helicopter, which crashed into the dirt. And so the actors were running from it, and we had explosions. It came down sideways, and then we turned it so it would nose in, and it would look like the pilot had gotten control of it. You don’t want it to look like people die in a movie like this. We wanted it to look like they all lived.”
Architecturally unsound: In Frazier’s business, some structures are designed specifically to fall down. “In the [scene in the] Bedouin village, there were these big architectural columns like you see in Rome,” he said. “They were like 25 feet tall and about 6 feet in diameter. They’re all made out of foam, and they all had dynamite behind them. What we’d have to do is precut the foam and create this cavity out of fiberglass, and it was about an inch thick. We used the Kinepak in that. “Michael Bay loves that Kinepak. He’ll do a shot, and he’ll just shake his head and go, ‘What was that? Get out the Kinepak!’ He’s funny. He should have been a stand-up comedian.”