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Transformers: The Best Special Effects Ever?

Behind the high-tech scenes of this summer’s biggest blockbuster with the geeks who turned blazing concept cars into galaxy-saving Autobots

For a pivotal fight scene between Bonecrusher (left) and Optimus Prime, the layout team at Industrial Light & Magic used custom software to track a CGI version of the film camera (top). To continue with real-time, on-the-fly transformations, animators work with lower-resolution renders (middle) and coordinate with the creature development team to match up machinery and slot the digital wizardry back into the final cut (bottom).

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Published on: July 3, 2007


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More than 750 parts stretching a half-mile long. Some 350 engineers working round-the-clock. Thousands of rusty, old mechanic photos — clutch plates, transmissions, brake discs — spilling across the table. All for one beat-up Camaro? Sure doesn’t sound like your average auto manufacturer.

“The idea is they’re not fresh off the showroom floor,” says Jeff White, the man charged with creating the yellow sports car and 13 others for a big new garage. He’s right: They’re supposed to look realer than that. And be from outer space. And turn into 30-ft. robots. And save the universe.

That’s all in a day’s work for the motor magicians at George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), who for the last two years have been juggling the limits of the possible (turning a real car into a fake robot and figuring out what the heck to put inside) and the demands of reality (studio budgets, GM sponsorship, the wrath of fanboys worldwide) to build the most painstaking — and maybe most believable — effects achievement in movie history: Transformers.

When it revs up at the box office this Fourth of July, Michael Bay’s $150 million adaptation of the legendary 1980s cartoon and toy series will include nearly 50 so-called transformations. Hand-rendered metallic uncorkings of real-life cars, trucks and helicopters represented uncharted territory for the gooey-alien experts at ILM, each transformation taking six months to imagine and each re-engineering the way digital Hollywood does computer graphics imagery (CGI).

“How are we gonna get this thing from a car into the robot and back in a believable way?” White, the film’s digital production supervisor, asked the Transformers crew in 2005, when, after their back-and-forth with toymaker Hasbro, the F/X plan consisted of little more than robot sketches and shiny new Hum