Transformers: The Premake
A desktop documentary by Kevin B. Lee
2014, 25 minutes, video
Transformers: Age of Extinction, the fourth installment of the Transformers movie franchise directed by Michael Bay, will be released June 27 2014. But on YouTube one can already access an immense trove of production footage recorded by amateurs in locations where the film was shot, such as Utah, Texas, Detroit, Chicago, Hong Kong and mainland China. Transformers: the Premake turns 355 YouTube videos into a critical investigation of the global big budget film industry, amateur video making, and the political economy of images.
The Premake utilizes a “desktop documentary” technique that acknowledges the internet’s role not only as a boundless repository of information but as a primary experience of reality. It creatively depicts the process in which we explore a deep web of images and data to reach moments of discovery and decisive action. In a blockbuster cinema culture rife with insipid remakes of franchise properties, The Premake presents a critical counter-image in which personalized digital media asks what Hollywood is really doing in the world.
How did this project come about?
In 2013 I was a freelance film critic living a 15-hour daily routine in front of screens. Shuttling between movie screens, computer screens and mobile devices, I was either watching a film, writing about it or sharing my thoughts on social media. At some point I felt I was losing touch with reality, so I decided to take a break, go back to school and be among people in physical rather than virtual space. I also wanted to make my own film, one that could look critically at filmmaking and connect it with the physical reality I wanted to get back in touch with.
It happened that the new Transformers movie was filming in Chicago where I live, so I decided to observe what the production was doing in the city. I came away with dozens of hours of footage, and not just of the production, but of other spectators who were also busily filming on their phones and cameras. Later I noticed that many of these spectators were posting their videos on YouTube, revealing some remarkable details of the movie that I didn’t expect would be allowed to stay online. Some were even making money off their videos with ads. I also noticed that some videos were blocked.
I became fascinated with two different kinds of movie making: the gigantic global blockbuster production of Transformers on one hand, and the hundreds of little videos documenting the production on the other. I started to explore their relationship to each other and the economic, cultural and political factors that might inform their production and circulation. And then I started to wonder if this investigation could become a film in itself, if I was in some way remaking my own version of Transformers. Then I realized that I wasn’t really “remaking” Transformers, but “premaking” it.
What Is a Premake?
There have been fan remakes of movies for years – as kids, my friends and I would videotape ourselves acting out favorite movie scenes. The idea of “premaking” a movie has now come into play because of the incredible access people now have to Hollywood’s pre-production and production activities. Through the internet they can find out all kinds of information on story leaks, production schedules and location details. And they can go to locations and film their own footage with cameras as small as their palms, and then upload almost instantly.
One has to wonder how this is permissible; why doesn’t Hollywood shut this down? Perhaps the companies realize that it works in their favor; that that by letting people film bits and pieces of the movie and circulate it through social media, the movie gets to enjoy free viral promotion through the unpaid work of fans. But what if one were to take all the footage that’s available and make a version of the film, and actually release that version before the actual film is released? We now live in an age where consumers are their own producers. How does this new power transform the dynamic between big media corporations and audiences whose traditional role is to passively consume entertainment?
Originally I wanted to try putting together a version of Transformers: Age of Extinction purely with the YouTube videos, but in working with the material I kept paying more attention to all the things going on around the filming: the physical details of the locations, the people behind the videos and how their personalities and fixations came through. I became less interested in the final product and more interested in the process of filming – both Hollywood’s and the YouTubers. I feel there’s more to enjoy and learn from exploring the process of making than in viewing the final product. It makes sense given that most of the activity behind a blockbuster goes into the build-up: by the time opening weekend is through, no one cares anymore. So that period ofanticipation is critical, because it’s the period most full of imagination, engagement and possibility. That’s where the creative power of the premake lies.
Transformers: The Premake is the most creative use of the material I could come up with. But I could imagine others doing any number of cool things with the same material – and it’s out there for the taking.
What Is a Desktop Documentary?
Desktop documentary is an emerging form of filmmaking developed at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago by faculty artists such as Nick Briz, Jon Satrom and Jon Cates, and students such as myself, Yuan Zheng and Blair Bogin. This form of filmmaking treats the computer screen as both a camera lens and a canvas, tapping into its potential as an artistic medium. If the documentary genre is meant to capture life’s reality, then desktop recording acknowledges that computer screens and the internet are now a primary experience of our daily lives, as well as a primary repository of information. Desktop documentary seeks to both depict and question the ways we explore the world through the computer screen.
What are some of the things learned from making Transformers the Premake?
– Transformers: Age of Extinction is essentially the first Chinese Hollywood blockbuster. As the video shows, China’s box office clout and political soft power are shaping the way Hollywood blockbusters are made, with an increasing presence of Chinese actors, storylines, locations and dialogue. Transformers: Age of Extinction is reported to have the first Mandarin speaking Transformer, who transforms into something resembling a Chinese dragon. This may be a sign of things to come.
– The Detroit saga shows the degree to which local US governments will leverage tax breaks to attract Hollywood productions with the hope of creating jobs and creating movie publicity to spotlight the city. But there is debate over whether these tax breaks are really creating tangible benefits for the taxpayers – especially when cities outbid each other to land a movie production. Detroit was originally supposed to host Transformers for a month but lost out to Chicago when the latter city offered a better incentive. It also raises questions about how effectively the entertainment industry substitutes for more traditional industries of manufacturing and manual labor that would employ greater numbers of people on a steadier basis.
– The preponderance of over 300 YouTube videos documenting the production around the world marks a new development in the role of fans and everyday people as viral publicists for the movie. The making of Transformers 4 becomes a public publicity vehicle that generates viral fan footage that helps to promote the film. This raises new questions about how the creative energies that people expend for casual leisure and entertainment, from posting YouTube videos to posting Facebook and Twitter updates, are feeding into a new economy that turns our play into a new kind of unpaid work.