It was an eventful summer in downtown Chicago. On a steamy Friday in June, the Blackhawks celebrated their Stanley Cup victory with a midday parade and rally. A few million of their friends and fans showed up, turning the Loop into a scene of mass pandemonium. We had a clear and (relatively) safe vantage point from our office and spent the day looking out over the crowd, allowing random clouds of confetti to drift in through the open windows.
We might have thought that would be the height of excitement this summer, but aside from the sheer volume of people involved, the parade was a mere warm-up for the main event in July and August.
That’s when Transformers 3 came to town.
For several weeks, Michael Bay and company took over several blocks of downtown—in discrete one- and two-block areas at a time, not all at once—to film the climactic scenes of next summer’s blockbuster. Huge chunks of styrofoam faux-concrete littered the streets. Propane mortars fired off giant fireballs. Hydraulic rams tossed and flipped cars around like toys. Helicopters (both as in-scene vehicles and camera platforms) roared up and down the Chicago River. Actors in Special Forces gear ran through the debris, firing automatic weapons at imagined adversaries.
Where my office is located, we were pretty much in the thick of it. Time and again, an ordinary day would be suddenly punctuated with roars of noise and clouds of smoke pouring from the street just half a block away, tantalizingly just out of sight beyond the buildings across the street. As a film buff, I could not resist heading out to the street to try and see some of the action.
That’s when I learned a simple truth about movie-making, especially big-budget action-movie making: going to look when you hear the big noise is the best way to maximize the time you’ll waste waiting around for the next take. Thirty seconds of action are often followed by an hour (or several) of resetting work.
Since I was supposed to be working, and my time was not unlimited, I decided to get serious about watching the production. As a result, I learned a few guidelines that, for me at least, produced some terrific results.
1. Do your homework
Look around online for information related to the production. There are a few decent websites that post notices (and rumours) of locations. In the case of Transformers 3, some of the work was so major—such as the blockage of Wacker Drive from Michigan Avenue to Wabash Avenue—that the newspapers all published the street closures in an attempt to alleviate traffic problems. (This might have actually been counter-productive, since it widely publicized the locations and many people came to town for the sole purpose of watching the spectacle.)
Expect to find temporary signage in the vicinity of a shoot, since the drivers and crew will need guidance to base camp, extras holding, lunch, and the set itself. Often these signs are in code, and not immediately recognisable for their intent. For example, the Transformers 3 signs did not use T or 3, an Autobot logo, etc.
2. Know the terrain
Again, here’s another place where the Internet comes in handy. Knowing that a scene was being filmed at a certain location, I looked at it on Google Street View and was able to scope out potential vantage points outside the cordoned-off perimeter. Another time, I parked in the Trump Tower ramp and stayed put, having a clear view (or as clear as it gets through the exhaust-stained windows) of the action at Wacker and Wabash.
That said, nothing beats first-hand knowledge of the area. At one point I unintentionally stumbled onto the set, deep within the perimeter. Using stairwells, side streets, and an alley, all of which were completely open to the public (but seldom used by pedestrians at any time), I found myself no more than twenty yards from where Michael Bay was rehearsing Patrick Dempsey in what looked to be his big Götterdämmerung scene.
To reiterate, this was unintentional. I wasn’t trying to be particularly sneaky, I was just looking for a clear view of the action. I simply followed a path through an area I knew far better than the film crew, and was never stopped or questioned along the way. I managed to snap a few photos before a production assistant (PA) noticed me and asked me to move on, and I apologised sincerely for the trespass and quickly exited the area. (q.v. point #4, below)
3. Use technology
By far the most useful tool—more than Google Maps, more so even than my camera with its entry-level zoom lens—was my trusty little Yaesu VR-120D handheld receiver. I suppose even small productions use two-way radios to some extent, but on a major job like this—where the set spans a couple of city blocks, action is both outside and inside buildings, and the enormous base camp is several blocks away—they are nothing short of indispensable. Everyone on the crew carried one: producers, directors, location managers, the on-set medic, and all the PAs guarding the perimeter, listening for traffic control instructions, and calling out “fire in the hole” moments before a big, explosive scene was about to start.
It didn’t take long to locate the frequencies in use by the crew, and so I settled into my desk at work and listened to an interesting, often-hilarious, live, unscripted radio show. The star of the show was 1st assistant director Simon Warnock, a logistics wizard who seemed to know every detail of what was happening and what was needed at every given moment. He was the General Officer commanding the troops, leaving Field Marshall Michael Bay to focus on the creative side of the endeavour. (For a while I wondered why Bay didn’t use the radio, until I heard him, just one time. Someone had dropped the ball on something important and he was severely pissed off about it and threatening to fire everybody. I hope the FCC wasn’t listening, because those expletives were anything but fleeting.)
As an aside, most people who see my receiver ask the same question: “can you talk to them?” I always answer no, it’s only a receiver. But the real answer is threefold: unauthorized transmission is 1) illegal, a felony I believe; 2) disruptive, dangerous and potentially life-threatening; and 3) a real dick move. Besides, what on earth would I want to say to them?
In any case, the biggest benefit to listening to the crew was that I had continual updates on how long it would be until the next big event, enabling me to grab my camera (and, in some cases, signal co-workers who had brought their cameras too) and head outside to stake out a good vantage point—just moments before the call to “roll cameras.” I suppose some people around me were puzzled to hear me say “fire in the hole” before the PAs shouted it, and then count down in sync with Warnock’s call as he cued everything to go boom.
4. Above all else, be polite, courteous, and cooperative
I heard and read a lot of grumbling about how “arrogant” and “mean” the film crew was to ordinary citizens, and I have to object vehemently to that aspersion. Over the course of several weeks I had numerous occasions to interact with the PAs working the perimeter and traffic control, and they were, to a man, friendly and polite, and easy-going when they could be, firm when they had to be.
Well, actually, there was one guy who threatened me a little, telling me I was lucky he didn’t smash my camera. But the truth is, that’s the exception that proves the rule, because he had asked me to move along, agreed to let me take one last shot, and said what he did after I took three shots, not one. I abused the leeway he gave me, and he let me know it.
I firmly believe this: attitude is a two-way street. I was friendly, welcoming, and cooperative to them, and got the same respect in return. The people who complained about the crew’s attitude were probably the same people who were inflexible, indignant jerks about the temporary disruption to their normal routines.
All in all, it was great fun to have the film crew in town. Apparently the feeling was mutual: producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura was quoted as saying, “It’s gonna spread like a virus around Hollywood about how great [a time] we had here. All of us felt like this was the best city we’ve ever shot in.”[Chicago Sun-Times, 25 Aug 2010] I really enjoyed seeing first-hand the process of making movie magic. Despite the so-so first and atrociously bad second films in the franchise, I’m actually looking forward to seeing the third installment—if for no other reason than to see how they piece together all the bits I saw them filming into one continuous set-piece of destruction in downtown Chicago.
Sadly, the Chicago leg of the production ended on a down note. On one of their last days in town, a young extra was gravely injured during a stunt. The producers immediately cancelled the remaining schedule, pulled up stakes and left Chicago. It was disappointing to see that it took Paramount Pictures almost two full days to issue a standard, boilerplate statement saying, “Our thoughts and prayers are with [the extra], her family and loved ones. We are looking into what caused the accident.” I would have expected something like that to come out first thing in the morning after the incident, and it gave me the impression that they either didn’t care or had something to hide. An erroneous impression, I must add, for just yesterday a spokesperson for Paramount confirmed that the company was covering all of the extra’s extensive medical bills. Unfortunately, her life will never be the same.
On a brighter note, the Transformers franchise is famed—or notorious—for its pervasive on-screen product placement, and this film is no exception. I was quite entertained to see some of the creative ways in which corporate names appeared in the scenes, and hereby nominate some winners and losers:
- Vienna Beef – Winner. An abandoned hot dot cart with a bright red-and-yellow Vienna umbrella sat prominently amid the destruction—never mind that a city ordinance prohibits street food vendors in the real world.
- 7-11 – Loser. The shop at the corner of Wacker and Wabash, at the heart of the action, was disguised and obscured with temporary awnings reading “Dimmsdale Market.”
- Waste Management – Winner. One exciting sequence of vehicular mayhem took place in a parking lot strewn with WM-logo trash bins. WM even sent along a full-size garbage truck for set dressing. In the photo at right, I count at least six examples.
- Veolia Environmental Services – Loser. Any other day of the year, trash collection at that parking lot is provided by Veolia, not Waste Management.
- Hotel 71 – Winner. Following up its appearance in The Dark Knight, the hotel acted as center stage for much of the action, even allowing the producers to replace a row of ventilation grates with windows in order to shoot them out with machine gun fire. Apparently Hotel 71 has received quite a lot of business from tourists who stayed there specifically because Bruce Wayne had a party on its roof—and having Optimus Prime parked next door will likely continue that trend.
Finally, the Grand Prize winner for creative brand-name placement must go to the insurance company Unitrin. In the course of the action, the top of its headquarters building at 1 East Wacker Drive will take a direct hit from something big and destructive. The result: its big blue corporate signage winds up scattered upon the street below. That’s a good one.
For more shots of the action, check out my “Transformers 3 filming” photo set on Flickr.