Reverse Film School: What the Transformers Franchise Can Teach Aspiring Filmmakers
The Transformers franchise is an anomaly in modern blockbuster filmmaking. Michael Bay’s adaptations of the Hasbro toy line have been overwhelmingly successful: Dark of the Moon, and Age of Extinction both passed a billion dollars at the worldwide box office, with Age of Extinction the highest grossing film of 2014. Except these films are not very good, on any level. Unlike other franchises, Transformers has been consistently bad without anyone really caring. The films arte critic-proof with low Rotten Tomatoes scores barely slowing down the accumulation of those big piles of money. It doesn’t have the quality, or variation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it doesn’t have the humor and sheer ambition of the Fast and Furious franchise, yet it’s still successful.
The films are critic-proof with low Rotten Tomatoes scores barely slowing down the accumulation of those big piles of money. It doesn’t have the quality or variation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it doesn’t have the humor and sheer ambition of the Fast and Furious franchise, yet it’s still successful.
With that in mind, and the fact that I have to find some small seed of goodness after marathoning these five awful movies, let’s see if we can find some merit in the Transformers franchise by using them to teach aspiring filmmakers what not to do. While it might sound silly using a million dollar tent pole franchise as an example of filmmaking that amateurs can learn from, keep in mind that none of these lessons will require a windfall.
Create likable characters
Now all of these tips are going to sound blindingly obvious but tell Michael Bay that. You can have the greatest story ever told, or some nonsense about giant interchangeable robots, but it falls apart with likable characters. They don’t even have to be likable, after all the Golden Age of Television is built on unlikeable leads, but you have to at least be able to empathise with them. There is nothing relatable about Sam Whitwicky (Shia LaBeouf). Sure, for three overlong movies Sam faces the kind of coming of age shtick that many teenagers will face, but he does it with this toxic sense of entitlement, childish fury, and blind stupidity.
Mark Walhberg’s plucky inventor Cade Yeager is a little better, by comparison, at least he’s an active part of his own story, but there aren’t even broad strokes of characterisation here. It’s even worse for the female characters who seem to be made up of pervy camera angles than actual characterisation.
Make your comedic moments actually funny
You know what the Transformers movies have never been described as: funny. Despite being family blockbusters (in theory, Bay’s universe is made up of some awful people that don’t support family-friendly entertainment), these movies don’t have a single joke that lands. CGI robots prat-falling isn’t funny, and neither is John Malkovich trying to fight one. Comedy is a subjective thing but everyone can spot a bad joke so they should be easier to avoid.
Follow Your Own Rules
This is a great tip for every filmmaker: make sure you follow the rules of the world that you have set up. Case in point: Megatron. In the first Transformers Megatron is killed by the All Spark, despite the fact that this action doesn’t make sense. The All Spark is supposed to bring life, which it does when it resurrects Megatron in Revenge of the Fallen. This isn’t just the writers breaking their own rules, this is them not even paying attention long enough to realise that they’ve broke them. As soon as the logic that your universe is based on become corrupted, the audience will find it harder to suspend their disbelief.
Don’t use the same structure each time
Part of franchise filmmaking is keeping things fresh. Some franchises try to perfect their formula but end up leaving the audience bored and frustrated. Recent examples of this can be found in the muted reaction to the last Jason Bourne movie, and Spectre. Each Transformers movie has the same structure with a different coat of paint.
There is a McGuffin that the main character needs to find, Optimus Prime will be moody or heroic, Megatron will be either the main villain or the henchman of a bigger foe, and he will always survive. What’s worse is that Dark of the Moon and The Last Knight both have the same endgame: bringing back Cybertron. If you can’t think of a new and exciting next chapter for your franchise, make something new.
Finally: make the action coherent
One of the biggest complaints when talking about Michael Bay’s direction is that the action sequences don’t make much sense. Action isn’t hard to get right. All you have to do is make sure you can tell who is fighting who, make the geography of where the fight takes place clear, and edit around the action to make it clearer rather than stuffing the frame with barely controlled chaos.
Contributor: Kevin Michael Boyle
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