Before "Transformers 4" pounds into cinemas next week (sorry, "Transformers: Age of Extinction"), let us take a moment to step back and consider a much smaller, 25-minute film from Chicago-based critic Kevin B. Lee called "Transformers: The Premake," which went live on YouTube earlier this week and will screen at the Nightingale Friday.
It is a collage of pre-production footage captured by hundreds of bystanders who used their phones to film the crew when it was shooting in Chicago, Detroit, Texas, China and several other locations.
But Lee's video — which he has worked on over the past year during his graduate studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — is so much more than a best-of clip show.
It is a kinetic, slyly elegant critical essay that he calls a "desktop documentary." The movie itself is literally an image of Lee's computer screen as his cursor navigates from web page to web page. There is no voice-over, there are no talking heads, just the frictionless movement from one video player to the next as Lee adroitly reveals deeper themes about the way Hollywood films tend to bigfoot their way around and the increasing prominence of China as an audience movie executives want to exploit.
Q: How did the idea for the "Premake" originate?
A: I just wanted to get out in the sun more. And I heard that they were shooting some of the new "Transformers" movie in Chicago so I thought, "OK, this is a great opportunity for me to actually go outside and have a movie experience." So I spent six weekends from late August through early October, and I would go to where they were filming in Millennium Park or on Randolph Street right outside the Blue Cross Blue Shield building or South Wacker near the opera house.
And they had teams of production assistants anticipating the crowds and telling them where they could stand. And then handing out all these stickers promoting the movie. So it was like they had intentionally set it up so that the production would also be part of the movie promotion. It was as if Chicago had been transformed into this real-life version of the Universal Studios tour, where you could stand there and see them at work. It was fascinating.
Q: The crowd became a promotional hydra, everyone with their phone.
A: And I considered myself part of that.
I found out about this through this web site called On Location Vacations (onlocationvacations.com), which is a web site where people send in their tips on where films and TV shows might be filming. There's this whole subculture of people who go out just to see the productions or get an autograph or take a photo of somebody.
And I think so much of it is about seeing yourself connected to this whole apparatus: "This is my little piece of Hollywood that I get to be a part of." I think there's something really pure and charming about that, the desire to be part of it. It's fascinating when it becomes a creative act in itself. The reason I think people shoot all these videos is that it's their way of participating in the act of filmmaking, which I find wonderful.
Q: Talk to me about some of these fan-made videos, which are so meta: Filming the filmmaking process.
A: In some ways they're better because they have this real quality. By the time Paramount is done with it, it's been computer-generated and processed and everything looks so artificial that I actually enjoy watching the YouTube version more. It actually feels like, "Oh my God, Mark Wahlberg is in actual danger! Those are actual pyrotechnics going off just a few feet away from him." So there's an immediacy and rawness that I really love about the YouTube footage.
In some ways this is a fan video too, because a fan video is taking something and making it your own version of what you want it be. And this is my version of "Transformers," one that reveals all these issues regarding Hollywood big-budget productions and tax breaks (that states offer filmmakers) and this growing relationship with China. That's what I care about as a film critic, so this is my version of "Transformers," and I'm pretty sure I'd find it much more entertaining than whatever they want me to pay 15 bucks to see on opening night.
Q: Let's talk about the China angle.
A: All of South Wacker was redesigned as Hong Kong. They had replaced all the street signs with Chinese street signs. And even the Lyric Opera was changed to the Hong Kong Opera House.
So it got me curious, and I started going on fan sites and reading about how they were engineering the film to appeal to a huge Chinese audience. The Chinese box office is No. 2 in the world right now and they're predicting that in five years it will be No. 1 — that Hollywood will be able to make more money in China than in the U.S. That used to be inconceivable, but it's a reality that's coming and you're seeing it play out in the movies themselves and how they're being re-engineered.
So that's another take on the word "premake" — they've premade this movie to be a hit in China. It's going to have the first Chinese-speaking Transformer, and it's going to have a Chinese actress who's on screen for half an hour, which is longer than any previous Chinese actor in a blockbuster. So this is all stuff that's evolving and it may become more visible each year.
Q: There are clips of Michael Bay in your film that are really interesting. He's insufferable during an interview for Chinese TV and gets petulant when they ask him about box office — this from the guy who has one of the top-grossing franchises in history. And then there's his meltdown at a keynote speech for Samsung.
A: I wanted it to go beyond the hero worship because that's the story Hollywood is delivering to us. So I feel like that clip of Michael Bay is so key because it's him having this little breakdown, despite the fact that he has a Teleprompter telling him what to say. It really pulls the rug out from under this powerful Hollywood director figure who needs to have the lines fed to him and he can't even do that properly. And everyone in that crowd has a phone or a camera pointed at him, so again it gets at this idea that everybody is a filmmaker.