Michael Bay and James Cameron have a lot in common — they both blow up shiny things with a particular élan, wrangle their massive film crews military-style and earn studios the kind of money that makes a guy walk with a swagger. But, as evidenced by a talk the two action directors gave Wednesday night on the Paramount Pictures studio lot, they’re not entirely on the same page on the subject of 3-D.
Bay screened about 15 minutes of footage from this summer’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” much of which he shot using the Fusion 3D camera system Cameron designed for “Avatar.” In a technical and sometimes contentious conversation about shutter speeds, rigs and lenses that will probably be very informative for the half-dozen people about to direct a $200-million-plus movie in the next year, Bay and Cameron debated the virtues and faults of the format. But for anyone without a blockbuster on their to-do list, the real entertainment was seeing the dynamic between Hollywood’s biggest alpha males.
After Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore introduced the men responsible for the two highest-grossing movies in the studio’s history, “Titanic ” ($600 million domestic box office) and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” ($402 million domestic box office), Bay explained how he and Cameron met, when Bay visited the “Titanic” set in Mexico in the mid-1990s.
“He said, ‘We’re a lot alike,’” Bay recalled. “I said, ‘No, you’re just meaner, Jim.’” More than a decade later, Cameron invited Bay to the “Avatar” set to see his 3-D cameras in action. At the time, Bay was dubious about the format and bewildered by the nitty-gritty of “Avatar’s” visual effects. “Jim says to me, ‘God, Weta [Digital] has some great algorithms. I thought, ‘What the [heck] are we talking about?’”
Jay Fernandez of “The Hollywood Reporter,” which was hosting the event, played a clip of Bay at the movie-industry convention ShoWest in 2009, warning exhibitors that 3-D “might be a gimmick.” Enter action films’ elder statesman, Cameron, persuading Bay to give the nascent technology a shot.
In the final throes of completing his first 3-D film, Bay seemed to be suffering from a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, complaining about the difficulty of using 3-D cameras while shooting in the real-world environment of downtown Chicago. “It’s a brand new beast,” he told Cameron. “You were basically on a stage [on 'Avatar'].”
“You made the decision very close to the start of principal [photography],” Cameron said, defending the format. When Bay raised technical questions that had bedeviled his crew, Cameron nodded. “We can do that now, but literally just now.”
Bay estimated that the format had added $30 million to the cost of his film, to which Cameron countered, “The question is, how much more are you gonna make with a film in 3-D?”
The “Transformers” scenes Bay showed included the first five minutes of the movie, which melds archival footage of presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon and the Apollo 11 mission with 3-D shots of huge Cybertronian technology on the moon. The footage reveals the plot of “Dark of the Moon” — that the motivation for the space race was, well, more than meets the eye. A montage of action sequences included a scene of men diving out of planes among Chicago skyscrapers with 3-D cameras strapped to their helmets, a sequence Bay said had occurred to him after watching a base-jumping team on “60 Minutes.”
The footage prompted a discussion of where the directors get their ideas for action sequences, one of the rare moments of agreement during the night. Everywhere, was the answer. “When I’m writing an action scene, I crank up the music so loud I can barely think,” Cameron said. Bay confessed ideas often came to him, “while doing crunches.”
– Rebecca Keegan
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