Oscar nominee reflects on making movie magic

ILM animator Scott Benza describes the years of work that went into an effort that earned him an Oscar nod for Transformers. Oscar nods for ILM, Skywalker

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
8 min read
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its nominations for the 2007 Oscars on Tuesday, and not surprisingly, Lucasfilm was a major recipient of the academy's affection.

Lucasfilm's Nicasio, Calif., Skywalker Sound division received four nominations, including three for best sound editing for its work on Transformers, Ratatouille, and There Will be Blood, as well as an additional nomination for sound mixing for Ratatouille.

Over in San Francisco, Industrial Light & Magic also got in on the game. As happened last year, ILM received two of the three best visual effects nominations, this time around for Transformers and for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.

For Pirates, the third film in the franchise's sequence, the Academy gave the third-straight nomination to John Knoll and Hal Hickel, who won the Oscar last year for their work on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.

But also at ILM, Transformers drew Oscar nominations for visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar, a four-time nominee and one-time winner, and for animation supervisor Scott Benza and associate visual effects supervisor Russell Earl, both first-time nominees.

At ILM, which in many ways laid the groundwork for the current visual effects industry, last year's win was its first in 13 years. It is clearly hoping that its double nomination this year will mean it doesn't have to wait another 13 to win again.

For Benza, the nomination came just days after his 10th anniversary at ILM, and Transformers is just the latest in a string of projects he's worked on with director Michael Bay.

CNET News.com caught up with Benza on Tuesday morning--his first press call since finding out he'd been nominated--to ask him about the honor and about the experience of working on Transformers.

Q: Tell me a little bit about what it's like to get your first nomination.
Scott Benza: I couldn't sleep very much last night. I got up really early and logged on to the Oscar Web site. CNN had a more up-to-date broadcast of what was going on. It just feels great. You look forward to this, from the beginning of (your) career. A couple of years ago, a supervisor asked me what I hoped to achieve in the next five years, and I just boiled it down to getting an Academy Award nomination.

Tell me a little about your background.
Benza: I've worked at ILM for 10 years now. I've worked on quite a few films, including many of Michael Bay's films, starting with Pearl Harbor. And before Transformers, I worked on The Island. I also worked on two Star Wars films, episodes II and III, and a few others. I've been lucky to work on movies I've been excited about and the most excited I've been about a project was Transformers.

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Why is that?
Benza: I specialize in big, heavy things--mechanical things--and really emphasize realism. So it was a good mix of all the things that I find I'm good at. Bringing characters to life that were also robots was right up my alley.

Can you explain the visual-effects process?
Benza: Everything starts with artwork, the look of the film. The designs of the characters are all defined on paper with a team of artists ahead of time. Sometimes productions will hire ILM to do the artwork ourselves, as we've got a team of talented artists. Or they'll hire an outside art department. Everything we do is based on that art as far as effects are concerned, from the way the plates are shot, the pre-visualization sequences are done--all based on the artwork.

The next step is usually the pre-viz, which is animatics for the effect sequences. That's basically a cartoon version of how the action beats in the film are going to play out. It gives us a kind of a guideline to go from. The people on locations will shoot background plates and the action scenes based on these. Once those background plates are shot, we get a copy of the animatics and the background plates, and we combine the two.

Once we've done our thing it gets passed along the line to the people who make it look real, apply lighting, and match the lighting that was on the set that day--as well as natural phenomena like smoke, water, fire, all the type of things that makes photography totally integrated and feel real. We do that process maybe 20 times on any given shot. It takes us several weeks of time to produce just a couple of seconds of screen time.

How long does this whole process take?
Benza: I was on Transformers for over two years, and finished just about a month before the film released. They pushed us right to the very end.

Trying to get our heads around exactly how a 50-foot-tall robot can move at 80 miles an hour was a big challenge, but a lot of fun to solve.

What raised Transformers to the level of an Academy Award nomination?
Benza: The level of realism that the artists were able to achieve. If the audience doesn't believe that what they were seeing was real, then we have a hard time keeping them interested. So the advances in lighting and rendering are very important as well.

If the characters moved in a way that immediately told the audience that something was fishy or fake about their movement, they would question it and it would take them out of (the film viewing experience). So we paid extra special attention to make sure that the robots had a sense of weight and a believable performance when they had to act. We took what we've learned on other movies and took it to the next level.

Were you very familiar with Transformers as a franchise before you worked on this?
Benza: Yes, definitely. I was a fan of the cartoon and the toys when I was a kid. I didn't follow it as closely as a lot of people here. I found out soon after starting on the movie that there were people here who followed this franchise unbelievably closely, which was a great resource to have, to be in some of these early meetings where they were talking about some of the things that happened in the Transformers franchise. Just being able to ask the experts about those things, was so invaluable.

And how helpful was your own familiarity with the franchise?
Benza: It's helpful knowing what the characters are about, what their attitudes are, and what their personalities are. It's important for those personalities to come across in the film, and to know where they came from helped us out a lot. I think (director) Michael (Bay) appreciated it. He was a fan, but not one of those hard-core fans, so to be able to tell him that this particular character probably wouldn't do that in this situation but he would do this...he was open to those types of suggestions.

What were some of the biggest challenges on this film?
Benza: The transformations had us freaked out at the beginning. They were not designed ahead of time. The robots were designed and they knew what cars the robots transformed into, but there was no blueprint for going from vehicle to robot form.

It was scary, and we'd hoped we could pre-build transformations for each robot and design shots around them. But that wasn't practical, so we designed a different transformation every time you see one in the film. If the camera was focusing on the front of a vehicle transforming, a lot more attention had to be paid to the front than the back.

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Video: ILM snags Oscar nods for visual effects
Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean get nominations.

We tried to make things look as cool as possible from any particular angle, which was very challenging. We tried to create tools to enable us to automate this process, but it became more of a brute-force task for animators to find a task for each individual part that had to transform on the vehicles. We had specialists that really focused in on getting the type of transformations Michael wanted to see.

How hard is it to blend visual effects seamlessly into a story?
Benza: It all goes back to planning: if you don't plan ahead with your pre-viz, with your animatics, then you're going to be in big trouble. There were a team of six or seven guys at Michael Bay's office who had the script in their hands and knew what they were going for. They were combining what they were reading in the script with what Michael was directing them to do and everything was as planned out ahead of time.

We filled in a lot of the blanks eventually, but to have that overlying layout of what the end goal was right from the start, rather than trying to make things up as you go along, is very important. You can end up being in big trouble with background plates that don't really fit the action and you're going back and doing re-shoots and then everything suffers because you're focusing on things that aren't as important as working on the characters of these robots and making them look as realistic as possible.

How closely did Michael Bay work with your team?
Benza: Michael is very hands-on; he did video conferences with us two or three times a week to look at the work, and then came up every two or three weeks to visit the artists in person. There was only one person we had to deal with on this film and that's Michael. Directors will sometimes look to other people in their camp to help with decision making, and it was a great experience to just have the one guy that we had answer to in trying to achieve his vision for the film.

What was one of your favorite parts of working on this film?
Benza: My favorite sequence in the movie is the desert highway sequence where Bonecrusher transforms and Optimus gets tackled off the upper level the freeway and down onto the lower level. The robots were moving very fast, maybe 80 miles an hour. So trying to get our heads around exactly how a 50-foot-tall robot can move at 80 miles an hour was a big challenge, but a lot of fun to solve.

Bonecrusher on roller skates was kind of the look we ended up with: One of our lead animators here at ILM came up with it, and we presented it to Michael and said, "What do you think of this guy skating like a hockey player, going in for the most brutal check you've ever seen?" And he was like, "What are you guys thinking?" But then he played it again and he was like "Okay, that looks kind of cool." And then he just fell in love with it from there.