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Bay’s ‘Bots Boffo in Japan

Franchise a source of pride for vfx artists

For most American moviegoers, “Transformers” is a fun Saturday morning cartoon show and popular toy line that’s been supersized into a movie franchise. But “Transformers” resonates more deeply in Japan, where the franchise was born almost 30 years ago.

“Robots are part of Japanese culture and some of the first art that inspired me was pictures of robots,” says Keiji Yamaguchi, a creature developer at Industrial Light & Magic. “I wanted to work on robot designs from when I was young.”

Yamaguchi, who worked on all three pics in the trilogy, also notes much of Japanese pop culture favors bright colors and larger-than-life imagery. It’s no wonder, then, that the “Transformers” play to these sensibilities perfectly, with robots that can be playful and engaging when they’re not in a duel to the death.

Michael Bay’s “Transformers” pics, the first live-action incarnations of the Transformers, mix that bombast and playfulness in a way that’s captured the imagination of the Japanese public. As a result, says Yamaguchi, Bay is respected and admired by Japanese moviegoers for his bold cinematic style.

So for Japanese-born visual effects artists like Yamaguchi, the opportunity to work on “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” — or any part of the “Transformers” movie franchise, for that matter — is a source of deep pride.

“You know that people in Japan and all over the world go to see the movies, go to see your art, and that is special,” says Yamaguchi.

Likewise, effects animator Atsushi Ikarashi of Digital Domain says, “My friends and family love the Transformers franchise the most among the movies I have worked on, so I was really excited to work on it for them.”

Bay says “‘Transformers 3’ is by far the most challenging vfx done for the series,” and that challenge is part of the appeal for the vfx artists who work on it. Bay is also known for pushing limits, especially in the vfx arena. The artists know they might never get to take their craft to such extremes again.

“When you work on a Michael Bay movie, you do things that you don’t know you can do at the beginning,” says Yamaguchi. “And you are a better artist at the end.”

Whether Bay’s asking them to help build a giant, brightly colored robot, create explosions or put all those things inside a world free of real-world physical constraints, the vfx artists on his pictures know they’re part of a phenomenon inside Japan.

“The images in ‘Transformers’ movies go farther than what we do most of the time and I think people like to see something they can’t see in their lives,” Yamaguchi says. “I think it’s what makes people want to go to a movie, in Japan and all over the world.”

And for these Japanese vfx artists, the “Transformers” films have become crown jewels on their resumes. The vfx community in Japan is keenly interested in everything that’s done in a “Transformers” movie.

“When I tell Japanese digital artists that I worked on ‘Transformers,’ their responses to it were obviously much bigger than for any other movie,” says Ikarashi. “They say they wish they could work on a ‘Transformers’ movie!”

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