To the uninformed reader, the term “special effects” as it pertains to cinema would include spaceships dogfighting against a starfield, digital aliens interacting with live-action humans, and a 10-story beast destroying a modern American city. However, the aforementioned examples pertain to what was once known as “photographic effects” and are now widely considered “visual effects.” In fact, the term “special effects” is relegated solely for those effects which occur real time on set during principal photography: weather elements, moving of any and all objects and pieces of a set, pyrotechnics and other physically-realized occurrences.
As such, though digital techniques have replaced a due amount of what special effects once achieved, in a film such as Paramount’s Transformers: Age Of Extinction, director Michael Bay insisted on as many on-set effects as possible, for he would then work with visual effects to add the robotic characters in postproduction to match what was filmed during principal photography.
Enter special effects coordinator Jim Schwalm who has been a key part of Bay’s crews on many a project. Speaking from Vancouver where he is now working on the film Monster Truck, Schwalm explained how the process begins early in pre-production. “We always start with going to Bay’s office and getting it straight from him,” Schwalm said. “At the head of the movie, he tells us the main gags, and we start building things and testing things to do what he asks for. Usually, it’s approximately two or three months before we start filming. He’s got it in his mind what he wants. After we read the script, everything changes as you are going along filming.”
One example of what Schwalm’s team might construct for the Transformers films would be a gimbal for a set that has to shake which takes weeks of fabricating heavy metal and incorporating it into the set. One particular sequence in the newest film involves a magnetic spaceship lifting vehicles off of the ground then periodically dropping them from great heights later in the sequence. “In the movie, you are going to think it’s Hong Kong,” he said. “We went to Hong Kong, but all the [effects] stuff — the truck, the bus, and the boats — falling out of the sky was in full scale next to Lake Michigan. It was a flat area that we scouted: rocks, railroad tracks, and a long road. That was a month to set up.”
For the boat dropping, rigged the day before the gag, Schwalm noted that his team added water elements. “We had huge eight-foot-wide dump tanks 35-feet tall, seven in a row, for the boat that lifted up and dropped,” he said. “All of that was full scale. We dropped full-scale boats and brought giant cranes which lashed [them] down with big slings. We were doing giant high explosives in the water in Lake Michigan.”
Another vehicle which is lifted and dropped is a full-scale commuter bus. “We are lifting it up off of cranes,” said Schwalm. “You wrap a car two times with cable, and it unravels like a yo-yo. We rigged those on the day that they shot.”
Schwalm’s team, supervised by Jon Frazier, includes up to 70 technicians who worked for nine months out of specially equipped trailers transported to the set, including a 40-foot trailer designated just for pyro and a 40-foot special effects trailer for daily occurrences on the set, typically rigged on the day or the day before it shot. The same core special effects team has done nine feature films plus about 20 commercials with Bay.
About his director, Schwalm noted that he has a symbiotic relationship. “He comes in in the morning,” Schwalm said of Bay, “‘Schwalmy get over here. We are going to do this after lunch – I want five cars throwing in the air and flipping in all directions.’ We had all of them on car flippers and rapid accelerators. Eight different high-pressure lifting and pulling devices, and we got it after lunch. He also wanted a dirty, ugly explosion. In his mind, he knows what the robots are doing. He knows how [a robot] is going to react. After all these years with him, we’re quite successful.”
Shooting on location in downtown Chicago, one gag involved a car hitting a streetlight. “I told the location manager I might just nick it,” Schwalm stated. “He said ‘go for it.’ [Bay] will laugh at you. He knows it’s over the top. That one shot should have been a two-three-day rig. We’re so used to it – a pneumatic cylinder, a huge one mounted on an I-beam track. It goes through a set of eight pullies on the head of the cylinder. It’s a giant compound accelerator. When you fire that piston, it pulls those cables back. You hook that up to a car and get a car flipper under it and fire that rapid accelerator at the same time — you can flip a car 100 feet.”
When Schwalm needs to send vehicles vertically, he utilizes full-scale cars with engines and transmissions out. “We lighten it further and tie to the frame. It’s just under 2,000 pounds,” he explained. “The bigger ones are 3,000 pounds. A car usually weighs 5000. We take the seats out, the gas tank out. For a tractor trailer, we take the tires off and make fake tires. It’s one-third the weight of a real tire. It’s still really heavy. We can send a full-size car 130 feet.”
For one moment in the new Transformers, Schwalm had to propel one car straight down the middle of Michigan Avenue. In such instances, Schwalm’s team must work directly with the picture car coordinator Tom Rebber. “You start at the beginning of the movie,” he said. “Picture cars gets vehicles for us and we either lash them up or rig them to blow up. I was desperately trying not to hit any windows on a 50-foot-wide street; it could go left or right. We got a car 140 feet slamming into 3-4 cars, came up on the sidewalk, and stopped at the 711 window and touched it, but didn’t break it.“
For damage to the buildings and streets, Schwalm must work with the film’s art department. “Construction and special effects working together,” he said, noting that in downtown Chicago, on Michigan Avenue, there is a center medium divider with a big planter straight down the street. “We build sets and add on to theirs with pyrotechnics, sparks, sand mortar to blow up the cement blocks. When we blow it, it looks like we blew the real city. We add on 20 feet to what’s there and blast away.” The pyrotechnics foreman on this film and many other Bay productions was Joe Digaetano.
Supervising 75-80 people through most of the schedule, Schwalm calls upon a staff shop for making big bricks, stones and asphalt. “We go mobile,” said Schwalm of the studios’ recent propensity for location photography outside of Los Angeles. “The machine shop was in a 48-foot trailer. They make molds right there, and [fabricated physical elements] right there. We converted one of our temporary storage buildings into a drying area. We made a lot of red brick. The staff shop was very important to make everything that’s heavy light as a feather.”
As Schwalm serves as the key tech coordinator during filming, Frazier is the special effects supervisor with “a huge shop in L.A. with all kinds of tools that can do anything. He builds these gigantic items and comes with it on the big day. The bus dropping [gag] was in the shop for several weeks working on a full-scale city bus.” The boat was nothing – we just hung that and dropped it.”
Additional projects of which Schwalm is particularly proud include the previous Transformers film, for which his team built a gimbal which tilted the top of a building for a week’s worth of shooting outdoors at Playa Vista Studios. That gag required a huge piston and two hydraulic cylinders to elevate the set. Another career high point was Pearl Harbor. “That was a gigantic movie in scale,” he stated. “Most of that was full-scale ships, simulated blowing them up. We used big ships that were scrapped and did full-scale explosions on seven real ships. Very little was damaged; we made gigantic fireballs that burned themselves out in a few minutes.
In hindsight, Schwalm relishes his work with Bay though he knows attention to every detail is mandatory. “He’s very thrifty,” Schwalm said. “He knows if you spend too much time and energy on something he didn’t ask for. He remembers every thing he asks for. Something will happen on the set in a previous scene that is luck or accident, and it develops into a new way to do a scene. That’s filmmaking. It makes it an excellent challenge.”