Filmmakers in Disguise

What I learned about Hollywood by shooting a guerrilla documentary about the next Transformers movie.

Transformers: Age of Extinction
A non-guerrilla still from Transformers: Age of Extinction.

Photo by Industrial Light/Paramount Pictures

One Saturday last September, I was huddled with a crowd of people at the front window of a Starbucks in Chicago, waiting for a convoy of cars to pass by. The new Transformers movie, Age of Extinction, was being filmed outside, and we were on hand to observe the scene, which involved the Autobots—robots who transform into cars—rolling down Chicago’s LaSalle Street. I was making a documentary about the filming of the movie and its effect on the city, how it, for example, locked off entire blocks of downtown Chicago from public access. As the cars passed our window, I panned across to follow them, only to notice dozens of people standing across the street, most of them holding phones and cameras, doing the same thing I was doing.

There were three types of filmmaking happening all at once, I then realized: a multimillion-dollar global Hollywood blockbuster, my modest independent documentary, and the dozens of amateur videos all being created in an instant. I started to wonder about the connections between the three, and what they might have in common. Trying to answer those questions in documentary form led me to understand Hollywood movies, their production, and our shifting relationship to them as viewers and consumers, in ways that I hadn’t before. I tried to communicate what I’d learned in “Transformers: The Premake,” which you can watch below.

The original idea for the Transformers documentary grew out of my dissatisfactions as a freelance film critic who spent most of his waking hours in front of screens. Somewhere between watching movies in a theater or on a TV screen, writing about them on a computer screen, or tweeting and Facebooking on mobile devices, it seemed like the world of screens had become my reality, and it was unnerving. Part of the reason I backed away from work as a critic and went to graduate school was so that I could spend more of my time interacting with people face to face. Similarly, I chose a film project that would allow me to connect with the physical realities behind the media that gets served up on our various screens.

But my encounters with so many other people filming their own videos made me rethink my whole approach. Frankly, it humbled me as a filmmaker, because it drove home the realization that everyone is a filmmaker now. I also realized that everyone in their own way was making their own version of Transformers, based on the small privileged glimpses they had of this massive production. I started to notice these videos popping up on YouTube, and not just from Chicago, but from Utah, Texas, Detroit, Hong Kong. After a weekend of keyword-spelunking through the caves of YouTube, I emerged with 355 videos that documented the production. In a sense, the documentary of the making of Transformers had already been made, in 355 pieces. Now it was a matter of figuring out how the pieces fit together.

I had noticed during my filming in Chicago that some streets had been dressed up with Chinese signage and yellow cabs replaced with red and white Hong Kong taxis. The footage I had seen of Detroit was even more dramatic: an entire section of downtown Detroit looked as if it had been annexed by China. I was now spending my days scouring the Internet for details behind the global scope of the production. The booming box office in China, combined with the country’s strict quotas on imported movies, was giving the Chinese tremendous leverage on Hollywood to make movies more Chinese, and thus deemed worthy of Chinese audiences. And back in the U.S., there’s competition between cities to attract productions, in the hopes that Hollywood’s presence will create jobs and boost their media profile as destination cities. You can see all of this play out in the YouTube videos of Detroit, which leveraged tax incentives so that Michael Bay could choose the Motor City to stage his spectacles of mass destruction with Chinese characteristics.

What did it mean to be able to see so much behind the scenes material before the movie is even released? Would Paramount take the videos down? In some instances they did, and I found a handful of dead links, leaving me to wonder what might be unacceptable in those clips. The fact that they had been taken down indicated that Paramount was, to some extent, at least, paying attention, and that the other videos served a benign purpose as far as the company was concerned, by spreading awareness of the film. That this sort of promotional activity was being done voluntarily by the YouTubers suggested a free labor system that’s become all too endemic to the social media economy: We all post our own thoughts and creations to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and so on, creating content that fuels companies valued in the billions. Even when we are playing with our phones and our movies, we are, in some sense, working for someone else.

This new world in which everyone is a filmmaker may seem like a true democracy of images. But it’s not so simple. Earnest amateur filmmaking can easily become sideline cheerleading for global media juggernauts. And this project helped me to realize to what extent our experiences are “pre-made” by the industrial and geopolitical interests that go into the making of a film, or any cultural product, and to what extent our own creative energies are co-opted in those efforts.

In January, Michael Bay rather notoriously walked out of a live sales pitch he was delivering on behalf of Samsung at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year. That incident has now become a disposable viral video gag, but in the context of “The Premake” I hope one can see more than just a cheap shot at a Hollywood bigwig. Instead of focusing on Bay’s comic miscue, notice the sea of cameras hovering like fireflies around a spectacle of celebrity enthroned in high-def images that loom over the audience. The sense of reality on display is scripted in the service of a pre-packaged, tightly wound consumerism. And, ultimately, he proves incapable of veering from that script.

What role then does the amateur image-maker play in a pre-made consumer reality? If people are allowed to make their own versions of Transformers, will they be able to veer from that script, or will they just feed the corporate giant? I wouldn’t be surprised if Hollywood studios some day host their own “premake” events, where fans are authorized—for a fee, perhaps—to visit sets and shoot footage to make their own versions of the film, which would then be repackaged as promotional content. But whether or not that happens, I hope that people will push to connect more conscientiously with the movies, to think not only about these immense productions and their effects on the world, but also their own creative potential, and the possibility of a more democratic economy of images.