When the new Transformers movie, Age of Extinction, began filming in Chicago last year, Kevin B. Lee decided to make a behind-the-scenes documentary about how the filming affected the city. But he wasn’t the only one; he noticed “dozens of people standing across the street, most of them holding phones and cameras, doing the same thing I was doing.” So his project, Transformers: The Premake, took a twist:
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. … 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.
Noel Murray appreciates the end result:
[W]hile Transformers: The Premake’s insights into modern life and modern moviemaking are depressing, the movie itself is anything but. Lee’s not really scolding the fans here; The Premake seems to acknowledge that big blockbuster explosions are fun to watch, and that it’s genuinely thrilling to catch a glimpse of Mark Wahlberg on the other side of a barricade. …
Transformers: The Premake is about the increasingly long cycle of build-up to the release of a major motion picture, and how studios defray the staggering costs by getting communities to provide tax breaks, and convincing local governments and businesses to work for them for nothing. Lee explores the myriad aspects of the complex ecosystem that’s developed, up to and including the way that studios allow some fans to hype their films for them, but shut others down. Lee puts it all together cleverly, contrasting the state censorship of China with the relatively benign (but still irritating) copyright claims of Paramount, and conveying the surreal experience of sitting inside of a Starbucks and watching a city pretend-crumble outside. In the end, Lee takes his cues from a piece of Age Of Extinction set dressing: a giant poster from the Chicago location that reads, “Report Alien Activity.” Transformers: The Premake does just that, thoroughly and entertainingly.
The full 25-minute documentary can be seen above. The Dish previously featured a browser-based short film here.