Transformers’ Visual Effects Art Director Alex Jaeger’s career on the Fast Track
CGSociety :: Artist Profile
by Renee Dunlop
11 July 2007
he gears meshed perfectly when Alex Jaeger took
the position of Art Director for the new film,
Transformers. Take an education in automotive
design and prototyping, add 12 years experience at
ILM and a passion for anything made with a metal plate, and the fit is perfect to launch what is bound to be the next big franchise in film history. In spite of the impending success (and it’s not the first time), Jaeger is the most gracious and unpretentious of people who can still laugh at himself, and is a real pleasure to talk to.
Growing up in the small town of Clarion, Pennsylvania, Jaeger spent much of his time watching “really bad SciFi movies just to gleam what ideas they had; good ideas, just executed really poorly.” In high school Jaeger was known as the class artist, and his parents encouraged him to explore his talent. “My dad was a doctor growing up. I took a look at how long he went to school and said, ‘Eh, no thanks!’ Plus I didn’t want people’s lives to be at stake. If I mess up here, no one’s going to die… which I thought would save my hair, but apparently didn’t.”
After studying automotive design in Detroit for two years, he realized it just wasn’t all he had hoped for. That was when he learned about ILM and the FX industry, through Joe Johnston’s sketchbooks on ‘Empire Strikes Back’ and ‘Return of the Jedi,’ Syd Mead’s work on ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘2010,’ and the work of Ron Cobb. Jaeger transferred to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh where he made up his own curriculum to have the skills needed to work at ILM, including prototyping, taking an idea from a sketch to a physical three-dimensional prototype.
Additionally, Jaeger researched others in the field, writing to them for feedback on whether or not he could make a living. “What I knew then of an artist was somebody who lives in a cruddy old loft in New York trying to sell a painting here and there. When I discovered the field of industrial design, I thought here’s a field that allows me to not only do artwork, but it’s practical artwork. I looked around, and didn’t just go into it blindly and said, hey, I’m going to be an artist. I actually looked for fields that would utilize the skills that I would need.”
The change in direction was kismet. Jaeger graduated in December of 1994, and by February of ‘95 was hired to work in ILM’s model shop. He worked there for a year, occasionally helping out the art department with storyboards and concept art. Jeff Olson, head of the model shop who knew Jaeger wanted to move to design, showed Jaeger’s portfolio to John Knoll, prompting both to approach Jaeger with the position of Art Director on ‘Star Trek: First Contact.’ Jaeger choked, and accepted the offer. He was 21 years old.
“It was definitely a trial by fire, because I knew there were a lot of people who had gone through the proper channels and slaved their way up, and were looking at me with these heated eyes, saying, ‘Who are you and why are you doing this? We’re just waiting for you to fail!’” A little over a year passed when the art department threw him a birthday party. “Mark Moore, my art department manager, saw the “2” and the “3” on the cake and said, ‘Hey, aren’t those backwards?’ and I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Aren’t you 32?’ I told him, no, I was 23, and he said ‘You are so fired!!’”
But Jaeger has only begun to explore his boundaries. Opportunity has circled around again with Jaeger art directing ‘Transformers,’ a prospect I noted to be a perfect fit for his passions. “Yeah. I think a lot of people have said that to me,” he chuckled. I can see why.
Jaeger’s creation process begins the moment he gets the script or even hears of the idea, “the gears start turning,” in his own words. “You start thinking, wouldn’t it be cool if these things could be driving down the freeway and transform while still having some wheels on the ground, so they can still be going 80 miles an hour while they are transforming?’ He would study his surroundings for more answers, and might note how a forklift has the axle bend around or the R-Model lamp, examining the movement. But frequently he would just start out with a piece of paper and a pen. “It’s not all digital these days,” he chuckled, “I just sketch out very simple ideas. Once you get the overall action or design feel you want, you can go in and add all the little details, the stuff that people go, ‘It was really cool the way that thing broke apart.’” The pipeline went from 2D sketches directly to 3D models. “Most of the artwork we got was just a front view and a back view, so I had to take the artwork and interpret what it looked like from the top and side so the modelers had a guide.”
To provide input on the robot faces and heads that would portray the bulk of emotion, Director Michael Bay sent Jaeger to the Los Angeles ART department where the robot bodies were created. Inspired by the original cartoon but not limited by it, Jaeger modified details such as the horns on Bumblebee, sticking with the general silhouette but exchanging the horns for fins. “We call those the emotional horns, because they pop up or fold back like a dogs ears.” It turned into a nice little design feature.
Bumblebee required the most emotional range, difficult because he didn’t have a mouth. “Initially, when I did the head design, I also did a series of emotion tests where I took pretty much the same artwork and reconfigured it to him doing different poses and different facial expressions. That was just to get the buy off, to prove this design could work.” Scott Benza and the animators would run the robot through its motions and together with Jaeger would figure out what pieces could be used where. “For example, we could use the piece just below the top of his faceplate as an eyebrow, or some of the pieces inside his cheek could swivel up and would replicate a smile. But a lot of it came down to the eyes. The eyes are really complicated on these robots, dilating in and out, getting bigger and smaller and brighter. Those things alone conveyed a lot of the emotion we needed.”
Bumblebee has the basic design elements of the cartoon with a silver face, yellow helmet, and the Autobot logo on his forehead, as well as shapes like the scoops on the side of his head resembling the ’74 model Camaro headlights. “Michael [Bay] didn’t want to see any stretching metal. He thought that was cheesy, a little too Terminator esque. The idea was we would have all these little mechanical pieces that would slide and move, little tiny pieces that fit together to create a face that you could connect with.”
Jaeger’s focus on detail also had a hand in the process of turning a car into a robot. “The LA art department had the cars and the robot bodies, and we were brought in to help them figure out some of the transformation stages. I also helped some of the animators up here. They would take a first pass, and I would draw notes on top of their animations and suggest, maybe, make this piece become the fender, and lets have it wrap around, and at this point in the transformation we can pull out the roof pieces and they can fold down in sequence.” Jaeger spent two years on the project in all, starting with basic geometry animation going from car to robot and then adding in details. He offered his insights with a smile I could hear through the phone. “It’s one of those things that have never been done before, so you have to take a first pass at it and see if it works.
One of Jaeger’s pet peeves is believability, especially when objects simply vaporize without explanation. “Things like that have always annoyed me.”
In order to feed the illusion that the robots are plausible, the film design required some modifications from the cartoon. “There are different leaps that we have to take in going from a cartoon to a reality that have to come into play, like Optimus not having a trailer. In the cartoon it just magically disappeared and reappeared.” Jaeger also sought to maintain logical size comparisons from vehicle to robot, such as in the Pontiac Solstice, one of the shortest robots, and with Optimus, a semi-truck that mutates to 28 feet tall. “The difference is based on the size of the vehicle, so we’re not doing the huge cheats like the cartoon did, like Megatron turning from a 40 foot robot into a handgun.”
Jaeger pays attention to detail in a multitude of ways. Trips to auto shows helped to inspire the look of the shaders, in how paint reflects light and the variations of metal surfaces. Jaeger also collected photo and video references, and did breakdowns of the robots using arrows to show what texture went where. The initial robots were made up of many parts, and Jaeger found the designs to be rather busy. “We had to get some cohesiveness so they didn’t feel like walking junk piles, so we did a lot of posing the characters to try and tuck pieces in and get a cleaner silhouette, so that even at a quick glance you can tell what he is doing, what direction he is looking.” He started out with only three or four artists doing head designs, but once the movie got underway, the design work fell mostly to him alone, with a PA for a short stint and the other supervisors for the duration. It kept him busy and was certainly a challenge, but he was in his element - and having a lot of fun.
TRANSFORMERS – AUTOBOT STATISTICS RATCHET
Number of geom pieces: 5813
The total length of all pieces: 2647 feet
Number of geom pieces: 2729
The total length of all pieces: 1402 feet
Number of geom pieces: 7608
The total length of all pieces: 2230.66 feet
Number of geom pieces: 9334
The total length of all pieces: 4051 feet
Number of geom pieces: 10108
The total length of all pieces: 6070 feet
TRANSFORMERS – DECEPTICON STATISTICS BONE CRUSHER
Number of geom pieces: 2980
The total length of all pieces: 2252 feet
Number of geom pieces: 3744
The total length of all pieces: 4466 feet
Number of geom pieces: 2411
The total length of all pieces: 3571 feet
Number of geom pieces: 2743
The total length of all pieces: 3478 feet
Number of geom pieces: 3236
The total length of all pieces: 1997 feet
Number of geom pieces: 7742
The total length of all pieces: 5536 feet
Number of geom pieces: 871
The total length of all pieces: 137 feet
Number of geom pieces: 898
The total length of all pieces: 1022 feet
“Typical day here is, after waking up, I walk straight into a dark room and sit down for an hour or two to look at the work that’s been done the previous day, make comments on textures or lighting, or that guy’s rocket pod is sticking out of it’s shoulder, we’ll need to turn that off in the scene. Then I would come back and paint notes up on shots and email them off so the artists could do tweaks for the next take.”
There were days when Director Michael Bay would call up with an idea for a new shot and request a quick mockup. Jaeger would provide a few iterations, and Bay would pick one for the team to use as a guide. “That’s another big part of this job, and goes with pretty much every movie we work on here, and a big point with Michael. I did hundreds of pieces of concept art for ‘Pearl Harbor’ here’s what Pearl Harbor looks like now, here’s what it looked like then, and here’s what it looked like back then during war.
And he would say, ‘OK, more explosions!’ Michael’s got a really good eye on how things should look for real because he’s shot so many other films and car commercials that he can spot something fake, instantly. You have to be able to figure out what he wants and get it down to even the right sunlight gleaming off the side view mirror.”
Jaeger admits he gets excited putting a fingerprint on some of the legendary icons of pop culture, and gets a kick over hearing people talk about his films at almost any lunch table. He designed the Akira Class ship as a background element in ‘Star Trek: First Contact’ that became the basis for the Starship Enterprise NXO1 in the last TV series, and after 12 years the bulk of his emails are still requests for additional Akira blueprints.
On ‘Star Wars’ he had the chance to bring back to life the sketchbook images he grew up with, like the six wheel tank in ‘Episode III,’ originally designed by Joe Johnston, revamping it for the film and designing angles that Johnston hadn’t tackled. “That was totally fun.” In a reversal of sorts, Jaeger worked on ‘Galaxy Quest’, a spoof on Star Trek and considers it one of the best times he’s had on a film. Falling on his quiet, wry humor, he designed the Protector in ‘Galaxy Quest’ to use the general shape of Star Treks Enterprise, but flipped it around so that the shape of the engines on the Enterprise becomes the body of The Protector, and the disk shape of the saucer becomes the engines. Even the name “NTE Protector” stands for “Not The Enterprise”.
Another of Jaeger’s “best times” was on ‘Episode III.’ “I got to go to Skywalker Ranch and do a lot of the preproduction design with the guys I’ve worked with in the past who have gone on to do a lot of great things. Ryan Church, Eric Tiemens, Warren Foo, Derek Thompson and Iain McCaig, and the list goes on. That was a great opportunity, working in the intimate environment where it was just us, designing at whim, essentially. George would come down and mention something like, ‘I need a new planet, and it should be an asteroid planet’ and we would all go off and draw asteroid planets for a couple of days. That was definitely the capper on that era.”
Jaeger still hasn’t put aside his desire to do car design, and would someday like to point at a passing vehicle and say he designed that. I asked if perhaps he would build a Transformer car. “I am sure there will be a few popping up in the next few months.” I want one already.
“Yeah, it’s been fun. I definitely have had a lot of support, not only from family but from friends, and recently my wife. I just got married last year, so that was another dream come true.”
He is also interested in getting into more preproduction design as opposed to the eventual application of it, because there is more freedom in the blue sky creations as opposed to the practical, day to day design work, ”which is obviously something I’m still passionate about. But I think I’ve been learning to let that go so that I can have more fun in the design process. I think as long as I am doing the actual work, I’ll be happy.”
Alex Jaeger, as does his audience, has a lot to be happy about.