Travis Knight reveals how he remodelled Bumblebee
For me as an animator, design is something that you can use to convey ideas and emotions. Just the shape of the VW Beetle, these rounded forms, these very warm shapes… I think if there’s ever been a car that you want to hug it’s a VW Beetle, and I think that sort of evokes what’s at the core of Bumblebee, how he is the most human of the transformers, how he is the one with the greatest affinity for humanity. When you take that shape and then you contrast that with the baddies, the transformers that he has to go up against, you can see the difference just in the shape language – these angular and angry shapes that you see in the Decepticons make you see how formidable they are relative to this warm, rounded VW Beetle.
“Right from the beginning one of my things was to streamline, to strip down. I met with my designers early on about Bumblebee himself, and I was talking about how important it was for him to be the most expressive transformer we’ve ever seen. their initial approach was to say, ‘We’re going to make him more hyper-detailed, we’re going to go into his face and put in all sorts of moving parts…’ I said, ‘No, no, no, no! Don’t make it more detailed, make it less detailed. Strip that stuff away, make the stuff that is important stand out!’ So that’s his eyes, little aspects of his face, his antennae…
“If you take just a handful of elements and we make sure that’s where the audience looks, and you strip everything else away, it makes those things more expressive – it’s a standard animation trick. If you look at a character like WALL-e, it’s essentially just a box with a couple of eyeballs on top, but they can convey so much emotion with just those simple forms. that same kind of animator perspective is what I brought to the design of Bumblebee and all the robots. I wanted to make sure that they were very, very expressive with simple forms. A lot of that stuff was just stripping it down to the basics.”
“I have to say that I was incredibly giddy to bring these characters to life,” admits Knight. “If we were going to see a Cybertron, I wanted to see a Cybertron that was evocative of that initial feeling and design that I experienced when I was a child. there was something so beautiful and clear and wondrous and magical about that initial wave of designs.”
Knight also seems to tacitly acknowledge one of the biggest problems with the previous movies – that with most of the robots looking more-or-less identical from a distance, it was almost impossible to work out what was going on at a distance.
“seeing these giant hunks of metal smashing into each other, I think it’s always really important that the audience understands what they’re looking at, and I think it’s very easy for these things to become confusing visually,” Knight says. “those initial designs of that first wave of transformers were so perfect because they had to be physical things that actually moved – there was a simplicity to them, and you always knew which character was which, just based on colour. when you have all these high-octane, white-knuckle battle sequences and the camera’s flashing around all over the place, you want to make sure the audience knows what it’s looking at.”
with no Megatron on the cast list (at least, as far as we know – Michael Bay famously said the Decepticon leader wouldn’t be in transformers 2, only for him to turn up in the movie), there’s room for new antagonists this time. For starters, shatter and Dropkick (voiced by angela Bassett and Justin theroux, respectively) are a pair of Decepticons who’ve come to earth “to hunt Bumblebee down” – as “triple Changers”, they’re capable of morphing into two distinct vehicle forms.
there’s also a human antagonist in the form of agent Burns, played by wwe wrestler John Cena. while his true motives have been shrouded in secrecy, we do at least know he’s not a friend of Bumblebee and Charlie. “with John Cena’s character agent Burns, it was important for me to make sure that he was not this two-dimensional, moustachio-twirling baddie,” says Knight. “so even though we’re certainly not rooting for him and he’s a heavy guy, we understand where he’s coming from. that makes his perspective almost more terrifying, that on some level he’s kind of right. his point of view on the world makes sense and we get where he’s coming from, even though we don’t agree with him.”
A KNIGHT’S TALE
But looking past the amblin influence, the fan-pleasing nods to the original transformers, and an ’80s setting that’s worked wonders for the likes of Stranger things, the most exciting weapon in Bumblebee’s arsenal is arguably its director. travis Knight may be making his debut as a live-action filmmaker, but in animation his CV is spectacular. as one of the leading lights at stop-motion powerhouse laika, he’s worked on acclaimed films like Coraline, Paranorman and the Boxtrolls, while his first feature film as director, Kubo and the two Strings, is a beautiful, sophisticated piece of storytelling that arguably deserved
to beat Zootropolis to the Best animated Feature Film oscar. Not a bad training ground for a director who’s now working with a computer-animated lead character...
“I’ve been an animator professionally for more than 20 years, so my whole job has been to breathe my life into inanimate objects,” says Knight. “oftentimes it’s been in stop-motion with a puppet, but in this case it was something made of ones and zeros, so I approached all the key scenes with Bumblebee and the other robots not as visual effects, but as characters – these are actors.
“there are definitely analogous experiences to working in live action,” he adds. “obviously in animation it’s much, much slower. Kubo and the two Strings took five years from beginning to end to bring to life. on this film, our production schedule was something like 58 days. It just moves at a much faster clip, but the same skill sets are there.”
perhaps you could even say it’s destiny that the transformers-loving kid turned animator should end up bringing them to life on the big screen.
“I’ve loved stop-motion since I was a kid,” Knight says. “I remember those first ray harryhausen creature features absolutely captivated me, and to this day there’s something absolutely magical about seeing these inanimate objects being brought to life through the skill and the talent and the hands of an animator. to me it evokes that time when we’re children and we have these beloved playthings where we imagine these things have an inner life – stopmotion effectively is as if it’s a child’s plaything being brought to life, and that’s why I think there’s such a primal quality to it.
“so it is interesting that 30 years after I was introduced to these characters that I would tell stories about them through my own hands. It’s a surreal thing, but definitely those things are connected.”
Bumblebee is in cinemas from 26 December.
You just hope there’s not a hidden stinger somewhere.
Charlie’s in charge because she gets the cool jacket.