Visual Communications 101

Discussion in 'Transformers Movie Discussion' started by Cory Bauer, Jan 4, 2007.

  1. Cory Bauer

    Cory Bauer Well-Known Member

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    I think we've all at one time or another asked why ILM's Transformers look the way they do. Some of us have come to accept them, others still feel they're utter and complete blasphemy.

    I've got some theories I'd like to share regarding their appearance, and it all comes down to visual communication. Unless you're talking about functional design (physical items we interact with), design is all about communicating a message to our fellow humans. A good design conveys information in an easily understandable manner, and can also convey mood, a vibe, cost, and countless other things. Good design is never about just "making something cool", unless "cool" is the vibe you want the reader/viewer to feel. Every good design starts with a concept, and it's important to understand the message you're trying to convey before the pencil ever hits the paper.

    So let's talk about Transformers. I've seen countless people claim the film's Transformers are poorly designed, either because they don't capture previous incarnations correctly or because they don't feel the machines look fit for war. But they're not really going to war - they're being built specifically for audience viewing on a film screen. And with regards to previous incarnations, Transformers began with a series of man-made, human piloted Mechs that Hasbro repackaged, so that may not be the best place to start for good design cues. In fact, I can't imagine anything worse than designing something to visually communicate one concept, and then having it resold as a completely unrelated concept.

    So where do you start? Well, from the bottom. If you had to explain what a Transformer is using only five words to a fellow human who had never seen them before, what would those words be? I would personally go with:
    Giant, Advanced, Alien, Sentient, Robotic. So, in regards to visual communication, that is what a Transformers design should effectively convey. If it doesn't, then the designer really isn't doing their job. Those are the words I feel best describes what makes a Transformer, and what follows is why I picked those words, and how I think ILM communicates them:


    Giant
    The vast majority of Transformers are big, some even huge. It's important for someone to know they're not Robocop/Terminator like things - they're big robots. So how do you visually communicate bigness? Well, you can use low camera angles pointing upward, and you can place the robots alongside objects we're familiar with, but a good design shouldn't require such restrictions and dependence on other objects. Slow-movement is another element that can convey large size, but we don't want Transformers lumbering around now do we. So, we know that in the mechanical world, larger machines have more parts. A toy race car has maybe 100 parts, counting all the screws, where-as an actual automobile has thousands upon thousands of parts. This, I believe is why ILM's designs have so many intricate parts; it puts them on par with larger machinery. To pass on including thousands of parts in the designs could result in your live-action world just looking like a miniature set, and not every shot can have objects we're familiar with in it, either. So all those tiny parts make you think "automobile" instead of "toy car".

    Advanced
    It's important that Transformers be perceived as more advanced than humans. Not only is it part of their mythos, but it's a huge part of what makes them so fascinating in the first place. So how do you communicate more advanced than humans? Well, you give them something they can do that we can't. Since they are robots, you make them go beyond what humans are familiar with in terms of our own machinery, and they definitely shouldn't be something we can replicate in a $99 toy. This is why I believe ILM's Transformers have über-complex transformation schemes. Something that we can only produce in CG is something that is more advanced than what man can build. Additionally, it provides that necessary jaw-drop factor; after all, the film is called Transformers - the transformations better live up to the name, no? A cab that sprouts limbs isn't exactly going to shout "more advanced that humans" at you.

    Alien
    It's obvious that no one can define what an alien looks like - we haven't really seen any. That's a given. But it's very important that viewers understand Transformers are not made by man, either today or from the future. They have to appear to be not from around here. To communicate that, they need to lack the human traits we always incorporate into our robots. Now, being bipedal creatures is integral to Transformers, so they can't walk around on seven legs and whip tongues. So what left can you use to communicate "not from here"? Well, faces, hands, feet, and the smoothness of the design. This is why I believe ILM chose not to use the metal man faces Transformers have had ever since Hasbro repackaged and resold Diaclone. It's one of the only points on the robot open to change, and it's the one point that would convey "human" if left the traditional style. Their sharp, non-childsafe edges and intricate parts also communicate foreign, because we as a human society work to simplify designs to perfection, and make them lawsuit-free. By being the opposite, ILM's Transformers contrast our designs. The faces make extra sure no one will think these robots are from Earth, be it present or future.

    Sentient
    This is perhaps one of the biggest points that set Transformers apart from other fictitious robots. They are self-aware, and have feelings and emotions just like us. At first, I thought this was something that could not be communicated in design, and instead must be left up to facial expression, talking, and body language. But for that body language to take place, they've got to be able to move like a self-aware creature. They've got to have the mobile freedom to do all the things sentient creatures do. Move aggressively. Run in fear. Fight like their life depends on it. Sit around being bored. For any of that to happen, they've got to have full range of motion and even weight distribution, like a human body. This is why I feel ILM broke up the alt mode parts to the extent that they did. A robot who moves like a night in armor is going to look more like a droid than a sentient being. As a kid, I always thought Storm Troopers were mindless droids because of how stiff and emotionless their body language was. Truth is, they were just dudes having a hard time moving in costume. The way Bonecrusher charges that bus in the trailer like a enraged Decepticon on a mission is a great example of what a "robot wearing car parts" couldn't do because of the physical limitations associated with large, uneven alt kibble. You have to essentially break the vehicle down and build a human shape out of it, not take a human shape and dress it in vehicle body parts.

    Robotic
    Ok, now it gets complicated. These characters need to move like self-aware beings in order to communicate being alive, but at the same time they have to communicate that they are robots. Often times, displaying robotic cancels sentience out by using stiff, slow movement. Avoiding the robotic aspect altogether will leave your characters looking like men in suits, what with their acting like humans and all. This is where I believe ILM's use of exposed mechanics comes in. They leave the gears & pistons showing so that you can see the robotics at work. They leave areas hollowed out to prove, without a doubt, that you're not seeing a man in a suit. By covering everything up, you would lose the robotic aspect to the communication of sentience. The shot of Blackout turning toward the camera in the teaser is a great example of this; being able to see the components that make up his arm makes it obvious that's no man in a suit. Take that away, and it could just as well be an armored flesh-alien.


    So, those are my theories. Five critical points that an effective design must visually communicate - on it's own - to capture the essence of a Transformer. At this point, I feel that including any of the more traditional aesthetics of Transformers past would have severe consequences on the effective visual communication of what a Transformer is. Because of Transformers origins (Diaclone), which all Transformers toy incarnations henceforth have sampled to some degree, it's unfortunate that Transformers' mythos and the visual communication put forth by it's designs doesn't match up. While they may not be the aesthetically pleasing designs we've come to expect from Transformers over the years, what ILM has created may be the right designs to best communicate Transformers, as their mythos tells them. Thanks for reading.
     
  2. Ravenxl7

    Ravenxl7 W.A.F.F.L.E.O.

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    I agree with you and what you have said 110%. I really like the way that you've put it. Peace out.
     
  3. Katamari Prime

    Katamari Prime Hassan Chop! TFW2005 Supporter

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    Yup, that works. Once again Corey Bauer is the voice of reason.
     
  4. Cataraks

    Cataraks Decepticon Cannibal

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    I disagree with you 100%

    I think they are showing an incredible lack of design skills.

    Here's why, adressing the very same points you have.

    First and foremost, while visual communication is, indeed, one aspect of design... it is only one aspect. That is why design is an art class, while visual communication is often taught in technical environments.

    They're bad designs, and they do not get across the points they should.

    Giant

    Here's the stumper... why did they make so many of them so small if they wanted to convey large size? From what we've seen bumblebee isn't even the smallest. There's at least 2 smaller transformers in the film. Secondly, the large size really only seems apparent with Prime, Starscream, Blackout, and maybe Brawl. The others only have an apparent size due to the fact that they have car parts sticking on them. If they wanted to give the impression of size they should have left more panelling flat, instead of cutting them up. A solid horizontal line on top of a solid vertical line (a T, if you will) does a MUCH better job of looking big than a bunch of triangles that generally make a T shape form. The unbroken mass is what gives the impression of size, because your eyes almost get lost in it.

    Advanced

    This is what struck me as odd... you want to see something that looks advanced, go with something like I-robot, or Star Trek, even star wars. Looking advanced is simple. You look clean, use a basis of what technology we have, but doll it up to look super streamlined. Does the word streamlined come to mind when seeing ANY of the transformers? I think not. Uber complex transformation process, that's fine and good, I don't have a problem with it. I just wish they'd FINISH the process. Look at Prime's head in the trailer. That's what I wanted to see. Or Bumblebee's battle mask. Their entire bodies should look like that. To me it looks like Cybertron is still stuck in the industrial age, where things were made more for function than appeal. If we are currently in the space-age, advanced technology should reflect that. These transformers remind me of the terminator breaking through a car... and remember, the terminators were suppossed to only be a few decades ahead of us, not centuries.

    Alien

    Here's where things get fun. People see 2 kinds of aliens. Alien people, and monsters. Example : Alf is obviously an alien person. He communicates, he has 2 hands, 2 feet, a face that has a nose, eyes, mouth, and ears. Does he look even REMOTELY human? No. Does he even look like he might be some creature on an undiscovered part of earth? No. Look at most of the aliens in Star Wars. All of whom are VERY clearly alien. An alien person simply needs to look like a person with traits that are not human. They don't need to look like grotesque, monsterous metal simians of unknown source. That's closer to the classic alien from the aliens movies. For goodness sakes, even the predator (who is pretty unconventional as far as the look of an alien face goes) still manages to house a lot of traits that we can identify. We *NEED* to be able to empathise with these creatures. To do that, they *NEED* to mimick humanoid emotions, which means they *NEED* to have proper faces.

    I'll give them that at least they only really REALLY mess up the Decepticons, possibly in an attempt to ensure the audience will NOT empathise with them. If so... great job. Blackout could lose his only son due to an unprovoked, genocidal group of autobots and I wouldn't feel the least bit for him.

    Sentient

    While yes, since they totally botched up the faces they have to rely on body language to convey sentience... having a ton of moving parts and plates is not the way to do it. Ever see the movie robots? Or Iron Giant? Plenty of Sentience there. simple, rediculously limited design, but easy to animate into humanoid poses. That's the job of the animator. If the guys at ILM can't even make a model MOVE like a human, they would be fired. I mean, design choices are one thing, but technical skill is a whole different thing. So, again, faces would have been preferred. Also, voices are definately of huge importance. At least they're doing decent with that.

    Oh, and if anyone remembers Kitt and R2, they were pretty sentient, for 2 things that had hardly any visably moving parts.

    I'd argue that sentient shouldn't even be here, but should be replaced with the word alive. Of course, I think this is something they're not doing so bad about. The movie will prove. But from a visual communication standpoint, there's not much you can draw when you can't pose a character to indicate sentience. So I don't have much of a beef here.

    Robotic

    They got across that the transformers are robots. It's hard not to. Put anything in metal and it looks like a robot. Shucks, DATA acts and looks like a robot, and he's not in metal at all. That being said, I would have been much happier with faces and limbs along the lines of Johnny 5 from Short Circuit. He is a robot among robots, but I bet you in the end, he's going to be FAR more emotive than these transformers. I'm hoping that the effects crew loves to put in tiny little quirks that will actually make it look like a robot that is trying to blink, or furrow it's brow, or bite it's lip, or whatever. If the effects crew (as I doubt a lot of it will be handled on a Bay-level) pulls their weight, it'll be decent.


    Also, I find it QUITE strange that out of the top 5 words... none of them are Transformation.

    I mean... seriously, that's gotta be #1 on ANY list of top 5 descriptors. It's what they're named for.

    However... I think Bay and crew agrees with you. That's probably part of the problem.

    For the most part, the art we've seen is filled with bad designs.

    The toys salvage a lot though.

    They aren't doing SO bad with Bumblebee and Prime, the stars of the show.

    But still...
     
  5. kjeevahh

    kjeevahh n/a

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    to cataraks - the others aren't big? did you -see- bonecrusher running through that bus?? he's about the size of devastator in some of the cartoon representations!

    and as for having 2 that are smaller than bumblebee.. bumblebee is huge himself, hes about 20 foot tall. considering that prime was regularly drawn and animated as being about 12 foot tall, thats pretty big.

    to both of you - they DO have human faces. At the very least prime, megatron, and barricade all have eyes, nose mouth, nose, TEETH etc.... not htat i like that myself, i always liked visors and mouthplates in G1, therefore movie jazz is the coolest transformer ever designed, even cooler than teh almighty jetfire toy
     
  6. Weremole

    Weremole Whack-a-mole Avenger

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    Transformation is included in all of that.

    Anyway. Considering we have seen about a few seconds of these guys moving I claim that nobody can actually make a statement of the quality of these models "acting skills".

    All we are doing here is discussing the theory behind why these choices where made. We allready know what motivated them, now we are discussing the semantics of the motive.
     
  7. JusticeSabre

    JusticeSabre FLUKE the SYSTEM.

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    I can't see how anyone can defend the poor choices made w/ this film.

    The original poster made a thread breaking down the reason why the Alternators designs wouldn't work (complete with nifty drawings) only to have that theory shot fulla holes when the toy prototypes for the movie were shown with limited movement and obstructed fields of vision.

    The movie bots are merely fully realized versions of the movie toys, correct?

    If that is the case then couldn't the Alternators designs be taken a few steps further to create believable CGI models for the film?

    ...

    The film bots look they way they look for one reason and one reason ONLY: Someone decided they wanted to toss 20 years of design aesthetic and source material and put their own mark on the property... prolly for financial gain or something. Might not have to pay Takara or something... LOL
     
  8. Cataraks

    Cataraks Decepticon Cannibal

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    Bonecrusher did not look huge to me at all. He was physically large, yes, but take away the scenery, having nothing to compare him to, he doesn't give the impression of largeness.

    That's the biggest aspect of designing a character. They have to give off the correct traits on their own, without any help.

    and I did say that Prime at least had a face. My issues are more with the rest. Barricade bothers me because you can barely make out anything other than his eyes. The same with Megatron. It's not a face, it's a few sensory devices in a jumble of chaos.

    Fortunately, and hopefully, they're not lying about the concept megs not being the final version. The megs toy begs to differ though... but the toy heads actually look quite different in some cases to their movie counterparts.
     
  9. Ahkileez

    Ahkileez Active Member

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    Let’s refrain from personal insults ok? Thanks. xoxo Buzz-

    You demonstrate once again why designing for a toy is not the same as designing for a live-action character. The complexity of the on-screen character couldn't be reproduced effectively in toy form so it had to be heavily simplified and turned into blocks for usability.

    Conversely, for a toy design to achieve realism, it would need to be built up in complexity for the same reason.

    Thanks for helping prove Cory's point.
     
  10. Valkysas

    Valkysas Attack Buffalo

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    I dont see how anyone could expect the movie toys to perfectly copy the movie designs, unless each one was 1:1 scale, and cost several million dollars.
     
  11. MegaMoonMan

    MegaMoonMan www.megamoonman.com TFW2005 Supporter

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    I appreciate the effort, Cory, but why bother? It's going down the way it is, and if certain people don't like it, tough shit for them.

    No need to sell it. They aren't buying.

    I am buying, and loving it.
     
  12. major revolt

    major revolt rogue theory

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    Wouldnt it be interesting if.....

    wouldn't it be interesting if optimus prime cryed in the movie? ok look at other mbay films where there was a sense of emotional climax , anger and sadness , now apply that to optimus prime since if you think about it , op is a strong leader yet with many weaknesses ie. his compassion for humans and other life will surely get him beaten many times since he cares , i mean so the most you might get is a emo op. i mean these are sentient robots who think , feel and have emotions , so why not a emotion like sadness or grief unless they learn that from humans?
     
  13. Evan Goldsborough

    Evan Goldsborough Freelance Negotiator

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    Uh, you do realize that the toys are being based on the film, and not the other way around, right?


    ILM's mission is to make the characters believable on-screen, not to create toy-like designs for the fans. That's just the way it's going this time around. The design asthetic is still there: car parts are visible on the body and such. The faces have been changed up, yeah, but as long as they're able to convey emotion, then what's the problem?



    And to answer your question, the toys are merely poorly-realized versions of the movie 'bots. Why would you want ILM to be under the reign of the toy designers the entire time?
     
  14. Cory Bauer

    Cory Bauer Well-Known Member

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    I've seen several people say this now, and you're just not getting it. The point of the Alternators debate was always that, after you made all the proper tweaks required, it won't look much like an Alternator any longer. The movie toys don't shoot holes in that argument, but underscore it completely:

    [​IMG]

    Note how much difference there is between the two, and then imagine the same scale of difference applied to an Alternator. It's not going to look much like an alternator, just as the Ratchet toy and CG design bare nothing but a passing resemblance to one another. The real design doesn't have to meet a price point, or child safety laws, or adhere to the constraints of 1:24 scale design and the mind of a five year old. And the toy doesn't have to be a live-action hero, or amaze audiences with it's transformation scheme.

    Building robots whose transformations cost $500,000 to produce doesn't result in toys with $500,000 transformations. ILM Ratchet is an Alternator brought to life, with all the proper tweaks in place.
     
  15. RandomFerret

    RandomFerret Fuzzy Forever

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    All the differences between the movie bots and G1 were stylistic decisions, not necessary changes. Why try to insult the designs by claiming they were a concession? They are intricate and expensive pieces of work done with care, not by somebody taking a hammer to a G1 bot and putting it back together again with space in between for movement.

    Saying these designs are the only way they could have done it is an insult to everybody.
     
  16. Cataraks

    Cataraks Decepticon Cannibal

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    I think they were just going for "Alien machines of war" and that's what they got. They've definately played up the war aspect, which to me is a little strange. While there is always the war aspect, it's not the constant, gritty, brother against brother war like the american civil war. The transformers war was always a strange hybrid between WW2 and the Cold War. Both sides are fighting for survival, for energy, for stability. They just disagree on how that should be done. The result is that the more agressive side decides that the only real solution is to crush opposition, and do it their own way. The other side feels obligated to stop them at all costs, even if the victims are a third party.

    It's a constant state of hostile nations, rather than a full blown "everyone is armed to the teeth" war.

    That's not what they want for this movie. They want this movie to be an action movie, instead of a sci fi adventure movie (More like Independance Day than ET, so to speak). I think that was a carefully planned move to make a lot of money in the box office, not caring about overall quality, or lasting appeal.
     
  17. bobby_C

    bobby_C Well-Known Member

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    I also suspect the way they "overdo" the transformations and the overall design is a way to set themselves apart visually and technically. If they went for alternator complexity, and even somewhat more complex, then they'd merely be on par with the C4 commercial and multiple other similar ads or works you can see nowadays that feature CGI transforming robot.

    You can bet that it's not what they paid ILM to do. You can bet when they went to ILM they asked them to create something that'd be like nothing people have seen before, something that'd be very distinctive visually. And it indeed is, even though people don't necessarily like those new designs.
     
  18. Hi Q

    Hi Q I don't want a user title

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    And some loved them imemdiately. I did.
     
  19. Type-R

    Type-R blissed off my chonk!

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    Me too.:) 
     
  20. Cataraks

    Cataraks Decepticon Cannibal

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    You guys do realize that its not like they just went to ILM and said "hey, make something cool"

    That's not how the process works. They give a set of requirements, traits that the designs must meet. They give them a set of descriptors for what type of personality each character has, what overall visual look they're going with (like, a tall guy, monsterous looking, etc) and then some. Then the higher ups meet with the designers several times to help hone designs into what they want.

    In other words, ILM doesn't get to decide a whole lot. They barely get to decide anything. It's mostly up to the higher ups.
     

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