‘Transformers One’ Director Talks Bringing the Franchise to Its ‘Old Republic’ Era

The “Transformers” movies have as streamlined a continuity as the “Fast and Furious” series, from the franchise’s inception (where the U.S. and Japan had different continuities) to the live-action movies retconning themselves with each new installment. Now comes “Transformers One” (out September 20), a movie set before the live-action films or even the 1986 animated film, but don’t expect it to connect that directly to those titles. Instead, this is the beginning of a new, standalone (yet still connected) continuity that takes us back to the very beginning, before the destruction of Cybertron, before the civil war, and before there even were Megatron and Optimus Prime. This is a place of vast opportunity, the “Transformers” equivalent of the Old Republic era of “Star Wars.”

“I think of this as the beginning of a new continuity where eventually the kind of major set pieces that we come to know of ‘Transformers’ would still happen, but it might not be exactly the same way,” director Josh Cooley told IndieWire after a work-in-progress screening of “Transformers One” at the Annecy Animation Film Festival. “To think that this film can begin a story that could just keep going without me or with me, that feels right because it’s so much bigger than just this story.”

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“Transformers One” takes place at a time when Optimus Prime and Megatron were simply known as Orion Pax and D-16. The film has an epic story about the rise of these two leaders, while also including the start of a revolution, a years-long conspiracy and war with other aliens, and much more. It’s a lot to cram in just about 90 minutes. It makes sense, then, that director Josh Cooley looked at biblical epics like “Ben-Hur” and “The Ten Commandments” for inspiration — even if those are twice as long as this film. “Those are epic tales of relationships, much like that of Orion and D-16, which we see evolve as friends as they also evolve as people.” Unfortunately, the limited runtime meant Cooley had to limit how much of the characters’ origins to show on screen, including changing part of Megatron’s accepted story. “If we had all the time in the world, it would’ve been fun to show Megatron as a gladiator and have the two characters come from very different backgrounds,” Cooley added. “We actually had a gladiator scene that alluded to this origin that was cut out.” Instead, Orion and D-16 are reimagined as bunkmates working as miners to bring Energon back to the planet after a years-long drought.

Though we have seen Cybertron in movies before, more recently in that cool extended prologue in “Bumblebee,” this film takes us below the surface, crafting a believable city with a unique look. For Cooley, making this city feel big, exciting, and alive was most important because it is the basis for the entire franchise. “It’s what they’re fighting for,” he said. “They’re always fighting for their home world.” Part of this was making sure the planet looked beautiful and vibrant, a place the robots would actually want to live in, with a whole robot ecosystem — like robot deer. The main city is not only massive, but has some unique design details like upside down buildings hanging like stalactites. Of course, when you have robots that can turn into all kinds of vehicles, this makes perfect sense. “Because we’re not with humans at all, the scale is not about a human scale to the robot scale, so we imagined that they live in New York City and there’s another New York City attached above them.”

For Cooley, it was essential to make sure the vast amounts of metal seen in the film looked alive rather than cold and dead. This is where ILM comes in after a nine-year absence from the space (they also worked on this year’s “Ultraman: Rising”). The opportunity to work with the studio was exciting for the “Toy Story 4” director, who has been fascinated with the company since he first read “Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Special Effects” in middle school.

“What made the collaboration great is that they approached everything from a visual effects point of view, not so much an animation studio pipeline,” Cooley explained. “It allowed for us to throw crazy ideas and they were open to just figuring it out rather than say no immediately because it would mess up the pipeline. They made sure Cybertron looked and felt like a real place. Because of their grounding in live-action and doing visual effects for live-action, they approached the visuals from a place of believability. They always started from this place of realism in terms of grounding the physics of the world.”

Paramount will release “Transformers One” in theaters September 24.

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