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Wrangling the Transformers

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author photo by Jonathan Williams July 2011

When watching a movie like Transformers: Dark of the Moon, most viewers are likely too distracted by the speeding Ferraris and Camaros, robot battles and the leggy Rosie Huntington-Whiteley to be concerned with who might be responsible for the customization and upkeep of the movie's starring vehicles. But for the film's Picture Car Coordinator Dave Urich, that's all part of a day's work in the movie industry. Having been in the business since 1979, Urich has worked on all three Transformers movies, as well as films like Hancock and Unstoppable. Currently working on The Avengers (due out next summer), Urich talks about how working with robots in disguise compares to other films.

You've worked on all three Transformers movies. How does working on movies involving cars that turn into robots compare to other movies you've worked on?

I was picture car coordinator on the other two movies. On the first one I was a location captain in Alamogordo, New Mexico for the entire film. The first thing I really didn't realize is color schemes. Oftentimes we were looking at colors for cars when Michael Bay was first picking out the colors for Bumblebee and some of the other characters. We were looking at so many color schemes, I thought, "I wonder why he didn't quite see it" and he said, "You know what? That would be a heck of a car, but it doesn't make a very good robot." So it added a second dimension to picking colors.

Have you had a favorite car or robot to work on in these movies?

I really liked Optimus Prime. The original toy had a trailer to it, but in the first two movies Optimus Prime didn't pull a trailer and it was just the tractor. In this film he has a trailer and that was kind of an interesting thing, finding a trailer that would really fit and doing a little bit of fabrication and wheel changing to get the vehicle to pull it at an exact level height. Sometimes you see trucks that have a little higher or a little lower pull pattern, so that was kind of an interesting thing, making sure we had the right vehicle and the right size tires so Optimus was looking perfectly level going down the road.

If a fourth Transformers movie is made, assuming you would be involved with it, are there any particular cars you'd like to see used or particular robot characters that have yet to appear in the first three movies?

Not really. I really like the Dreadbots in this movie, which were the big Chevrolet Suburbans that we lifted and did a very interesting paint job on. They change into pretty interesting robots and I'd like to see them back and being a little more active.

The Wreckers [NASCAR Chevrolet Impala stock cars] were very interesting as well. I'd like to see them expanded upon.

You're currently working on The Avengers, which is likely to be next summers biggest movie, right as one of this summer's biggest movies is coming out. How did working on these two movies compare and how does it feel to be working on one while the other one is coming out?

Each one has its own set of circumstances. Logistics are a big part of my job. For example, with Transformers we were filming in Chicago but there were a lot of things we couldn't do in Chicago that we had to do in Detroit. So there were well over 200 vehicles that had to be moved from Chicago to Detroit in a timely fashion. Some of those, again, were needed in Washington DC and some of them were needed in Cape Canaveral on a very short order. So the logistics of getting stuff moved around is a big part of my job, and it is an interesting part.

With The Avengers, we're in Albuquerque but we will be doing extensive filming in Cleveland and Wilmington, Ohio and a little town called Worthington, Pennsylvania. Each one of those will have a separate set of vehicles, and the Worthington part is the second unit stunts and chase scenes, which is shooting at the same time we're doing the major scenes in Cleveland. So the logistics of getting the particular vehicles, in a timely fashion, from here to there just adds a big dimension that I have to work on with this film.

In the Transformers films, how many different versions of each car are used to portray particular characters?

Bumblebee, in Transformers 3, was actually three particular cars. That's also a part of the logistics thing, having the right car at the right time. One of the cars, for example, had clear glass in it so if we're doing close-ups of the actors, that would obviously be the vehicle we would use. The other ones had tinted windows because essentially it's a robot and when you see it driving by itself you don't want to see the driver. Then the stunt cars are prepared with a different suspension so they can do a little more chasing and sliding. They also have a different brake system installed on them. They have a third brake, so if you look at the floorboard it looks like you have a clutch pedal, but it's actually another brake to lock them up and slide them and do some of the stuff we need them to do.

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Wrangling the Transformers - Autotrader