Transforming Detroit: Motor City plays big role in new summer blockbuster 'Transformers'

Posted on June 29, 2011

When it came to playing its part in the new summer blockbuster “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” metro Detroit took the film’s title quite literally.

With the help of some high-tech Hollywood wizardry, the Motor City transformed into locations ranging from Washington, D.C., to Chicago to Russia. The film opens in wide release today.

Over a several-week stay last September that brought stars like Shia LaBeouf and Tyrese Gibson here, the film shot at locations such as the Packard Plant, Michigan Central Station and Meadow Brook Hall.

“It’ll be fun to try to figure out which shots are Detroit and which aren’t,” said David Rumble, 37, a Detroit area location manager who worked on the movie — the third in a series that has grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide.

Detroit has big role in new ‘Transformers’ film

There’s a new transformer in “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” the latest installment in the blockbuster franchise.

Transformers 3 – Dark of the Moon Trailer G by Paramount_Australia
It’s Detroit — a film location with more than meets the eye.

Like the movie’s Autobots and Decepticons that can go from fierce robots to super-cool vehicles in a flash, the Motor City assumed a variety of personas when the cast and crew of the action movie worked here last year.

The area outside the Fisher Building in New Center doubled for Washington, D.C., circa 1969 during a ticker tape parade. The building’s magnificent lobby was used for a scene in Russia.

An empty parking lot became a set for a facsimile of a penthouse in the soaring Trump International Hotel & Tower in Chicago.

And a DTE Energy power plant not in use at the time was a stand-in for Chernobyl.

The landscape of Detroit was a virtual treasure trove for “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” said supervising location manager J.J. Hook, a noted veteran of his craft who has traveled the globe for splashy, intricate action movies like the “Transformers” series, “Mission: Impossible III” and “Inception.”

“It’s probably in my top two favorite stops of the movie, just because one, the people, I really liked, and the dealings with the people. People were pretty straight shooters,” Hook said. “And also the architecture — the architecture is fantastic.”

There’s action to spare in this “Transformers,” the third in a series that’s already earned $1.5 billion worldwide. This time, LaBeouf’s character, Sam Witwicky, is caught up in an adventure that involves a potential cataclysmic war on Earth and takes viewers to the moon and back.

Thanks to the magic of computer-generated images and skillful editing, metro Detroit moviegoers might have to see it twice — once for the robot fights and once to look for familiar places decked out as distant locales.

The movie was approved for about $6 million in film incentives on an estimated $16 million in spending in the state in 2010. This year, the Michigan incentive program was changed from an uncapped amount of money to one that will provide up to $25 million for new projects under the budget recently signed by Gov. Rick Snyder.

When the movie was shooting here in September 2010, it was one of 58 productions that would film in Michigan that year. That flood of work allowed “Transformers” to be somewhat under the radar.

In pre-incentive days, any film in town drew crowds of curiosity seekers, said locally based location manager David Rumble, who worked on “8 Mile,” the first “Transformers,” when it filmed in Detroit, and “Dark of the Moon.”

Not this time. “We were at locations where, five years ago, I’d have thousands of people show up to watch. On this, no one was showing up until we got to the really big stuff in downtown,” said Rumble, 37.

Filming was done at cities across the country, from Los Angeles to Houston to Chicago. But even with such competition, Hook said Detroit stood out for having the sort of “fantastic old buildings” that have been torn down in other places.

At the run-down Michigan Central Station, which he calls a world-class structure, much effort was devoted to getting it “not to its original glory, but the best we could” for the shoot. Marble floors were polished and some graffiti was removed for a scene set in Chicago. “We went in there and made it look like the place was in use, but since the Decepticons have attacked the city, this was one of the buildings that was hit,” Hook said.

The film also set up shop at the dilapidated Packard Plant, where a set was created to simulate a derailed train car smashed through a wall. “It was really crazy, to see this thing suspended,” said Sommer Woods, Detroit’s film, culture and special events liaison. “Literally, it was floating.”

Several locations were used, including Meadow Brook Hall in Rochester Hills, the GM Heritage Center in Sterling Heights and a large, multi-block area surrounding Griswold at Capitol Park, where huge chunks of debris, burned cars and a crashed spaceship littered the streets.

On the day of the ticker tape parade, Rumble was hoping for a calm day because of the confetti. He recalls waking up to strong winds.

“That was an ordeal cleaning that up,” he said with a laugh. “That took almost a week.”

Sandra Stanton, the Fisher Building property manager, said storefronts in the lobby were obscured so it could double for Russia, but the ornate interior was on full display and should be easy to recognize on screen. “If people are familiar with the building, they’re going to see the Fisher lobby,” she said.

At an empty parking lot on Howard Street, a fairly modest structure was built that would double for a penthouse in Chicago’s Trump International Hotel & Tower. The outdoor set also contained an adjacent Decepticon fighter on a hydraulic rig that allowed it to move up and down and left and right

One of the most fascinating transformations was turning Detroit Edison’s Conners Creek Power Plant into the post-disaster Chernobyl nuclear plant. The crew put up signs in Russian and removed anything that looked American. They brought in their own disarray and cleaned it up afterward.

“They dirtied it up, because even though Conners Creek is not new, it’s not as old as Chernobyl would be,” said Jacqueline Young, account manager in economic development at DTE Energy, which runs Detroit Edison. “And the kind of destruction that Chernobyl would have — so they really had to do a lot of dirtying and tossing around remnants and things.”

The site previously played Russia for “The Double,” a spy thriller starring Richard Gere that’s scheduled for release this fall.

Young is eager to see what the scenes shot for “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” look like when everything is put together.

“It’s amazing how, even when you’re standing there watching the filming, if you look at what’s happening in the monitor, it doesn’t look like you’re in the same place,” she said.