TSR Blog: My Day as an Extra on 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon'
Last Summer, I had the privilege of being cast as a paid extra in the upcoming Transformers: Dark of the Moon. It was an awesome experience. Here you'll find a recap of the most memorable day of my 2010 (complete with a handcrafted kindergarten-level visual-aid):
How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Dark of the Moon
By Aaron Ruffcorn
July 28, 2010
I left Milwaukee for Chicago just before 6 a.m. There was very little traffic, so I made it down to Millennium Park at about 7:30. My call time wasn't until 8:30, so I walked to a nearby Walgreens and then to Lavazza for some coffee, and then spent a good half hour relaxing in the park. At around 8:30, I headed over to base camp. It was all very chaotic. There were about 150 extras, all scrambling about, or in one queue or another (for breakfast, wardrobe, hair, makeup). There was a frenzied energy in the air, which in hindsight was pointless, as we ended up spending the first half of the day just sitting around waiting.
I put on my post-disaster business attire, got a little makeup (smoke, dust, blood), and had a custom-made omelet, which was delicious.
It was a little more than an hour at base camp, before we were told to head to the set via shuttle bus. The shuttle bus took us by the set, but Michael Bay wasn't ready for us, so we went to a "holding area" just off set, under a bridge, and camped out on the bus for awhile. Awhile ended up being over three hours. Craft services brought sandwiches just before 1 p.m., but the first bus (out of three) gobbled them all up before the other 100 extras (on bus two and bus three) could get a chance. I was on bus two, so I arrived just too late.
I sat with Ola (from Russia) and had good conversation for the first hour or so, but sitting on a stationary bus for more than three hours took its toll on everyone, and the bus got quieter and quieter as time went on. Eventually, makeup artists arrived at the holding area for "touch ups." Basically they just smeared more "movie dust" all over our clothing.
Finally, Bay was ready for us, I think it was just shortly after 1 p.m., and the shuttle took us back to set. As we drove onto set, Optimus Prime and the other Autobots drove by us heading in the opposite direction. It was a pretty impressive group of automobiles, and even though I'm not really into cars that much, I was impressed for sure. Optimus (the semi-truck) was huge and really beautiful.
When we got off our bus and made our way onto the set, I noticed Michael Bay sitting in a golf cart nearby, and he didn't look happy at all, a major scowl on his face. Many of the extras had been instructed (by the casting department) to bring umbrellas, briefcases, computer bags, etc. to sell the whole corporate civilian thing, but when we got to set with such props in tow, Michael Bay was furious. A communication breakdown had occurred somewhere and he was super annoyed. My first impression of Michael Bay was not a good one -- the first thing I heard him say was, "Get them off my set!!"
At first we all thought he was referring to us, the extras, but it turned out that it was the props he was referring to. We breathed a collective sigh of relief, as the last thing we wanted to do was go back to the stuffy buses and the holding area. So everyone shucked their personal props, and we lined up for positioning. There were about 150 of us, at this point, and Michael Bay broke us into three groups of 50. He spread us all out along the half-mile long set, in a natural dispersion, and then we waited again for quite some time while they prepped for our first shot.
The entire set was running alongside train tracks, the tracks heading north/south going through Millennium Park, which are sunken one level below the park surface. Ultimately, it was a long/narrow set of death and destruction, meant to look like a major highway, post alien warfare. There were cars/trucks/vans and debris scattered everywhere, shattered, torched, just completely destroyed. It was very post apocalyptic (standard Michael Bay set). It was really cool hanging out there, felt really convincing, especially during the shoots when they'd crank up the smoke machines to the max and light about a dozen cars on fire. It was just surreal.
So we were spread out amongst the debris, and for our first shot, we were just supposed to walk through the rubble, slowly, looking dazed and confused, as Optimus and his crew rolled in to save the day. We did that shot about four times, and that one was pretty slow and repetitive and reset took a long time, I think likely because the Autobots all had to turn around and get back in the right order, and in really cramped quarters.
The second shot we did was a lot more fun. In this one we were instructed to run as far down the half-mile long set as we could, dodging in and out of the flaming wreckage, basically acting like we were running for our lives. Shia LaBeouf rolled through this scene, heading in the opposite direction we're running, in a blue, classic era Chevelle. Apparently that was the heroic move, and it was our job to make him look that much more heroic as we fled the scene.
This shot was really a lot of fun, it more or less felt like a theme park ride, like the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, except that you're on foot and can go and do whatever the heck you want. Some people ran a bit and then hunkered down, some people were instructed to "look for their missing children" and others, like me, just ran as far as possible. This was a two camera shoot, and there were a few takes where I ran by the main camera right as Shia burst onto the scene. I'd say I was about ten feet away from him. There's a decent chance I'll end up in that shot, but as it's an action scene, and there's a lot of smoke in the air, I may or may not be recognizable.
That's me from the Transformers: Dark of the Moon Super Bowl spot. Or is it? I'm pretty sure it is. Reminds me of that famous blurry picture of the Sasquatch. What do you think? Does it look like me or not? Does Aaron Ruffcorn exist in the realm of Transformers?
Just before we started that shot, I was standing around with about ten other extras, and Michael Bay came up and said "you guys, follow me." So we followed him down the path of destruction a bit, and when he stopped he pointed to the west side of the highway barricade and said something to the effect of, "I want you ten guys to start from here, and head down that way." Then he started to walk off, and I walked over to where he'd instructed us to go, but the other nine guys went to the east side of the barricade and were just wandering off to nowhere, and Michael Bay turned around to witness such, and in an annoyed tone he was like "GUYS, come on!! That side!!!" That was a proud moment for me, as I was the only one who followed orders accurately.
We did about four or five takes of the second shot, and then broke for a really short "lunch." I believe this was around 5:30 p.m. It was a hodge podge meal, served with two knives ("chop-sticks" they called them), and there was nothing to drink. But I didn't want anything to drink, because there were no toilets on set. I climbed up on the support beams under the Congress Parkway Bridge and spent about five minutes eating up there, before a gaffer/lighting technician warned me that they were about to fire up a really huge/hot light and that it was aimed right at me, so I got down, and that was the end of my lunch.
Once everyone was done with their food, we lined back up again for positioning, and this time Michael Bay was being really particular about whom he was choosing to place where. A couple times he came pretty close to me, and I got excited, but he'd always choose someone else. Of the 150 extras, I think he hand-picked about 25 for "special assignments." He started asking questions of people like "do you have any real acting experience?" If they said yes, then they were placed in a good position and given more specific acting duties. Todd, one of the guys I'd met last week, was asked that question, and he answered truthfully with a "no" and Bay promptly walked off without saying another word.
So this exercise went on for a good 30 minutes, and I was starting to feel a little bummed, because I thought that if I didn't get picked that they might send the superfluous extras back to base camp to wrap.
I would say it was at this point in the day that I felt the lousiest. I was really hot, tired and hungry, and I was a little worried that remnants of lunch might be on my face or in my teeth -- but the worst part about it all was that the restrooms were off set, and I hadn't visited them in a very long time. I had to just block that out of my mind though, and weather through it. Mind over matter stuff.
At any time, extras were permitted to walk about a quarter mile to the restrooms, but it was at the risk of missing a shot, or even worse, a special assignment. I'd bet good money that every single extra was feeling pretty lousy at this point. I suppose all the real-life stressors would add to the believability of our distressed characters; we were genuinely distressed human beings. But we were still having fun, for sure.
My spirits began to rise a bit, when the small group I was with got picked by Michael Bay. He walked us over to where he wanted us, and walked off without a word. I was just happy to be picked to be in another shot.
I milled about with the guys in my small group, while Bay continued with extras placement. We waited there for about an hour, while his crew busily prepped for the next shot. This shot was to have minor pyrotechnics, some exploding/sparking power lines, so it took quite awhile to set up.
Kind of all of a sudden, an energy came into the air, and there was word that the shot would commence soon. Our extras coordinator started spreading us out, placing us in precise starting locations. I was standing more or less by myself, just south of the Congress Parkway Bridge. At this point I was entirely exhausted; I was still having fun, but was so tired that I was beginning to have a hard time appreciating anything.
My outlook changed radically though, and I suddenly found myself wide awake, as Michael Bay approached me, staring dead into my eyes. He pointed at me from about 15 feet away, all the while walking closer and closer, and asked me, "Can you sell fearful emotion?" I was completely shocked that he was addressing me personally and I uttered an unimpressive "yeah," with a nod. He laughed, not yet sold on my confidence, and smiling a really warm smile (while standing a mere foot from me) said "Are you sure?" I smiled and said, "Well, I'm scared now." He smiled and laughed and patted me on the shoulder and said, "OK then, I want you at the front of this shot, get on over there."
I couldn't believe what had just happened. I've heard horror stories about working with Michael Bay, and he'd seemed pretty grouchy all day, but my interaction with him couldn't have been more warm. In my book, he's the man.
So I went up to the front of the shot, leaving all 175 extras behind me (there were about 25 children brought in for this shot).
Like I said, I was now wide awake, I was nothing but excited and energized.
There were to be two other extras just a bit behind me: an elderly black man, and a young woman of about 25. We still had some time before the shot, so I got to know them pretty well, we were all very excited about where we'd been placed for the upcoming shot.
After awhile, Michael Bay shouted to we three from a good 50 feet away, "OK, for this shot I need a couple dazed and confused people and I need one screamer. Who wants to be dazed and confused?" All three of us raised our hands. He began to approach us, and said, "no, no, no, the guy in the blue looks like a screamer, I want you to be the screamer." I was the guy in blue. I just nodded in shock. He walked right up to me, and said, "I need you to do this..." and then he directed me as to exactly what he was looking for, by doing it himself. He stumbled towards the camera, looked over his shoulder at an imagined alien-robot, stumbled some more, looked back again, and then said, "Here's where I need you to yell at the top of your lungs, something like 'oh my god! oh my god!' Cool?"
I nodded my head in agreement. He walked off, and I had the biggest pit in my stomach I've ever had. I was 100% nervous.
I'd seen Michael Bay correct a "special assignment" extra earlier in the day; he lightly criticized that extra for not showing enough intensity. I thought back to what I'd witnessed then, and felt fear crawl up my spine. I didn't want to get singled out, or critiqued for a "silly scream" or anything like that, especially not by Michael Bay and especially not in front of 175 extras, 50 crewmen, and the 100+ people watching from the bridge and the park above. I'm not sure if I've ever been as nervous in my entire life.
I felt a strong desire to practice a scream, but that was a totally impossible desire to satisfy. My throat started to close down.
I played some potential eventualities through in my head, like what if I scream like a girl, or what if my voice cracks, or what if I just can't muster a scream. I also wrestled with the god/gosh dilemma, as I'd gotten into the habit of never saying "Oh my god," basically back when I first learned to speak. To be honest, I've never said it once. I wasn't sure if Michael Bay would call me out on it, but I decided to go with "gosh."
I practiced what I was going to scream, in my head a few times, as the smoke machines were fired up, and the destroyed cars and debris all around me were lit ablaze. I decided that I would yell, "Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, nooooo, nooooo!" Which I realize looks really dumb on paper. But I thought I could pull it off. I thought of Bruce Campbell's screams in the Evil Dead films, and of Owen Wilson's hilarious scream-tone in just about every film he's ever done. Neither seemed right though, so I was left with just being myself.
I looked around, just before the first take, and couldn't believe where I was, what I was about to do. The scene couldn't have looked more realistic. The generated smoke blocked out the "real world" around us, the flaming piles everywhere looked intensely harsh. We were effectively transported into the film, and thank goodness for that, because it really helped me get into character.
When Michael Bay shouted "action" I took off with the same stumble-run that Bay had done, looked over my shoulder, stumbled again and screamed at the top of my lungs, "Oh my gosh!" Of course, it was a stretched out "gosh," more like, "oh my gaaaaaaaash." I ran a bit more, looked back again and let another one rip. Then I took off running a bit faster and let out a, "noooooooo!!!!" and then another. I ran all the way to Michael Bay, who was watching the action from his monitor (viewing what the two cameras were capturing). Once the rest of the extras caught up to me, Bay yelled "cut."
You wouldn't believe the relief and excitement I felt at this point. I was happy with my "performance" and apparently so was Michael Bay -- at least he didn't single me out or anything. He said to the crowd, "good job, let's reset, do it again."
I should add that during this action sequence, sparks are flying, power lines are popping, others are screaming in the background, and CGI Autobots will be flying toward the crowd's frontside, while CGI Decepticons (bad guys) will be flying up from behind. Shia LaBeouf was in this scene too, still in his blue Chevelle. He was heading into the action with the Autobots, being heroic again. There was a camera mounted on a custom-made Porsche Cayenne that drove in the same direction as the Chevelle, and there was also a camera mounted on a 40-foot crane, close to where Michael Bay was stationed. I drew up a kindergarten-esque diagram to give you a better idea of how this sequence played out...
We did two more takes, and after the third one, I noticed that I was starting to lose my voice. I had a headlining gig at the Cactus Club that weekend (with my band Favorite Shape Triangle), and so I started to get nervous that we might do another one, but just then Bay announced, "That's a wrap, we got it!" Everyone in the cast and crew began to clap, hoot and holler. It had been a long day, but it had been really magical, and everyone around me was in just about the best mood ever.
As we started to walk back to the shuttle bus area, some of the sound technicians, while gesturing to different parts of the crowd, said, "Hold on, hold on, you guys need to stay, but you guys can go." I was in the stay pile.
The stay pile was wanted for sound capture. The techs wanted to capture the sounds of a panicked crowd, so we hung out with them for another 20 minutes screaming at the top of our lungs. I wasn't an idiot though, I did just what I did back in 7th grade Chorus Class, and mouthed it. I'd informed the elderly black extra of my situation, and when we were done he called me out on it, saying, "you were just pretending there, weren't you? You weren't really screaming." He was a real nice guy and we shared a laugh about it.
After that, we shuttled back to base camp, where I turned in my shredded outfit, got my pay-stub signed, and had the most delicious pulled-pork sandwiches ever. I had been on the clock for 12.5 hours, and by the time I made it home, the whole trip had taken nearly 18.
It was the most ridiculously awesome day ever.