For several years now, Kevin B. Lee has been pioneering an innovative form of film criticism, recutting films into insightful and provocative video essays. Last summer he first shared Transformers: the Premake (T/F 2015) and for many made the leap from criticism to cinema. The Premake is a “desktop documentary” examining the sprawling production of the incomprehensible mega-blockbuster Transformers: Age of Extinction through amateur videos, while exploring the virtual space of a computer desktop and the way we process information. Just this week the Premake earned Kevin the Arte Creative Newcomer Award at the European Media Art Festival. If you haven’t seen it yet, take the time to watch this fascinating short right now.
A couple weeks back I got the chance to chat with Kevin about his film, its influences and our culture’s pathological relationship with mega-franchises.
True/False: Hey Kevin! Can we start by talking about how you first get interested in making a film about the Transformers’ production?
Kevin B. Lee: I’ve worked as a film critic for a number of years. I specialize in a form of criticism that takes footage from films and manipulates it so that we can learn about them. I was looking for a way to break out of my normal routine of watching movies, analyzing them and putting them back together into video essays.
I wanted to get away from screens, for one thing. I was spending way too much looking at movie and computer screens and sort of questioning the meaning of my life. I wanted to experience actual physical reality and try to connect my love of cinema with physical spaces.
And so it just so happened that there was a film shoot, Transformers 4, happening in Chicago where I live around the fall of 2013. I took this as an opportunity to go, see what was going on and ask questions.
How does a movie manifest itself in a physical space, in an actual location? And how does it actually affect that location, especially when it’s a city with 3 million people and streets are being closed off and citizens have limited access to their own city?
So I went with my camera, but I didn’t get very far because they had everything blocked off. I basically had to stay in these designated observation areas that they had created. There I was with my camera, and I look around and see 50 other people with their cameras. That was very humbling, trying to make a documentary with an original view of movie production and seeing all these other people doing this same thing that I was! Then I started noticing that some of the videos were being put online. So I was like “okay, this film is sort of happening without me.”
The more I looked at this footage, the more I started to wonder. Here’s a clip from Chicago. Here’s one from Detroit. Here’s one from Texas. Here’s one from Hong Kong! It started making me think about the entire production, not just what was happening in Chicago. I’d spend weekends just doing different kinds of keyword searches on YouTube, with any variation of Transformers 4, shooting, production, location, ect. I wound up with 355 YouTube videos of the production in different parts of the world. I got to thinking, “wow, that’s a lot of video. What could I come up with if I started putting all of this footage together? Could I actually make scenes or sequences from the movie? Could I create some version of the movie and maybe put it out on YouTube before the movie even comes out? So instead of a remake–which is what people usually do, recutting footage and making their own version of movies–why don’t I have a premake, and put this movie up before the movie comes out?” That got me excited.
I would open up different video clips and put them on the screen side-by-side just to see how they could be stitched together. The more I did that, the more I started to become fascinated with the desktop itself as this kind of location–my own sort of movie set if you will–where I was putting things together. I started to think about the desktop as an environment that is worth exploring in its own way, in a creative or artistic way, to think about how the desktop works as screen, but also as a camera, because now we have the ability to record our desktops.
You see all of these demo videos on YouTube with people saying “I’m going to show you how to solve all these problems on Final Cut” and you literally watch this guy’s computer screen as he’s operating software. This got me thinking. What if I did my own sort of instruction video for how to understand Transformers, a user manual for how to look at all of these YouTube videos and create a pathway for understanding all of the factors that go into a contemporary Hollywood blockbuster? So there’s a bit of a instructional video aspect to it as well.
I started thinking about this thing called “desktop documentary” and what it might look like. I started looking at the very small handful of pre-existing examples I was able to find, to take lessons from each one. I experimented with recording the screen and putting windows in different arrangements. You’re kind of taking people on a path, with one video building on the one before, so that each video builds the argument or takes you further on the journey.
T/F: Could you tell me more about the preexisting examples of desktop documentary that you found? I ask because I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this before your film.
KBL: Yeah, there are three main examples that were really illuminating for me, and they are all very different from each other. The first one was made by a teacher at my school, the Art Institute of Chicago. The teacher’s name Nick Briz and he made a film called Apple Computers. It’s a half hour documentary that takes place entirely on his desktop. It’s a critical look at how Apple creates a restrictive, proprietary creative environment, how the perfect veneer of user interface that Apple presents you with actually restricts your ability to be creative. He interviews several media scholars, activists and artists who all have some sort of beef with Apple and are critical of its dominance in the current cultural landscape.
Another is a narrative film called Noah. It’s a short fiction film that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2013 about a teenage boy named Noah who breaks up with his girlfriend on Facebook. It all happens in real time. What you’re seeing is literally his computer screen as he’s looking at it, opening up different windows and doing different things all while having this conversation with his girlfriend that eventually becomes a breakup. You literally see the mind of a 17 year-old kid at work. He’s multitasking through like five different things at once and you’re like “ok, no wonder he can’t maintain a relationship.” So, that was fascinating because it actually tells a story through a subjective point of view. That got me thinking on how I can present my point of view based on what you’re looking at at any given moment.
The third example is Grosse Fatigue which is a work of visual art created by the French artist Camille Henrot. It won the jury prize at 2013 Venice Biennale. This one is super visionary, with windows opening and closing, this endless play of images opening on her desktop creating this visionary formation. It’s really thrilling to watch, one of the most creatively expressive videos I’ve seen. It made me think about how the internet is this endless repository of images waiting to open up before you, to create that sense of abundance.
So new media, a festival film is and an art video, three very different examples from three very different worlds, right? I tried to merge them together to make my work.
T/F: Do you think about this film as more cinematic than your other video essays, like The Spielberg Face, which I would see more as works of criticism? Is there a sharp distinction for you?
KBL: Yeah, if you want to define cinematic in terms of a direct sensory experience of time and space, because there’s very little voice-over or narration happening, it’s really just looking at a screen and experiencing what’s happening on a screen. But I’ve gotten some push back on this being more cinematic from people who are more old school in their definitions of cinema, who say cinema is about looking at scenery or landscapes and really being in a physical space. Are we really in physical space when we’re looking at a computer screen? That’s a fair criticism to make.
My response would be that we are at a point in human history where we spend an enormous amount of time looking at screens. You and I are looking at screens right now. We use them as accessories, as means to accomplish things. But now it’s really become a primary experience of reality. Think about how many hours you spend looking at your laptop or iPad or iPhone or TV. When you get to that point of saturation, it really does affect your definition of what’s real. The things on screen are manifestations of your reality. It’s now an issue of how do I explore this environment called the screen. Instead of the screen taking a picture of other things in the world, you treat the screen as an environment in itself that you can probe and explore, the same way that a camera can explore a forest or a landscape. I think this is very much a 21st century update on those basic cinematic questions that we asked 100 years ago.
T/F: It’s interesting too that idea of taking a computer screen and putting it up onto a cinema screen like we did at True/False, so you’re seeing the screen in a new context.
KBL: Absolutely. It makes you think about the computer screens we take for granted. How it affects the way we see when you create that distance from it.
T/F: One thing the film investigates and documents that interests me is the crowd-sourced marketing now built into these mega-franchises like Transformers. These movies feel like they are already partially digested by the time they actually reach the audience.
KBL: Yeah, it’s like the actual act of watching the movie is just an afterthought. All they want to do is drum up as much anticipation and involvement and emotional investment from us as possible, hoping they push everyone into buying a ticket. And then once you get that 10 or 15 bucks, the movie is an almost an afterthought. You watch, and you’re like “that kind of sucks.” This is the problem right now with the way Hollywood has affected our patterns of cultural behavior. We get excited about something, there’s all this build up, anticipation, and then always a let down. But we always come back for more. There’s always another Avengers movie coming out, another Star Wars movie coming out. What is the deal with this reflex that is happening again and again?
One reason why I made this movie in the first place is that as a critic I felt useless when it came to saying that these movies suck, because no one listens. I mean, they kind of know they suck, but because there’s so much cultural buy-in from all the marketing they feel this weird peer pressure to care about them. So the movie effectively becomes critic proof. So how do I as a critic become relevant in this sort of situation? How do I grab people’s attention and make them think or act differently in relation to these movies, instead of just getting caught up in the same anticipation-letdown-anticipation-letdown cycle?
T/F: The point in the film when the production reaches mainland China, and all of the crowd-sourced material disappears. Do you know why there aren’t any fan videos inside China? Are they not being shot or are they just all being taken down? It creates a feeling of a negative space.
KBL: Yeah, I know, the only videos you can find are from official media outlets. I don’t know if there were any amateur videos in the first place or if they weren’t being made because the locations were so off limits. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to compare what’s going on in the U.S. with what’s going on in China. For all that’s happening in the U.S., at least we’re able to upload these videos, regardless of how they get used.
T/F: So I watched Transformers: Age of Extinction right after watching the Premake. I have a lot of questions, but most of them are metaphysical and I doubt you could answer them.
KBL: But what was is like to watch it after watching the Premake? Did it take you out of the film? Because that’s what people ask me, “Can you even watch the movie as a movie?” And the answer is no. For one thing, it’s pointless because the movie is pretty much a mess. But the reason it’s a mess is because of all of these different factors: product placement, Chinese branding, ect. It’s very much a movie that’s manufactured out of all of these components coming into play.
T/F: Yeah, Transformers is sort of the ultimate hollow franchise, because it started as a way to sell a line of toys.
KBL: Yeah, this is what I discovered. During the Reagan administration, around 1985, a law was actually repealed. Up to that point you could not produce a children’s entertainment show with a marketing merchandise tie-in. It was a preventative measure to prevent marketing to children. In 1985, they passed a law making it okay. Within a year you had Transformers, you had G.I. Joe, TV cartoons with commercials promoting toys related to the TV show. That was a revelation for me. I grew up watching these cartoons and from an early age, caught up in this consumerist culture.
T/F: Watching Age of Extinction, I was trying to identify specific places from the Premake, but it was very difficult, because the movie is so batshit insane.
KBL: There are sequences where literally one shot you’re in Chicago, the next shot you’re in Hong Kong and the next shot you’re in Detroit.
T/F: The interesting thing about Detroit is that the movie is not set in Detroit at all, I think. So Detroit is completely invisible.
KBL: Yeah, that’s a fantastic point. Because you think at least part of the reason these cities bend over backwards to give these tax breaks to Hollywood is to raise the profile of the city by putting it on movie screens around the world. The thinking is it becomes a kind of advertising for the city, to see Chicago get blown up in such awesome ways by these fancy robots. But with Detroit you are absolutely right. They mortgaged their identity and basically disappeared as a sort of stand-in for Hong Kong. It’s kind of sad. It tells you a lot about Detroit’s general state of affairs.
T/F: Well, like I was saying, I’m still super confused about Age of Extinction. I still don’t understand what the Transformers are even. They don’t really seem to be robots, because they’re made out of a metal that has a genetic code, and they can transform by breaking up into a cloud of metal chunks. Why even bother being a robot if you can break down into chunks of matter and reform into whatever you want? I don’t understand.
KBL: You know, as many writers have worked on these Transformers scripts as have worked on the Bible. They all have their interpretations and ideas to add without staying consistent with what came before. (laughs) It’s amazing.