Features and Columns

6 Filmmaking Tips from Michael Bay

Even if you’re not out to create “Bayhem,” the director of ‘Transformers: The Last Knight’ has some basic lessons you ought to know.
Michael Bay
By  · Published on June 20th, 2017

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Michael Bay.

How many directors have films in the Criterion Collection and on the worldwide box office charts? Michael Bay has fallen out of favor from critics in the last 20 years, but there’s no denying he’s one of the most significant and successful filmmakers working in Hollywood today. While there are complaints about his bombastic style and many parody lists and videos about how to make a Michael Bay movie, he’s a well-educated, well-trained, technically skilled director who is mostly famous for delivering hit blockbusters enjoyed around the world.

Bay doesn’t hand out a lot of advice, and if he did his tips wouldn’t be as simple as “blow things up” or “cast hot women.” That’s just what he does with the filmmaking talent and knowledge he has. You can choose to do what you want with the following six lessons we’ve compiled from the last 20 years.

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Michael Bay

1. Start with commercials

After studying filmmaking at Wesleyan and Art Center College of Design, Bay got his start helming commercials. Among his most famous ads are the 1993 “Aaron Burr” Got Milk spot. Here’s what he said in a New York Times profile in 1996: about how commercials are good training ground for directors:

Comedy needs a certain amount of time to set in, and when you only have 30 seconds, you learn how to get the laughs on the right beat. Also, in commercials, you have to communicate so quickly that you have to grab the viewer’s eye in a second and a half. So you learn little camera tricks to make the eye go where you want it to.

Bay continues to believe in commercials as a starting off place, as evident in his participation in 2013 in Doritos’ Crash the Super Bowl contest, which not only awarded filmmakers with placement of their ad during the big game but also a gig working on Transformers: Age of Extinction. He talks about the contest and more on how commercials are good experience for aspiring filmmakers in this CNBC interview:

2. Know your audience

Towards the end of that CNBC video above, Bay discusses how he chooses projects he thinks will be popular, with specific address of the Transformers movies, and how he tries to make them for as wide an audience as possible. “You got to have some foresight. I went with my gut. You’ve got to make them accessible to non-Transformers fans, cause I wasn’t a Transformers fan.”

He also addresses early on his label as a commercial director — that is, a director of movies with commercial appeal, not director of ads (he already covered that) — in the 1996 NYT profile. Here’s his response to the term being associated with him derogatively:

I was talking to one of the writers about our target audience, and he was insulted that I used that term. But if you’re given $60M to make a film, you’d better know who your target audience is. That’s who’s going to pay back the bills you run up.

3. Study musicals, perform magic

Bay’s fifth Transformers movie, Transformers: The Last Knight, deals a lot with the theme that magic is just advanced science and technology that people aren’t used to yet. That’s fitting coming from a director who sees cinema as magic and filmmakers as magicians. In a 2001 New York Times article, he discusses one of his favorite movies, West Side Story, and its influence on him as a magic-maker:

When I was at college, at Wesleyan, I took this course in musicals from Jeanine Basinger, a great professor, a real guru on movies. Frankly, it was a course that I wasn’t really excited to take. I wasn’t sure at the time if I wanted to be a photographer or a cinematographer, but that course on musicals really opened my eyes to how far you can push the film medium and where you can take it in terms of cutting and craft. It’s strange, but when filmmakers are forced to solve the problems you need to solve to shoot dance, they really find themselves using the film medium to its fullest.’

He continues his discussion of West Side Story while also mentioning an inspiring moment while working at Lucasfilm filing Star Wars art:

That was when I really started to get interested in film, because I could see how they were creating this whole world. It was just like my train sets. Part of filmmaking is that you have to become a magician. You have to create a world, and nowhere is that more important, more essential, than with musicals. That’s what ‘West Side Story’ does. Just look at how Robert Wise creates his world.

In the popular Every Frame a Painting video essay “What is Bayhem?” from 2014, Bay’s love for West Side Story is addressed with critical discussion of how it’s influenced him as an action filmmaker. Watch it here:

4. Action movies are like compositions

It’s surprising that Bay hasn’t ever made a musical himself, or maybe it’s not surprising given that few musicals gross a billion dollars (perhaps the success of Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast will change his mind?). In a 2013 Mother Jones article the former music video director talks about another way that action movies should be thought of in relation to music and how he’s a composer of sorts:

Editorially, it’s very much like music. Action in movies has rhythms, it has cadence—it should build towards a crescendo. There’s a kind of staccato, there’s aggression.

In the same article, his Wesleyan mentor, the aforementioned Jeanine Basinger, is said to teach students a relative point: “If you want to be a filmmaker, take drum lessons.” But she might not have had to provide Bay with that particular tip. She tells Mother Jones, “People say I’m the one who taught Michael Bay, but I’m not — he was born with it.”

5. Shoot fast

Bay packs a whole lot of movie into his features, never wasting the audience’s time when they’re there for the action and spectacle. He also isn’t about wasting time while making the things, preferring to keep shorter days than a lot of other filmmakers. “I think it’s counter productive to keep long days,” he told press in 2005.  And here’s what he said in a 2014 Car and Driver interview:

I like to have an active set and a fun set. I keep my days to a decent hour; I don’t go overtime. Do I beat people up? I beat people up in that they know I like to shoot fast. And they know I like to be efficient. And that I like to leapfrog. Here’s the thing: When you’re fast when you’re shooting, there are great things that you discover. By being fast you also sometimes get more time to experiment.

It’s a very big deal for him, so much that according to a quote in a 2010 Collider interview, any other way might be the literal death of him:

I like to shoot 12-hour days. I like to keep them pretty full days…You gotta keep a pace, otherwise it’s dreadful, it’s so boring on a movie set. If you’ve been on a slow movie-set you wanna shoot yourself.

6. Figure it out on your own

If you really want direct lessons on how to make movies like Michael Bay, how he does it, you might be out of luck. You can watch production videos, but he’s only willing to share so much. He admits that in this behind-the-scenes look at directing the action of Transformers: Age of Extinction:

What we’ve learned about filmmaking

Hard as they try (ahem, Peter Berg), nobody makes movies quite like Michael Bay. That’s because he’s not just an auteur due to his signatures, the pieces we can all identify in his movies. That’s how to lampoon Bay only. He’s a true auteur because his movies are all his own, expressed from his heart, his brain, his gut (maybe also his groin). Also, he’s a craftsman who likes to protect a lot of his tricks, as any magician would.

But there are things to learn from the man behind one of the biggest blockbuster franchises of all time, as well as some good movies, including The Rock and Pain & Gain. Commercials might not be the preferred gateway these days, but they’re still a great place to hone your skills. Musicals might not be the most popular genre lately, but they’re important to study. And whether you’re looking to entertain all the people of the world or just a few, you need to know your audience.

From there, feel free to add explosions, car chases, and booty shots, if that’s your thing.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.