A good documentary often begins with a search. But in the case of Transformers: The Premake, that happens in a more literal way than usual.
The 25-minute video opens with screen captures of actual Web searches — “transformers 4” and “transformers 4 filming chicago,” typed into YouTube’s search box.
What follows is a fascinating collage that maker Kevin B. Lee calls a “desktop documentary” — an examination of the making of the as-yet-unreleased Transformers 4, by way of sorting and organizing photos, videos, and news reports on that subject that Lee found around the Web.
By Lee’s account, he started out intending to make a traditional documentary about the effect of a blockbuster production on the city of Chicago.
Then he noticed that, in the process, he was surrounded by fans and gawkers who were doing pretty much what he was: making videos of a spectacle-in-progress.
Thus, in Transformers: The Premake, we watch as the results of those opening searches pop up across a digital map: clip after clip made by what I guess I’ll call “citizen fans,” documenting the making of a sci-fi blockbuster as it played out on city streets and spaces.
The clips come not just from Chicago but from Monument Valley, Utah; Washington, D.C.; Hong Kong; Detroit.
They document the fake advertisements meant to serve as backdrops.
They document the explosions.
They document a weird, futuristic helicopter buzzing actors on a streetscape set.
They document scenes of destruction that are of course Hollywood creations.
And these non-professional documentarians document one another, documenting all of the above.
Lee weaves the footage together in a way that’s overlaid with Web searches, screenshots of comments, and a kind of recreation of his own research through captures of his desktop. He also includes news clips that have ended up online, both video and print.
There’s no narrator, but it’s not hard to follow the story and its themes: the economics as they affect local merchants and national brands; the impact of China on the blockbuster business; the mysterious interplay of copyright takedown notices and branding hype.
There are amusing small moments like some guy with his dry cleaning violating the sanctity of the movie set — and nods to notorious moments like Michael Bay’s less-than dazzling CES keynote.
At about 25 minutes, Transformers: The Premake is long by YouTube standards, and short by the standards of a traditional documentary. But it’s very much worth watching.
I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and I hope this isn’t the last we see of the “desktop documentary” as a genre.