'Transformers' blasts D.C. in a blink of an eye

"Transformers: The Dark of the Moon," the third installment of the film-franchise about cars that turn into robots and battle, is bringing stars, explosions and onlookers to downtown Washington.
By Aaron Leitko
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 14, 2010

Five hours to set up, one minute to set off. The wait for truly special effects was long, but Michael Bay's Tuesday-night pyrotechnics display on the Mall -- part of the director's D.C. shoot for the sequel "Transformers: The Dark of the Moon" -- ultimately delivered the big-budget kablooey.

For those who were willing to wait around for it, anyway. The crowd of hundreds formed about sunset -- a mix of tourists, movie geeks and bored Hill staffers -- hoping to gawk at the action. But only 60 or so true believers stuck it out to the bitter end, more than four hours later.

(VIDEO: See Tuesday night's pyrotechnics)

(YOUR TAKE: Transform the Transformers-in-D.C. photo)

Some of the die-hards were "Transformers" fans. Most said they endured for the sheer novelty of watching something, anything, go blammo. "It's like a once-in-a-lifetime thing," said Tanya Hardy, a Maryland-based makeup artist. "It's almost like Black Friday, when you're standing outside the store, waiting for the door to open."

It happened just about as fast, too. First, a caravan of three black SUVs and a few police cruisers zipped along a block of Pennsylvania Avenue near the Capitol. Then -- boom! A chain of blinding explosions -- fireballs, flames, the works -- lit up the intersection. "Soldiers" charged into the street and sprayed "machine-gun fire" into the air, blasting a robot monster that will later be CGI'ed into existence.

And then, in a flash, the mayhem was finished.

You have to give Bay credit -- he made good on rumors of shock and awe. Which so often isn't the case with Washington area movie shoots. Last year, word got out that the producers of a TV pilot called "Washington Field" would detonate a 20-to-30-foot fireball on the Potomac. The "effect" turned out to be a dud -- a quick and wimpy whiff of flame that presumably would have looked better after some movie-magic buffing-up. (Although we'll never know -- the show didn't get picked up.)

Tuesday's shoot, quite literally, was full blast. But until the time neared 11 p.m., onlookers mostly had to entertain themselves, because there wasn't much to see. Just a gaggle of tattooed techies noodling with lamps. No sign of Autobots (the film's good guys) or Decepticons (the bad guys). Shia LaBeouf, the star of the film mega-franchise (the first two "Transformers" films combined to gross more than $1.5 billion worldwide), was a no-show. Bay -- he of chiseled brow, iron abs and jittery camera-cuts -- was rumored to be on-set, but if he was, the filmmaker was working out of public eyesight.

Fans had something to talk about, at least, posing questions about the robots in disguise:

Who was the coolest Transformer? Optimus Prime, the flame-detailed Peterbilt truck, obviously.

The Transformers toy you wanted, but never got? Grimlock, the dino-bot.

The cartoon series or the film franchise, which is better? A sticky question. Children of the '80s preferred the TV show. Actual children are largely unaware that the cartoon existed, thus preferring the movies by default. There were a few grudging converts. "Eh . . . I liked the cartoon, it's what I grew up with," said Kevin Toston, who drove in from Upper Marlboro with his toddler, Bryce. "But he's watched the movies so many times, he's made me love them."

Oh-oh, here we went at last. A group of production assistants gave the crowd a heads-up; the moment was nigh.

"Weapons will be fired. There will be explosions," they told the die-hards. "Do not clap."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company