We saw 15 minutes of 3D Transformers footage with Michael Bay and James Cameron

Yesterday, Transformers director Michael Bay teamed with James Cameron, film's biggest advocate for all things 3D, to discuss why Dark of the Moon made the jump to 3D...and they showed us tons of new footage to help make their case.

They met at Paramount Studios last night for an event entitled "3D: A Transforming Visual Art." They previewed the first five minutes of the movie, plus a montage of various high octane action sequences, and finally the new 3D trailer that debuts this weekend (a 2D version of which is already online), and then had a lengthy discussion about what 3D meant for this movie, as well as the future of film in general.

Spoilers ahead!

Let's do a quick rundown of what we saw. The opening sequence is indeed a lengthy flashback to the 1960s, as an Autobot spaceship trying to escape the last days of the war on their home planet of Cybertron crash lands on our Moon. American astronomers detect the impact, and President Kennedy - realized through an interesting mix of archival footage, regular scenes with a lookalike, and fake archival footage - starts NASA in order to find out just what's on the Moon. The entire 1960s flashback is realized in this way, freely mixing actual period television footage with what, according to the movie, really happened.

The rest of the footage mostly focused on the action sequences, specifically the insane amounts of carnage that will be visited on Chicago. We saw quite a bit of the wind-surfing sequence, which looks every bit as insane as a bunch of guys flying hundreds of feet above Chicago at 150 miles per hour really should be. There was a particularly insane moment where Bumblebee transforms around Shia LaBeouf, and we also got a brief glimpse at the hyperactive comic relief stylings of Ken Jeong (which anyone who has seen The Hangover or Community has probably already decided whether they find funny or not). And then it was the 3D trailer, which was just the most recent trailer...but, you know, in 3D.

James Cameron raved about the footage he had seen, pointing out how Michael Bay had used 3D to add depth to the film. He praised the aggressiveness with which Bay used 3D...but then, as pretty much everyone was quick to point out, what else would you expect from Michael Bay? The director said that, much as he was skeptical about 3D, he had greatly enjoyed using it - despite a hard drive error that caused all of his first day footage to be lost - and that James Cameron was right: it's just a new toy, a fun tool that offers another way to make a great experience for audience.

That said, Bay pointed out he faced some particular challenges in using 3D cameras for Dark of the Moon. Beyond the hard drive malfunction, he came to 3D at a tricky time - this was right after Avatar, and technological innovations in the wake of Cameron's movie had made 3D cameras that had far greater technical capabilities, but were also much heavier and prone to problems.

Bay also explained that his particular filmmaking style worked well with certain aspects of 3D, but not necessarily with others. He explained that he has always liked to construct shots with a very clear foreground and very clear background,
which is a natural fit for 3D. But his propensity for quick pans is something that 3D cameras simply can't handle, and - as Cameron advised him - he had to dial back the level of 3D for some of his quicker camera moves.

The intense, bombastic action sequences that are Bay's stock in trade also presented some technical challenges for the 3D camera rigs, which don't deal well with dust and vibrations. That said, he was able to mount 3D cameras to a wind-surfing photographer's helmet to shoot the big flying sequence, which Cameron said was definitely unlike anything done before in the medium...but then, as he pointed out, almost everything represents a bold new direction, just because of how young 3D is.

Michael Bay made no bones about how expensive 3D is, saying that in order to do 3D right requires probably an extra $30 million. That figure, he said, is due to several factors. The equipment itself is expensive and requires several extra technicians to keep it operating properly. Effects work is about a third again as expensive as its 2D equivalent, as every shot essentially has to be duplicated to create the 3D look, and shooting live-action in 3D adds about eight days to shooting. For his part, Cameron argued that it comes down to whether the movie will make back that extra $30 million, which he guaranteed Dark of the Moon will.

Still, both had room for a little skepticism regarding 3D, particularly Bay. He said it was appropriate to shoot Dark of the Moon in this format, but he's not convinced that every movie should be shot this way. He also criticized the spate of 3D movies that are really just poorly up-converted 2D movies, and that this is understandably making the public skeptical of 3D as a whole. Cameron praised 3D as a way to get people back to theaters and make movies feel like an event again, but he agreed that "we're abusing it left and right", also laying the blame at theater owners who won't invest in the necessary resources to project 3D films correctly.

James Cameron did a bit of forecasting as to what the future could hold for the format. He predicted that 3D in the home is coming, as the current 3D TVs with their active shutter glasses will be replaced with more passive glasses, which don't require charging and make it easier for casual viewers. He also 3D tablets that don't require glasses are right around the corner, and he predicted that within 2-5 years there will be glasses-free 3D TVs. Still, he was quick to point out that the format has a long way to go, saying it's roughly where the auto industry was at in 1905.

Finally, the pair were asked what excited them the most about the 3D format. Cameron said that the most exciting part was when audiences applaud when their minds are blown and they're are shown something that they've never seen before. Bay observed that there was no way he could beat a line like that.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon opens July 1.