On Transformers

I picked up the new Transformers: The Movie DVD, and there are some interesting bonus features and commentaries that shed a lot of light on the toy business. Everyone involved in the production seems to make some mention of the fact that what they did was just a job, a gig, and for some reason this surprised me. Maybe I always assumed there was a team of creative people somewhere at Hasbro or Takara that put all these characters together and gave them personalities and life. As it turns out, the Japanese developed the toys, while the gang at Hasbro decided to call them “Transformers” and left the naming and character development to essentially one guy, a comic book writer. Sunbow produced the cartoons, and took the character development from there, adding in the voice talent to bring life to each character.

Upon discovering this, I began to realize that what made Transformers great was a combination of ingenious toys, plus the commercial art of the voice talent and a comic book writer. Everyone involved essentially viewed the project as just another job with no real passionate attachment to it, which is a real credit to the pop art of it all. The fans cared about the whole universe, and never stopped caring. We developed emotional attachments to a product line, and this was never more apparent than in the reaction to the death of Optimus Prime in the film. I’m still fascinated by the interaction of emotions to commerce that this DVD has presented.

I’m reminded of the time, in 4th or 5th grade I think it was, that I designed my own line of Transformers called the Aquabots. There never were a lot of boats in the Transformers universe, so I drew up a team of five combiners that made one larger robot. My mom attempted to get the attention of Hasbro, but they replied that they did not take on outside creative projects. Now I know why. They didn’t even have an in-house creative team! They’d get the robots from Japan, send them to Bob Budiansky for a name and a personality, and send them on to Marvel and Sunbow to add to the cartoon. Just cranking out the units. And yet somewhere in the mix there was a spark that got kids excited enough to make an emotional connection.