The ‘Transformers’ Animated Series: The Creators Explain Why the 80s Cartoon Was More Than Meets the Eye
The 'Transformers' franchise is a cultural juggernaut with universal appeal. The three live action films released since 2007 have grossed nearly $3 billion. The fourth film, 'Transformers: Age of Extinction,' is on track to become one of 2014's biggest hits. Characters like Optimus Prime and Bumblebee and Megatron continue to grace T-shirts and lunch boxes in elementary schools. Smoky college dorm rooms are still filled with grown people discussing the finer points of the Matrix of Leadership. For an entire generation (and that generation's offspring), the ongoing war between the righteous Autobots and the evil Decepticons is still a very big deal.
All of this was born when the Hasbro toy company commissioned Marvel Productions to make a series that would highlight and help sell their latest toy line: robot action figures that could turn into cars. The show was crafted by writers who thought they were just working on just another job. None of them expected to be still talking about their work three decades later. No one expected legions of fans to care well into the 21st century.
It all began in 1984 at Marvel's new studio building in Van Nuys, California. Word processors were finally replacing typewriters. Scripts took 30 minutes to print. And Hasbro wanted a new companion show for 'G.I.: Joe.'
Bryce Malek was a story editor on the first 65 episodes of 'Transformers' and he remembers the summer of '84 fondly. The Olympics were in town and the residents had fled. "The freeways were clear and there was hardly any smog," he says. "There was terrific weather. It was a just a great time to be in Los Angeles and a great time to be alive on the planet."
Malek, a veteran of Hanna-Barbera and shows like 'Scooby Doo and Scrappy Doo,' had followed executive producer Margaret Loesch to Marvel, where he and his writing partner Dick Robbins were immediately tasked with shepherding 'Transformers' as story editors. The three-part miniseries that opens the series was already completed and a series bible was written when they got the gig, but the remaining 62 episodes out of the initial order of 65 were all theirs.
"Margaret told Dick and I to let our imaginations run wild with the project," Malek says. "We were free to create a new bible to extend the series." Step one: create the "Space Bridge," allowing the robotic heroes to have adventures all over the universe. Step two: start hiring writers they had worked with before. Soon, Doug Booth, Earl Cress, Don Glut and David Wise were all on board and pitching stories.
Wise, who would ultimately go on to write 15 of the initial 65 episodes, was essentially poached from Hasbro and Marvel's own 'G.I. Joe' series. Loesch had hired him to help save the series from Sunbow, Hasbro's ad agency who had subcontracted Marvel to produce animated shows based on their toys in the first place.
'Transformers' wouldn't be what it is now if we hadn't killed Optimus. That was the moment an entire generation realized how much they cared about Optimus Prime.
"Sunbow wanted to put every freaking character from the G.I. Joe toy line into every 'G.I. Joe' episode," he recalls. "Every toy in every episode!" Wise convinced Sunbow and the writers that focusing on one or two characters in every episode would not only make 'G.I.Joe' easier to write, but it would produce a better show. "The kids will enjoy it because you'll be telling actual stories," he told them. "They'll get more involved playing with the toys because they'll be able to peg them to characters with depth to them."
And it worked. Within a month, scripts were coming in on time with more focused stories…and Margaret fired him because there was nothing left to do. "I fixed myself out of a job!" he says. But, his firing was accompanied by an offer to go work at 'Transformers.' "When I figured out what it was, I was very excited," he says. "They were doing giant robots! I definitely wanted to do it." Of course, Wise's reputation as the fixer at 'G.I. Joe' preceded him -- they wanted real character stories. Wise jokes: "Oh shit, oh Christ…you mean the scripts have to be good?!"
The writing team was ultimately rounded out by Flint Dille, who was brought on-board late in the initial 65 episodes to help the combat their number one rival: Hanna-Barbera's 'Gobots.' A Sunbow vet who actually had a 'G.I. Joe' character named after him, Dille stepped into the dual role of story editor and associate producer with one goal: to give 'Transformers' an edge. "'Gobots' was soft and for kids," he says, "They wanted me to harden up 'Transformers.'
"I knew people who were working on ['Gobots'] and we would kid each other about how similar our two shows were," Malek says. "I always thought we had the Cadillac of the shows."
Building a Universe on a Tight Schedule
If you think the wild and crazy mythology of the 'Transformers' universe feels like it was made up as it goes along, well...you're absolutely right.
"I would always read DC comics and they were so careful about their universe," Malek says. "There were rules about what they could and couldn't do. There were so many people involved in 'Transformers' that we just couldn't do that." Tasked with producing a minimum of one script a week, Malek often couldn't be picky about building a cohesive universe. He had a schedule to keep: "We started in May or June of 1984 and [finished the first 65 episodes] in September of 1985."
There was no writer's room on 'Transformers' and, other than the occasional meeting, the scripts were written in bubbles. "We just farmed everything out," Malek says. "Nothing was ever collaborative. If the writers talked to each other, it was because they were friends." It was up to the story editing team to make sure that none of the scripts contradicted each other. After all, the actual writers never knew what the others were doing. "I never read any scripts apart from the ones that I wrote," Wise says, "and I don't think I even read those."
"It was very uncoordinated," Wise continues. While writing "War Dawn," which tells the origin story of Autobot leader Optimus Prime, Wise worried that he would accidentally contradict something that had been written before. "The whole time I was sweating bullets," he says. "I was basically flying blind."
Yet, Wise scoffs at the idea of a room with a white board detailing the finer points of the 'Transformers' universe. "Bryce would have quit if they'd done something like that," he says. Although Wise has nothing against shows with series arcs, he's glad there was no extensive story planning on this show. "These shows were made for syndication and had to be designed to be shown out of order," he explains. "I'm glad there was no series arc. It would have limited our imagination…My shows were all over the map and that's what made it fun. If there had been a grand plan that had to be followed, I might not have been able to do a 'War Dawn' or something as nutty as 'Kremzeek'."
The writing process was simple enough. Hasbro would provide a "springboard," a one sentence idea for a story (Example: "The Decepticons attempt to control the weather"). The springboard would often stipulate the use of a specific character, usually the latest toy to hit the shelves. Writers would pitch premises based on the springboard, an approved premise would became an outline and an outline would become a script. Some writers became go-to guys for specific characters and subjects. Don Glut, a big dinosaur fan, was always given the Dinobot episodes.
With the writers doing their own thing in their own corners, it was up to the story editing team to keep it all moving along. "Continuity is the job of the story editor," Dille says. "The high-level creative staff was constantly talking to each other. I was constantly talking to the writers."
Still, everyone was pretty much flying by the seat of their pants in the early days. "We were not strict about things," Malek says. "We couldn't be too strict because of time limits. We just had to let things ride and see what happened to them." Malek compares the show to a factory, where product had to be churned out on a regular basis and if things weren't consistent, no one particularly cared. And if someone noticed a problem after the fact? "There was no money to fix it! Just do it! Get it out!"
Wise recalls being assigned to write a script centering on Omega Supreme, a toy he describes as "completely illogical." An expensive play set meant to house other toys, Wise decided it would be great to give this "stupid character" a huge, tragic backstory. "All I had to go on was the character sheet from Hasbro and his personality was described as 'taciturn,'" Wise recalls with laugh. So, he gave him tons of voice over narration, only to later learn that the character spoke like a simpleton. "Bryce saved it by having Optimus Prime ask him to talk like a regular guy [for the episode]. Fans would say 'But there were scripts with Omega Supreme in them. Did you read them?' No!"
Despite the hectic pace, the story editors rarely found themselves in too much trouble. "People were professional writers," Dille says. "They came in well prepared. I can only remember a couple of scripts where somebody didn't do their homework or turned in something that…required open heart surgery." The show would consistently hire comic book writers, who Dille particularly admired: "They're hard working, fanatical guys who were used to continuity that animation had never seen before. We ended up with an incredibly powerful writing team who was thrilled to be doing the project and were being paid top dollar."
As much as the writers enjoyed themselves, no one thought they were making anything that would last. Wise openly admits that he reused plots for some of his 'Transformers' episodes from other series that he worked on. "Everybody recycled plots back then," he says. "We didn't expect these shows to ever air after a year or two. We just thought they were going to go away."
Selling Toys and Telling Stories
Everyone knew that 'Transformers' was designed to convince their young audience to buy toys.
Wise, who had worked on a "toy show" before with 'He-Man and the Masters of the Universe,' says that didn't matter in the slightest. "It could be based on a bumper sticker," he says, "But if you come up with a basic concept, a world, characters and relationships that work, it works."
Unlike 'G.I. Joe,' where Hasbro and Sunbow called the shots and Marvel did as instructed, 'Transformers' was mostly Marvel's baby. "The fact that we had to answer to a toy company was invisible to us 99% of the time," Dille says. "I'd consider it almost perfect creative freedom." There were basic guidelines, but Dille says it couldn't be more different than traditional television. "Working for the networks, you get 50 notes on every script whether or not it needed them," he says. "For us, it was like getting out of jail."
The one thing Hasbro requested was to feature specific characters in specific shows … and to avoid using characters who had fallen out of favor with the kids. "Sometimes, we'd get a fax that a character had been discontinued and it felt like they had died," Dille says. "So we'd take them out of future scripts." But, that was really the extent of their involvement. As long as the toys looked appealing, Hasbro didn't get involved in the actual stories.
"Hasbro was very open to whatever kinds of stories we wanted to do," Malek says. "They did have veto power, but they didn't turn down too many ideas." With 65 (and later, 130) episodes, the story team never limited themselves. "When you have so many episodes, you can try out any idea," Dille says. "If it was feasible, we'd put it in there."
"We had fun with some scripts that wanted to be a little more epic, especially the three-parters," Malek says. However, some scripts took turns that were a little, well, dark. "Robot prostitute" and "Transformer junkie" dark. This is where the story editors pre-empted the Hasbro veto. "Come on! This is a kids show! We're selling toys!" Malek says.
And sell toys they did. "I think I counted 104 characters by the time we were done with those first 65," Malek says. "We had a new character for practically every episode of the show." Some of the writers cite specific requests from Hasbro (like the Dinobots and Insecticons having to be introduced within the first 13 episodes) as actually helping fuel their creativity. "It was 'Here you go! Put this in a story!'" Malek says. "It was very exciting and interesting to do it that way."
However, some cracks began to appear in the relationship between Sunbow/Hasbro and the Marvel writing team toward the end of the first 65 episodes. It all started with Sunbow hiring Dille to step in and assist the current story editors. After all, the show was getting great ratings and the toys were selling. "They had every reason in the world to wonder who this intrusive guy being brought in by the ad agency was," Dille says. "I walked in looking like the guy in the black suit in all of the war movies. It's not like they were doing anything wrong."
When Malek left the show after the first 65 episodes and Dille found himself embroiled in the making of 'Transformers: The Movie," he noticed that Wise, the show's star writer, hadn't been assigned a script for the next batch of episodes. "I think he's always taken that personally and it wasn't meant that way," Dille says.
"Sunbow was not always right about everything," Wise says. "When they were buttering me up to write [the 1987 three-part episode] 'The Rebirth,' they sent me a huge stack of fan mail. They all said the same thing: 'Why didn't David Wise write the 'Transformers' movie?' And I was like, 'Yeah! Why didn't I?'" But, Wise has no hard feelings. "I'm glad I didn't write it," he says. "To hear Flint talk about it, it sounded like a nightmare."
The Movie…and the Birth of the Real Franchise
In the spring of 1985, Flint Dille met with Sunbow creative director Jay Bacal. He had a rough draft of the 'Transformers' movie. It was incomprehensible, and he wanted Dille's help fixing it. The two of them sat down and rewrote the script together.
"We started at page one and had a 100-page script a week later," Dille says. "We had what we thought was the most brilliant script anyone had ever written." Subtitled "The Secret of Cybertron," the script revolved around the Autobots attempting to use the Matrix of Leadership to bring the Transformer home world of Cybertron to life so it could do battle with the evil, planet-sized Unicron, who was actually Cybertron's brother. "We thought it was the coolest idea in the world," Dille says.
However, "The Secret of Cybertron' wasn't meant to be. Hasbro representatives weren't as hot on the script and it underwent numerous revisions, with ideas from various drafts being combined and thrown out constantly. Dille estimates that he contributed to at least 20 drafts. The version of the story that would ultimately become the final screenplay was hammered out in a epic 24-hour meeting, where various writers would debate the story and Dille would lie on the floor, chain-smoking, rising to type the occasional scene.
Despite his efforts, Dille and the other final writers didn't receive screenplay credit. Thanks to an agreement negotiated much earlier, original writer Ron Friedman received sole credit on the finished film. At the time, Dille didn't care too much. "You have to understand, no part of me believed that 30 years later I'd still be talking about this," he says. "We thought this was some ephemeral product." But, Dille denies treating the project cynically. "We dealt with it like bloodsport. We really cared about what we were doing." The project, he says, was simply one among many that he was deeply committed to at the time.
'Transformers: The Movie' served another purpose beyond entertaining kids. "We knew that we were trying to replace the '85 toy line with the '86 toy line," Dille explains. "So the '85 toy line got wiped out." Dille says they had no idea how devastating the deaths of so many Autobots would be to their young fans. After all, from a financial standpoint, "They were discontinued. They had to go." It was even worse in the "Secret of Cybertron" draft, where most of the good guys were wiped out in a "Charge of the Light Brigade" style attack. "It might have thrown some kids over the edge to see their entire toy set get slaughtered in a futile charge."
The death of Optimus Prime in 'Transformers: The Movie' remains a deep scar on the psyche of many kids of the '80s and Dille sympathizes with them. "I thought of [Optimus] as John Wayne, I wrote him like John Wayne," he says. When Dille wrote the death scene, he rewatched Wayne's 1960 directorial effort 'The Alamo' and modeled it on that. "I remembered it shot-for-shot," he says. "It scarred my childhood. I realized later on that I did the same thing to a new generation of kids."
David Wise understands Hasbro's decision to axe the beloved bot. "He was a toy," he says. "Every kid who wanted an Optimus Prime had one. They had to sell them something else. If I was a toy company, I'd do it too. I don't think they had a clue how popular he was."
It was no surprise that a future TV storyline would resurrect the noble hero.
But, Dille has no regrets. "I don't think any of us were prepared for the reaction to Optimus getting killed," he says. "I also maintain that 'Transformers' wouldn't be what it is now if we hadn't killed Optimus. That was the moment an entire generation realized how much they cared about Optimus Prime."
30 years after the debut of 'Transformers,' Wise still gets the appeal of the original toys: kids know how to turn the car into a robot and the adults don't. "If you ever watch a kid playing Transformers with an adult, the kid is in charge," he says. "Kids love that." While the kids were crazy about the toys and the show, Wise isn't shy about admitting that many adults hated the show ... and they didn't hesitate to to let him know.
Of course, just as many adults love Transformers these days as kids, which is something that Bryce Malek doesn't understand. "To be perfectly frank, I wasn't enamored with the show," he says. "I really don't know what people like about 'Transformers."
To him, story editing 'Transformers' was a job and he took it because it was handed to him. "I enjoyed working on it and I enjoyed the people I worked with," he says. "And that was it. I was on to something else." Still, he can't help but be impressed by the passionate fanbase that has grown up around it and the fans who ask him specific questions about episodes he has long forgotten. "You never know what you're going to be famous for," he says.
Malek left the TV industry behind when work dried up in the early '90s. Today, he's a practicing psychologist. "I always felt that was my karma for having ruined so many kids' minds," he jokes. "Now I have to fix them."
While Malek doesn't have any particularly strong opinions about director Michael Bay's new movies, Wise has a bone to pick with the current cinematic incarnation of Optimus Prime. Considering that he used his famous episode "War Dawn' to rail against "fascist" heroes like Rambo, he takes issue with Optimus Prime brutally executing Sentinel Prime in 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon.' "Optimus has got to be Abe Lincoln," he says. "He's got to have malice toward none. And Abe Lincoln doesn't just up and bust a cap in a dude's ass because he was a turncoat."
He doesn't have too many nice things to say about the rest of the films, either. "From a writing standpoint, the cartoons have so much more story and characters that it's not even funny." And Wise, who also ran the iconic animated version of 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,' has a message for Michael Bay: "Leave my stuff alone!"
As for the current surge in popularity? "Frankly, I wish there was some way it could be monetized," he chuckles, riding the line between joke and truth. Still, he's happy with the show's legacy. "The fans are great, I love meeting them. I've had some amazing experiences."
Dille has a theory of his own as to why 'Transformers' continues to strike a chord with adults. "This was the mid-80s and we were having a recession," he says. "There were a lot of people out of work. We had a show that was being watched by unemployed people, dads who were home watching it with their kids. We tried to have an adult thread and a kid thread in every episode, something that Pixar has turned into an art form all of these years lair."
When it comes to the new movies, Dille enjoys them very much and can't hide a tinge of jealousy over the poster for the latest film, which features Optimus Prime riding Grimlock the Dinobot. "That's a hilarious idea," he says. "If that had occurred to me, I would have done that."
Dille continues to be a jack of all entertainment mediums, writing for film, television and video games. His most recent baby is Ingress, a massively popular geomoble alternate reality game. Like with 'Transformers,' the game sees him working hand-in-hand with corporate masters.
"There's never been a sense that doing stuff that's products for corporations somehow limits my creativity," he says. "Hasbro didn't care what we did as long was we didn't get them sued. They just wanted to see cool shows about their toys." For Dille, the key to great art (and long-lasting animated shows about transforming robots) was learning to work within the machine: "There's no part of me that thinks I wouldn't be doing this brilliant stuff if it wasn't for the jackbooted octopuses of Capitalism."