1984. The Transformers cartoon was made for the sole purpose of advertising the newest products in the Takara-Tomy/Hasbro Transformers toy line. These two-in-one toys were great. I loved trying to figure out how to transform them without looking at the directions. Sure they were fragile, and barely articulated, but with the cartoon’s help, they captured my imagination.
I remember being seven and never wanting to get out of bed in the morning. Except on Saturdays. While everyone else in the house was asleep, I would be up in front of the television at 7:30 AM to watch The Transformers cartoon. No alarm clock necessary.
On the show, these metal titans were invulnerable. The Autobots were a band of brothers. There leader was the paternal Optimus Prime. The cartoon basically repeated narrative elements from its first story arch, based on the original Marvel Comics mini-series, but as a kid, there was something reassuring about characters on display. Even the bad guys, the Decepticons, presented an interesting study of group dynamics. And each team’s roster was big and diverse enough that you’d never know who you’d see more of any given week. Peter Cullen gave voice to Optimus Prime (and Ironhide) and Frank Welker to Megatron, his nemesis and leader of the Decepticons (as well as Soundwave, Rumble, Wheelie and many others).
In the forward to the book Transformers Vault: The Complete Transformers Universe Showcasing Rare Collectibles and Memorabilia, Cullen recalled that he heeded his brother Larry’s advice: “Peter, don’t be a Hollywood hero, be a real hero. Real heroes don’t yell and act tough; they are tough enough to be gentle, so control yourself.” And it worked. As a fan, I will say there is no Transformers without Optimus Prime. And there is no Optimus Prime without Peter Cullen.
1986. In between the second and third seasons of the television show, The Transformers: The Movie was released. The animated film was directed by Nelson Shin. The original script was by Ron Friedman, the final script was by Flint Dille.
At the time, animated content was essentially broken down into two categories: soft and cuddly for girls and hard and violent for boys and the only other animated movie out was Care Bears Movie 2: A New Generation. To attract a broader, older audience, The Transformers: The Movie had swear words to earn a PG rating. It also started the trend of celebrity voice-casting, with the likes of Eric Idle, Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Stack and Orson Welles, in addition to Peter Cullen, Frank Welker and other Transformers regulars like Casey Kasem and Scatman Crothers.
The film’s driving soundtrack included synth and rock music by Stan Bush, Vince DiCola, Spectre General and “Weird Al” Yankovic. Not only was the tone darker than the television series, but the cell animation was much more detailed, rendered in Toei Animation’s typical anime film styling. Floro Dery was the lead designer for the film, which was animated in 4:3 full screen format, the top and bottom were then cropped to widescreen dimensions for theaters.
In the first act of The Transformers: The Movie, laser and cannon blasts tore through the characters I woke up to see every weekend. Smoke billowed from their mouths. Their bright colors faded to gray as many of the original characters were killed off. This was not a morning cartoon. This was a movie. The stakes were obviously higher, the tone darker, but I wasn’t prepared for the unthinkable: the death of Optimus Prime.
The goal was to kill off the original cast of the cartoon show so that a new cast populated by newly released toys could be introduced. Neither the toy manufacturers or the filmmakers considered the effect this would have on their primary market and audience. In setting out to make a 30-minute commercial for a toy line, the producers of the television show got something more, something that resonated. Kids weren’t going to chuck their old toy for the new one. They weren’t just toys. They were characters that they had an emotional investment in. And this was the first time many of these kids were being confronted with Death.
Death wasn’t yet popularly known to be a temporary state for main characters in an ongoing series. When Optimus Prime died on screen, it was clear there was to be no coming back. (Although you could argue the needlessness of his death when Ultra Magnus was later revived after being blown to pieces…) Later in the movie, Optimus’ role as a Prime finds its way to Hot Rod, who becomes Rodimus Prime via the Matrix of Leadership.
I really took to the Hot Rod character in the movie, but he was more like a big brother, not the father figure I wanted to lead the Autobots. And for whatever reason, I lost interest in the cartoon during its third season.
For me, this movie stood the test of time. Optimus Prime and Megatron’s final battle was wonderfully choreographed and perfectly distilled their characters and conflict for a new audience. The anime action and camera movement, the driving soundtrack, the diverse characterization and the creative design of the film well represent the sensibilities of the genre in the 1980s.
Floro Dery is a Filipino illustrator that worked on the 1980s The Transformers TV series and The Transformers: The Movie, designing all the characters introduced in the movie: Galvatron, Cyclonus, Scourge, Unicron, Ultra Magnus, Hot Rod/Rodimus Prime, Junkions, Quintessons, Springer, Blurr, Wheelie, Kup, and Arcee.
Pablo Ferro is best known for his film title sequences, but in the ‘50s he did some comic illustration with Stan Lee. (I believe at Atlas Comics before it became Marvel Comics.) While most illustrators at that time stuck with solely with comics work, Ferro moved into the advertising world, but he took the sensibilities of comics with him.
Ferro’s television commercials’ strobe-like pace and mixed media approach were incredibly whimsical, not to mention innovative, establishing the notion that an audience could process a barrage of imagery, as well as the advertiser’s message.
Another of Ferro’s contributions to the design world was applying the multi-panel presentation of comics to film. Ferro’s titles sequences and movie trailers have appeared in 12 Academy Award winning films, collaborating with directors like Hal Ashby and Stanley Kubrick.
A number of Ferro’s title sequences can be watched online at ArtOfTheTitle.com.
Richard Goldgewicht directed a documentary about Ferro called Pablo. It presents a nice retrospective of the designer’s life and career. It is at both times fun and sobering.
For Ferro and success, when it rained, it poured. But there was a cost. The times, the industry and his own sensibilities came between Ferro and his family. Then came the dry spells, and a shooting, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Ferro’s two kids seem to have grown up estranged from their father, but luckily for Ferro, they all reconnected later in life. Despite his genius, and what he has already achieved in his career, I don’t think that Ferro would be working today without the personal and professional support of his kids. We can only hope to be so lucky.