Golden Disk with ancient symbols on brown background with text: "An Oral History of Beast Wars"

An Oral History of Beast Wars: Origins of the Series that Saved Transformers

By Anthony Karcz

At some point over the last few years (while many of us were preoccupied with the pandemic), a curious thing happened with the Transformers franchise. Many of the kids Hasbro had hooked on those robots in disguise back in the ‘80s were on the cusp of aging out of the fandom. Sure, we’d spent much of our adult lives, and adult collector cash, keeping the Hasbro machine well and truly oiled, but one day (around 50), you look around at all the stuff you collected in your 30s and 40s and wonder… “WHY?”

But time is the great equalizer. Just as the Gen X, ‘80s, G1 Transformers fans found themselves questioning their life choices, that never-ending tsunami of adult fans–with adult collector money–came ashore with a new wave.

The ‘90s kids were on the scene and they wanted toys of their favorite CGI transforming robots. Not Optimus Prime, but Optimus Primal. Not Megatron but…well, Megatron, but T-Rex Megatron. And Hasbro was more than happy to expand past the characters of the 80s and look to the characters that saved Transformers. Gone were the cries of “Truk, not Monkee!” It was time for the Beasts.

Beast What?

Transformers nearly entered a “sundown” period in the early to mid ‘90s, along with G.I. Joe, after its original toy line wrapped. Sales were down, Transformers: The Movie was a flop (yes, really), and the original G1 era was coming to an ignominious end with (ironically, now fan-favorite) experiments like non-transforming 3 3/4″ Action Masters.

It’s only by sheer chance that a rejected sketch caught an executive’s eye at a pitch meeting and, remembering the entertainment studio that had come to them for a potential Reboot toyline a year earlier…

Y’know. It’s probably better if I let him tell it…

Four interview subjects: Kevin Mowrer, Anthony Gaud, Gavin Blair, Phil Mitchell

The Executive Who Saved Transformers

Beast Wars almost didn’t happen. – Kevin Mowrer

Kevin MowrerKevin Mowrer (Senior Vice President, Hasbro Creative Factory): I ran all of Hasbro/Kenner R&D and I’m also the guy who founded their entertainment division. The interesting thing about Beast Wars and Beast Machines is it predates Hasbro’s entertainment division. It’s honestly the show that made the company go, “We should have an entertainment division.” 

So, it was a super, super interesting moment in time for Hasbro. But it’s also really interesting how the show itself came to be, as Beast Wars almost didn’t happen. 

Before everyone got behind it to become a show, there was convincing an entire large corporation to take this asset called “Transformers,” which forever had been, you know, robots that transform into vehicles, and convincing them that the thing to do was robots that transform into animals. That was a climb up a very, very steep hill.

There were two groups within the larger Hasbro. The Cincinnati team was just white hot. It’s actually where most, if not all, of the business of doing action figures [was happening] and then, eventually, where the entertainment division started. And then there was the traditional center in Rhode Island, which also had very, very talented people. 

Anything that had to do with action figures was being transitioned over to Cincinnati to this group that I had put together, which Anthony (Gaud, CG Supervisor at Hasbro/Mainframe) was one of these massively talented people. I staffed it up by getting a mix of people who were comic book illustrators, people who were sculptors, people who were very, very talented industrial designers. The idea being, you really do something highly different and very creative. 

It was during one of my meetings with the groups that were in Rhode Island where I said we just were really looking for something crazy different. A fellow named Todd Wise, who was a designer there at the time [and is now Senior Design Director], shuffled through the images they had. 

There were all these drawings of Transformers changing into military vehicles and super futuristic vehicles and construction vehicles. I’m looking at them going, I’m not so sure that, at this moment in time, the world needs another Transformers series where they transform into vehicles. 

So I wanted to tell a story where we were able to go into the characters in some way that brought something else out of them that was new. It was fresh. Then Todd pulls out this picture and sets it to the side. I’m looking over at it and it’s got this cheetah sketch. I said, “What’s that? What’s that?” 

He holds it up and said, “Oh, we were kind of playing with this idea of them transforming into animals…”

And I said, “That’s it. This is the thing that we’re doing.” Two-thirds of the group were looking left and right, like, “This guy’s lost his mind. He’s nuts.” 

And I said, “This is fantastic.”

There was a model, I believe, as well. One of the first prototypes that was made, but it wasn’t the cheetah. Do you remember which one it was?

Anthony Gaud: I think it was the dinosaur. The T-Rex? No, I think it was actually the velociraptor.

Kevin: Yeah, I think you’re right. In fact, that idea initially was separate from the cheetah. In the show, we decided to bring these two together. What eventually, I think, convinced the management to pursue this was the sit-down conversation about being able to tell stories where the Transformers were absorbing things from being animals. 

When they transformed, they would be more feral. So on-screen they were going to learn different things. They were going to behave differently, and we were going to be able to tell a very different kind of story. I remember giving this impassioned presentation about this, bringing them closer to the kids.

Anthony G: Yeah, there was a duality to them. The robots are learning how to use their bodies and learn their environment and it was unique. It was one of those things that you think is outrageous. Well, how do we make it work? When you figure out how to make it work, some really unique things come out of it.

Kevin: 100%. Then we started thinking about where to do it as a show. We were all madly in love with the work being done at Mainframe.

Beast Wars Maximals

The Cardboard Box Meeting

Mainframe Studios (of Reboot fame) had come to Hasbro and pitched a toy line based off their groundbreaking CGI series. While Hasbro ultimately passed on the opportunity (the toys were instead produced by Mattel), the meeting left an impression on Kevin and his colleagues. 

Kevin: We were fresh off of Mainframe showing us Reboot and we did pass on the toy license, but we were blown away. Like, “This just looks unbelievable.” It wasn’t particularly, you know, toyetic. So it wasn’t something that was gonna supplant something else in the line that was more toyetic: that would make a lot more toys and would have a lot more features. But it blew everybody away. 

That was fresh in everybody’s mind. When this crazy idea comes to the table to turn these vehicles into not vehicles, I said, “You know, let’s go talk to Mainframe.”

I remember meeting with [Anthony] and a few other people from Mainframe early on. 

Gavin Blair (Supervising Animator, Mainframe): You were one of the guys at the cardboard box meeting. We’d finished season one of Reboot and a couple of guys came in with, literally, a cardboard box, opened it up, and said, “These are our new toys that we want to do a show about.”

Kevin: We were over the moon with what you guys had done with Reboot. The creative people at that [cardboard box] meeting were like, “We’ve got to do this.” But the business people didn’t even know how to wrap their heads around it. It didn’t resemble anything they’d ever seen. But ultimately, all credits to Hasbro, they said, “OK, Kev. Here’s the budget; go do it.”

The Golden Disks

When Beast Wars first aired in 1996, it started off on an “Earthlike” planet that was very obviously Earth, given the fauna. 

Fans theorized that Hasbro wanted to keep Beast Wars separate from the main Transformers continuity until the experiment proved itself a success. Indeed, once the first season had earned itself a Daytime Emmy award, Hasbro was convinced. It was revealed that Megatron had discovered Earth, based on information from “The Golden Disk” (i.e., the gold record launched into space via the Voyager 1 probe) and fans started to see familiar faces from the G1 cartoon, immortalized in CGI for the first time. 

Gavin BlairGavin: I remember all us geeks and nerds were very excited and feeling very creative. But the Transformers people were very much like, “OK, we’re gonna do this thing and it might not work. So we’re gonna put it over here in its own little universe.” 

And that was why we did the whole thing with Beast Wars being set on a planet where we didn’t know where it was and we didn’t know when it was. It was off over here in a corner. I definitely got the feeling that if the show took off, the show was a hit, and the toys are a hit, then we could connect the two universes together later. 

But to begin with, Beast Wars was over here on this planet cut off from everybody.

Do not do this. Do not. This whole movie was a disaster. -Anthony Gaud

Kevin: Well, you guys remember Bob Forward and Marty Eisenberg (Writers, Beast Wars). We hired them to do show developments. We spent hundreds of hours just geeking out over where this should go. How do we protect the canon? But, we were somewhat immune to that conversation about what’s canon and what’s not. As long as we protected things like Cybertron and the Allspark and the way Transformers literally physically worked, we were given a lot of latitude. 

Because now we’re on a new planet! When they crash land, they scan and it’s animals they take the blueprint from. Then suddenly there’s a whole bunch of things that we can do and a whole bunch of writing that we can pursue that doesn’t necessarily have to do with the details of the war on Cybertron or protecting humans because you’re hiding on a planet where there’s humans. 

Anthony G: When we first started the project, we were given this big binder: the rules of the Transformers. I think marketing put it together, but it was given to us like, “OK you’re being given the key to the grail to Hasbro. This is one of our biggest properties. Here’s what not to do.” And the big thing was Transformers: The Movie. It said “Do not do this. Do not. This whole movie was a disaster.” Do you remember that, Kevin?

Kevin: Totally. If something doesn’t work, instead of going back and trying again, there’s a strong tendency to run the other way. We spent a huge amount of our time going through this binder going “So what can we do differently?” There was a lot of small and large rule-breaking. But we were super fans. We were seriously into Transformers. We didn’t want to break anything. 

What we wanted to do was move it into the future, make it AAA big. I think it’s part of the reason the show came out as exciting as it did. It was really one of those moments where fans were making something for fans like us. We were geeking out on it all the time.


Anthony K: It’s funny, I was watching a clip earlier, I think it’s at the end of Season 1, where the Vok come in and they’re gonna blow up the planet. And here you’ve got Unicon referenced again. You’ve got Optimus Primal going to meet his doom. So, it’s like all the things they said, “Don’t do,” but you guys said, “Let’s do it anyway but we’re going to make it work this time.”

Kevin: Absolutely. And for some odd reason, it mostly worked! There’s a few episodes that have a high cringe factor. But you suffer through those. After all these years, I, literally—just one room over—have almost every single one of the tapes of the in-progress development of every single one of the shows and the completed episodes. 

My kids were just the right age when the show came out. They were 6 and 7 years old and they just became super fans. They just ate it up. It was great.

Building an Industry

None of us knew what we were doing. But we weren’t afraid to try and we weren’t expecting to fail. We were expecting to find a way to do it. -Phil Mitchell

In the late ’90s, computer animation was just starting to take off. There were only a handful of studios that were even trying anything other than traditional hand-drawn animation. And while Beast Wars might look dated by today’s standards, it was revelatory at the time. Plus, like Mainframe had done with Reboot, it had an actual overarching story with characters that truly developed over time. It was something Transformers fans hadn’t seen in nearly a decade, and it captured young and old fans alike.

Anthony G.: We were experimenting with CGI at [Hasbro] Cincinnati. Doing Star Wars presentations and bringing in CGI workstations to be able to model things. We were transitioning from, essentially, paper and pencil into digital and this was the beginning of it. 

So we were already sort of familiar with CGI based on our own experiments. But it didn’t look anything like what you guys did. But even with Transformers, I don’t think Mainframe was the only company we were looking at… 

Phil MitchellPhil Mitchell (Director of Animation, Mainframe): I think it was maybe the guys doing Max Steel? They were using a really old motion-capture system. Magnetic motion capture.

We went to visit to see what they were doing and it was like an old bomb shelter or something. This magnetic motion-capture system had to be protected from magnetic waves. They were nice guys, but they’d picked technology that had been superseded. It was too difficult to work with.

Anthony G.: Keyframing versus motion capture was always a topic that got brought up every now and then.

Phil M.: I believe for Beast Wars, we keyed everything. But the one thing we did find that was interesting about motion capture, a lot of companies had these motion-capture actors who were people who spoke with their hands and did a whole bunch of irrelevant movements. 

The best people for motion capture were stunt people, martial artists, and dancers. They could control their bodies. They would do the most amazing, very subtle things. It was an addition to keyframing, but Beast Wars was all keyframe, no motion capture.

Beast Wars Transformers Season 1

Beast Wars Transformers Season 1

Anthony G.: I really believe that Mainframe may be one of the most important studios in the last 50 years because they pioneered something that everybody else was scared to do. 

If we had put the Transformers as a traditional animated cartoon, with hand-drawn animation, I don’t think anybody would be talking about it now. It was because it was CGI that it was breathtaking to look at. Even today, it still holds up. The writing, the level of expertise they threw at it, was just over the top.

When I went to Mainframe, I had no idea what I was doing. Probably obvious to Phil and Gavin, but you just kind of figured it out, right? 

Phil M.: I think that’s the key to how it all worked. None of us knew what we were doing. But we weren’t afraid to try and we weren’t expecting to fail. We were expecting to find a way to do it. We had a willingness to try something because it’s there. Because you want to try and do it because no one else is doing it. 

We kind of had a vague idea of what we were doing. Reboot proved it and then we just had to take it and expand it.

But because of the influence of things like John Woo movies, the first few Beast Wars episodes had a huge number of John Woo, gratuitous gun shooting, violent things going on. But eventually the crew calmed down. They were like, OK, now we’ve got to tell a story. Let’s stop the stupidity of shooting everybody. Let’s just get on with actually telling a story. It was an interesting growth, right? 

A lot of the development went into the transformation animations themselves. There wasn’t time to work them all out beforehand and go, “OK, here’s our proof of concept, isn’t it lovely? That’s how things are gonna change and it will always be the same.” It was like, “Oh crap, we’ve got to do a transformation. How the hell does that work?”

Gavin: Yeah! When I built Cheetor, I built the model for the cheetah and the robot, then they got handed off to somebody. Then the next day I saw him transform and I went, “How the fricking hell did you do that?” 

Anthony GaudAnthony G.: I was an art director, so my job was to approve the models when they went over. I worked with Kevin and we created story concepts and stuff. Then I’d go to Vancouver and approve the models. 

Ian [Pearson, Season 2 Executive Producer] would take me aside and go, “Why the f**k do they have to look exactly the same? Can’t you just cut us a little slack?” But it was amazing because, for someone who had never done these things before, they were dead on, right? They were dead on.

Going back to what Phil was talking about before, that there was no expectation there [would be] any failure? I remember the rendering farm going down, all these things happening in the moment, but no one ever thought, “This isn’t gonna work.”

Phil: It was fun. That was one of the lovely things about it because everybody could bring their creativity to it. And some of the things were amazing. They were very innovative and very fun, and it was nice to see that. 

I think the crew enjoyed that a lot. They enjoyed having that ability to provide input to a show.

Kevin: I remember that one of the things that I was always battling with Hasbro was for them to gain this understanding that Mainframe had to spend a certain amount of time in development in order to crack the story to get the art style to make that all work. 

It almost never ended up like that. Usually the decision by Hasbro to say go on a series was held off until they had greenlit the toy line. And when they greenlit the toy line, it’s gonna be in the market 16 months after. So for you, it was suddenly, “Run like hell.” 

Mainframe had to develop fast and produce the series fast and you’re playing catch up. You’ve got to do development on a compressed time frame. 

Anthony G: Was that the “these toys don’t suck” moment?

Kevin: It was pretty amazing. It went from the sketches and drawings that you and the team were doing, Anthony, and then went to Takara [Hasbro’s Japanese collaborator for the original Transformers toys], because we had that relationship with them. They would make these incredible models that would come back. Then you had to figure out how to make them work, then go and present them to senior management, who would approve them. 

This was really one of those stunning moments. Beast Wars was such a transformative show. I think it not only made big changes in the industry from what you guys were doing with the production but also the concept itself. 

Hasbro was the first toy company to start doing this where the story was driving the toys. It actually started Hasbro down this road where you got to watch the toy line get presented and you tell the story of the characters and how they interact. It no longer was about what was the coolest feature you could come up with. 

There was a reason for it. There was a story reason for it. People would get into it. It very quickly changed the way that almost all the toy lines were being presented and developed. Of course, now Hasbro calls themselves an entertainment company. Beast Wars was the beginning of that.

That’s Just Prime

Mainframe may be one of the most important studios in the last 50 years – Anthony Gaud

Beast Wars wrapped in 1999. Sadly, its sequel, Beast Machines didn’t enjoy the kind of success as the original show so Hasbro left the Beast era behind as they moved into the 2000s. 

Until their modern revival Hasbro had barely acknowledged their most successful original characters from the ’90s: the ones that saved the brand. The new Beast Wars toys that Hasbro released in 2021 (and the subsequent Netflix series…though the less said about that the better) were a breath of fresh air for a fandom that had been, more or less, subsisting on the same cast of characters since the ’80s. 

When Hasbro reissued the original Beast Wars toys and announced brand new toys based on those old CGI bots, it was a watershed moment for fans old and new.  

Anthony G: What you guys did at Mainframe and Kevin, what you guys came up with, I’m honored to be a part of it. 

When I went to the store, there were Beast Wars toys. Like, identical to what they used to be. They’re selling them again. That’s kind of cool. And that’s why I wanted to do this, because no one contacted us. No one knows the story of how Beast Wars came to be. They just sort of did it. 

So I wanted them to know. I wanted them to know what came before. 

Kevin: I think that happens a lot. There’s not a lot of looking back, inviting back, asking. But it’s crazy, the success that Beast Wars had, because it almost didn’t happen. Toy companies have so many properties competing for dollars. Transformers was in heavy decline. If we hadn’t shown the company that was hugely motivating, it was going to be sundowned. But they gave us the funding, they took a chance.

 

Interview conducted in September 2021. Select portions have been edited for clarity