Essay: Transformers


MORE THAN
MEETS THE EYE

25/04/10




Lovingly stored at my parents house are many toys from my childhood, most of which are of the Transformers variety. Some of those toys are in near mint condition and still boxed. It seems strange for a child to prefer to admire a toy in it's packaging rather than by playing with it but in my case, I simply enjoyed the items as they were displayed on the shelves in shops and aspired to collect the branded ephemera surrounding them. This ephemara fascinated me to the point that I kept a large scrapbook of toy backing cards, stickers, instructions and Argos/Index catalogue clippings featuring Transformers toy images. 

Looking back, I see that destroying the packaging of a toy destroys its culture. When held, the mythology surrounding the item is deconstructed, we are reminded of its physicality and it becomes tangible, no longer just an image and a concept. You could say that the packaging embodies that mythology; it distances the toy from the child and distorts it by attaching a sort of illustrated fiction and value generated by the marketing of cartoons and comics.

In 1984 the Federal Communications Commission of the United States revised regulations that prohibited toy companies from broadcasting cartoons based on their products, opening the floodgates for numerous franchising opportunities. Suddenly, using the most powerful medium of the 20th century, toy companies were able to broadcast 20-minute television adverts that developed characters and narratives for their products. Hasbro Toy Company employed a three-prong marketing strategy leading the TF franchise to comprise a toyline, an animated television series and several comic book series.

Traditionally, toys were often sold alongside comics and other paraphernalia on the basis of being spin-off merchandise of a film or cartoon (e.g. Star Wars). In the case of TF, the animated series was produced primarily to market the toy line that already existed. In a sense, the cartoon was created to inform children on how to collect and play with the toys, and so the plots and narratives that were constructed encouraged consumption. To watch the animated series without any prior knowledge of the toys would reveal many anomalies in its continuity; numerous characters simply appeared throughout the series without any proper introduction to the storyline, instead they were introduced on the toy shelves.

The packaging of the toys rarely featured photographic representation – the toys were nearly always illustrated. Jeff Mangiat, who created much of the early box-art, often worked from proto-types or style sheets featuring colour schemes and decals with clear instructions on what had to be shown, a process he describes as ‘totally marketing’.  Using gouache paint and airbrushing, Mangait rendered profusely detailed illustrations that closely resembled the physical toys. Stylistically, the early box-art images that Mangait created, varied in consistency with the other components of the franchise, especially the cartoon. Animators were directed to depict the Transformers in a ‘more human’ way, allowing the characters a more personable appearance. This negated many of the mechanical details and proportional abnormalities that were resultant of the toys’ requirement to transform. The translation of image from toy to box-art, and toy to cartoon is illustrated below.



The three-part pilot for the TF animated series, More Than Meets the Eye, was first aired in the United States in 1984. Popularity leads to the commissioning of a further 13 episodes, and a subsequent second season of 49 episodes. The TF cartoon reached its apotheosis with the release of The Transformers: The Movie in 1986, which introduced a new generation of characters and saw the conclusion of many of their more established counterparts, this movie defined the TF franchise beyond plot, narrative and screen.







Up until the movie, all characters featured in the TV show were based on toy designs licensed from Japanese toy manufacturers (mainly Diaclone and Microman by Takara).















Hasbro had essentially rebranded the pre-existing Japanese toys as The Transformers and therefore the TF movie introduced the first set of truly original character designs that were not taken from existing toy lines. The success of these characters meant that, for the first time, toys were designed and manufactured according to the animated artwork. As the cartoon image of TF was elevated from spin-off to source, a new direction in box-art was established. The illustrations now featured a more on-screen resemblance, yet remained somewhere in-between that of actual toy representation.


The TV show continued post-movie with a third season followed by a three-episode fourth season that brought the series to a close in America and Europe in 1987. Having been born in 1985, I discovered the TF franchise post the commercial craze that had ensued its release, effectively the remains of a franchise that was once mainstream. Black holes laced the convoluted network of copies and originals that the Hasbro marketing strategy had created, leaving countless artifacts shrouded in mystery. As the show gradually disappeared from television, it acquired a sort of cult following, the toys it once advertised were no longer available in their original form, and all that was the TF franchise became the substance of memory and myth, further distanced by the passing of childhood.

The box-art became an anachronistic symbol of the fiction that had once existed around the toys, providing the only source of evidence, at that time, to an expanded TF universe or narrative. Simultaneously, many toys featured physical detail transferred from the original Japanese die-casts and moulds that revealed clues to previous aliases. Certain toys such as the Optimus Prime lorry, featured passenger compartments where previously Takara had supplied Micromen to fit, of course Hasbro left the compartments empty and unexplained, these redundant forms only added intrigue and attraction.

An interesting phenomenon occurs in 2004 with the DVD re-release of the original animated series' season one. The DVD is sold in most record stores, indicating popular demand or possibly a marketing initiative in view of the 2007 release of the feature film directed by Michael Bay. Today it seems as though TF marketing has come full circle, the commodity has been fetishized to the point where its value is superseded by its image.

Although this type of occurrence may appear to be the result of contemporary marketing methods, the situation has actually existed for thousands of years. In Plato’s Sophist, he discusses the relationship between image and object by illuminating two kinds of image making. One is the faithful representation that attempts to copy accurately the original. The other is the representation that is intentionally distorted to appear correct to viewers. To explain the intentionally distorted image, Plato references Greek statues, which were crafted according to optical proportions considering the perspective of viewers from the ground. If viewed in scale the statues would appear abnormally large on top and therefore distorted. Plato argues that this distorted copy of the real becomes truth in it’s own right. With the evolution of the TF franchise we witness objects that are the source of distorted images, which in turn inspire the creation of objects that replace the originals.