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Interview: Transformers: War for Cybertron Showrunner FJ DeSanto and Producer Mike Avila

by Jean-Karlo Lemus,

With a long history of producing works like the a Westernized adaptation of Cyborg 009 (and having a statue of Iggy the Fool behind him at all times), FJ DeSanto is no stranger to the world of anime and manga. We were lucky enough to sit down with both him and writer Mark Avila to discuss the production of the Transformers: War for Cybertron anime (currently available on Netflix) as well as The Art and Making of Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy, available now from Viz Media.

ANN: Alright, Well, Mr. DeSanto, Mr. Avila, thank you very much for joining me today.

FJ DeSanto: No “misters”; maybe for Mike not for me.

Michael Avila: My father's 'Mr. Avila', I'm just Mike.

ANN: Alright! Well, Mike, FJ, thank you very much for joining us. So, how does it feel to have your names alongside the likes of Simon Furman, Bob Budianski, and Jim Shooter in terms of influencing and establishing Transformers lore?

FJ: Dude... those are the legends, like just stop right there. It's funny because they paved the way for all this. You're always trying to find ways as a fanboy, but also producer to sort of honor what they did, but I would never be as presumptuous as to associate my name with them. I will tell you one funny story, though. We had Flint Dille come to the office just before Covid. We were starting to get the episodes in and I've known Flint through Frank Miller for a long time. And now suddenly we were connected on this Transformers thing and I said, “Why don't you come in and take a look at the show?” And I brought him to the conference room and put the thing on a big screen, and he watched the first episode. It was me and my producer, this guy Matt Murray. And I go, “What did you think?” And he goes, “I feel bad for you guys! When we did these shows back in the day, there were no VHS tapes. These shows weren't syndicated. We thought people would see them once, and then never, ever see them again, or think about them ever again. They were commercials, for toys! We didn't know what canon meant! And it took me 20 years to realize how seriously your generation took this. We would have been more responsible! We would have been more cautious! We would have been more considerate, knowing it was gonna be passed on.” And the funny thing is, he sort-of identified that issue of the legacy (no pun intended with the new toy line) of what Transformers is. I see it as the greatest professional privilege of my life. But I wouldn't dare ever associate myself with those guys

Mike: I'll say, one of the reasons why I was thrilled to get a chance to do this book was that those legends you mentioned... aside from the G1 show [note: “G1” referring to the original Transformers: Animated series that aired in the 1980s], the Marvel comic series was what really got me into Transformers. So, Bill Mantlo, Frank Springer—one of my all-time favorite artists—did a lot of Transformers work. Those guys meant a lot to me, and I love that that original comic series from Marvel which tend to get as much love as it should, I think, from some fans... that was one of the reasons why I was excited and privileged to work on it, because there are only so many franchises that have the reach and the passion that Transformers has. So getting a chance to chronicle this show means doing something that a lot of people that working for Transformers don't really get a chance to do, which is tell a chapter involving G1 that's never really been told... It was special, it was nice, and it was really good. And what's funny, FJ, your story makes me laugh because I think I watched each episode like 15 times, going through and watching the details. And if I'm doing that just for research, can you imagine the fans who are diehard lifelong Transformers fans, how many times they went “Wait, hold on...” and they're double checking... I mean that's immense pressure to live up to!

FJ: We were always checking them out. We were always going through them for connective tissue, if that makes sense, and the Marvel books, we had a lot of those in the office. I bought Matt a mint copy of Number One with the Bill Sienkiewicz cover. I got it really cheap, too. We had a bunch of issues just hanging up in the office.

ANN: Amazing story, especially the one with the guy [Flint Dille]. That was amazing stuff.

FJ: It's surreal! Especially when you meet anybody who's been associated with the franchise in the past. I've been doing Transformers stuff for 5 or 6 years, and the significance of it still hasn't hit me entirely. We've gotten to contribute a chapter in this almost 40-year-old-thing. It still doesn't hit me. Like, I miss it, and I love it, and I felt the responsibility of it. But like I don't think I have enough distance from it yet. and this book sort of is the perfect souvenir of that to remind me of it when I'm older and grayer, and to sit there and go, “You guys did this,” like, our team did this... it's crazy.

ANN: The capstone to just how much work you guys pulled off with this trilogy.

FJ: It's nuts, dude. And Mike did a great job. A lot of these books are very surface-y nonsense. The micro, the real in-depth true story... Because Mike and I have been friends for years, we were able to put our heads together early on to embolden him to speak to as many people as possible as opposed to just me and one other person. Like, no, you're gonna talk to the animators, the director, the composer—you can talk to everybody in Japan.

Mike: These books are not easy to do, because there's a lot of corporate gatekeeping. Thankfully, they really wanted the full story of the show to get done. The guys at Hasbro were justifiably proud of it, so they wanted to talk about it and talk about how it came about. It's not often I talked to, like, an executive of the network that oversees it, and we talked to somebody in Netflix who helped greenlight to show. There was a lot of pride that I found as I was working on the book, with everybody that was involved with making it, and I think they were justified in that because the finished product really delivers something really cool. Ultimately, these books are only as good as the show or movie that they're chronicling, and War for Cybertron was really, really cool. I'm the first to admit I'm not a super-diehard anime guy; this is a really easy show for me to get into, because it's visually incredible, and the storyline was compelling. It captured the characters that multiple generations know, but in a different way. One of the things that I love talking about in the book was how they wanted to tell in the show how Optimus became “Optimus”. He wasn't the leader everyone knows. Same thing with Megatron—you see a much different side of Megatron. In a lot of ways I think the show, especially in Season One, you see that Megatron made some decisions initially that you could see the reason behind it, it wasn't just pure villainy there. It adds depths to these characters that I think wasn't there before, and really provides a different shade for them in the overall canon.

ANN: Right. Looking more towards the future now, what was it like to collaborate with Polygon Studios in the production for War for Cybertron?

FJ: Oh, it was great. To be honest—and I'm sure this is in the book—I have been friends with them for a bit. Just by having worked in Japan and all that stuff. We were desperate to do a project together for a couple of years now. I literally walked into Netflix and said, “We're gonna do this with Polygon,” and they went, “Okay”. That was the easiest thing because at that time they were doing so much for Netflix, and Polygon had a history of doing Transformer shows. And what was great about them versus other studios I've dealt with is: they're a very international-minded company. So there's always a good translator, there's always a good pipeline of information, etc. They know how to do these sorts of international productions. Unlike Mike, I was an anime-kid. I was one since that first wave of anime hit in the late seventies and early eighties—Gatchaman, Yamato, Macross when it eventually becomes Robotech—that was my thing. Galaxy Express [999]—all that shit I loved as a kid. So just the excitement of working in Japan was one thing. The second thing was, Polygon, they've done Clone Wars, they've done all this stuff. They were big time, right? They put together a team that not only loved Transformers as a franchise, but actually had a sort of pedigree of working within the franchise. So, like, our director [Takashi Kamei] worked on G1. He was a young artist on G1. It made it so much easier to speak the language of Transformers. And because of that, it allowed us to build something unique in that world. Whether it's the design, whether it's the animation, whether it's nerdy stuff like the transformations being toy-accurate—which was a big thing—they were responsible for those things because of their love for it. In fact, I just had lunch with them like two days ago; they were here, and we're desperately trying to find the next thing to do together because it was such a good experience.

ANN: In the [art] book you guys underline Suichi Kono for his mastery of just being able to figure out the exact physics of making the conversions from the toy translate onto the screen with the characters, and even having to, like, shave part of the body off, or something, just for that extra bit of accuracy.

Mike: That was one of my favorite parts of the book, because one, I did the interview with the Polygon guys over zoom call. I said “I'd like to talk to you, find out how you guys got the transformations and how much work went into it”. You know, very basic questions. I got an entire page of details saying, “Well, here's what we're gonna do.” There was literally one guy in the studio that was assigned to that, and it was amazing. And I go, “Wow!” That's an attention to detail you probably don't find on many animated shows. One guy literally assigned for this task, which shows up on screen... I mean, FJ, how quick are those transformations on screen?

FJ: They're crazy! And the thing is, they're crazy fast. There's one guy at Polygon—and Mike talked to him in the book—this one guy, his entire career, from 2D to 3D, is just transformation. He's in, like, the tiniest cubicle in the middle of the whole Polygon office, and it's packed with everything from Gundam to Transformers... just loose toys that are in various stages of transformation. And then books—the perfect manuals and stuff from like the seventies and eighties, and all the design books of like every key anime ever—they're just stacked, collecting dust, yellowed. And he literally just figures it out. So when we were developing the show we'd have to call Hasbro and be like, “You got to send the toys to them.” And because basically...I mean ,you're a Transformer's fan. I can't transform these things to save my life! That's why I always keep them in the box. I have a nephew who's like, “Let's transform them!”—you can do that, because they come with these direction things that are the size of a movie poster for how to transform it, and I'm like, “Hell no!” And this guy literally studies them, and then figures out how to do it, and then gives it to the rigging team to figure out. And for us, you wouldn't think twice when you see it on-screen. But when you know it's that... We tried to make these things for the toy fans. Our job was always, if you like something on the screen, you could buy the toy. You weren't ripped off, or it wasn't what you didn't expect, or whatever. We were trying to approach that. When you watch these shows when you're younger and sort of go, “I want that toy!”, or whatever, you don't want the disappointment of, like, “Yeah, that's not what I saw on screen and fell in love with.”

ANN: Ironhide doesn't have a face, it's just a windshield.

Mike: [laughs]

FJ: Exactly. And it didn't always work!

Mike: There's a point in the book where Kamei-san tells me they had to make adjustments because they want it to be as toy-faithful as possible, but some of it didn't translate well to the animation. They're computing animation and all that technical stuff that I don't really understand. We had to change certain facets like Megatron's face and Optimus's face to get them to look just right. But otherwise they were focused on being as faithful to the Hasbro toy as they could. That comes from the love that they have for the franchise, and the experience they have with it, and that comes across in the finished product. And, as I mentioned before, pretty much everybody who worked on this that I talked to has some connection going back years to the franchise, even the younger folks. Some of the younger writers, you know, Beast Wars was their thing. That passion, I think, came through in the material because they caught all the little details that the passionate fans, the real hardcore fans will get, and that matters. If I'm watching something with Star Wars or Marvel I'm gonna know if they mess something up on a small detail that a casual fan might not notice. That's how Transformers is and that's why having the crew that they had working on this really, really paid off.

ANN: The fans were really hanging on Rattrap bringing up his great-aunt Arcee.

FJ and Mike: [laughs]

ANN: Going back into nostalgia, I'm of the younger generation, and for me, one of the foundational Transformer shows was the Unicron trilogy, [note: Transformers: Armada, Transformers: Energon and Transformers: Cybertron] and a lot of the concepts established with the War for Cybertron trilogy really remind me of the Unicron trilogy in terms of wanting to explore G1 from a different angle, having a trilogy of shows that go through the big beat-moments of Transformers from Optimus gaining the Matrix [of Leadership] to fighting off Unicron to Megatron becoming Galvatron. And I was curious: how do you guys think the War for Cybertron trilogy and the Unicron trilogy stack up or compare in terms of how they handle these things?

FJ: I'm gonna be straight-up with you: I've never seen the Unicron trilogy, and let me explain. I know about it, and there's a reason we intentionally steered clear of anything beyond G1 and the Marvel comics, and when I say G1, it goes from G1, into the Japanese stuff that they did after [note: this refers to the Transformers anime that aired exclusively in Japan in the wake of the original G1 cartoon.], and then Beast Wars. As an older dude, I was in college when Beast Wars was around, and I had to really get educated on it. Luckily we had good writers, and Matt Murry, our supervising producer, was a Beast Wars fanatic. To throw this question at you, was the Unicron trilogy your entry point into Transformers?

ANN: Well, no, oddly enough it was Beast Wars and Beast Machines.

FJ: So you're the same generation as Matt is. So the thing is, you've got (at the point we're doing it) like 35 years of history, right? And Hasbro is focused on G1-style and reintroducing the Beast Wars characters. So the problem became, if I start to do a deep dive into everything else, it's a mess. We had to set the parameters in the sandbox, or you just get lost wandering around the beach, right? So obviously when we're bringing Unicron into the show, we're googling him on the Transformers Wiki and reading everything about him. But it's always, what is that G1 version of it? And I get what the Unicron trilogy did, and all that stuff. But I intentionally wouldn't watch any of those other shows in order not to muddy the water. Does that make sense?

ANN: It makes perfect sense. You wanna focus your scope.

FJ: Because there's so much of it! And then you start contradicting yourself. You start, you know, and then it directly impacts the storytelling. I've got a writer's room of 4 people, and I can't just sit there. You have to steer them. You have to sort of keep them on that track. Certain writers like May Cat were hired because she was a G1 fanatic. I actually met her before I hired any writers, and the first thing she said is, “Are there going to be any Beast Wars characters in it?” and I said, “... I'm gonna call you in 6 months" and she knew she was going to be part of that third season. Other writers, in the first season, we cycled them out to keep it fresh. But it was also emphasizing people's strong points based on their own fanboy or fangirl knowledge. So I knew May was a Beast Wars fanatic, I knew she was gonna write the first episode and set the tone of the whole thing. Same thing with people like Brandon Easten, or Gavin Hignite, or Tim Sheridan. I brought Brandon and Gavin in the first season, because they were die-hard G1 guys. Tim had a vast array of knowing everything, and so he was brought in the second season with Gavin. And I would have kept Gavin on the third season, but Gavin went and did [Tekken: Bloodlines] for me which just came out last week, so that was the other show I was doing for Netflix. So then I brought May in, and it's all these...

Mike: Tim Sheridan is an encyclopedia of Transformers knowledge across the board.

FJ: Tim Sheridan, for every writing session, depending on who we were working on, would show up with the vintage toys of those characters and put them on the table. When we were developing the Galvatron stuff, he'd bring like vintage Galvatron toys. We put them on the table and stuff like that. Who is this guy? How do we make him interesting? Tim's a joy to be with in the room. They were all great, I mean like literally. It's one of those things where, especially now with the book—you know, not to plug the book—but the book is so dead-accurate that it was a really enjoyable experience. We didn't have any problems on the show.

Mike: Please, plug the book!

ANN: We're here for the book!

FJ: Any problems we had on the show were normal things you experience in production. “Oh, what if we do this? We go over budget.” Stuff like that. But in terms of creativity... and by the way, it'll never be duplicated. This process. The way we integrated with the Hasbro brand. The leeway Netflix gave us in particular. The freedom we had to tell those stories. It'll never be replicated. You'll never be able to have something that matches the brand so closely like this in the way we did it. We built a very specific pipeline. And that was because I worked on Prime Wars before that, which I wasn't the showrunner of initially, but sort of ended up inheriting, because the original showrunner was a psychopath. I don't love that show at all versus this one. But what that show did was it gave me the inroads into Hasbro's brand team and how they operate. So it's like going to graduate school for Transformers. So by the time we got to War for Cybertron I knew the players. I knew what they wanted. I knew how they operated. We were able to create a system that kept them and Takara-Tomy involved in an intimate way, but also in a way that was super-supportive, and got this on track, without any hiccups along the way. Myself, a writer named George Christic, and Matt Murray in particular—we did very heavy development early on, mostly because we had the visual assets from Transformers. So we knew the look and feel, and what they wanted to do. But we did the story elements early on. So we had a roadmap of where this was going to start, where this was gonna end, and sort of a throughline of what it was gonna be, and things expanded and contracted and developed as you keep going. But by doing that we got all the stakeholders on board early enough, where they just let us run free. So it was great.

ANN: You mentioned wanting to focus on all the G1 stuff, but also trying to limit your scope and that kind of ties into one of the other questions I want to ask because you guys brought Nebulon into the story, and when established Transformers fans think “Nebulon”, they think, “Oh, the Headmaster's, are the Headmaster's gonna be a part of this?” But of course the Headmasters aren't a part of the War for Cybertron trilogy (and more's the pity.)

FJ: That was something George Christic came up with, the Nebulon Space station, which was a sort of an homage to Nebulos. The idea was that planet would be Nebulos, something like that, I forget the intention of it. But it was just a little, you know, wink and nod to that stuff, if that makes sense.

ANN: No, yeah, and there's a lot of that stuff in there, too. I also know that one of the planned ideas was to have Springer and the rest of the team on Moon Base One rescue the Autobots in Earthrise, but you guys simply couldn't do it because you guys just didn't have the budget for it. And yet you had Springer in the show, you had Impactor in the show, and it kind of like teased us. Like, “Oh, maybe the Wreckers are gonna be in here. But there were no Wreckers or any establishment of the Wreckers in the War for Cybertron trilogy.

FJ: So here's the problem: when we start to develop these things, Hasbro gave us a list. “Here's what we're doing the next three years, it's these three chapters.” And you get a rough idea of, it's these characters. And subsequently we put together a list. Matt Murray did this. We put together a checklist, right? This is before we even developed the story, a checklist of knowing our budget. So the problem becomes (I'm sure I've said this before)... Transformers is different than any other animated show because you have to have 3 models for every character, right? You have robot mode, vehicle mode, transformation mode. Those are all different. So that's basically 3 characters, budget-wise, versus one character. That's why a lot of characters don't transform, to be honest with you. It was either that or cut them. Springer transforming doesn't mean as much as Tigatron transforming in Beast Wars, right? Basically, what we did was we listed all those characters that were in the Hasbro documents and gave them those three modes as part of the checklist. So you'd have Optimus Prime, then in a different box: vehicle, robot transformation. And we let Hasbro pick. We literally hand that across the table to John Warden, and said, “Go over there and you decide, and that's what we'll do in the show. What's important to you? 'Cause I don't want to be the one responsible for this.” And then we realized, as we kept going... that formed the basis of the cast, if that makes sense. So what happens is then we start to realize, "hey this character is emphasized more than this character," and we start to switch things. Like, we don't need to see this person's transformation, they can transform off-screen. But what we knew was the core characters in the beginning, in Siege—Optimus, Megatron, you know, etc. But the real important thing was the Beast Wars characters because they're so unique. So they all had to transform into their [beast] modes. We had to see the transformation because you've been waiting 25 years for this. You're not gonna sit there and screw people over with Primal not turning into a gorilla. That's insane. So now, subsequently, once we agreed on that, we went on our way. Their toy line evolves, so they start to add stuff like the Wreckers, and they don't tell us. They don't sit there and go, “By the way, we change the toy line, it's gonna be this.” So when these things pop up on the websites, you know, like on Hasbro Pulse and whatever, we're sitting there going, “... Well, why don't you tell me that?”

ANN: And that's why the Fossilizers are in the toy line, but the Fossilizers aren't even mentioned in the show.

FJ: We knew about the Fossilizers. We knew about the gimmicks for each thing. But the problem becomes what the Fossilizers offered to the show from a story point of view. Because to me, the more important things are the Maximals and the Predacons, and emphasizing those characters and finding a way to integrate them into this version of [the story] successfully. But then we'd redeco tons of characters, and then they would do like... who's the orange-and-purple Chromia that they did as an exclusive for Entertainment Earth? I forget her name...

ANN: Nautica?

FJ: Yeah. But it's like, hey if you guys had told me that, I would have put her in the show, cause that's a redeco. I could have gotten away with that and added that as a character. We would not be in sync on those things—not in a bad way, just they're off doing their thing, we're doing our thing, and that's how it came together—but we had the leeway to create characters like Scrapface, and all these other things. We had the leeway to do Soundblaster and Mercenary versus what he was in G1, or the Japanese G1 and all that stuff. I have a sort-of romantic vision of the Japanese versions of Transformers. When you bring up the Wreckers, or you bring up a lot of these things that end up being exclusives, like... we didn't know that was coming. We knew that they were gonna do a Quintesson. Okay. We knew that we're gonna do Scorponok. Like, alright, we'll find a way to put him in. We knew they were gonna do Galvatron. “We're gonna do all this.” I'll give you the opposite example, which you'll appreciate: we knew in the third act, or the third season, it would be Galvatron and Nemesis Prime teaming up. I love Nemesis Prime, the visual aspect of it right? And so we find out in Japan that during Siege, a Nemesis Prime comes out. And Hasbro goes crazy, because they're planning Nemesis Prime for Kingdom and so they shut down [production of the Siege Nemesis Prime toy]. I think it's worth a fortune now, or at least it's worth a couple hundred bucks, right? That Siege Nemesis Prime, cause I had to order one! They had to call Takara-Tomy and be all, “Shh, Nemesis coming in the third one!” They didn't know! So they were like, “Shit! Okay, we're gonna stop production on this thing.” And now it's a limited-edition thing that they only sold in the Takara-Tomy Mall. But what I found out—which I didn't know—was Takara-Tomy's tradition for every Transformer's toy line: for every Optimus they'd do a Nemesis, no matter what. There's a Nemesis and so they just did that as their regular tradition and I was like, “I gotta snag one!” I bought them for myself and Matt—I think it cost me $600. I was two weeks late. If I ordered it two weeks before they'd be $60. And then they would like this announcement, “We're cutting it off.”

ANN: We're just about out of time. To wrap up, which are your favorite Transformers?

Mike: You know, sticking to the shows, my two favorites of the show were Elita-1 and Jetfire. I thought they had the two best stories, and I thought they were awesome. And Jetfire especially is always an awesome design.

FJ: For me it's Elita. There were two characters we brought in from scratch that were originally never going to be toys. One was Elita-1, because we wanted a strong female Transformer there. And I think just the execution of it from the writers to the actress was just phenomenal. And now there's this little Elita-army of fans who I message back and forth with that I'm very appreciative of. And now we see Elita-1 has moved on to the next show and all that stuff. So I feel like we did a good job of establishing it. And the other one, which is my personal favorite, is Soundblaster, because I felt like we took a cool Japanese character and brought it into this new thing with the Mercenaries, which is my favorite thing. I got to do it in the show. And by the way, that's in the office—I have the Takara-Tomy. Mike, I don't know if I told you this... last year, they did a Mercenary Soundblaster that was exclusive to Japan.

Mike: Oh, I'd like to see that!

FJ: What happened was, for the 35th anniversary, Hasbro released a Target-exclusive Soundblaster. But this was pre-Mercenary, and I bought that one too! But then they call me and said, “Listen, Takara is gonna do Mercenary Soundblaster,” and I ordered like four or five of them. I gave one to Matt, I gave one to my dad. There's one here. There's one at the office... that was my dream. And I paid for that. No, you'll be fine [Mike], you got the book before me. He got the book, I don't have the book!

ANN: This is the real reason to work in Transformers: you find out when all the toys are coming out!

FJ: That was the fun part, knowing what was coming out. Then being surprised by, “Why didn't you tell me this? I would have put this in the show!”

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