As a follow-up to our latest article over on TheVisionaries.net we thought we would bring you a short piece on some of the history of the Transformers TV spot. The information contained within this article was taken from an series of Q&As we held with Robert Runbaken in November 2014.
Hasbro Inc. were one of Griffin-Bacal's first clients and are best known for producing the toy adverts for the Hasbro franchises G.I. Joe: Real American Hero and Transformers. As Hasbro Inc's client, Griffin-Bacal also shot the spots for most of their other brands, and worked closely with Hasbro Inc and Sunbow Productions on the supporting TV series to go with which ever line they would be shooting spots for.
Griffin-Bacal mainly shot from studios based in Amsterdam and Arizona, though some of their latter TV spots were shot in studios in Vancouver. The Amsterdam studio was used as the primary location for the more successful brands, whilst those with lower advertising budgets were shot in the US studios.
Robert Rundbaken and the first Transformers Toy TV Spot
We had the pleasure of speaking with former GB employee Robert Rundbaken who worked on most, if not all, of the Hasbro Boys Toys properties including Visionaries, Inhumanoids, G.I. Joe and Transformers.
Robert remembers re-cutting the very first Transformers TV toy spot with Optimus Prime along with creating the signature look for the various video transitions and effects which were used during the Transformers toy commercials. Robert was quick to also credit his editors. At the time Robert held the position of an Associate Producer for Griffin-Bacal.
The original spot was cut by Roberts boss, Bacal. The spot turned into a bunch of stills as he was trying to show each stage of the transformation transition. I.E a shot of the arms folding out, another shot of the rotating etc. The Hasbro Reps hated it so Robert was bought in to re-cut the footage and to
come up with something. He remembers that they recut the footage at Broadway Video and he had them bring every video transition device into the room so that they could experiment all night. He asked about a transition effect that was created by the ADO which was a digital effects tool. The effect turned an image on screen into a ball. Robert asked if one image could start the effect and then have another image come out. From this idea they took the footage of the child actor rolling the Optimus Prime toy and applied the effect to the footage resulting in him becoming a robot. Another technique which they applied on the Transformers commercials, and latter on others including Visionaries, was to film with a huge turntable that was a cyclinder painted to look like the sky, or they could build the side of a mountain and a road on it. When you spun the cylinder and held the toy, they found that you could simulate it driving or flying. Once they spliced the two scenes together with the ball transition in between it was an epiphany for them and that opened up the spot to move forward. From there they were able to cut it to the track and employ similar effects and transitions to the rest of the footage. This would become "the look" for the Transformers TV spots in the future.
After working through the night, Robert went straight from Broadway Video to the office to show his boss who took him to the back room where they would look over the footage alone. Robert was convinced that he was going to be fired on the spot as he had left out all of the still shots of the different transition stages of the toy. His thinking was that kids knew how they worked and that they did not actually need to show them on screen. In their, the kids, minds and from the animation, they knew the robots changed quickly which was an effect he wanted to emulate in the TV Spot.
Promotion and Brand Diversion
Immediately after Bacal saw the cut he called the other agency heads into the room to see the footage and then they (Bacal and the agency heads) flew out to Providence to show the new spot to Hasbro. They loved it! Thanks to his work saving the spot, Robert was then assigned to work on cutting the rest of the spots from the first package of spots. He remembers creating 4 or 5 spots from that footage.
The spots were a hit and Robert was soon promoted and started producing whole packages of Transformers and other Hasbro Boys Toys spots. Soon he found himself on his way to Amsterdam where we wound up then shooting most of the G.I. Joe spots and other lines as they were introduced including Visionaires, Inhumanoid, Battle Bearts, Air Raids, Jem, etc. He remembers tat Visionaries was short lived with them trying various techniques to highlight the holograms. The Visionaries, Battle Beasts and Air Raiders were all very short lived whilst he remembers that the Inhumanoid brand was a little more successful even though, as we all know, it did not produce enough revenue to warrant the 2nd series release. Transformers and G.I.Joe were their "billion dollar", in sales, products where as everything else just came and went. Transformers, G.I.Joe, Jem, My Little Pony and Inhumanoid all has decent advertising budgets and were shot from Amsterdam, where as Visionaries had a smaller budget and was shot stateside. Robert remebers that Battle Beasts were really hot for a short period before they dried up.
Changing Demographic and Affecting Change
When you look back at the early Transformers TV spots, and other Hasbro brands for that matter, you will notice that the kids who are cast tended to very much be blonde haired and blue eyed. It was actually Robert and his colleage who wrote the spots that convinced Hasbro Inc. to allow them to cast minority child actors including Black and Asian kids. Hasbro agreed and this change is obvious when you watch the spots now.
Transformers Initial Meeting
A interesting piece of trivia for you all is that despite being an Assistance Producer at the time, Robert was actually in the office when they came up with the name "Transformers" for the brand. Robert recalls that they had a prototype of Optimus Prime and a bunch of people were bouncing around ideas for the brand. He was fascinated by the process and decided to stay to learn more. Someone said something like "they transform from this into that .." and then a voice, which Robert believes was Mr Bacal exclaimed "Transformers!", and thus the brandname was decide.
Robert remembers that Hasbro Inc wanted to re-issue the 12" G.I.Joe figures from the 1960s, he actually owned seven himself, but he recalls that Mr Griffin suggested to Stephen Hassenfeld, the "Has" in Hasbro, that "kids love collecting smaller things so reintroduce G.I. Joe as smaller figures". The idea was that if you sell the collectible, small action figures, that this would lead to sales of larger, more expensive vehicles and accessories. This of course is exactly what happened and the Hasbro account, which started at $7 million and had grown to to $30 milllion, would now grow to over $300 million. Life was good for everyone at GBI and Robert places a lot of that down to Griffin and Bacal themselves who he describes as being the "very best bosses".
We'd like to thank Robert for answering out questions and for sharing his insight and memories with us, so that we have been able to share them with you. It sounds like he loved his time working at Griffin-Bacal and that he was not the only one.