Transformers. There's maybe no more iconic toy, especially if you're a child of the 80s and 90s. And while the memories of making them shapeshift are indelible, the process of actually building one from scratch is far more involved (or exactly as involved, if you spent your entire childhood dreaming of this) as you'd imagine.
We were fortunate enough to get a peek behind the curtain of where everyone from Optimus Prime to Megatron is dreamed up, designed, and brought to life.
So how are Transformers conceived? A lot like many humans, it seems: with some rough play and an exchange of body parts. At least, that's how Transformers Senior Design Director Josh Lamb and Product Designer Lenny Panzica did it, as we sat down with them in a workshop at Transformers HQ just outside Providence, Rhode Island, and started tearing apart old Zoids and Transformers.
Robots in Design
Hasbro's headquarters are home to the design teams for some of the most popular toys in the world: Star Wars, Marvel, My Little Pony—all the way down to Scrabble and Monopoly. We're in a conference room, away from the cramped offices where the teams work on hundreds of designs every year, and the team has laid out the evolution of a few the new Beast Hunters Transformers, from conception to final models. And that process kicked off, like most do, with the dismemberment of a battalion of old robots.
The only thing Lamb and Panzica, who headed design for Beast Hunters, knew for sure going in was that the robots had to be, well, beasts. Everything else was fair game. So they ripped apart previous generations of Transformer toys—painted grey, so they were just working with the geometry of the pieces—and went about Frankensteining them back together into new creations. A Zoid head might end up on an old Optimus body, or Starscream's arms might wind up on a body with a Tyrannosaurus head and a dragon's tail. Which, yes, is as fun as it sounds.
Once some general concepts were in place for each figure, Panzica sketched up how the final products might look. That's harder than it sounds; remember, he's figuring out the key features for multiple modes of being. Will the dragon spit fire missiles? What kinds of features you can cram into one form without screwing up the other? The one constant to the process? The robot comes last:
"You get your alt mode (the vehicle or animal mode) first, and then reverse it into the robot," Panzica explains. "With a normal transformation, you know the basics. The tires can fold back and expose the feet, or you can make the chest into the head for the robot."
This means free-drawing how you want both modes to look, and more importantly, what features you're going to include, and how those mechanisms are going to work.
"For Predaking, we were going to originally have a fire breath for the dragon, but that turned out to be a problem mechanically for the robot form," Panzica says. "So we started thinking, what's better than a dragon with one fire breathing head? A dragon with three heads!" And just like that, the robot dragon had three heads instead of one. It's a gentle reminder that for all the real design work that goes into these—both Panzica and Lamb went through the competitive Fashion Institute of Technology Toy Design program—they're still, at their core, toys for kids long on imagination who aren't questioning the logic of why the dragon from Cybertron has so many heads.