Interview - Transformers: Animated Writer Marty Isenberg

Hobbes recently had the opportunity to ask a few questions of Marty Isenberg, Story Editor on the new Transformers: Animated show. He gave us some great insight into the creation of the show, settled at least one fan debate, and hinted at a lot more fun to come from this latest incarnation of Autobot/Decepticon conflict.

Hobbes: How did you get started working in animation?

Marty: My first job out of grad school was a temp job as a receptionist for Fox Kids Network, which was just starting up. The Director of Programming found out I was a writer and handed me a stack of scripts to read and told me I should try pitching stories for their shows. I pitched on a couple of their shows with little success and then about a year later Fox picked up Beetlejuice, which I managed to pitch on successfully and ended up writing seven episodes for them.

Hobbes: How does working on Transformers: Animated compare to your time on Beast Machines?

Marty: It’s a much better set-up because I’m actually in the same building with the production, so I work much more directly with our supervising producer Matt Youngberg and our art director Derrick Wyatt. Beast Machines was produced in Vancouver and I’m located in LA, so there was always a bit of a disconnect that happens when you’re not in proximity with the people who are actually making the show. We also do the voice records here in LA, so I get to attend those (my favorite part of the process) and tweak dialogue in the booth if I need to, whereas I only got to go to the first couple of voice records on Beast Machines.

Also, I’m not jumping into an existing continuity on this show like I was on Beast Machines, so I feel like I have much more freedom on characters, tone and story direction.

Hobbes: Transformers: Animated isn’t in continuity with any other part of the franchise?

Marty: No. Brand spankin’ new continuity with plenty of nods to and influences from previous incarnations. The G1 footage at the beginning of the pilot is a big ol’ wink to the fans, nothing more. Also, I’m surprised nobody caught Ratchet’s first line in reaction to the footage.

Hobbes: What are your responsibilities on Transformers: Animated?

Marty: I am the Story Editor/Head Writer, so I’m responsible for everything written on the show. I develop the story arcs for each season, as well as the individual episode springboards. Then I assign writers for each episode, work with them to flesh out their stories and edit them at each stage of the writing. We have three stages for each script: a five-page story premise that covers the basic beats and shape of the episode; a 10-12 page outline that fleshes out the story into its individual acts and scenes; and finally a script. In addition to editing other writers, I usually write a few episodes per season myself.

Hobbes: When you’re developing the show alongside the toyline with Hasbro, how was the decision made of which of the Transformers characters will be regulars (Prime, Bulkhead, Bumblebee) and which will have “guest star” status (Lockdown, Ultra Magnus, The Dinobots)?

Marty: Most of that was nailed down before I came aboard. I mentioned this in another interview, but Bumblebee was originally Hot Shot and Ratchet was originally Red Alert (and female!). Hot Shot got changed to Bumblebee largely because they knew he was going to be a breakout character in the Michael Bay feature, and also because Matt and Derrick really like Bumblebee. Beyond our core Autobot team, we pretty much let the stories dictate who shows up and how often.

Hobbes: What was the status of the series when you were brought on?

Marty: Hasbro and Cartoon Network had already been developing the show when I was brought in to rewrite the series “bible” that they had put together. Most of the cast of Autobots and Decepticons had been decided upon, although there were some changes made along the way.

The great thing about this series is that the story and toyline have been developed simultaneously. More often than not, Hasbro will conform their toyline to our story and character direction, although they will often influence which characters we use. A number of times in the development I would say I need this type of character to fill this role, who do you suggest? That’s pretty much where Sentinel and Ultra Magnus came from. Blitzwing came from my desire to do a crazy Decepticon character who could transform into anything (ala Beetlejuice or The Mask). When that proved impractical from both a toy and an animation design budget perspective, someone suggested using a triple changer instead. Eventually I came up with the idea to give him three different personalities and I think Derrick came up with the shifting faces to match each personality. It also helps that Matt and Derrick are HUGE Transformers fans, so they have definite opinions on which characters we should use.

Hobbes: How much input in the show’s story structure does Hasbro have and how much input into the toys does the production team have?

Marty: Hasbro has input at every stage, but it’s largely a collaborative process as I described above. They have been really open to the story direction we’ve been doing, so we get incredible support from Hasbro.

Hobbes: When working with Hasbro on a show-by-show basis, do they have script approval or input to the designs of settings or show-only characters (such as Sari)?

Marty: Hasbro has approval on everything, but obviously they put more attention into designs of characters that will actually become toys. We pretty much have figured out which new characters will be appearing when we develop the season arc, so Hasbro can decide which will become toys in their next “wave”. Sometimes we want to throw in cameos from classic characters but can’t because of issues having to do with the live action feature or that for whatever reason they’ve lost the rights to the character name.

Hobbes: What motivated the update of Blackarachnia’s character for the show and will we see more updates of characters from the Beast Era?

Marty: Blackarachnia was in the development before I came on board, so I can’t say why anyone pushed for her, other than she’s a great character. Given that, it was up to me to come up with an explanation as to why a character with a Beast Mode existed in this world. As for other Beast Era characters, you’ll just have to watch and see…

Hobbes: Transformers: Animated already has perhaps the largest human supporting cast of any other Transformer series. How did the decision to populate the city of Detroit so thoroughly come about and can we expect any of the humans to play a vital role in the Autobot/Decepticon conflict?

Marty: The Detroit aspect was part of the development before I came on board, but I embraced it whole-heartedly. Early on, the decision was made to play this more like a superhero show than a “robot gang war” show. We also set out to make this a more fun show, and part of that fun was the “strangers in a strange land” aspect of the Autobots trying to fit in with Earth cultures. We gave our characters Earth interests and hobbies (Prowl – nature, Bumblebee – pop culture, Bulkhead – well, you’ll see).

The other thing is most Transformers series put the conflict out in the middle of nowhere, so the scale of the giant robots was completely lost. A populated city provides a constant sense of scale and we try to have fun with that as much as possible.

My contribution was putting our Autobot team much lower on the Cybertronian food chain than previous incarnations. I figured it would be more interesting to see characters who were nobodies on their home planet be treated as heroes on Earth. That, coupled with the decision to bring in the Decepticons one at a time, required our heroes to deal with more “local” threats at first. All of this added up to more human interaction.

The humans will continue to play a vital role in our series, even as the Decepticons become more prominent.

Hobbes: To the best of your knowledge, how many seasons of Transformers: Animated can we expect to see?

Marty: We can EXPECT to see two seasons so far. We can HOPE to see many more, but so far nothing official has been decided. I’m still working on the show, so that should give you some clue.

Transformers: Animated has been delivering a consistent mix of nostalgic fun and new thrills, and it’s good to know that the show has a solid run ahead of it.

Hobbes: TFormers extends its thanks to Mr. Isenberg for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak with us.

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