Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A Bug's Life

Many were disappointed when images of the robots for the Transformers live action movie started circulating on the web. Everybody cursed Michael Bay and his crew for changing the look of their favorite Autobots and Decepticons by creating intricate design aesthetics for the computer-generated robots. The robots “updated” versions discarded the original “blocky” look from the original TV series giving them more menacing and somewhat alien-like forms. The alternate forms of the Transformers also suffered from the movie “updates”. Optimus Prime’s original Freightliner Cab-over-engine alternate mode was discarded and replaced by a Peterbilt 379 Truck. Megatron now had an alternate mode of a Cybertronian Jet rather than his original Walther P38 9 mm pistol mode. Most of the Autobots had GMC vehicles now as their alternate modes: Ratchet became a Hummer H2 Search and Rescue SUV, Ironhide became a Topkick pickup truck, and Jazz had an alternate mode of a Pontiac Solstice roadster. But the biggest blow to the fans of the original series was the reimagining of fan-favorite Bumblebee, originally a cute and lovable Volkswagen Beetle, into a Chevrolet Camaro.

Why did this happen? Why a complete overhaul to the most charming feature of everybody’s favorite bug?

Today, I share a small chunk of vast history of the Transformers franchise about the Autobot Bumblebee.

Bumblebee is the "little brother" of the heroic Autobot faction, constantly striving to prove himself in the eyes of the taller, stronger robots that he respects - especially their leader, Optimus Prime. So strong is this admiration toward others, he takes risks that put him in danger. Although a bit of a wise-cracker, he is a capable and reliable messenger and spy, his small size allowing him to go places that his larger comrades cannot. He is highly fuel efficient, has great visual acuity, is particularly adaptable to undersea environments and transforms into a Volkswagen Beetle.

Bumblebee's primary function in the original Transformers animated series and comics was to serve as the "young" character with whom the youthful viewing audience could identify, and he would befriend the Autobots' primary human ally - the young son of the Witwicky family - to this end, a concept that persists into the 2007 live-action film.

Bumblebee is quite unusual in that, unlike many other Transformers, his name has not been re-used and applied to unrelated characters throughout the ensuing twenty years of Transformers media, due to the loss of the trademark. Bumblebee was later reconstructed in a stronger, more mature form in the animated series to reflect Hasbro Inc.’s loss of the “Bumblebee” trademark in its toys. According to the second arc of Season 3’s “The Return of Optimus Prime” the little Autobot had been so severely damaged that he required an entire reconstruction. In his new, shiny body, he commented that he had gone beyond just being Bumblebee, and was now a "gold bug", prompting Optimus Prime to redub him "Goldbug". Toywise, rather than transforming into an ordinary Volkswagen Beetle, he was made into a golden 1975 Super Beetle to clearly show the Goldbug moniker.

As years passed by and as other Transformers series sprouted out, Bumblebee’s void as the Autobots little brother was filled by other supporting characters. His role as the "young yellow character" had inspired other Transformers characters with the same role such as Cheetor (Transformers Beast Wars) and Hot Shot (Transformers: Robots in Disguise). But still Bumblebee is Bumblebee. Fans waited anxiously for his return and the reestablishment of his trademark.

In 2005, after years of not possessing the "Bumblebee" name trademark, Hasbro finally regained it for their “toy action figures, toy vehicles and toy robots convertible into other visual toy forms” products. This was just in time for their release of a 3 inch tall die-cast non-transforming Bumblebee figure as part of the Transformers: Titanium line in 2006. Fans rejoiced. Bumblebee was back in the game. Taking a step further, Hasbro started approaching Volkswagen to grant them license to use the New Volkswagen Beetle for their new 1:24 scale toy line, Transformers: Alternators (Binaltech in Japan). As one of the earliest concepts designed by Hasbro, Bumblebee was reimagined as a new Volkswagen Beetle.

For those of you who don’t know, Transformers: Alternators is a toyline of the Transformers series produced by Hasbro in North America & Europe and Takara in Japan, the primary selling point of which is the use of 1:24 scale, accurate real-world vehicle modes officially licensed from car manufacturers. Typically for each vehicle there are two toys to go with it to match the base model and the sport model. Years ago, Hasbro approached Porsche for licensing. The very first car mold developed for the Alternators-Binaltech line was the Porsche 986 Boxster, originally conceived as Autobot Jazz. Porsche rejected any involvement with "war machines", making it impossible to attain the license for the figure's release.

Just like Porsche, Volkswagen declined giving the New Volkswagen Beetle license to Hasbro, presumably due to their World War II history, claiming that, as with Porsche, Volkswagen refused to license the car on the grounds that they did not want to associate their vehicles with war-themed media due to the warlike nature of the Transformers. Volkswagen’s licensing further became bleak when Hasbro insisted that Bumblebee carry a gun since all Alternators sport some manner of weaponry. The toy never progressed beyond the line-art phase and the concept drawings could still be found scattered on the web. The design made a cameo as a possible "future" Bumblebee in the BotCon 2005 comic, "Descent into Evil”.

Even if Hasbro could not procure Volkswagen’s licensing, Bumblebee still appeared in the Transformers: Classics, a line of Transformers toys that are based on and resemble the first generation characters and figures introduced in the 1980s. Released towards the end of 2006, Bumblebee has finally returned as a transforming figure. Unable to be an actual Volkswagen due to the company's position, as noted above, Bumblebee is nevertheless a small, stocky car which does not appear to be based on any single production model but rather an amalgamation of features from several different ones. The designers wanted to give Bumblebee a form that evoked the rounded, VW form. The result was a vehicle that is part Subaru, part Peugeot, part Honda hatchback with a few subtle Volkswagen elements mixed in.

Now we know why Bumblebee could not be a Beetle until Volkswagen gives Hasbro the necessary permissions to use the likeness of their car. But why is Bumblebee a Camaro in the movie?

Designs of the robots began in June 2005, and Hasbro heavily collaborated on the live action interpretations of their characters. In keeping with Michael Bay's desire to make Transformers realistic, the robots were designed more intricately to look more three-dimensional and to reflect their alien origins. Morphing in transformations was restricted, unlike the cartoon or comic books, where a character such as Megatron transforms into a Walther P38 pistol. Every character stayed the same size in both forms, which in turn explained the robots' choice of Earth forms during the story. Optimus Prime's original cab over truck form was rejected because it would make him only 23 feet tall, so Bay decided to use the Peterbilt, the largest truck available. Therefore, sticking to the idea that the mass of the Transformers in robot form should be believable compared to their vehicle form, if ever Bumblebee would be a Volkswagen Beetle it would have resulted in him being much smaller in robot form. With his Camaro body, Bumblebee could achieve a height of 16 to 18 meters. Originally a worn-out 1969 Camaro, producers settled on a 1977 model. It is painted yellow with black stripes, primer and rust patches, riveted hood scoop, Cragar SS wheels up front, Eric Vaughn Real Wheels in the back, marine-grade vinyl seats, and even an eight-track player. Later in the movie, when Mikaela criticizes the poor condition of Bumblebee's vehicle mode, he scans a passing 2009 preproduction model of the Camaro donning is as his new alternate mode. This 2008/09 model was built using a 2006 Pontiac GTO by Saleen, the body was built from the same GM R&D molds that were used in the prototype 08/09 Camaros.

But why not use a BMW Mini Cooper? Fans had been eyeing the most popular British-made car ever made as a possible alternate mode for Bumblebee if ever Hasbro couldn’t get the Volkswagen license in time for the movie. Well, just like Porsche and Volkswagen, during the planning stages of the Alternators/ Binaltech toyline, Hasbro and Takara tried to get a license for a MINI Cooper from BMW, the owners of the MINI brand. BMW said that as long as the figure did not have a gun, they would approve it. Hasbro and Takara had already started creating a prototype before getting permission, prompting BMW to revoke the license. And since a Mini Cooper is smaller than a Camaro (and a Beetle) I don’t think Bay would be willing to make a very small robot.

Don Murphy, one of the producers of the live action movie, wanted to retain Bumblebee's Volkswagen Beetle form, but Bay rejected it to avoid comparisons with “Herbie the Love Bug”. Bay chose the Chevrolet Camaro instead, which he described as having a friendly quality. As a tribute to Bumblebee’s past form, in the scene where Sam’s father bring him to a used car shop for him to purchase his first car, we can clearly see an old yellow 1971 Volkswagen Beetle next to Bumblebee’s new Camaro form. Sam has to choose between that old Beetle and the Camaro, but of course chooses the Camaro. Bumblebee damages the Beetle in order to ensure that Sam purchases him. In scenes showing Sam driving the Camaro a bee-shaped air freshener attached to his rear view mirror with the words "Bee-otch" could be seen to which is clearly a homage to Bumblebee.

As an added bonus to the movie’s budget, making Bumblebee a Camaro led a full product placement deal with General Motors, to supply the alternate modes for Jazz, Ironhide and Ratchet. The deal saved $3 million, though Bay hoped they would have supplied a bigger car for Jazz than the Pontiac Solstice.

The future looks bleak for the Volkswagen Beetle Bumblebee. Even with the success of the live action movie and a chance to earn big bucks at the side, Volkswagen still wouldn’t budge. But Hasbro doesn’t care anymore. As of writing, Hasbro announced at BotCon 2007 that the Transformers: Alternators line will be discontinued. Here’s hoping Takara, Hasbro's Japanese counterpart, would try to win over Volkswagens approval when they continue their Binaltech line. In the upcoming months, Cartoon Network (in the states) would start to air the newest cartoon series based on the Transformers franchise. Titled Transformers: Animated, this show would feature new “cartoony” designs and alternate modes for both the Autobots and Decepticons. Bumblebee here would transform into something close to his Transformers: Classics toy incarnation – a far cry from the Volkswagen Beetle that fans hope to see again.

Camaro, Mini, Hatchback… for me Bumblebee would always be a Volkswagen Beetle. Sure, we wouldn’t be able to see it again but everytime a yellow colored Volkswagen Beetle pass by me I would always say “Uy! Si Bumblebee yun ah!”. As for his Camaro alternate mode a lot of diehard fans showed their grievances by sending Michael Bay death threats after learning about the changes of the Transformers saying that he single handedly destroyed their “precious childhood memories”.


I think it’s ok as long as Megan Fox is riding one.

(Author's Note: As you can see most of what is posted above is copied from various toy sites and, of course, Wikipedia! Thank God for Wikipedia! Without it I got nothing to write about...)


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