Walter Mueller knows his Transformers.
The 32-year-old has been collecting the robot toys for more than 20 years. He even has one of the brand s main characters, Optimus Prime, tattooed in full color on his leg.
The owner of a meat-processing plant, Mueller recently traveled from his native Ontario, Canada, to Southern California to attend BotCon, the 15th annual Transformers convention, in hopes of adding to his arsenal of more than 1,000 toys.
The Transformers movie and its forthcoming sequel have spawned dozens of new characters, while also having the effect of making the shape-shifting robots infinitely more complex than the toys that were first introduced in 1984, the year Mueller became a fan. This self-perpetuating cycle – toys inspiring a film that inspired more sophisticated toys – has also made the miniaturized versions cool again for a younger generation, Mueller said.
As the film raised the bar on the merchandise, the merchandise has responded, Mueller said.
They re very movie-accurate, he said.
And that s by design – literally. Screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman went to Hasbro s Transformers school to get to know the Autobots and Decepticons before crafting their story about alien robots who come to earth and befriend an American teenager.
Even if I wasn t involved, Orci told a crowd at BotCon, I d want the toy to match the movie as much as possible.
The toy company s designers also worked hand-in-hand with director Michael Bay to ensure that the giant robot characters on screen would have matching downsized counterparts at toy stores worldwide. (Hasbro Inc. is a production partner on the picture, and its chief executive is credited as co-executive producer.)
The movie is a challenge, but it s a good challenge, said Hasbro senior design director Aaron Archer. As (Bay) has ideas and his team has ideas, we put our lore and our characters in there and mix them back and forth. Then the guys at Hasbro have to figure out how to take this awesome car image and this awesome robot image and make it move in such a way that you end up with those looks.
The big-screen bots are entirely computer generated. Their detailed transformations look spectacular but only exist in a digital world, making them far more complicated than their toy doppelgangers. A souped-up police car, for example, undergoes countless intricate, incremental changes to become the evil Decepticon Barricade. The plastic toys, however, must face the realities of 3-D physics – and be user-friendly enough for a kid to enjoy.
The film s introduction of real branded vehicles, such as the Pontiac Solstice and the Chevrolet Camaro, added to the toy-design challenge, Archer said.
I know what a Solstice looks like. I can see one on the road, so the toy better live up to it, he said. Prior to that, we kind of made up the car forms to feature the toy features.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, in theaters June 24, introduces more than 25 new characters to the Transformers family, including Sideswipe, a swordsmith disguised as a silver Corvette, and Soundwave, an evil cannon-wielding robot camouflaged as a spaceship that controls human satellite transmissions.
Jack Horton, a 13-year-old from Cresson, Texas, who came to BotCon with his dad, said he s most interested in playing with Transformers that have appeared on screen.
When I see it in the movie, I want it a lot more, he said. But in the movie you only see it for a few seconds. With the toys you can do whatever you want.
And he s not disappointed that the toy transformation doesn t exactly replicate the giant-sized, computer-generated moves in the film.
The special effects are ridiculously complicated, he said. You can t do that with a toy.
Fans say the Transformers: Animated series more accurately depicts how the toys transform in the real world.
But the character attributes are constant in film and on TV, based largely on the 25-year-old Transformers mythology, said global marketing director Greg Lombardo. So even though Bumblebee has changed from a Volkswagen Beetle to a sleek Camaro over the years, he s always been yellow-and-black – and friendly. Optimus Prime has always been the leading good guy and Megatron the leading bad guy.
Hasbro has created more than 2,000 different Transformers characters over the history of the brand, each with its own look and personality.
What ends up happening is the writers and Michael (Bay) decide where they want to take the story and sometimes they need a Transformer that can be x, y and z, Lombardo said. Then we work with them and say, Here s a character that fits the personality they re looking for, and sometimes we create new ones.
Tons of new toys inspired by the film are set to fill store shelves this summer, including 24 robots, a Bumblebee plasma cannon and the giant Devastator, made up of six separate vehicles called Constructicons. BotCon guests got the first crack at buying the new toys.
Mueller spent about $3,000 over the four-day event. It s one of the few places where you can actually find the stuff and see it firsthand, he said. That s the real draw for me.
His favorite character: Optimus Prime. He s the man.
These characters mean something to someone, said Archer, the Hasbro toy designer. If they re going to go out and purchase a plastic avatar, they want it to look like what they see on the big screen, so we try to bring it to them in all its glory.