This is gonna be all about Autobots and Decepticons! With the Transformers movie coming out July 3rd, 2007 – damn, in Japan we have to wait until August 4th! – the long ongoing Transformers franchise is still in full mode, including comic books, TV series, a toy line and now also a game, of course. But the toys! Who makes these miraculously transforming toys that change between two or more shapes?
PingMag got hold of Australian Alex Kubalsky of Takaratomy in Tokyo, who not only happens to be the sole foreign toy designer in Japan – he also designed all the transformations for Transformer’s Bumblebee, Mirage and more cute fan gear!
Written by Verena
You are a toy designer in Japan! How did it all begin?
I was really into stop-frame animation in high school in Melbourne doing super-8 animations with LEGO. I loved stop motion and I couldn’t draw that well, so I just built the complicated stuff in LEGO. After school, I did a one-year film course and used to draw strips of cartoons.
But you didn’t continue…?
I was always frustrated that I couldn’t draw as well as the Japanese Manga guys, and I just wanted to challenge myself. I had one solid idea for a science fiction story that I wanted to implement either as film or as drawn animation. Only, I just couldn’t draw the robots and the robotic machinery for that.
“Ambu” as transformed into a butterfly. Made in 2002. © Alexander Kubalsky
Close-up of “Ambu.” © Alexander Kubalsky
You told me before that you got into design first?
Yes I tried to get into industrial design but didn’t: I got top marks for the portfolio and the interview – but there was this drawing test. In the end, I just ran out of time and I failed miserably. But you know that a lot of the working designers drop out and don’t finish anyway…
Regarding Transformers as influence, I bet you saw the TV series as a kid?
Indeed, that may have been a bigger inspiration being a kid of eleven or twelve years: Transformers was one of several transforming animation series during the 80s. Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker had stop motion of a dancing robot and computer animation of a transforming car. Also, I had like six or seven of the Transformers toys and was collecting them at flea markets while in high school. That was back when Japanese toys were seen as cheap knockoffs.
So, how did you get into the actual transforming then?
When I was twenty-two, I went backpacking around Europe with my girlfriend. As I had never been away as long as six months without drawing anything or doing stop motion animation, I got more and more restless to get back into something. So, while I was travelling, I started having these visions of the “squid women,” that’s what I called it: a submarine that transforms into a lady in a dress and flys through space. Actually, she was based on two incidents from my childhood.
From your childhood?
Yes, one was Mary Poppins, because on a school trip at the age of seven I went to see the movie at the theatre. When she flew across the screen with her umbrella – that really spooked me!
You got into transforming because of Mary Poppins! What was the other incident?
The other incident was an amazing dream I had when I was a kid, which I wrote down: It was in the middle of the day when a train was stopped between two stations and people were running from it. All the doors were open, so I got on and could see this woman in a purple dress floating her way towards me. It was Mary Poppins! Then I dived into a black swamp and she dived in after me. It felt like there was some sort of squid in the water. Then I woke up, but I didn’t actually as I was stuck in Kanashibari – when your mind is awake but your body is still asleep. So, I couldn’t see anything and felt this hot breathing on my left cheek like somebody was hovering over me. First I thought there was something else in the room until I woke up…
Again, you had this “squid women” vision, and afterwards you made a toy out of it?
The “Mirage” in its actual plastic toy appearance. “I wanted to look him like a 70′s dude in bell-bottoms,” Alex explains.
Basically, when I was backpacking I kept having this vision of a squid-like submarine change into this woman. So I went back to Melbourne and built that toy and several others with vacform sculpting – then took them to Japan.
That got you the job as toy designer in Japan?
I came to Japan on a working holiday visa and said ‘I’m going to be a toy designer!’ I couldn’t find work with a toy company. Although they liked my ideas, language was a big issue. The first time I stayed for three months short of three years, saved $20,000 from teaching English part-time and being an extra in TV commercials and kept drawing all the time. Then, I returned to Melbourne for fourteen months. There, it took me a year to build a new toy with 174 pieces: “AMBU,” for “audio man butterfly unit.” It is a black dude in a white jumpsuit that transforms into a bird and then in a butterfly; when he transforms it looks like he is break dancing. I wouldn’t leave the room until it was finished. When I went out, I used to carry it around with me all the time because I was paranoid about leaving it. Then, I took it to Medicom who make the Kubrick toys.
And they hired you because of “Ambu”?
No. They thought it was nuts! They did collaborations with known artists from New York, so they surely weren’t going to spend $100,000 for a 174-piece model by an unknown artist. A few months later, I approached Takaratomy: I called them up on Boxing Day, and a week later I showed them my stuff. However, they said it was art and not toys.
Oh no! What did you do then?
Well, we kept in touch. After a year nothing came of it, I was just about to leave Japan to start stop animation in England. Suddenly in 2005, Takaratomy told me to come in and talk. But I didn’t have anything to show him and only four days left! So, I made a little Transformers emblem that transformed into a lion and worked around the clock to present it. But then they just said ‘You didn’t have to make that.’ Based on my more humanoid designs, they wanted me to develop a new line of toys…
Transformers! Once again, the toy line is a collaboration between the Japanese manufacturer Takaratomy and its American equivalent Hasbro. As you mentioned before, your work process would usually be: Hasbro comes up with a concept for a toy and you are the designer that builds it. I guess that is quite complicated…
Basically, I’m an inventor and a character designer and my input is bringing everything into 3D reality and adding cool character dimensions like feature weapons and funny things to it: I do the part lists, draw the blueprints and then draw a 10 or 12 frame short animation to show how the toy would transform. I do this based off Hasbro concepts as well as my own characters and concepts that are okayed by Hasbro. They are a great team to work with.
And you did all of the Bumblebee transformations?
From the first day I started at Takaratomy I have always done Bumblebee.
Even in the movie trailer he is the main guy…
Two years ago,my first toy was a new interpretation of it: like a Citroen 206 with about 40 parts which took me about a month. Originally as it was a small car, it was going to need something extra. So I designed a jet pack for it. Not many people realize my design motif, but its supposed to look like it has got big sneakers and a hoodie on and pockets…
… and a smiling face!
That was the other point, when I was handing the model maker the blueprints, I asked him to put a smile on its face. As far as I know, this is the first Transformer with a smile!
The MP3 player transformation as part of the “Transformers” movie merchandise now on the shelves, developed by Alex.
The MP3 player is growing wings…
… and transforms into…
… a bird creature! All done by Alex Kubalsky.
What did you transform apart from Bumblebee?
For the Transformer movie, the characters have been already set by Dreamworks so we were doing just the transformations and a lot of the movie-related stuff. Also, there is a toy series for kids of real products like MP3 players that turn into robot creatures and run around; we expanded on that.
I did Classic Mirage. A toy with 19 points of articulation. But right now I am designing toys that won’t come out before the end of 2007 or in 2008: a game controller that transforms into something. Apart from that, I am not allowed to tell you more about my other projects…
How do you usually start with the creation process?
I put on my headphones, listen to music and close my eyes – and most of the stuff is in my head. When I was a kid I spent hours and hours with LEGO. I would go to bed and still be thinking of LEGO in my head.
Really? No 3D software involved?
No, I draw everything on millimetre paper, including every part. It is all in my head!
Amazing! Again, the transforming process is about changing in two or into three different shapes. Please explain a bit about the whole thing…
Apart from Origami, of course, i think the concept came from Japan in the 70s from Yusha Raideen, an animated TV series of a bird that turns into a robot, controlled by a guy. There are toys that change into six stages, the more objects there are the more abstract it gets. However, there have been very few triple-change toys that look good in all three modes.
No sketch by Alex, but from “Transformers” the movie: Optimus Prime in action! © Paramount Pictures / Hasbro
The transformation itself is the art form?
As we are trying to do more characteristic characters that don’t just go beating people up, we want to create unique individualistic characters that have expressive transformations! For example, if the character is a villain, it would be good if he revealed his face like opening an evil cloak. If he is a hero he would come out punching.
What would you like to design that hasn’t been designed yet?
Just an odd object that transforms into another odd object for no reason. Just so because it looks interesting as it transforms. It is not so much about what it is in a and b – but the path itself is c. The transformation itself is the interesting thing!
Sounds very Buddhist, as in The Path is the Goal! Awesome, a whole new form of art – the way a toy transforms cleverly and utmost elegant. Thank you, Alex Kubalsky from Takaratomy!