We talk to F. J. DeSanto, showrunner of Netflix's Transformers: War For Cybertron series

Marcus Goh
Optimus Prime (Jake Foushee) makes hard decisions in Transformers : War for Cybertron Trilogy. (PHOTO: Netflix)

How do you handle a decades-old franchise, such as Transformers, that has long-time fans with high expectations, but still attract new fans to the franchise?

"The favourite part is also the scariest part, the responsibility of getting to play in the world of Transformers, and being creatively in charge of having to deliver for a franchise that people have loved for decades," said F. J. DeSanto, the showrunner for the upcoming Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy on Netflix. "You get to control the fates of classic characters, and tell stories that haven't been told before."

F. J. DeSanto, executive producer of Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy. (PHOTO: Netflix)

The first part of Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy, hits Netflix on Thursday (30 July). Subtitled Siege, the 6-episode series depicts the war among a race of transforming robots and the challenges that the leaders of each faction have to face. It will be followed by a second 6-part series, subtitled Earthrise, and the trilogy will be concluded by Kingdom, the final 6-episode series of the trilogy.

The executive producer of the series spoke about how he was afforded the opportunity to tell stories that haven't been told before in Transformers mythos with this 18-episode saga. But how did it all begin?

Megatron (Jason Marnocha) glowers in Transformers : War for Cybertron Trilogy. (PHOTO: Netflix)

"It started with a collaboration with Hasbro", said DeSanto. "Two years ago, I flew out to Hasbro's headquarters in Rhode Island, and they presented what they were doing with the next three toylines." He went on to explain that Hasbro had already planned out what the three chapters of the toyline would be.

Accompanying the series is the Transformers: War for Cybertron toyline, with the Siege figures having been released in 2019, the Earthrise line appearing in stores this year, and the Kingdom series announced as the final chapter.

"So there's the theme and tone, like how (Siege) is very military and civil war-oriented," he said, and how the subsequent ones are different. "They give you certain themes, ideas, and moments, but I was able to take that and figure out how to make a story out of that — how to get from A to B to C to D, in a way that's entertaining and fun and gets people excited."

Evil scientist Shockwave (Todd Haberkorn) in Transformers : War for Cybertron Trilogy. (PHOTO: Netflix)

Together with another writer, DeSanto worked out a series bible, like a roadmap, of what the three seasons would be like. "We produced them all at once," he said, "with no breaks in between. So we had to be certain with this roadmap, of where this story was going, so that when we went to the animation studio we knew what we wanted and where we wanted to take it."

The long-time Transformers fan went on to explain the decision behind the characterisation of the main characters, like the heroic leader of the Autobot faction, Optimus Prime, and the evil tyrant of the Decepticon faction, Megatron. Both characters differ significantly from their traditional depictions in modern media, with Optimus Prime being more uncertain and commanding less respect, and Megatron appearing idealistic and even sympathetic at the beginning.

"Well, the idea is that this is a prequel series, and when we meet them in (later depictions), they are that perfect version of those characters that we grew up loving. So what you are seeing in Siege is the starting point of the evolution of both of them," he said. "So the idea is, by the time these three chapters are over, how do we get them to where we know them as classic characters? They're both flawed, and they're both going to learn lessons as these three chapters evolve."

Elita-1 (Linsay Rousseau), Optimus Prime (Jake Foushee), and Wheeljack (Bill Rogers) discuss the fate of Cybertron in Transformers : War for Cybertron Trilogy. (PHOTO: Netflix)

"And it's intentional, because if you start them where they're perfect heroes or villains, then there's no room for development. So we wanted to have some flexibility — we didn't want to do an origin story about who they are and where they come from, but we wanted to drop the audience into it where they're familiar with these characters, but they're not as fully realised as we know them in the franchise."

For many Transformers fans, show and toy accuracy are important factors, as the figures that collectors purchase should be as close to their appearance in the show as possible. It's something that DeSanto understood well both professionally and personally. "It's a big deal that when you're collecting the toys, everything matches accordingly — what you see on screen as a toy and what you buy is as aligned as possible."

"It's really important that we always keep our heads as fans also, and how to serve those fans. Everybody involved, like Hasbro and Netflix, all understood and was very supportive of that approach. As a keeper of the legacy of a 30 plus-year-old franchise, we had to make sure we honoured it."

To that end, the majority of the show's character are toy accurate — digital data and model sheets are taken from the toy models and sent to the animation studio, where animation models and rigs can be built based on that. There's even a character height chart, but some proportions had to be altered from the toyline to make it more feasible and realistic for all the Transformers to interact within the same universe.

So as a fan, who is DeSanto's favourite character?

Ultra Magnus (Edward Bosco) ponders in Transformers : War for Cybertron Trilogy. (PHOTO: Netflix)

"When I grew up, I loved Soundwave (a Transformer that turns into a cassette tape player) and had the Japanese toy version of him," he shared. "However, my favourite character in the whole trilogy is Elita-1."

Elita-1 serves as a love interest and equal to the series protagonist Optimus Prime, and was similarly depicted in earlier Transformers series, albeit in a smaller role.

"Elita-1 was a character that only had a minor role in the franchise, but had some sort of history with Optimus Prime that was referred to. We saw this as an opportunity to explore that relationship and making her a significant character that can reverberate throughout the franchise. She's strong, and smarter than Optimus Prime, and he can learn from her."

Bumblebee (Joe Zieja) is undecided about his allegiance in Transformers : War for Cybertron Trilogy. (PHOTO: Netflix)

DeSanto also spoke about next six episodes of the series, Earthrise, and how it will centre around the repercussions of the actions of the main characters in Siege. It won't pick up immediately after Siege, but it'll build on the relationships that have already been established between characters. "You'll never see a human in the series", he added. There'll be plenty of nods, winks and references to earlier Transformers series, and the sly references and homages in Siege will also continue in Earthrise.

For Transformers fans, the big question is — will Unicron, a crowdfunded figure that's planned for release in 2021, appear in the series? It will be the largest Transformer ever made. DeSanto gave a non-committal reply and said "Follow the toys," which was his same reply to whether Scorponok, the largest Transformer released this year, will appear in the series.

It looks like there'll be more than meets the eye for the rest of Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy.

Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy will be released on Netlix on 30 July. 

The blasted ruins of Cybertron in Transformers : War for Cybertron Trilogy. (PHOTO: Netflix)

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Marcus Goh is a television scriptwriter who writes for “Crimewatch”, as well as popular shows like “Lion Mums”, “Code of Law”, “Incredible Tales”, and “Police & Thief”. He’s also a Transformers enthusiast and avid pop culture scholar. You can find him on social media as Optimarcus and on his site. The views expressed are his own.

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