May 16th, 2020. I’m sitting in my garden, chatting on the phone with David Wallace, co-compère without compare of TFNation, the UK’s biggest Transformers convention.
TFNation 2020 has been cancelled a few days earlier due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dave lets me in on a little secret – the convention is going to prepare a virtual convention, to be broadcast online on the weekend the physical con would have taken place. In amongst the various guest interviews and panels that are being planned, Dave asks if it would be possible to do some sort of chat show thing, hosted by Sentinel Prime (voiced by the always amazing Townsend Coleman). We’re thinking something like “Space Ghost Coast-to-Coast”, a brilliant chat show parody cartoon from the late 90’s. Immediately, I can see in my minds eye how it can work, and I don’t know the specifics yet – but I know we can do SOMETHING. I ask if Dave can send me some of the audio of Townsend talking from the TFN 2019’s Animated script reading, and that night I set about working out how we can make an animated chat show in just under three months, on literally zero budget.
I took some stills of Sentinel Prime from Ed Pirrie’s previous artworks, and removed the mouth animation from them. I then drew five or six separate mouth positions, and set them up in a program from Adobe called Character Animator. One of the great features of this program is that you can feed audio into it, and it will automatically use the mouth positions you’ve drawn to animate a matching lip-synced mouth to the audio. I exported the mouth and audio out, and then plonked them on top of the Sentinel artwork in another program called After Effects (which is a great program for doing compositing, special effects, and animation).
I also knew that I wanted the option of a dynamic studio for Sentinel to sit in, something that wasn’t just a 2D drawn backdrop. I didn’t want the camera to move like crazy – but I wanted SOME movement. I quickly knocked up some 2D textures, and moved them around in After Effects 3D virtual space to make a simple desk, monitor, and a great big window with Animated Metroplex in the background. Finally, knowing that we’d probably have to incorporate some interviews or other footage onto the monitor, I swiped some TFN footage from conventions past, and distorted it to fit. I rendered out the test, and passed it on to Dave and the rest of the TFN creatives to have a look.
It was basic as hell, but showed the concept could work. A few Zoom chats ensued with Dave, TFN head honcho Billy Edwards, and creative masterminds Andy Turnbull and Ed Pirrie. We brainstormed (arcana’d?) various ideas for interviewees, what other characters could we use, what voice actors could we get help from, how long would certain bits take, how complex could we get in the time allotted and so on. Once some initial ideas had been thrashed out, we ended up with concepts for eight chat show segments. The concepts were divvied up between us, and we all set about writing our first drafts, then passing the scripts around and re-writing between us to improve things.
I obviously lobbied hard to include Soundbarrier as an interviewee, and as the TFN mascot Genericon wasn’t particularly busy at that point, she was also added to the mix. We decided to make her the band leader, but then had to think, well, who else would be in the band? To save time on building and rigging artwork puppets, we opted to use Beast Machines Diagnostic Drones as a way to troop build our musical troupe!
I asked Ed and Andy to provide the art assets for everyone but Soundbarrier (as I had already started futzing about with him), asking for them to be drawn with various limbs and heads in a variety of positions and on different layers. These would then be rigged in After Effects so that I could animate them throughout the scenes.
Ed and Andy went above and beyond with the artwork, and if time hadn’t been so tight, I could have used the puppets more effectively, so I do feel a bit bad for not using them to their fullest. Andy in particular drew and coloured one character that was animated and included right up to early August, but ended up being in a cut segment, so I felt really bad about that! Doh.
While the Ed and Andy art machine beavered away on their puppets, I beavered away on building a ‘not-as-cack-looking-as-the-test-footage’ virtual studio. Using the physical stage of TFN2019 as an inspiration, the stage was built as a 3D environment in After Effects, with fake spotlights and everything. No fire exits though, that probably would have irked Billy if he knew. The stage would also go on to be repurposed and rejigged to be used as the backdrop for all the panels and interviews over the course of the Big Broadcast. Came in handy there!
As the stage approached completion, I began rigging the puppets properly to make them animatable, with the plan in place to add the mouths on later. We knew that the various voice actors wouldn’t have their lines into us until later in the schedule (in fact the last audio was delivered on August 11th, a mere 4 days before the Big Broadcast, in a scary buttock-clenching moment!). In the absence of professional voice acting at the start, I recorded all the character parts myself as temporary audio tracks, doing my own impressions of Sentinel, Genny, Perceptor, Sky Byte and so on. I would animate to these temp tracks, then replace them with the proper audio, and adjust the animation slightly to match.
Just be glad those temp tracks were replaced is all I’m saying.
The first segment to be animated fully was the Soundbarrier segment. To start with, this was never planned to be the final segment where Sentinel leaves, it was just a comedic stab at Soundbarrier’s utter absurdity.
Having used that segment as a bit of a dry-run for the others, it became evident that just adding the mouth as a separate element wasn’t going to work very well. Instead, I put the entirety of Sentinel’s (and Genny’s) heads into Character Animator, and animated their mouths as part of that, which worked much better. An added advantage of this was that by using my webcam, I could animate the heads movement and eye expressions with my own face. So much easier!
For characters like Perceptor and Sky Byte, I decided as they would be monitor-based interviews, it would be just easier to repurpose existing episode or movie footage for them but re-timed to match the new dialogue. Perceptor needed more work, as I had to replicate the hate plague visual effect on him, and add in a hasty cameo from Rodimus to infect him! I spent longer than I care to admit on making that effect match the original episode…
Fairly early on in the process, we’d settled on the idea that it might be funny to have popular Transformer reviewer Thew review the Sentinel Prime toy, and have Sentinel react to the review. Rather than have the reviewer and reviewee interact, we figured it would be easier if we let Thew film a vid in his usual style, and then Ed would write some Sentinel dialogue to cut in periodically. Thew happily obliged, writing and filming two versions of the review in June 2020 – one longer version that would eventually be used on his own platform, and one shorter version with alternate takes that was hacked up by myself to add onto monitors for the talk-show. I also stole several of Thew’s sound effects and large title-card styles to add to that specific segment by way of an obvious homage!
So on we rolled, and by the time we’d gotten to late July, the guts of it all were there – indeed, timing the segments at that point showed we had about a half hour of Face-Time with Sentinel Prime produced, which was not bad going at all. Knowing that Chris McFeely (of Transformers: The Basics fame) was a big Omega Supreme fan, I asked him to voice Omega’s blatantly awful one-liner joke. Paul Eiding was the next voice-actor to send his lines in as Perceptor, and was soon followed by Townsend Coleman as the titular talk-show host (and the Tick, in a silly cameo!), and then Peter Spellos as Sky Byte. These guys are all busy professionals, and gave their time to do this for free as far as I’m aware which is amazing, although due to time concerns, Townsend was only able to record dialogue for five off the eight segments, so Soundbarrier’s interview, and two other segments (cryptically called Head to Head, and Minicons) were never completed. Well, they are completed from an animation perspective, but only have temp audio tracks.
So with five segments completed, we kinda realised that we didn’t have a real ending to the talk show segments. But, we had a plan! Using cut dialogue from the other bits, we had enough recordings of Townsend to crib together a sequence where Sentinel gets cheesed off and leaves (animated cheaply off screen with sound effects, for maximum humour and ease of production!). The Soundbarrier footage was reworked and I figured a good cliffhanger ending would suit with loud G1 cliffhanger music to boot. Not knowing if we could get the voice actors back in future, it made sense to open up the hosting chair in case the format gets revived! So who will host the show? Soundbarrier? Genny? The Diagnostic Drone? A proper Transformer? Sentinel Prime again?
We don’t know. But it’s going to be fun finding out!
If you want to go back and watch the entire awesome virtual convention (and Face-Time with Sentinel Prime) you can rewatch TFNation’s feed here: https://www.twitch.tv/tfnation_official
The TFNation Website: https://tfnation.com/
Buy kick-ass TFN Merch and support the convention: https://morethanmerch.com/