“Transformers Prime” EP opens up about struggles to get 1st season right

By Stacey Harrison

Tonight’s season finale of Transformers Prime, which airs at 8:30pm on The Hub, will represent the culmination of a long, arduous road for not only the characters, but the creative team behind the show.

Executive producer Jeff Kline says his team had just under a year to launch what he calls “the most complicated CGI show really ever attempted” for TV  in about half the time that would normally be allotted. It was part of not just a new version of the Transformers franchise, but of an entirely new network. The Hub, a partnership between Discovery and Hasbro, has worked to forge its identity as a destination for family viewing, and Transformers Prime has been a standout, with Season 2 set to air early 2012.

Kline spoke with me this week and had a frank discussion about how he and his team went about resurrecting a beloved franchise, what they tried to do differently (and better) from the blockbuster Transformers movies, and why sometimes

What can you say about the finale (“One Shall Rise, Part 3”) without getting too spoilery?

Jeff Kline: I can say that, of course, alliances can sometimes be temporary. Certain members of one team, sometimes for reasons that are not entirely within their control.

How do you feel about the way Season 1 went now that it’s winding down?

JK: It was a really big undertaking … trying to get it on the air in just under a year, the most complicated CGI show really ever attempted in about half the time of most CGI shows. The fact that we got it done at all, we sort of take some pride in. But even more importantly, based on the feedback we’ve gotten both from longtime fans and newcomers to the Transformers franchise, we feel like we didn’t screw it up, which quite honestly was the biggest fear we all had going in.

What is some of the feedback you’re getting?

JK: It runs the gamut, and there are always going to be some things some people like and other things they don’t, but in general I think one of the biggest hesitations fans may have had before the show went on the air was just the idea that there were going to be humans who were integral to this world. Even though that’s been a part of the Transformers mythology for most of its multiple-decade run, I think there’s always been a little bit of nervousness that, “Oh, the kids are just going to be an afterthought,” or “They’re just going to be an accessory.” So it was really important to us both to make the kids integral and to give the Bots time away from the kids periodically when we felt like the story really didn’t need the kids to be around.

STORY: An interview with Peter Cullen, the voice of Optimus Prime

Does the feedback from fans mesh with your own opinions?

JK: It varies. I think sometimes what they say is on target, and actually if we can we’ll try to make adjustments based on the feedback we get, because in television the best idea wins, it doesn’t matter where it comes from. But then of course there are things that the audience sometimes doesn’t know where we’re going with something, so they’ll only have a piece of it and they’ll get frustrated not knowing that we’re going to pay that off later. Or, honestly, sometimes we just feel like they’re wrong. … Bob Orci is very much plugged into that world. He reads those blogs, he comments, he weighs in. Some of us try to not to or else we would want to blow our brains out, because there are so many masters to service with something like Transformers.

Working on a show with such name recognition is a blessing, but it can also be tough competing with people’s memories. Has that been tough, competing with sometimes inflated nostalgia?

JK: It is tough to compete against, and you’re better off not even trying. The truth is that, for a certain age group, [The Transformers] is beloved. Quite honestly, I was not one of those who grew up a Transformers fan, I was actually a generation before that. My formative series were stuff like H.R. Pufnstuf and Monkees reruns. By the way, I’ll go back and watch H.R. Pufnstuf and it’s got moments of awful, but I only remember it fondly. All you can do is try to do the best you can within the framework you’ve chosen for yourself. It was definitely a little scary when Hasbro delivered us literally a multiple hundreds-page document that was the mythology of the Transformers up to that point, and we had to follow it and not wholly contradict it, but bring our own point of view and spin to it. A lot of the work of Prime was before we got to that very first script. … [Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman], their involvement was tremendous because they had just lived in that world for a number of years writing the first two movies. They were very both up to date and carrying things they wished they had been able to do in the movies, but they had never been able to do for financial reasons or budgetary reasons or time reasons that they really wanted to service in the show. That gave us a real leg up when we got started.

STORY: An interview with Frank Welker, the voice of Megatron

Given the time constraints, did you plan the whole season out at once, or did you have to do it more on the fly?

JK: Great question. We look at it as a three-season arc. Obviously we never know if we’re going to get there when we start. If you only look at it season by season you tend to cram too much in when you could actually take a little more time to roll it out more slowly. Anything more than three seasons and my head would just explode, so we tend to look at it as three seasons, and we definitely plot out the major things we want to try to get to in those seasons. But the truth is, you always end up burning through story faster than you thought you were going to. That’s not just true of this series, but all television. … You know you want to get to something big at the end of the season. In our case, we knew we wanted to build to a multi-parter.

This is going to sound like I’m picking on the movies a little bit, but one difference that’s apparent in Prime is that the fight scenes look very clean and well-choreographed. Is that something you were conscious of, that you wanted to make sure there was no confusion in those big scenes?

JK: (Laughs) I would have to say that it is something we were conscious of. Look, the movies have been unbelievably successful and do amazing things. But honestly we as a group making the show all felt that there were times in the movies where we couldn’t tell what was happening. We couldn’t quite tell who was who, and as a result emotionally you didn’t connect with the characters as much. A character could actually die onscreen, and you weren’t really sure who it was, and therefore you didn’t really emotionally connect. So for us it was really important that you knew what was happening to whom at all times. Part of that may be because in TV we have a smaller ensemble to play with, so we have to get you to care more about each and every character we put onscreen. We can only put so many onscreen. A lot of the time and money on our show is spent with the initial build. So if we’re going to introduce a character we want to really use them and really make sure you connect with them either as a villain as a hero. I think the movies had to worry about that a little less than we did.

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