Best of Botcon: Birth of the Transformers

It’s time for another breakdown of a highlight from last weekend’s Botcon 2015!  One of the great panels was “Birth of the Transformers” featuring Kojin Ono and his original designs of Diaclone toys, from even before Hasbro partnered with Takara to use many of those designs and make Transformers.  Who was the first Transforming car robot toy ever designed?  Who inspired the Autobot logo?  What were prototypes made from back then?  What was Kojin Ono’s favorite toy?  And what do the Masterpiece toys mean to him now?  Read on for these and many more answers, and a ton of images from the slideshow, many featuring never-before-seen designs!
Kojin Ono worked on the original Diaclone line of toys, then when Hasbro partnered with Takara, he worked on the Transformers line as well.  He was hugely influential in creating and designing many of the key concepts of Transformers that we take for granted today, but were completely new at the time.  He began the session by reading a statement in English about how happy he was to be at Botcon and how he’s excited to show so many never-before-seen things.  As you can see, there was a lot of really interesting, insightful information given in this panel.  So dig in and enjoy the highlights as well as the many, many pictures and design sketches:

  • Prowl/Bluestreak/Smokescreen mold is his favorite Transformer, with its head design eventually becoming the basis for the Autobot logo.
  • He spent a lot of time studying art design for the dinobots to get them just right.
  • Talked about the development of the triple-changers being a big step forward for the transforming concept.
  • While showing Fort Max designs, he stated he was very proud of this Transformer, and in exploring the idea of a whole city that can become a robot.
  • Showed Headmaster and Powermaster concepts and how these were also important steps forward in the concept, and that the first original design sketch for a Powermaster was stamped with a date of Sept 12, 1986.
  • Powermaster Optimus Prime intended to be a big step forward, and he showed several ideas and designs.
  • He showed several pre-TF designs of early Car Robots that later became Transformers, including a red Sunstreaker.  He also had early design sketchs and an original drawing on graph paper.  Sunstreaker was the first transforming car robot toy designed.  If not for this, there would have been no Transformers.
  • There were several prototypes for the toy that eventually became Optimus Prime, and some of them are very different from what we would have expected.
  • Many of the prototypes of the era were wood carvings.
  • Trailbreaker was designed to be big and bulky, very different from many of the car robot designs up to that point.
  • Mirage was designed to have more beautiful robot styling than many of the designs up to that point.
  • Skids was designed to look like his car at the time, a very common model in Japan then.
  • He talked about how during the Masterpiece design process for Sideswipe and Prowl, the designers approached him and thanked him for his work on the originals, and that it was their inspiration for Masterpiece, especially as they’d grown up playing with the originals as kids.  Ono said this meant a great deal to him.
  • Noted Inferno and Grapple as one of the first characters intended to be two different toys by having a big change to the tooling.
  • When designing Starscream, Thundercracker, and Skywarp, they just thought it would be really great to have jets that transform since everything else was cars.  Now there have been many transforming jets, but at the time that was a really novel and creative idea!
  • He showed several ideas and designs for Devastator and talked about the release.  The toys were available as single-packs or as combiner-packs, originally.
  • Superion began the concept of having combiners with interchangeable limbs, and Ono is very pleased to see this continue today in Combiner Wars.
  • Galvatron was originally designed to be gray, not purple, and he showed a prototype of this.
  • Talked a little bit about the unproduced Unicron mold, shown in both modes.  Didn’t get released simply because it was a higher price with light and sound as its main gimmicks.
  • Talked about designs for the various car bodies and heads, in wanting them to each be unique shapes to give more character.
  • He also worked on many more recent toys including for the 2007 movie including the Protoform Prime, as well as the Roll Out Command Optimus Prime for Animated, which was originally to have transformed by remote control.
  • Talked about Trainrobo and how train toys are very popular in Japan because of how popular the bullet trains are.
  • Talking about Pretenders, he designed Metalhawk to be the leader for Pretenders with new toolings in the Japan market.  He said Pretenders were very difficult to design because the robots inside tended to be so much smaller.  He insists he could probably be more creative with Pretender designs if he were doing it today.
  • Showed the 1-inch figures that were staples of the Diaclone line as drivers, many of which were given homages in the Botcon sets.
  • Showed a design for a big robot base called Lord Vulcan that was to have come out after Fortress X, but never made it to market.
  • Talked about Micronauts and the idea of the toys being 1:1 scale for realistic play.
  • Some of his earliest work after joining Takara was for Armoredsuit, and he showed several examples of this work.
  • Ono announced that Diaclone will be returning in Japan this year and was being shown at the Tokyo Toy show at the same time as Botcon was happening.
  • He said that Sunstreaker’s engine was an original design, though inspired by reality.
  • Ono said that he was excited to find that the Transformers would be living characters instead of piloted mecha as he thought that it was totally new and would be great for kids!
  • When they started, licensing was pretty loose and so they didn’t need permission from the various car companies to produce their toys.  Today TakaraTomy goes through licensing in Japan, then Hasbro has to follow on for it in the US.
  • Ono says that from a technology standpoint, it’s absolutely easier to design the toys now, but that the conceptualizing and theming is very similar to the process they’ve always used.
  • Powermaster Optimus may feature some of the first “fake kibble,” and this was intentionally done to make the toy match the media appearances as closely as possible in both modes, and that has been an important design consideration for a long time since.
  • Part of the panel was also spent showing about a half dozen or so original Japanese commercials for Diaclone, which featured a lot of stop-motion animation, wire work for the toys, and small pyrotechnics for battle scenes!
  • In a funny moment, one hapless fan asked what “Deathsaurus” meant, and after a bit of translating, was told that “Death means death, and saurus means big lizard, like saurus. Deathsaurus.”  So no further inside scoop on that one!
  • He thanked the panel for listening, and had a farewell message of support from Lead Designer Hideaki Yoke as well.

As you can tell, a lot of that was really brand-new info and gave a great insight to the inspiration for the original toys that became the Transformers brand we all know and love.  We all owe a great debt of gratitude to Kojin Ono and it was a real pleasure to see him talk about his life’s work in this panel!
And now, the gallery!
Birth of the Transformers Botcon Panel