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SDCC 2016: Talking with Hasbro’s John Warden About Transformers

P1070101San Diego Comic-Con is a geek’s dream with comics, movies, television, games, toys and more. It also provides an opportunity to check out things first hand, such as Hasbro‘s latest releases for their line of My Little Pony, Marvel, G.I. Joe, and Transformers toys.

I grew up playing with Transformers and each year I’m excited to see what’s getting released in the coming months. This year, I got the opportunity to also talk to John Warden, a Design Manager with Hasbro who works on the Transformers line.

Graphic Policy: As much as I love to play with toys, what goes into creating them is so foreign to me. What’s your role with Hasbro?

John Warden: I oversee the design and development for the Transformers: Generations collection as well as working on the product for the Transformers 5 movie as well as some development for the Transformers 6 movie. So, I work with talented artists and designers from around the world and we have a staff in-house that help bring some of the toys and products to life. We also have an amazing partnership with Takara Tomy where we with the inception I will put together a list of the products we want to take care of. We try to think of the ecosystem at play and how we can capture all different types of fans, such as those who like the sophistication of Generations. We’re finding it’s actually so broad. It’s including at this point a lot of older age kids and fans of all different generations of Transformers.

Once we have that line plan established, we go to Takara Tomy and we kick things off. They share their ideas. And together we coalesce our ideas and refine them. I’ll do some sketches of some vehicles. Takara will do some sketches of how the transformation works. And we’ll have discussions either through email or in person to come up with the best product possible.

Once those things are done we’ll figure out the deco. Sometimes we’ll literally go to a toy store and buy vintage toys and color match them. That’s a fun part of my job. And then I think probably one of the most fun parts, when we get samples in, we’ll have a Thursday meeting where we sit down and transform the toys as a group for about two hours. We’ll sit down with a pad and paper and be like “arm loose, please tighten.” And we’ll gather all of our comments and we eventually get to a point where we release the product to consumers. I’m here at San Diego Comic-Con to learn more about creating the next year of stuff. That’s a big piece of it. It’s not just creating a product but reaching out to fans to see what fans want and what to do next.

P1070131GP: I’m sure this is a popular question, but how do you get to your position and do your job? I’d think a lot of fans want to be you.

JW: I took industrial design in college back in the 1990s. As a kid, I always wanted to be a toy designer. There’s schools now that’ll provide an actual curriculum to be a toy designer. It’s rooted in industrial design. I have a Bachelor in Science and Industrial Design. My road was loopy. I was all over the place. I was in the automotive industry in Detroit for about a year. I bounced around with a couple of other jobs. It was always a passion to be a toy designer, I never gave up. I still remember putting together a toy portfolio, trying to get my foot in the door. With my newborn baby on my lap, in the middle trying to power through it. I was lucky enough to land a job. At one point I was doing contracting work with a smaller toy company. Had to be a waiter at night and finally got a call. I was putting my resume into places. I finally got a call with Kenner at the time to be a part of the Star Wars team. I remember running outside and doing a Rocky jumping up and down. It’s been a fun ride ever since. I’ve had an opportunity at Hasbro to meet so many amazing people working on so many different toy brands.

GP: A thing that strikes me about the Transformers line is how well coordinated it is across media, toys, cartoons, comics, movies. What goes into making that happen?

JW: There’s a lot of coordination happening, especially now. One of our big efforts in recent years is to try and make the facts of the Transformers universe as universal as possible to really bring things together. With a brand that has such emotional cache, you really have to pay tribute to characters in a way people expect. And now Transformers is cross media.. we’ve got a great partnership with Machinima with the Combiner Wars series. We’ve got an awesome partnership with Paramount and the Michael Bay films. It’s so excited to see a brand that so many people from around the world love come together in awesome formats.

GP: A thing that’s also struck me in recent years is it’s beyond nostalgia, you’re not just bringing back old characters. You’re creating new characters as well. Windblade is a great example. A lot are more female based. As a designer, what’s your thoughts on that and the reaction from folks for these new Transformers? Windblade has really taken off in popularity.

P1070156JW: Yeah. Generations is a really cool thing. It gives you a chance to not only upgrade characters people love and want and respect. I look over in the case and I see Chromedome and I think, wow I had Chromedome as a kid. It’s exciting. It’s fun to bring that to life in different ways and add articulation, but still make it feel like it’s a cool character people want, but it’s upgraded enough and pushes it to the next level. That’s part of the spirit of Generations. It’s not just fun and nostalgic, but it also adds something special for the next generation of collectors. That being said, there’s so many new great characters in the line, Windblade being a notable example. The current state of storytelling in the Transformers universe is awesome because it’s a reflection of things that are happening in society. There’s so many great aspirational female heroes that are out today. I look around at the crowd at San Diego Comic-Con 2016 and see so many female fans, more than ever before. Transformers is a reflection of the community that loves it. When you have great female fans who are passionate about it, and great male fans like me who appreciate cool characters, gender don’t make as much difference as long as it’s an awesome character. Windblade and Victorion were fan created characters. It was great to see them brought to life in all of these mediums, especially our partners at IDW and Machinima.

GP: I’d imagine the design aspect has changed over the years with 3D printing and more powerful computing. What has changed in how you work?

JW: The introduction of CAD really revolutionized things, even since I joined the Transformers team. Even 6 or 7 years ago a lot of the models were scratch built by lots of different houses in Japan that Takara would work with. Lately, a lot of that work has been done with computers using CAD. When you think about how easy it is to just copy and paste to the other side to create a symmetrical thing, it goes that much faster. It’s also possible to debug in CAD, so that you can stop interference problems and stuff like that. A lot of the problems can be solved digitally before you even get to the final stages before printing them out. Another thing that’s really awesome is just even, I worked on the Age of Extinction film too, when you have a licensed car, like the Bugatti with Drift, you can send a 3D PDF to someone across the world and have them approve it. They’re able to move and flip and look at it. You don’t have to physically mail anything anymore. It enhances the speed.

When you think about it, you’re working with someone in Japan. You have factories in mainland China. It’s almost having a team working around the clock. The digital medium has really helped bring it all to life.

P1070166GP: How long does it actually take to bring something from the initial concept to the shelves?

JW: That depends on the project. You’re typical run time is about a year, from inception to getting the product on the shelf. A lot of that is strategic planning upfront. When you think about the entire line, at least the way I do it, is try to think of the entire year and then how much tooling do I have? How many characters can I do? Can I make more character by making one of these guys flexible to be a couple of different characters so I can spread out the tooling over the course of the year. Once that’s done, it’s the whole gamut of the toy design process that runs about 10 months. The back half of it, though, a lot of that is factory debug. That part of it is slow moving and a waiting game. I’ll tell you, there’s nothing cooler than seeing one of those crazy colored samples come into the office and it’s in my hand now. It’s great.

GP: If you had advice for someone that wanted to get into this business, what would you tell them?

JW: My biggest advice is never give up and follow your dreams. If you’re passionate enough about something and follow your heart and think about how you want to accomplish that goal, you need to fight for it. You’ve got to make sure that you learn every aspect of the industry you want to get into whether it’s toy design, whatever your passion is. You’ve got to understand the facets that surround it. Meet people. Come to San Diego. Talk to me. Talk to other people around here. Talk to people around the show floor and you’ll find everyone’s path is different. The one thing in common is you’ll find we all have passion for what we do and never gave up.

GP: I feel like this is a question I have to ask. Favorite Transformer?

JW: I get this question a lot. I like Whirl quite a bit, and Roadbuster specifically. I have great memories associated with those guys as a kid. I remember thinking to myself these guys are different looking and they’re more detailed. There’s something about the decals and the transformation of those characters. I was more of a toy kid than a cartoon kid. I liked the cartoon as any kid. I’d have to say Whirl and Roadbuster just because there was an untold story about those guys and I had a lot of great adventures with them as a kid.

GP: Thanks so much and appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.