Being the first ever computer animated television series, ReBoot is often reflected upon for its technical influence on modern television animation. Given how outrageously generic CGI methods have made modern cartoons, this is a somewhat flawed way of looking at things. Instead, ReBoot can still be marvelled at for its sophisticated writing, which has rarely been matched to this day.
Back at Anime Evolution 2009, I was fortunate enough to grab an interview with the co-creator of ReBoot and one of the masterminds behind what we once knew as Mainframe Entertainment: Gavin Blair. For those who missed it on the old site, here it is again.
Multiple ReBoot panels were held during the convention, all of which packed their respective rooms to the brim. Although a significant number of cast and staff members from the series were present, AE actually made the impressive move of footing a $1700 internet bill just to get a live stream going with Michael Benyaer, Bob’s original voice actor. Some of the more interesting notes to come up at the panel were how Bob’s name was inspired by Blackadder, and how the size of AndrAIa’s boobs were literally the only thing in seasons 3 and 4 that were an issue with the YTV censors. Of course, the situation was solved easily by submitting character models with even more outrageously inflated breasts, with a compromise eventually being drawn on something slightly bigger than what was originally proposed.
Interestingly, one attendee at the second panel had claimed that ReBoot was being remastered in high definition for home video release later this year. Whether or not this was true to any degree could not be verified, but at least the issues with this claim gave me some material to use in the interview I was lucky enough to grab with Gavin over the course of the weekend!
Interview with Gavin Blair
I’m here with Gavin Blair, ReBoot co-creator and creative development on Beast Wars and… what would your title be for Shadow Raiders?
Gavin: I was just one the guys making sure the show got made properly! I do love Shadow Raiders, and we’re all very proud of it. That was an example of a toy company, Trend Master, just bringing us a box of toys and asking “can you make a show based on these?”, and we said “sure!” I don’t know if you remember the “War Planets” toys.
Gavin: Yeah, they each a planet with tiny, tiny, tiny figures which you couldn’t even identify as humanoid… and they gave us complete creative control to create the “universe” and create those characters and paint that pallet of voices and colours and styles and accents, and it was just awesome. I still to this day can’t believe that they just changed their minds and canceled the show. They got bored and said “you know, we’re not going to make TV shows anymore.”
Welcome to the politics of American television.
Gavin: Yeah, exactly.
And it was “War Planets” in the US.
Gavin: In the US it was War Planets, while we know it was Shadow Raiders, because of course you’re not allowed to use the word “war” in a Canadian [children’s] TV show title. It actually is a cooler title! But the toys were called War Planets, so what can you do?
How did you fall into computer animation?
Gavin: Way way back… we’re talking early 80s. I was a graphic designer and an animator… traditional animator, since there was no CG animation. I moved to London, England and got a job with Ian Pearson, who was later one of the creators of the show. And we were doing animation for TV titles and stuff like that… basically tumbling logos. And the company we worked for had just bought a brand new, state-of-the-art system. These days you’d be better off using your cellphone to animate, but back then it was definitely state-of-the-art… very expensive. Back then if you wanted to do computer animation you had to do lines and lines and lines of code. But this system was way more like the systems we have today where you could digitize things, and you turn a knob and it moves. So animation was way easier, and very quickly Ian started bugging a friend of ours, Steve Baron, who worked at a company called Limelight, who did a lot of the classic pop promos from the 80s. He started bugging him to do a pop promo in CGI. Steve kept saying “sure sure sure, when I have the right promo I’ll do it.” He came in one day and said he had the right promo, and it was Dire Straits “Money For Nothing”. We spent three and a half, four weeks making that pop promo which went on to great success and was a big hit, and pretty much put CGI on the map.
It was a huge thing at the time, and then one day Ian got the insane idea of doing an entire TV show in CGI. That was the little pellet of snow that eventually kept rolling until it became ReBoot. And it took about nine years until that developed into the series. So I went from graphic designer to being a “CGI Guy” in a very short order. Sometime in 1993 Ian was working in the United States with our then producer Chris Broth, and sold the concept of the show to ABC.
And you were in Vancouver all this time?
Gavin: Well yeah, like I said, Ian Phil and I are originally from England, and when we sold the show we figured we’d be working in LA since that only made sense. We weren’t going to do it in the UK because that would’ve been prohibitively expensive. But Broth did a lot of business across the border and said we should check out Vancouver since we’d get great tax breaks, and it’s a really nice place with a great talent pool. Even back then Vancouver was big in animation.
The guest roster at this con is almost entirely local talent.
Gavin: Exactly! And Chris knew that, since he had worked on a lot of shows before. So Ian flew up to Vancouver, and we got a phone call from him one day saying that we’re doing the show there. So we flew over here, employed a few guys, and got to work.
It seems miraculous that ReBoot came about as it did, even in its highly censored form on ABC. It’s just such an unusual project that I couldn’t imagine emerging in this day and age. Was the show a hard sell for ABC?
Gavin: Well yeah, Ian was basically living on Chris’ couch for the good part of a year trying to sell the show to a network. And of course all of the questions were the same. “How long will it take?” to which we’d say “well we think it will take this long since it’s never been done” to which we’d get “what do you mean it’s never been done?” We really were breaking new ground with equipment and software and animators who had never done it before.
So a lot of what the show was was driven by its format which influenced the content of the actual program.
Gavin: Yes, the fact that the show was computer generated led to the fact that it took place inside a computer. If we had made the show the day after we got the idea, it would’ve looked like Dire Straits. It would’ve been boxy, and primitive and flat-shaded with no shiny, round blobby objects. No shadows, nothing. When were were first developing the idea, people would ask us why it looked so weird. We had to come up with a reason for that, so very quickly we said it was because it took place inside a computer, and people totally accepted it!
You could even say that about the final product that aired on TV.
Gavin: Well that was the irony, because the technology had improved since we first had the idea, and there was no need to have it set inside a computer. But the idea was too good to just throw away.
It’s funny how the show hasn’t become dated. Even when it was first airing a lot of the references were a few years behind.
Gavin: Yeah, it still stands up! It’s funny, Scott McNeil said something at his panel about watching [cartoons] as a kid, and how they always made references to the 30s and 40s, and he still got them even though he was a kid of the 60s. I mean a good joke is a good joke.
I didn’t even fully understand the show until I was about fourteen. It was then that I figured out that the binomes were supposed to be ones and zeroes!
Gavin: Exactly! We never did that Saturday morning thing of hammering it home and underlining the joke. We left thing on the screen for people to work out.
That went towards the entire premise of the show, didn’t it? I don’t recall anyone ever sitting down in the early episodes and explaining what the hell was going on with the game cubes or how they worked. You just threw people right into it!
Gavin: I was saying to somebody today that the good shows… and I think I can class ReBoot and some of the other stuff we’ve done as “good shows”… do not talk down to kids. They assume that the kids are smart enough to work it out. If you talk down to kids your show won’t last a year. I get a lot of people saying they watched it when they were five with their dad, and watch it now and still love it because they get all of the jokes. It works on many levels, and it was deliberate.
And it goes even further for season three. The way the first two seasons have aged is a little different.
Gavin: Well, the second half of season two was shrugging off the shackles of ABC and their BS&P [after finding out we were getting canceled]. As a storyteller you get very frustrated by the self-contained format for twenty-one minute episodes very quickly when you want to tell bigger stories that span larger arcs.
And there was the backstory we saw introduced at the beginning of season four or “Daemon Rising”… whichever version you consider to be definitive.
Gavin: I call it season four, but there’s a story there. Originally season four was going to be two-fold: eight twenty-one minute episodes and two two-hour movies. What we did was we deliberately wrote over-length episodes with the intention of making eight thirty-minute episodes which would each then be edited down two twenty-one minute episodes for TV and put together on the DVD as two-hour movies. That way if you bought the DVD you got extra content. We knew the TV version would wind up being truncated sort of blipverty version. However, it didn’t get produced that way! Half-way through production it got cut down and basically the decision was made not by me, not by Ian, not by Phil to simply produce them solely as twenty-one minute episodes. So a whole bunch of footage which we wrote and meant to animate and put in the show hit the cutting room floor.
Is it true that the backstory we see with the twin city at one point in the first movie was intended to be the way the series began?
Gavin: I’m not sure about that. We always meant to get there, but we were never sure when. Like the references to [Dot’s] father, we would always throw breadcrumbs out there. We knew that one day we would pick up that trail and tell that story, but just didn’t know when. But after season two we thought the next thing we’d do would be a movie! The three of us went off to a cabin on Vancouver Island and wrote a plot for a movie, and it was actually called “Terabyte Rising” at the time… the plotline of that movie eventually became season four. That’s when we did, amongst ourselves, answer the questions about the the destruction of the Twin City, we worked out what caused it and why.
Was there a specific reason why at the end of season three when the system was restored, the Twin City wasn’t restored?
Gavin: My quick-libbed answer to that is that the backup that was restored was made after the Twin City was destroyed! Because we know that happened further back in the ReBoot timeline, what with teenage Dot and little Enzo, etc. So we know there must’ve been upgrades since then and backups since then. We know it was from a later backup, because Enzo shows up, but he’s regular “00” Enzo [from before his upgrade in season two].
Right, that makes perfect sense.
Gavin: See, we did think it through! Sometimes I forget that we thought it through since it happened so long ago, and when I tell the story to someone like yourself I think “oh wait, no we were smarter than that!” So yes, we did work out the timeline.
You mentioned season four… now I understand that was produced in high-definition?
Gavin: Um… I believe it was produced in “higher” definition. You have to define high-def here. Rendered big? HD format… no, as far as I know, it wasn’t done in HD format. It was rendered at a higher res than we did for season one, but not in high def.
So essentially the entire series was produced in standard definiton?
Gavin: Yes, that’s what confuses me about this talk [during the panels] of the series being remastered for high def. Are you going to load up all of those animation files, if they still exist and haven’t been corrupted since we’re talking fifteen year old data done on systems that no longer exist and are now outdated, and re-render them in HD? And then we did a lot of our effects work on the fly in the edit suite at TV resolution, so all of those effects passes would have to be redone in a higher res! So I just have a big question mark on my face when I hear the show is being remastered in high def.
Of course, this is still my assumption speaking from the outside looking in. Obviously I’m not involved with the show these days and no longer work for what is now Rainmaker, so a lot of this is just my guess and assumption. I mean, the bottom line is that you could do it, but you’d have to spend a whack load of money! And if they’re not willing to make twelve episodes instead of eight, who’s going to be willing to remaster all those episodes? That’s a lot of man hours!
So season four was originally supposed to be twelve episodes?
Gavin: That’s another reason a lot of stuff hit the cutting room floor. We originally conceived three four-episode arcs. Either partway through production or just before production, I can’t remember exactly when it happened, but the order got cut down to eight episodes. But then… I believe I’m getting the chronology right… then we came up with the idea of doing the over-length episodes, so that the fans who bought the DVD would get some thing extra. But then, very late in production, it was cut back so that we weren’t going to do the over-length episodes, and that’s when the cliffhanger happened. The end of episode eight was supposed to have a resolution that left things open for the next arc… it wasn’t a total resolution like the end of season three. Basically we were going to resolve the hunt issue, but still leave some things hanging.
So there would’ve been plans to continue after that?
Gavin: Like I say, we also knew what we’d do if we got to make more episodes. We at least knew what the next four were.
Can you say anything at all about the direction it was supposed to go in?
Gavin: I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you.
It was worth a try.
Gavin: If Rainmaker wants to give me a load of money I’ll tell them! [Laughs]
Well, they seem quite content with their current online strategy.
Gavin: Yes, and in a way I can see where they’re coming from. From the way they look at it, ReBoot is an old show that died, more than once, and if you are going to “Reboot” it, to coin a phrase, you may want to reboot it in a new direction. And why bring in the old guys… and I’m not saying I agree with this, but I can see where they’re coming from… because their show died, when what they want is a new show that continues, so why not take it in a totally different direction with a totally different creative take. The fans that I meet at these conventions, however, completely disagree with that point of view.
You mentioned before how you had given a much more definitive end to season three. Why did you choose to end it on such a note when there was clearly more to be picked up on?
Gavin: ReBoot kept dying. After season two we thought we were done, and of course we left that on a huge cliffhanger with Bob in the Web. That’s why we didn’t want to do a cliffhanger at the end of season three or season four, since we had already done that to the fans. So sorry about that everybody! When season three was coming to an end, we thought we were done, and that that was the end of ReBoot. So we completely destroyed the city, killed loads of characters, and then did a big restore and brought everyone back so they could live happily ever after. And we let Bob and Dot kiss each other.
We also brought viewers as close as we ever intended to get to the User. We see him (or her or it) type in “restart” (which really should’ve been “reboot”… d’oh!) But even then, we put in “breadcrumbs” just in case we got to do more episodes. But I think at the time, we never thought we’d actually get the chance to tell those stories.
What drove the creative team to subvert the whole idea behind the characters taking the roles of villains in games in the episode “Number Seven”?
Gavin: That’s one of my favourite episodes actually. It flips everything on its head and gets so surreal at the end with the homage to The Prisoner. It still totally made more sense than [the end of] The Prisoner, but I remember Chris Broth, who I said before was producer on the show at the time… I distinctly remember sitting in the edit suite and watching the finished episode with him. It was me, Ian, Phil and Chris. It ended and he just sort of stood up, shook his head and went “… ooookay!”, and walked out of the room. We were all saying we loved it, while he said “alllllright, if that’s what you want to do, guys…” Yeah, he was bemused by that one. It was very funny. Actually Dan DiDio was pretty bemused by that one, too.
In season three many episodes were written by prolific comic writers like Dan DiDio, Len Wein, and Marv Wolfman. How did they come to work on the show?
Gavin: Well, we were huge comic books fans! When we were growing up… well, when we were way older than we should’ve been reading comics… they were heroes of ours. And of course Dan knew them through his connections to the comic book world, so we had the chance to work with them since they were doing a lot of TV stuff at the time. It was too good to pass up. And of course D.C. Fontana was great… we were all HUUUUGE Star Trek fans.
There was one question that I noticed you didn’t answer at the panel… what is your favourite episode of ReBoot?
Gavin: That’s a very hard question. There are episodes that I love, but of course it’s like picking your children. I do love “Number Seven” “Nullzilla” “Wizards, Warriors, and a Word from Our Sponsor”, and “Bad Bob”. Oh, and how could I forget “Firewall”. I mean, we got to write a James Bond theme song. It was great!
One more thing I wanted to ask about: Old Man Pearson!
Gavin: Yes! Well, obviously he’s supposed to be Ian Pearson. A lot of the people who worked on the early shows got a character named after them. I am Gavin (Captain) Capacitor, and Phil Mitchell has Mr. Mitchell, who is the binome with the yacht.
Did you ever intend to explore his past as a Code Master more?
Gavin: Ohhh! Well, the Code Master episode was really great, and yes it left a lot of juicy tidbits on the table. Who knows? The whole idea behind the Code Masters was too good not to go back to… we just never got there, and never really talked about it. But we probably would’ve. He’s too big a character to just leave on the table like that.
Can you say anything about current or future projects you have going right now?
Gavin: Well, these days I’m sort of out of the animation biz. I’m a freelance screenwriter at the moment, and am working on a bunch of live action scripts. Nothing I can really talk about at this time… Ian and I keep talking about doing stuff together. Maybe one day.