This article was first posted in 2004 for a site that doesn’t exist, and I reposted it at the RealmCast in 2010. And now I’m sharing it here.
I conducted this interview with writer David Wise shortly after meeting him at the annual Transformers convention, BotCon, in 2004. His schedule was too tight at the time to sit down with me at the show, but was kind enough to answer my queries via email shortly thereafter. I hope you enjoy this rare insight into an underrated, under-appreciated force in animation and science fiction. As a hardcore Transformers fan, my questions focused mainly on that universe, but his credits stretch far and wide as you will see. Enjoy!
Who’s David Wise, you ask? Any Transformers fan worth his salt will be quick to tell you that he’s responsible for more scripts for the original Generation 1 show than any other scribe. On top of the sheer number, the quality of his episodes were usually well above his peers. Those of you that own the DVD sets, pay extra attention when his credit appears at the beginning of an episode.
David Wise is one of the most prolific and successful writers in the American animation industry. He is best know for having developed the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series, creating most of the characterizations and trademarks that made the Turtles a cultural phenomenon.
Wise started making his own animated films when he was eight years old. His films were shown worldwide and won several awards. By the age of nine, he was lecturing about animation and comics at universities and film societies, had appeared on several national TV shows, was written about in most major American magazines, and was personally invited by Walt Disney to visit the Disney animation studios.
At age seventeen, he sold several science fiction stories to prestigious publications, and at eighteen, he co-wrote an episode of the animated Star Trek series that won an Emmy Award. Since then, he has been a writer, producer, and/or story editor on dozens of series, including Transformers, Smurfs, Batman: The Animated Series, Cadillacs & Dinosaurs, WildC.A.T.S., Disney’s Mighty Ducks, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, for which he wrote and story edited nearly 100 episodes. He has written for live action series including Quincy, M.E., Wonder Woman, and Buck Rodgers, and wrote and produced the film Beastmaster 3: The Eye Of Braxas. He has also lectured on Japanese manga and anime at the University of California in Los Angeles, the Santa Monica Museum Of Art, Anime Expo Tokyo, and elsewhere.
Still want to know more? Here’s the interview:
Austin Welch: What are some of the biggest influences on your work, either sci-fi or in general?
David Wise: Almost everything I like is an influence, but as a kid I was absolutely nuts about King Kong and the films of Ray Harryhausen (The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad, Jason And The Argonauts, etc.), which ultimately led me into both animation and fantasy. I was also a huge fan of the film Forbidden Planet, which led me into science fiction. And I was totally into the mid-sixties Marvel Comics, where Stan Lee combined melodrama and smart-ass humor while grounding it all the everyday real world. Those comics probably influenced my writing more than anything – they certainly led straight to my work on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
At the time of writing Transformers, I was really in the thrall of the Mad Max films – that shows in the sequence in “The Key To Vector Sigma” where the Stunticons tear through the Autobots like a bowling ball through tin foil. That was my attempt to do a Mad Max vehicular carnage scene!
AW: How did you get the gig on Transformers?
DW: I was briefly a kind of production/script consultant for Marvel on G.I. Joe. I never really had an actual title. Sunbow was generating the Joe scripts, and the were coming in extremely long, because Sunbow wanted practically every Joe toy <cough> er, character in every episode. I argued that it would be better all around just to focus on one or two characters per episode – the scripts would be shorter, the stories would be better, and the kids would be more emotionally involved with the toys. I was evangelical about that: character, character, character!
So Griffin-Bacal and Sunbow agreed; the scripts started coming in shorter, and I had talked myself out of a job! Margaret Loesch of Marvel told me she wanted me writing scripts for another show they were doing, Transformers. Marvel was generating the scripts for that one. I heard that Jay Bacal said something like, “So David Wise is going to be writing Transformers? We’d better start seeing some really great character stories!” I was like, “Oh, crap, what have I gotten myself into?” But it worked out fine.
AW: Did you have any favorite characters to write for?
DW: Optimus Prime, Always. The greatest leader character, ever. He was a straight arrow and totally square – the type of old-school character I usually make fun of – but I just loved him. I loved him so much, I kind of shoehorned him into “The Rebirth” three-parter even though there was no real place for him in the main story.
I also liked Bumblebee. I saw him as the scrappy little guy who would never quit no matter what. And how bout a shout-out to Perceptor, the forgotten Autobot!
AW: Actors often say that villains are more fun to portray. Are they more fun to write for as well?
DW: Funny, the day after I got home from BotCon, I was thinking about how I sort of find the Autobots more memorable than the Decepts. I found the TF villains to be a little strident and one-note. That’s why, if I could find a way to mix things up a little bit, to show the villains in a different light, I always went for it. In “The Girl Who Loved Powerglide”, I just loved writing Megatron and the others all flummoxed by this teenage girl. And we definitely see a little more dimension to him in “War Dawn”.
One thing I disliked is the rivalry between Megs and Starscream. I don’t like squabbling villains – they undercut the menace. The more they fight among themselves, the less they threaten the heroes. Plus, it makes Megatron seem like a less effective leader if he can’t keep his subordinates in line.
Megs was a great villain, but I think he worked best with Shockwave. Shockwave often saw things more clearly than Megatron, because he has less ego, but Megs has all the leadership abilities. I always felt that if Megs would’ve shut up and just listened to Shockwave once in a while, the Decepticons might have won!
AW: It’s been said that Hasbro invoked very few restrictions on the production. Can you elaborate a little on that creative freedom?
DW: Mostly, I remember that it was nice to just be able to write actions scenes without some Broadcast Standards & Practices bluenose coming down on your ass all the time. In the case of my work on Transformers, I think it resulted in some just downright weird stuff that you couldn’t have done on any other show – “Auto-Bop” comes to mind, with those bathrobe-wearing housewives blasting away with rivet guns! Or having Teletraan 1 quoting George Orwell’s 1984, and James Joyce’s Ulysses in “Kremzeek!”. And certainly, “War Dawn” would have been way too violent and dark for network TV.
That much said, there were times where I had to do some self-censorship. In “Kremzeek!”, somebody wanted the little energy demon to bite into power wires and suck out the electricity, which I refused to do, because it would be too easily imitated by the younger kids watching the program.
AW: As a kid’s show, was there ever an effort to work the occasional moral or lesson into the storylines?
DW: Ugh! When I hear the phrase “pro-social values”, I reach for my baseball bat. I hate jamming morals down kids’ throats. Kids are way too smart for that and can spot when they’re being talked down to from a mile away.
Now, having said that, did our stories contain pro-social values? You bet. Were there lessons to be learned, Of course. But they emerged naturally from the stories without being forced. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s hitting a kid over the head with a moral. Kids hate it too, and good for them.
So if a moral or a lesson was inherent in the story material, I’d give it room to emerge. But forcing it into a storyline? Never.
AW: You were The Transformers‘ most prolific writer. Was it that the producers enjoyed your work the most, or did you enjoy writing Transformers enough that you kept turning in scripts?
DW: Sort of both. I think the main reasons I did so many were 1) my script scan usually go straight into production, with minimal rewriting on the part of the story editor, and 2) I am really, really fast. So I just kept cranking them out until there were no more left to write!
But the main thing is that the story editors had faith in me. They knew my scripts would be solid and could be storyboarded without headaches,because I have a first-hand understanding of animation. And I am a fanatic for solid story structure. I remember about halfway through “Kremzeek!”, i had one of the little Kremzeeks jump unnoticed into one of the Autobots’ chests, so I could have a gag in the final scene. Dick Robbins (one of the story editors) got about four-fifths of the way through the script and he buzzed Bryce Malek (the other story editor) and said, “There’s a Kremzeek who jumped into Blaster’s chest in Act Two and has been forgotten about.” And Bryce says, “Relax, it’s a David Wise script.” A couple of minutes later, Dick buzzes him again and says, “You’re right, he paid it off in the last scene.”
And the other thing was that I really liked the show and the characters, and i think that was reflected in my scripts. I was really having fun when I wrote most of them. I had been a giant robot freak for years, ever since Mattel started bringing over those Popy die-cast Shogun Warrior toys in the 70s. In fact, Go Nagai, the manga artist who pretty much created the whole giant robot genre in Japan with Mazinger Z, is an old friend of mine. So I was eager to do Transformers because I’d already been into giant robots for many years before the series was started!
AW: In various episodes, you employed time-honored sci-fi plot devices such as time travel, shrinking characters, or invisibility. Are you a fan of the classics?
DW: I attended the Clarion Science Fiction Writing Workshop when I was a teenager, and that’s where I learned to write. My teachers were sci-fi authors such as Frank Herbert, Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Silverberg, Ursula K LeGuin, and Samuel R. Delany. I sold several short stories before I became a TV writer. I’ve read a lot of sci-fi in my time.
That much said, very little of the sci-fi in my Transformers scripts was literary. I was mostly cribbing from movies. The sci-fi in movies is generally dumber, but more visual.
AW: The Transformers is built around the concept of intelligent machines, and in “Day Of The Machines”, you toy with the idea of a super computer that has gained self-awareness. Do you feel that this theme is increasingly relevant in this modern age, as computer technology becomes more sophisticated every day?
DW: Actually, I think the theme has become utterly old hat, not just because it’s been done an awful lot (and by far more capable hands than mine), but because of the utter ordinariness of computers. The Brave New World of computers? It’s a housewife in Idaho selling stuff on Ebay. It’s a teenager instant-messenging her friends with her cell phone. We can make computers faster, we can make them hold more memory, but make them sentient? We haven’t even come close. Nor, I think, will we ever. Computers are machines, and the mechanical is the exact opposite of the sentient.
AW: There are several musical references in your episodes, including Abba, Michael Jackson, Prince, and even Leslie Gore. Are you a big music fan?
DW: I made an Abba reference? Wow, I don’t even remember that! (Note: the word ‘Abba’ can be seen in a theater marquee during scenes in “Make Tracks”. I realized after submitting this question that this is likely the fault of the animators, and not necessarily Mr. Wise)
Yeah, I am a big music fan., I have a few thousand CDs in my office (not to mention LPs and even some 78s!) and I have music on all the time. At the time of Transformers, I was really into New Wave and hip-hop, guys like Afrika Bambaata and Grandmaster Flash and bands like Heaven 17 and Culture Club and New Order. That shows up in the Raul episodes, “Make Tracks” and “Auto Bop”. Very 80s!
In fact, an entire title of one of my episodes was a music reference: “Trans-Europe Express”, which is the name of an album by Kraftwerk.
AW: Many of your episodes contained subtle references, usually humorous. For instance, Astoria Carlton Ritz’s name is a combination of famous hotel names. Was this an effort to entertain your self, the audience, or both?
DW: It was mostly to entertain myself. I’d allow myself to do little in-jokes as long as it didn’t detract from the story. I figure, if one or to other people got it, that would be great.
My most obscure in-joke was in “Trans-Europe Express” – the name of the rival driver, Augie Canay. His last name sounds the same as the Italian word for dog. So Augie Canay is really Augie Doggie! I have no idea what prompted me to do that one.
AW: You are responsible for introducing several colorful human characters into the show: street punk Raoul, spoiled princess Astoria, and racer Augie Canay. With so many Transformers characters to choose from, why did you feel the need to invent more humans? Was there an effort to maintain the human element, perhaps to ensure that kids would relate to the show?
DW: Well, remember, by the time I did those shows, I had already done several all-Bot eps. So I wanted to do new things. And I felt that human characters brought out certain qualities in the robots that another Autobot or Decepticon might not.
There was some logic to this. The Autobots have been waging this war with the Decepticons for centuries, and now it’s been brought to Earth. So the human race are sort of the innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire. As a writer, of course you want the Autobots to be morally superior to the Deceps, so they have to be concerned about the human race. Optimus Prime feels a deep need to defend us from this menace, which he’s fighting on our planet.
This to me is the mark of a true hero – the guy who comes to your aid when there is nothing for him to gain by it, who may in fact lose something by helping you, but who does it anyway. Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is the perfect example of this.) So the Autobots must defend the people of Earth(who don’t necessarily understand them or care about them, even though it may cost them dearly in their war with the Decepticons.
And mainly, why have all these guys stranded on Earth if you’re not going to have them interact with human beings?
Plus, you can have lots of fun with the ensuing culture-clash. I love when Raoul first realizes that Tracks is far more than a mere car, or when the Deceps try to interrogate Astoria!
I found Spike and Sparkplug to be the boringest characters in the whole series, and only used them when they were necessary! There was nothing about their characters that struck me as particularly interesting.
AW: Why did you reprise the character of Raoul, and his relationship with Tracks, in a second episode?
Amazingly enough, Sunbow requested the sequel! Apparently, they liked the relationship between Tracks and Raoul. I decided to build the story around a nightclub, because at the time, my sister was a VJ at a famous club in New York called Danceteria. That’s where Dancetron came from.
A dance club where the music and lights hypnotize you – good God, that’s one of the corniest premises in the book! Oddly, Bryce Malek thought that episode was very bleak, I guess because of the wall-to-wall urban squalor. I thought it was fun, myself.
AW: Aside from penning many exciting adventures for the Transformers, you helped to create some of the series’ lore and history. You created Vector Sigma, which would later become relevant in the Beat Machines show, and gave us Prime’s previous existence as Orion Pax. While this was happening, did you realize the significance, or were they just devices to move the plot along?
DW: At the time, I was unaware I was the first guy to write Vector Sigma; I thought it had been used in prior scripts because Sunbow just sort of handed the concept to me. (I never read anybody else’s scripts, by the way) They said, “do a show that introduces these two groups, the Stunticons and Aerial bots, and oh, by the way, there’s this big computer called Vector Sigma. Use that to create them.” So I said to Bryce, “What’s a Vector Sigma?” Bryce called Sunbow and asked, “What’s a Vector Sigma?” They said it was the computer that gave the Transformers their personalities. Bryce snapped back that it must not work very well, because most of the characters have so little personality! He was referring to the background material we were given on all the characters: in most cases, they were described with just one or two words – “youthful,” “gloomy,” “snobbish,” one-dimensional stuff like that – and it was up to us to give them some real personality and characterization. So we writers were the real Vector Sigma!
I sort of based my concept of Vector Sigma on the supercomputer Deep Thought from “The Hitchiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.” In “The Rebirth,” I had Alpha Trion going on about how vast Vector Sigma’s thought parameters were – that’s all pure Deep Thought!
With “War Dawn,” I really did feel like I was writing something special and epochal. In fact, the whole time I was writing it, I was afraid somebody would kill the episode because it conflicted with some piece of backstory I was unaware of! Thank goodness they didn’t.
The concept of “War Dawn” came from me being somewhat disgusted with the success of the film “Rambo.” I saw a lot of young boys admiring this character who, let’s face it, is basically a psychotic fascist. But he’s got big muscles and a big gun so he must be cool, right? This sort of reminded me of the Aerialbots’ initial admiration of the Decepticons in “The Key To Vector Sigma,” so I thought, “What if these naïve kids could see the ugliness behind this?” So I came up with this idea of sending them back in time to the very beginning of the Cybertronian war. Well, it isn’t enough for them to just see nondescript robots getting blasted, I knew they’d have to make friends so they would experience a personal loss. This immediately led me to think of a character who would be destroyed and rebuilt by Alpha Trion as Optimus Prime. The whole thing just sort of naturally came together from that one premise. Of course, at the end of the episode, there’s Prime blasting away at Megatron like Rambo! So much for my “statement!”
Normally, I hate writing writing time-travel – it’s always a headache because there are so many paradoxes. But “War Dawn” came together perfectly. I love how the characters in the pesent are in the same setting as those in the past. At first, you see them in this ruined dome on Cybertron, all the present-time action takes place there. And they find this Guardian Robot with no head. And then at the end, you see the Aerialbots in the past, kill this Guardian, blow up this dome, and suddenly you realize that the action in the present is taking place in the same exact spot where the action millions of years in the past happened. All the pieces fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Some fans have complained that Prime would have known all along that the Aerialbots were the ones who rescued him. My take is that his memory circuits were disrupted when he was killed by Megatron, and somewhat unstable after his resurrection. And once he’s rebuilt, I made sure that he only interacts with the Aerialbots for a few seconds before they return to the present.
Oh, and one last thing – rebuilding Aerial as Elita One was not my idea. If you look closely, you can see that the lines of dialogue about it were added in post-production. I assume that was Sunbow’s doing.
AW: Can you elaborate a little on some of the plor or concepts that were excised when you had to reduce “The Rebirth” from a five-parter to a three-parter?
DW: I wish I could, but there isn’t much to elaborate on. I had only written the story outline, not the actual script, when the word came down that it would be a three-parter. The basic story was the same, in the outline it just unfolded more carefully. There was a lot more characterization of the Nebulos rebels and emotional bonding between them and the Autobots. Early in Part One there was more on Daniel’s relationship with Arcee. There was more on the history of Nebulos. The Hive had more characterization. Things rolled out a little more smoothly. I think at first, we just created one Autobot Headmaster – the Daniel/Arcee partnership. Then, when the Nebulans and Autobots saw how effective they were as a team, they went for the idea of doing more Headmasters. In the finished show, it all happens insanely fast! I believe the Targetmasters would have had more to do – they are really an afterthought in the final script.
I didn’t so much cut big chunks out of the story as just kind of compress and crunch everything. The story lost a lot of basic connective tissue; in the middle episode especially, it just plays like a rapid-fire series of scenes, not a story with a plot.
AW: What’s you take on the fans, and how well the show and toyline has held up these twenty years?
DW: I love the fans. Some people get a little creeped out about how intense some of them are, but I think it’s great. They are really fearlessly living out their dreams, and I admire that. I think whether it’s Transformers or TMNT or Gargoyles or Star Trek or anime, every fan makes the world a better place.
It’s also nice to be appreciated for what you do. Writers are on the bottom rung in Hollywood, and animation writers are not even considered “real” writers; we work in the sub-basement, alone and unappreciated (we don’t even get residuals!), so it’s wonderful to see how your work has affected people in a positive way.
I’m not surprised they’ve been able to keep Transformers going in one way or another over the years – as a toyline and TV series, it’s a great basic concept with a lot of possibilities. I think the collecting aspect of it has really been the driving force – I’m always a little surprised when people talk about how much they love the show. I’d seen a lot of really top-grade anime from Toei and other studios, so I was sort of disappointed with how Transformers looked when it finally aired. Other than the fantastic voice cast, I didn’t think the production values were that great. I remember when I finally saw some of my episodes for the first time, I thought, “Man, that looked a lot better in my head when I was writing it!”
AW: How do you feel about your BotCon experience?
DW: Being praised and admired for a whole weekend? It was sheer hell.
Seriously, I had a lot of fun, and I was really glad I could make it this year. I had to cancel in 1998 due to to a last-minute emergency, and I really felt guilty about it. This time, I missed my own brother’s wedding just to make up for it!
A big “thank you” to Mr. Wise for the great interview. Please join the Facebook campaign to have him write the new live-action TMNT movie!