TFW2005 content contributor Aernaroth recently had a chance to interview Marty Isenberg, the Story Editor for Transformers: Animated. Check out what he had to say below!
TFW2005: What is the current status of Transformers: Animated season 3? In production? Greenlit? On a shelf? Can you give us any hints about what's going to happen? Are there any characters (such as Soundwave) we can expect to see?
Marty Isenberg: I'm still not entirely clear on what we can and cannot say about Season Three. So I will just say that we have not yet begun work on Season Four.
As for what MIGHT happen if there were to be, say, a THEORETICAL Season Three? Well, let's just say that many questions from Seasons One and Two would have to be answered, now wouldn't they?
TFW2005: How do you determine which "G1-esque" characters to fit into the Transformers: Animated story?
Marty Isenberg: Usually, I figure a story needs a certain type of character and then I ask Matt Youngberg (our Supervising Producer) and Derrick Wyatt (our Art Director) what character might fit the bill. Derrick in particular has a long wish list of characters he wants to do, so usually his wants and my needs find an intersecting point. Swindle was a character Derrick really lobbied for, so we made sure to work him in.
TFW2005: How do you balance between the narrative that goes through the whole season and the story of a single episode?
Marty Isenberg: The single episode story always takes precedence. I like to have a general idea of where a season is headed, but I also like to leave room to discover things as they develop in each individual story and see how that can be built upon in subsequent episodes. As I always say, you want to reward the loyal viewer without punishing the occasional viewer.
A perfect example is "Autoboot Camp". (Spoiler alert if you haven't seen Season Two) The initial idea was simply to do a boot camp comedy ala "Stripes" with Bumblebee and Bulkhead, and that Bumblebee has all these ambitions to be in the Elite Guard, while all Bulkhead wants is to be a SpaceBridge repair bot. Derrick came up with the idea of rounding out the platoon with all "repaint" characters (Ironhide, Cliffjumper, etc.). Then we saw the perfect opportunity to set up Megatron's mole on Cybertron and reveal him as Shockwave. Hasbro sent us a list of suggested names for Shockwave's Autobot identity, and among them was "Longarm". That gave us the idea of giving him the ability to extend and contract his robot body and cover the difference of scale that would allow him to fit in as both an Autobot and Decepticon. As for how Wasp got in there, the original idea, believe it or not, was that the falsely accused traitor would be Cliffjumper! Hasbro nixed that idea, so we had to come up with a new name for the "fall-bot". Since we still wanted him to be a Bumblebee repaint, it didn't take too long to get from Bumblebee to "Wasp" -- which suddenly opened up all kinds of possibilities for the future. Later, when I was figuring out the season finale, it occurred to me that Megatron would need some Cybertronian expertise for his SpaceBridge, and wouldn't it be funny if Cybertron's leading SpaceBridge expert turned out to be Bulkhead. A lot of ideas for this show start out with "wouldn't it be funny if..."
TFW2005: Do you prefer single, self-contained stories or longer, multi-episode story arcs?
Marty Isenberg: I like self-contained stories that can be built upon in future episodes. I'd rather not have everything planned out for the entire season. You want to call back things from previous episodes, but not interweave them to the point where you can't enjoy the episode without having to see every single episode that precedes it.
TFW2005: In a recent interview Corey Burton mentioned that Shockwave's role in season two came about after he mentioned the lack of screen time given to Shockwave in the original cartoon. Are there any other minor characters from G1 that you would like to give more screen time to in season 3, 4, etc?
Marty Isenberg: Quite a few actually. But you'll just have to wait and see which ones.
TFW2005: What can you tell us about the decision to include human villains in Transformers: Animated? How do you compare using these characters as opposed to the more traditional Decepticon villains?
Marty Isenberg: I think I've talked about this pretty extensively in the past but I'll say it again. We wanted to slowly build the threat of the Decepticons in Season One, give our guys a chance to establish themselves on Earth so that when they did ultimately face Decepticons it was a major event. I didn't want Megatron getting defeated in every single episode, because it just makes him a lame, ineffectual villain.
Also I wanted a little variety in the kinds of threats our heroes faced. And since our series started out as a "fish out of water" hero story, we needed Earth villains for them to fight. The important thing was to make them credible threats to giant robots. Meltdown and Headmaster worked pretty well on their own, but I realized pretty quickly as I was writing the Nanosec story that we were going to need a bigger threat than just the fast guy that nobody could catch. He had to be carrying something dangerous that they needed to get away from him. And then making him an unwitting pawn of Megatron upped the stakes even further. That's where the unstable Destronium came in.
Originally, Meltdown and Prometheus Black were going to be two different characters. Prometheus Black was going to bio-engineer a bunch of super powered villains to take on the Autobots and take down Sumdac Systems. Nanosec was going to have been one of Black's creations -- a bio-engineered super speedster rather than a guy in a turbo suit. Colossus Rhodes is the only Black-engineered character that actually made it into the show, although another character intended for that lineup, Stiletto, will appear in the comics, but with a different origin.
TFW2005: What would you say is your biggest accomplishment so far on Transformers: Animated?
Marty Isenberg: Upping the character, humor and fun quotient in the property. And not losing (most of) the fans in the process.
TFW2005: Which Transformers characters do most you enjoy using in your writing?
Marty Isenberg: I love them all, but I probably most enjoy writing Starscream, Sentinel and Wreck Gar.
Strong personalities and the ability to surprise myself with them.
TFW2005: Are there any characters you would prefer not to include in a story?
Marty Isenberg: Ones that are superfluous to the story.
TFW2005: How involved are the directors and editors in the business side of creating a show like Transformers: Animated?
Marty Isenberg: Other than the fact that we get paid, not much.
TFW2005: Are you able to tell us how much an average episode costs to produce?
Marty Isenberg: No. Because I honestly don't know.
TFW2005: Are there any instances you can talk about where something has had to be changed due to cost?
Marty Isenberg: Less about things being changed and more about being budget conscious as we write. We can't afford to design huge crowds of new characters and design lots of new backgrounds for each episode. We have a limited number of voice actors we're budgeted for per episode. This limits the cast size and the number of new locations we can put in any given story. That's why most of the action takes place in a single city. But as the production continues, we build up a library of characters, backgrounds, etc. which allows our universe to expand along with it.
TFW2005: You've previously acknowledged that Captain Fanzone is based off someone you knew in real life. Are there any other characters in Transformers: Animated (or the other shows that you've worked on) that are based on real people?
Marty Isenberg: None that I'll admit to. There are occasionally a couple of background characters that are caricatures of some of our crew, but that's a staple of pretty much every animated show. And just so it's clear, I only borrowed the NAME Fanzone. The character design looks nothing like the real guy.
TFW2005: Are there any references to fictional characters from other sources in Transformers: Animated that we've likely missed?
Marty Isenberg: No, but there's probably a few that I'VE missed.
TFW2005: Beast Machines took a vastly different approach to the Transformers universe than anything before or since. How do you feel about that, and looking back, what would you have done differently?
Marty Isenberg: Mostly, I just didn't want to repeat myself by doing things on Animated that I'd already done on Beast Machines. As for what I would have done differently, it's hard to second guess yourself in retrospect. I do wish we had more time to develop the show up front and more access to episodes of the original Transformers show (this was in the days before DVD box sets), or at least access to a Transformers expert like Derrick so we could have gotten more of the Cybertronian names right off the bat (i.e., The Oracle vs. Vector Sigma, Cybertropolis vs. Iacon).
TFW2005: Were you at all responsible for any of the major plot twists that occurred during the show?
Marty Isenberg: Yes. That's what a story editor does.
TFW2005: Similarly, what were the major differences you experienced working on Beast Machines compared to Transformers: Animated?
Marty Isenberg: I've said this before, but the major difference is that I'm working in the same building with the artists, directors and supervising producer, which leads to much better communication and collaborations than when the writers are in LA and the production is in Vancouver (as was the case on Beast Machines).
TFW2005: Where exactly does a story editor fit in how an episode gets made?
Marty Isenberg: Story Editor in this case is just another term for "head writer". That means I come up with all the basic story springboards for each episodes, hire the writers, work with them to further develop their stories and edit their work. We don't have a writing staff, so we hire freelancers. This means I'm also the liaison between the writers and the artists. Every draft of every premise, outline and script goes through me before it gets handed off to the rest of the production for notes.
TFW2005: Where do they fit in the overall show? How involved are you with other aspects of the show (such as the voice recording)?
Marty Isenberg: I attend all voice recording sessions, sometimes make casting suggestions and give notes on the various takes, where appropriate. I've worked with our voice director Sue Blu for a long time, so we have a really good rapport. After that, the shows are in the capable hands of our Supervising Producer Matt Youngberg, who supervises the directors, designers, post-production, etc. I might chime in with the odd note on a storyboard or animation rough cut, but it's pretty rare.
TFW2005: Do all the ideas come from the writing staff and directors and editors, or are other members of the production staff encouraged to contribute ideas, or does it differ from show to show?
Marty Isenberg: Generally we start with a story break session that includes me, the episode writer, Matt and Derrick. Sometimes the directors join us as well. Usually we don't have a full production crew of character and prop designers on staff during the writing stage, so there really aren't many more people around who could contribute ideas.
TFW2005: What are some of your approaches to editing a story?
Marty Isenberg: I try to take a collaborative approach. I like the back-and-forth of ideas between me and the writer, and between the writers and directors/designers. Ultimately the final draft of anything is on my shoulders, so at that point I take a very hands-on approach, especially in making sure that all the action and dialogue is in keeping with the characters and the show.
TFW2005: What have been some things that you have found to be hard to cut out of a given story, Transformers or otherwise? Were there any concepts in a show you're worked on that you'd have liked to explore further? How is it decided what stays and what is cut?
Marty Isenberg: The biggest factor is time. Not every great idea, moment, line of dialogue or bit of action can fit into a 22-minute episode of television. I've had to cut in script -- or Matt has had to cut in storyboard -- some stuff that absolutely pains us to cut. There are several stories we really want to do that for one reason or another we haven't had room for in a Season. Sometimes I've managed to put stuff back in the comics that had to get cut for the show.
There are a couple of funny trick-or-treat bits we had to cut from "Along Came a Spider" for time. "Velocity" lost a really nice scene where Sari distracts Bulkhead and allows Bumblebee to sneak out. "Megatron Rising" lost a significant scene, but not for time. The animation that came back from overseas was simply unusable. So I can reveal here for the first time that the Dinobots were SUPPOSED to join the battle in Part Two, only to have Megatron singlehandedly defeat them one-two-three -- basically to show what a badass Megatron is in his new body and how our heroes don't stand a chance. Ultimately the episode worked fine without that scene, and I suspect there would have been some disgruntled fans upset about how easily the Dinobots were taken down.
TFW2005: How did you become a writer? What kind of an educational background do you have?
Marty Isenberg: I started out wanting to be an actor and majored in heatre at Northwestern. Many very successful actors come out of Northwestern. I gradually realized I wasn't going to be one of them. So I decided to try my hand at playwriting. That eventually led to the Master of Professional Writing Program at USC.
As far as animation, I always say that every writer gets into writing animation the same way: completely by accident. Mine was a temp job answering phones at Fox Kids Network.
TFW2005: What was it like working on the new Ninja Turtles show?
Marty Isenberg: It was a lot of fun and a great experience if for nothing else than the sheer volume of scripts that I had to write in a very short period of time. The Turtles are fun characters to writer for, although with the writers in LA and the production in NYC it suffered from a bit of the same disconnect for me as Beast Machines.
TFW2005: Did you feel that the old animated series had any effect on how you approached writing for the new one?
Marty Isenberg: I'm assuming you're still talking about Ninja Turtles here. Like Transformers I wasn't entirely up on the old show, so I didn't have any preconceived notions about it. The original comics were more my reference point, since the mandate from above was to make it more like the comics, but with the strong individualized characters that the old show had.
TFW2005: How does the business of writing for animated shows work? Is it mostly freelance, or are you hired to work on a show for its entirety, or employed by a studio, or is it something completely different?
Marty Isenberg: The vast majority of kids animation writing is freelance, although some shows -- mostly those at Nickelodeon and Disney -- are staff written. Primetime animation is generally all staff written, since they usually follow the sitcom model.
As a story editor I'm hired for a season's worth of episodes, but I'm still technically a freelancer, since I don't receive a weekly salary. I'm paid a flat rate per script.
TFW2005: You've worked on a number of shows that have drawn their stories heavily from comic books (Spiderman, X-men, TMNT). Are/were you a big comic book reader?
Marty Isenberg: I was a big comic reader as a kid, but I'm probably a much bigger comic reader now. My background is largely comedy, so I had to kind of learn comics as I went along, especially on X-Men, which I had never read as a kid. Fortunately for the early part of my career I was blessed with a writing partner with an encyclopedic knowledge of comics.
How does that differ, if at all, from writing an episode from scratch?
The biggest difference is when you write from scratch you have to make more stuff up, rather than pull it from a vast pre-existing universe.
TFW2005: What show are you proudest to have been a part of?
Marty Isenberg: In chronological order: Batman: The Animated Series; Danny Phantom; and Transformers Animated. The latter two because they turned out well and I feel I made major contributions to them. Batman because he's such an iconic character and we really felt like we were making animation history at the time.
TFW2005: What show would you have wished you could have done more episodes for?
Marty Isenberg: I had a brief opportunity to write for The Tick, but unfortunately scheduling, coupled with my own fear of not being able to write anywhere near as funny as Ben Edlund, got in the way.
TFW2005: What do you want to do next?
Marty Isenberg: Something surprising, something that I can learn something new doing.
TFW2005: What are your influences when it comes to storytelling?
Comedy: The Marx Brothers, Monty Python, early SNL, Buster Keaton.
Animation: Brad Bird, Paul Dini, Jay Ward/Bill Scott
TV: Lost, anything by Joss Whedon
Again, TFW2005 would like to thank Mr. Isenberg very much for taking the time to do this interview.