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HASCON 2017: Talking Transformers with Product Design Manager John Warden & Marketing Director Ben Montano

An interview with two members of Hasbro’s Transformers team, Marketing Director Ben Montano and Product Design Manager John Warden, at HASCON 2017.

Whether you’re a die-hard Transformers fan or just grew up in the 1980s, it’s hard to deny how awesome the recent offerings from Hasbro’s iconic brand have been. From the tiny Titan Masters that transform into the heads of fan-favorite characters like Blur and Scourge, to the enormous Fortress Maximus and Trypticon, the Transformers: Generations line only gets better with age.

As a lifelong fan of the Robots in Disguise, I jumped at the chance to chat with two of the men behind the popular Transformers toyline: Marketing Director Ben Montano and Product Design Manager John Warden, who were both in attendance at Hasbro’s first-ever HASCON.

Ben Montano and John Warden

AiPT!: When did you first fall in love with Transformers?

John Warden: It was my childhood dream to work on Transformers. I’m an ’80s kid, I grew up watching the show after school along with G.I. Joe and all the other ’80s favorites. But I read the comic books too. After I graduated college, I set my heart on becoming a toy designer and now I live the dream.

Ben Montano: Yeah, likewise, I grew up a cartoon junkie in the ’80s. Transformers and G.I. Joe were my favorites. I still have them, the originals–they’re maybe not in great shape. I continued to watch cartoons through high school and college, I never left the world of the kid universe, so working at a toy company was definitely a dream of mine.

AiPT!: Who were your favorite characters and have they changed after working on Transformers?

Montano: No, it’s a given for me, it’s Optimus. Everyone wants some obscure character, John will give you the obscure character.

Warden: Yeah I have a much geekier favorite, mine is Generation 1 Roadbuster, orange and green. As a kid, he had very detailed stickers, his alt mode is really, really cool-looking with this awesome backpack. So I remember keeping him out all through high school and playing with him–secretly. I had him on my dresser, so once I’d come home and do my homework, I’d take a break and transform Roadbuster. So he’s my favorite.

Generation 1 Roadbuster, courtesy of Transformers Wiki

AiPT!: A lot of the newer Generations toys recreate characters from the latter end of Generation 1, like the Headmasters and Targetmasters. Why was now the right time to bring these characters back?

Montano: Well, obviously we wanted to complete our collections [Laughs].

Warden: No, I think one of the things we do on Transformers: Generations is we try to touch on the soul of the toy–what made it cool in the first place? And looking at the late ’80s Transformers, the Targetmasters, the Headmasters–there were a lot of really awesome toy gimmicks, great characters and a lot of cool play patterns.

So when we brought them to life with Titans Return, we kind of put our own spin on them. We focused on the soul of what made that toy cool in the first place, the small Transformer that came off and rode inside the vehicle, but we brought it to life with new toy technologies, greater articulation and posability.

The Autobot Headmasters in the 1987 catalog.

We also went to vintage toy stores and even within our own Hasbro vault to get vintage toy samples to color match the colors, especially in the later waves of Titans Return to really deliver. So it’s interesting, when you look at the products, you’ll see characters that almost resemble the toys you had when you were a kid, because we’re using those same colors, but they’re brought to life with all those details we’re able to do with modern toy technologies.

AiPT!: The Japanese Masterpiece line tends to model figures after their cartoon appearance. With the Generations line, do you try to make them resemble the cartoon or their original toys?

Warden: Well, for Titans Return, we largely focused on the toy version, but for Power of the Primes, the last chapter of the Prime Wars Trilogy, we’re kind of focusing on what works for the toy. So in the case of the Dinobots, we’re focusing on the Generation 1 cartoon series. So you’ll see Swoop has his blue chestplate–that’s based more on the cartoon. It’s a case-by-case basis and a lot of it comes from coming to events like this and talking to fans or reading online and seeing what they think.

The upcoming Power of the Primes Dinobots.

AiPT!: Do you have a favorite Transformers era?

Warden: I’m a big Generation 1 fan, specifically, the 1985-1987 Transformers are my favorite. However i also have an appreciation for the early movie Transformers from 2007, as well as the Armada era from the 2000s–there were a lot of great toy innovations. I remember working on the periphery of Transformers, I was actually working on G.I. Joe at the time, but some of my good friends were on Transformers. But now that it’s 2017, I’m able to look at those toys and see theres a lot of really cool things that happened throughout the span of Transformers, it’s cool because we really have 30 years to choose from.

Montano: Obviously, I grew up with Generation 1, but what’s been fun the last couple years has been bringing my kids into Transformers through Rescue Bots and Robots in Disguise. There’s only so much I can watch and consume, and that’s really what I’ve been doing now that my kids are starting to become fans of Transformers. So I have appreciation for the modern continuity. But I think that’s the fun John and I have as we create new stories going forward. I can watch the ’86 movie and it’s cool, but i have an appreciation for the modern story right now.AiPT!: How do you choose which characters to recreate?

Montano: I think we have tentacles on a lot of different things–it’s not a one-dimensional plane. The fan votes are definitely one way thats helped us, so we have that pulse on the fan community. It’s definitely story creation that drives us for the lines. And we have partnerships, like with IDW–all that informs the characters we create as toys and bring to life in other formats. There are definitely characters we look at and say, maybe not yet, or we find different ways to do it, like with Skullgrin. It may not be at an 8-inch scale but we find a way to bring those characters into the story.

Warden: I think a lot of it has to do with the toy ecosystem. The Transformers: Generations line is sort of an all-inclusive, cool experience for many levels of fandom. So for deep fans like me, or like you, we’ve got characters that are sprinkled throughout that, actually, are just a cool toy to start with. So like Skullcruncher, he’s an alligator. For a kid, that’s cool.

Titans Return Skullcruncher

So we’re able to bring characters out of relative obscurity into the mainstream by focusing in on what made them cool in the first place. I think as we look at characters from the expanded universe of Transformers, we look at where it fits and how it connects within the storytelling we’re trying to deliver.

AiPT!: Is there a Transformers product you worked on that you’re most proud of?

Warden: I’ve been on Transformers for several years now, but I still go back to Devastator–the new Combiner Wars Devastator–because of the complexity of it, the scale, all the engineering challenges. It was a very satisfying thing to create because I remember watching the cartoon as a kid and then playing with the toy and thinking to myself, this is way smaller in comparison to how it is on the cartoon. To deliver on the promise of a big, posable Devastator–it made me happy. And it also made me crazy happy to know so many fans are happy. I remember talking to people at Comic Con, coming up to me and saying, “I don’t play with Transformers but i bought this guy,” and I think thats what it’s all about for me.

Combiner Wars Devastator

Montano: I think for me it’s one I worked on with John on The Last Knight line–Cogman and Nitro, that duo and the use of the Headmaster gimmick. They’re two cool figures and we use the Generations-type play to create two brand new characters. Plus, the sculpt detail was a lot of fun. While Nitro maybe dies quickly, Cogman has this cool twist as a character, so to bring that to life at two scales was pretty awesome.

AiPT!: Final question: What’s next?

Montano: More to come at New York Comic Con and Toy Fair, we’ll have a lot of news.

Warden: It’s very exciting, at New York Comic Con we’ll have some really cool reveals.


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