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‘Beast Wars’ Is Transforming World of Animation

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On paper, at least, “Beast Wars” isn’t going to win any awards for children’s programming from parents’ groups. It is full of explosive destruction and violent combat and, on top of that, is based on a toy line.

On the screen, however, “Beast Wars” is an amazing visual experience, a jaw-dropping state-of-the-art $450,000-per-episode 3-D computer-animated series that can stop even accidental adult viewers in their tracks.

The Alliance/Mainframe Entertainment production from Canada has used Hasbro’s line of robotic, persona-changing Transformer toys as the basis for a richly imaginative, organic and high-tech world inhabited by stunningly rendered mammals, insects and dinosaurs that move and speak with unusual realism.

Indeed, although the 9-month-old syndicated show has been airing on KCAL-TV Channel 9 in a weekday morning slot with other children’s fare, it has a growing fan base of older viewers.

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The production’s Web site is a frequent stop for teenagers and adults “fascinated by the technological process,” said Jeff Raymond, president of Alliance Communications in Canada.

That technology is the culmination of “thousands of [computer] crashes and months of insomnia,” said Christopher Brough, president of Mainframe, Canada’s leading computer-generated imagery company, where “Beast Wars” is produced. Brough; his partner, Ian Pearson; Steven DeNure; and Stephane Reichel are the show’s executive producers.

The program’s technological sophistication is also “many, many generations” removed from the company’s much-lauded “Reboot,” its landmark 1993 computer-animated series.

“Beast Wars” revolves around two warring robotic factions that have crash-landed on an Earth-like planet and adapted to the terrain by “splicing their cybergenetic code with DNA of indigenous animal forms.”

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Trying to keep the bad-guy Predicons from controlling a universe-threatening power source on the planet is good guy Optimus Primal, a Jean-Luc Picard-like gorilla commander who leads the mostly mammalian Maximals. The bad Predicon leader, Megatron, is a Tyrannosaurus rex and commands such creepy crawlies as a tarantula, scorpion and black widow spider.

Each creature transforms into a robot with massive destructive capabilities. Yet despite the requisite heavy weaponry and multiple explosions of kids’ “action” shows, the story lines are imaginative and fairly sophisticated.

“It’s not just a commercial,” said Beth Stevenson, the Alliance executive who oversees the show.

“What Alliance and Mainframe did was flesh it out into a whole world,” she explained. “Robots turning into animals, turning into robots; on the toy level you don’t need much back story. What [story editors] Larry De Tillio and Bob Forward did was to create a reason why the animals would become robots, the good guys and the bad guys landing on the planet.”

“Our animators and our writers work pretty hard at not making the show look like a commercial,” Brough agreed. The voice-over cast is recorded as an ensemble, “almost like a sitcom,” and many of the show’s directors are live-action, not animation professionals. This is a plus for computer animation’s three-dimensional environment, Brough said, because “episodic prime-time directors know how to move a camera, how to light and how to dial up the drama.”

Surroundsound and four-channel stereo are used to create the show’s big, quality sound; the episodes are musically scored individually and each contains more than “twice the amount” of sound effects found in most half-hour cartoon shows, he said.

Other striking characteristics of the series are the expressiveness of the Beasts’ mouth movements and their synchronization with the dialogue, a creative edge that Brough credits to “proprietary software that our people have developed, called Grin. That’s something, frankly, that no one else has.”

“Those of us in the children’s entertainment business all looked at it and went, ‘Wow,’ ” said Sally Bell, executive vice president of distributor Claster Television Inc., which co-funded the series.

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“You see a lot of kids’ shows that are very bang-bang, stick ‘em up, good guys against bad guys, but this exists on many levels, and the script writers did a super job,” Bell said. “They really were able to incorporate a lot of character development and off-beat humor.”

Although it has been airing locally at an hour when (at least until summer vacation) the most likely audience was preschoolers, Bell said that “Beast Wars” is actually meant for ages 6 to 11, or even “15- or 16-year-olds, because of the technology.”

“We were very clear that we were aiming at the older end of the group,” she said. “We would certainly choose, if we could, to have the show run at 7 or 7:30 p.m., when we know the older children are around. Or 4 or 4:30. But that is really a station’s choice.”

Regardless of time slot, however, Bell said that “Beast Wars,” now in 105 U.S. markets, has by far the best household ratings of any of the programs in the “Power Block” package of programming that Claster syndicates.

“There’s a plot to these that goes beyond your average fare,” Raymond said. “That’s why parents can watch it and enjoy it, and that notion hasn’t escaped anybody. What we’re going to do is develop that, introduce additional characters, try and expand the story lines. And that will go to enhancing a theatrical release,” which is now in the discussion stage, he said.

No matter how popular or how impressive computer-generated animation becomes, however, “we would never presume that [it] will replace traditional animation,” Brough said. “There’s just too much of it, and much that is wonderful. Who’d want to replace ‘Beauty and the Beast’ or ‘The Lion King’? They’re wonderful; they’re mythic.

“But we do think [this is] another medium to tell a story with.”

* “Beast Wars” airs at 8 a.m. Mondays and Tuesdays on KCAL-TV Channel 9.

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