FAN EXPO: Dan DiDio & Gavin Blair Revisit Mainframe in ReBoot Panel
The room was filled to capacity at Fan Expo Canada for a discussion of ReBoot, the pioneering CG-animated action-adventure series that aired from 1994 to 2001, featuring co-creator Gavin Blair and story editor Dan DiDio, better known to comics fans as the co-publisher of DC Comics.
Set within the inner world of a computer system known as the Mainframe, whose inhabitants fought Viruses and defended the city from Game Cubes sent by the mysterious User, ReBoot is widely credited as the first full-length, completely computer-animated television series.
“A bit of backstory,” Blair began. “We came up with ReBoot in 1984 — myself and Ian Pearson. We developed the idea, we brought in another guy, John Grace, and then we brought in another guy, Phil Mitchell, and then we developed the idea for eight or nine years. And then it was time to pitch it and sell it to a network. So, Ian left England and moved to L.A. and started walking the pavement, pitching the show and sold it to ABC. I don’t know what happened. Could you tell us the story when you first met ReBoot?”
DiDio was the network’s executive director of children’s programming before joining producer Mainframe Entertainment first as a freelance story editor and later as senior vice president of creative affairs. “ReBoot was already up and running by the time I got to ABC,” he said. “It wasn’t on the air yet but it was in production.”
“I didn’t know that” Blair replied.
“They [ABC] wanted to get a nice, friendly little kids show,” DiDio continued. “Basically, they had two things going on at the time and no one had done computer animation before. So it was the first time you see a computer-animation series. So it was different, and they had another series called Bump in the Night, which was stop-motion. When you think about it, Bump in Night and ReBoot was the most eclectic hour in television history.”
“When I got there, all the scripts were written for Season 1,” DiDio explained. “The show is moving along, and first episode is going, and we know it has been eight months to build the first episode. So this is the classic moment, we haven’t started the second episode yet and it’s August and we come out in September!”
Blair added, “In our defense, when you doing a show like ReBoot, it’s all built in the computers. For Episode 1, you have to build a city, all the levels of the city, all the cars and the buildingsand the props, but once you have all those, it gets faster.”
“But at the time, no one knew that,” DiDio said. “We got four episodes [out], and then hit a bump in the road and fell behind. [Canadian broadcaster] YTV was smarter than ABC. What they did was re-run those four episodes in multiple time frames. They ran it at 6 o’clock, they ran it at midnight, they ran it in the mornings. They re-ran it every day of the week. Every time you tuned in, those four episodes were on, and the ratings got strong, not weaker. At ABC, we panicked because we’ve never encountered a problem like this before. So we made a smart decision and replaced the show with Super Human Samurai Syber-Squad only to follow by an even smarter decision of putting on Street Sharks.”
“I totally forgot about Street Sharks,” Blair laughed.
“So we put those two things on,” DiDio continued. “Our eclectic hour of TV fell apart, and by the time we got back, we never got back on our feet. We got some good momentum, but at that point, in the U.S., we were going up against X-Men, which was on Fox, and that chewed up any head-to-head coverage we had with ReBoot.”
“Though, to be fair,” Blair interjected, “am I right in saying that as Season 2 was progressing, we were starting to compete with X-Men?”
“A little bit, but we had the fun thing of Disney buying ABC, and Disney wants Disney, and we were out of business,” DiDio responded. “So what happened with me is that they were closing down ABC Children’s Television and I get a call from Ian Pearson, and he talks to me about doing the show we always wanted to do. In seasons 1 and 2, we had stipulations about how we can tell the story and what kind of stories we could do.”
“In seasons 1 and 2 we had the bosses at ABC kind of pushing us in certain directions,” Blair added.
“So, Season 3 is the show we wanted to do,” DiDio said. “We went to this cigar, steak and wine shop in Santa Monica and, literally, no lie, we were there for four to six hours, something insane …”
“We were waiting for a plane,” Blair explained.
“And we mapped out the entire Season 3 on a paper tablecloth,” DiDio continued, “and were talking and writing things down and, of course, when you fill the top, you fold over and write here, and then fold over and write there, and fold over and write here and, meanwhile, you’re about six bottles of wine into the night. So we have all these folds in the tablecloth, then the next time we met were all trying to figure out what we wrote down. We couldn’t make sense of it. The whole season was mapped out on that piece of paper.
“It was kind of fun — it was a bloody nightmare,” he said. “We joke about it, but you have to realize that this was the first computer-animated show ever. When you think about it, it was paving new ground, and no one knew how to approach it. Gavin, Ian and Phil were developing how the process worked. The scripts we had at ABC were written like an animated series with heavy descriptions and lots of dialog, and it wasn’t until halfway through we figured out that the show is more like live-action. So the whole mythology changed., once we knew the limitations of what we had to do”
“Limitation is a harsh word,” Blair said.
“Well, I’m an executive now,” DiDio joked. “A man’s got to know his limitations.”
“You write it live-action and you directed like live-action, and you’re a lot happier because it’s much easier to do” Blair said. “We hired live-action directors because 2D-animation directors think in a certain way and it didn’t work for us.”
DiDio joked about how they all pulled the early Filmation trick of moving animators around the studio, from animation suite to animation suite, to make it look as if they had more people when ABC executives visited. “It impressed the executives, and we all got cool jackets, which is what really matters,” he said.
Blair recalled, “When we first arrived in Vancouver it was me, Ian, Phil and Kelly Daniels who was our engineer, for three to four weeks building models in a hotel room. We then put out the ad for animators and I get this call from a guy in Toronto because we put out this ad that said, ‘We have so much animation to do, you’ll crap your pants’ — something like that. It’s like Megabite saying, ‘I want you to sit in a dark room with me.’ So I get this call from this guy, and he thinks it’s a joke. We talk about it. We talk about it some more, and then he says, ‘This isn’t a joke, is it?’”
After roar of laughter from the crowd, Blair called for questions from the audience.
The first questioner said, “The words ‘Prepare yourself for the hunt’ have been haunting me for over a decade.” Blair interjected, “Sorry about that,” before the fan continued, “A lot of the new stuff is not connected, from what I heard, to the original creators and such.”
Blair answered that the ReBoot revival has no connection to him, DiDio or any of the other original creators. “That doesn’t mean that in the future things won’t change,” he said. “But as of our vision for the hunt, I want to keep that to myself because I hope, wish, dream that maybe one day we’ll actually get to tell that story.”
Another question regarded the symbols used in the series. “ReBoot was always a show that moved with the times,” Blair said. “If we did it tomorrow, it would be up to date, but it still would be ReBoot.”
DiDio added, “I know the people at the facility were always on the cutting edge of technology, and I remember being there one time and someone said, ‘Look, a new program. We can do water!’ Okay, let’s we’d do an episode with water in it!”
Another fan asked, “I know that the show was very expensive to do. Can you tell us a story about getting the financing for the show.”
“The most interesting story I can tell you is the company that financed the show went bankrupt halfway through the series,” DiDio replied.
“Who was that?” Blair asked.
“Limelight” DiDio said. “This was an ABC thing. The owners of Limelight came to ABC to sell ReBoot to ABC as a whole, to buy it out. ABC chose not to do it, but what we [ABC] did do was put money into the facility. So even though ABC didn’t buy the show, we kept the facility going.”
“Thank you,” Blair said.
“The people you should be really giving thanks to is Hasbro,” DiDio said. “Hasbro brought Beast Wars to Mainframe, and that was an expensive show. Now money was coming into the studio. It was Chris Ruff who brought Hasbro to Mainframe, and ultimately the studio had cash and they were able to control their own destiny again. The show is extremely expensive. YTV was a big believer of the show and covered a major portion of the funding of the project.”
“Thank you, Hasbro. Thank you, YTV,” Blair said. “Hasbro literally came in with a box of toys and said, ‘We’re big fans of ReBoot. Can you create a story about these toys?’”
One audience member asked, “In the spirit of ReBoot, could you pitch a new character for a new system for a new generation?”
Blair joked, “Dan you can do this. Think of it like someone pitching you a new character for a comic book.”
“The reason why I can’t do this is the people that worked there were so cutting edge and so much ahead of everything that was going on, and this is no lie,” DiDio said. “I remember two things really clearly from my trips to Mainframe. To me these guys were making magic. I couldn’t figure it out. The first time I walk in they tell me about this search engine. ‘You should use this thing called Google. It is really good,’ and I’m an AOL guy. ‘What, are you stupid or something?’ I said. ‘I feel ridiculous typing in that name. Get outta here.’
“The next thing I remember is this guy comes into a meeting with a computer, and he’s showing me, moving it around, spinning it around and waving his hands around it, turning it upside down and he exclaims, ‘There’s no wires. It’s wireless now!’ Sounds ridiculous now but the people working on the show was lock-step with what was being invented at the time. Whatever the next thing is, I couldn’t tell you. … I still think that Google thing is silly.”
The panelists were asked what their favorite ReBoot characters were. For Blair, it was Mouse, the sword-wielding hacker program. “She has flaming hair and a katana,” he said. For DiDio, it was Bob, the Guardian tasked with protecting Mainframe. “There’s something fun about the character,” he said. “Kind of like the Matt Smith, Doctor Who.”
Another fan asked, “How did you guys come up with The X-Files episode and get Gillian Anderson to do Data Nully?”
“As you know, X-Files used to film in Vancouver before [David] Duchovny made them move it to L.A.,” Blair said. “And we heard that Gillian was a big fan of the show, so she was like, ‘Can I come to visit the studio?’ So she came in and I showed her around, and she sat on your lap [pointing to animator Andrew ‘Spanky’ Grant, who was in the audience]. You said, ‘Can I take a picture?’ and she said, ‘Sure,’ and she sat on your lap. At the end of the tour, we asked her if she was interested in doing a voice for the show. She said, ‘I’d love to do a voice.’ Luckily, we had a guy who had written some scripts for X-Files, and he had sent us a spec X-Files/ReBoot script. We didn’t use the story, but we used him to write the script ‘Trust No One.’ She loved it, she did it. She was a sweetheart. You [DiDio] probably didn’t know that we wrote her lines in one night, because she was recording the next day but we didn’t have the script written. Duchovny wouldn’t do it. So we got Scott McNeil to do a really bad Fox Mulder impression.”
“Where did you guy get the idea for Al?” one young man asked, referring to the hard-of-hearing binome who owns Al’s Wait & Eat and never comes to the front of the diner.
“I don’t know where he came from,” Blair said.
“They [the animators] were a bunch of crazies,” DiDio interjected. “I’m telling you, those guys were nuts. They would take things from everywhere. They would grab from anything that they thought was funny.”
Blair added, “We would do something as a one-off thing and it would just stick. So we’d establish a joke and keep playing it, and with Al the gag is that you never actually see him.”
“Was there ever a design for Al?” a young woman asked.
“No, because that was the gag, and the guys [animators] would keep pushing the gag,” Blair said.
The panel could have gone on longer, but Blair and DiDio were given the signal by event staff to wrap up the discussion.
“I will always have a fondness for that show,” DiDio added afterward. “It will forever be dear to my heart.”