‘Transformers One’ Producers, Director Discuss the Franchise’s First Animated Feature in 40 Years During Backstage Annecy Interview

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Last year, Paramount Animation presented a work-in-progress version of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” at the Annecy Animation Festival, which was met with overwhelming support from the crowd.

On night two of this year’s event, the studio returned with a WIP screening of its big 2024 offering, “Transformers One,” and reactions were equally enthusiastic.

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Backstage before the show, Annecy’s artistic director, Marcel Jean, told Variety that he’s wanted “Transformers One” at the festival since seeing early footage from the film during a West Coast trip last fall.

“In October of last year, I was in Los Angeles, and I had the opportunity to watch footage from the film,” he said. “It was, for me, a very high-level work. I spoke with Josh Cooley, and I said to Ramsey Naito, ‘We need to have the whole film in Annecy, like what we did with ‘Mutant Mayhem’ last year.’ It was a huge success here in Annecy. We have the best audience for that kind of production.”

Jean, who joined the festival as artistic director 12 years ago, insisted that developing the studio relationship necessary to secure this kind of screening took time and effort but that the results have been well worth it.

“It’s been a long-term process to convince the studio that Annecy is a place to be for them,” he explained. “Thanks to [Paramount and Nickelodeon Animation President] Ramsey Naito, we have a great relationship now with Paramount. I remember one of my first trips to Los Angeles for Annecy. I went to Nickelodeon, and nobody there had ever heard of Annecy.”

Lorenzo Di Bonaventura, a producer on “Transformers One” and the franchise’s popular live-action films, was one of those people unfamiliar with Annecy until recently. “I never really knew much about [Annecy],” he admitted. “Last year, I heard about it, and I was jealous that I had not been. I’m particularly excited to show our film to a group of people who care so much because I think the reaction will be different.”

Paramount and Nickelodeon animation boss Naito says that Annecy is now “a place where all the majors can come and present their wares like we’re doing today with ‘Transformers One.’ It’s just an incredible blend of independent and big animation.”

Ahead of the Annecy WIP screening of “Transformers One,” Variety spoke backstage with Naito, di Bonaventura, the film’s director Josh Cooley (“Toy Story 4”) and Hasbro Head of Film Zev Foreman about putting together the first animated “Transformers” feature in four decades, the challenges they faced along the way and the allure of Annecy.

This is the first animated Transformers movie in 40 years. What challenges did you face in getting it made?

Cooley:  There were a lot of different challenges on this film. The fact that it’s animated, I think, is a benefit, though. Being that it’s set on Cybertron, there are no humans, and it’s all about the robots; it just feels natural to animate that as opposed to doing any other version. We went as big and as epic as possible just to match that feeling that people remember from the ’86 film.

Di Bonaventura: What’s so surprising about the ’86 film is how dark it is. Honestly, I don’t understand why people love it so much. For some, maybe it was their first cinematic experience, but it’s really a downer movie. Interestingly, when we showed our trailer for the first time, the fans’ reaction was to compare our movie to that one. But they’re so not comparable because that’s so dark, and this has so much humanity. They’re completely different movies in many ways.

Naito: I think for us at Paramount Animation, what was so great about partnering with Lorenzo and Josh is that this particular story could really only be told through animation. I mean, the world that Josh envisioned for Cybertron is extraordinary. It has so much innovation and beauty alongside a story that has so much heart.

Foreman: An animated “Transformers” movie was not part of the other piece of our relationship with Paramount and the live-action movies, so it’s something independent that we both had to agree on. But, from the very beginning, we all decided this was something we wanted. We brought Josh onto the project and developed it with Paramount as equal partners, and it’s basically been that way throughout the entire process.

Can you lure audiences who are not fans or familiar with the Transformers?

Cooley: It’s an origin story, so we not only talk about these characters that people know, but of the origin of the species itself. We go back to the beginning. This is what happened. This is how we got to this place. You can go in knowing absolutely nothing and enjoy this film.

Naito: That’s really important because we don’t want people to feel like, “Wow, I need to see seven movies before I go see this.” With this film, you don’t have to understand anything to follow along and enjoy it.

Josh, you previously directed “Toy Story 4.” How is it to be back again with a movie about a toy franchise?

Cooley: I didn’t approach this one as toys. In “Toy Story,” they are physically toys, and so everything they do is down on the floor, and they can only go as fast as their body allows them. But in this film, the characters are robots. They are on another planet. They are huge. They can do a lot more than a toy. That’s how I approached it, making sure that we still have those restrictions in play of what these characters actually are, which makes it way more fun when you’re watching it. It doesn’t feel like two people in suits acting it out. It’s like, “No, these are robots that are actually going a bunch of these emotions that you’re feeling and you’re along with.”

And you’ve enlisted some big Hollywood talent to voice these characters and bring them to life.

Cooley: Yeah, we have an incredible cast. I can’t believe how great it was. Everybody was fantastic. I would walk them through the scene, and they’d suggest a lot of stuff. Keegan[-Michael Key], of course, rifted like crazy on things. But Chris Hemsworth is also extremely funny. I was not prepared for how funny he is. A lot of his lines in this film are riffs off of what we had written, but he just brought his charisma and his comedy to it. He totally got it.

Di Bonaventura: That was really important because, from a fan point of view, the original voice of Optimus Prime, Peter Cullen, is revered. To have somebody else voice Optimus Prime was like, “Whoa, we better get this right.” We couldn’t use Peter because the audience needs to feel the character’s youth. That’s why we pursued Chris. I was surprised, too, but not how funny Chris was. I’ve seen him in things where he was funny. But he has a very strong sense of story. That’s not true with every movie star.

Comedy is also a great way to broaden the appeal, right?

Cooley: The comedy in the live-action Transformers is always the balance between the humans and the robots. It’s almost like a fish-out-of-water story. I knew that would be a challenge with this film because we don’t have humans to play off of. It really had to come out of these characters. They had to be strong characters that could do what I call the elevator test, which is you could take two characters and put them in an elevator together and just let the scene play out.

After the success of “Mutant Mayhem” last year, Paramount is on a real high. How important is it that you follow that up with a film of the same quality and one that resonates with audiences the way that film did?

Naito: Extremely important. I think this film will appeal to the super fans and usher in a new generation of fans that will just ignite their interest in the entire franchise in a really exciting way. The film is beautiful. It’s innovative. The vision that Josh and Lorenzo have brought to the film is just incredible. The movie has so much soul.

And what does this film signify for Hasbro?

Foreman: For Hasbro Entertainment and the new iteration of our company, we are more likely to be more closely involved in the creative than we have been in the past with our brands. We’re in it for the long-term health of these things, the beautiful, emotional, nostalgic attachment that people have to these evergreen properties like Transformers. We want to make sure we protect them in every way possible. In the past, the company has been okay with dropping these pieces of IP off with other people, and I think the approach is different now. I’m hoping with movies like ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ and this one, people see the quality has a little bit to do with our involvement.

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