Saturday, May 10th, 2003 at 1:42am by Kelly, BZPower Co-Owner
Part 1: Creating Something To Talk About
Bright California sunshine bounces off the anonymous single-story building, hiding in plain site just off a busy Glendale thoroughfare. In the shady recessed entrance, wind bursts form tiny siroccos in the warm morning air. This unassuming facade certainly doesn't appear to be a likely home for the future of the LEGO Company's Bionicle product line.
Inside is a different story, quite literally. 8-foot Bohrok and Toa banners hang before the windows of the tiny reception area, and face a vintage jukebox with a "Please Don't Touch!" handwritten sign propped on the front. The place is filled with toys – some relatively modern, but most are apparently well-cared-for vintage playthings. Skylights provide a subdued glow throughout the office space, which is remarkably free of fluorescent lights, jangling phones, and other paraphernalia expected of a major Los Angeles-area production facility. Welcome to Creative Capers Entertainment.
For the past year, these offices have played host to the next phase of LEGO's Bionicle phenomenon. Under LEGO's guidance, BIONICLE™: Mask of Light, the venerable toy company's first full-length movie project (premiering on
DVD and video), is being designed and produced within these brick walls. Storyboards and color palettes from the film lean invitingly against the walls, bright and somber watercolors begging for a closer look at Toa, Matoran, Rahkshi, and location backgrounds. Above the storyboards, large framed posters grace the walls, trophies of the company's previous work – Thumbelina, The Land Before Time, An American Tail, The Pagemaster. In the center of the building is a large open space, a conference table directly beneath the skylights and rafters. A blue-and-red toy robot, Mr. Atomic, sits in the middle of the table near a maskless Toa Onua.
For those who've been under a rock for the last two years, LEGO launched what was to become one of the company's most successful lines in 2001. A European ad blitz was followed shortly by a worldwide campaign – the largest ad campaign LEGO had ever attempted. It worked: Bionicle became the company's top seller in 2001, and was the most popular of the company's product lines for 2002, beating out Harry Potter and Star Wars licensed themes (both of which already had their own movies to spur toy sales). 17 million Bionicle cans (Toa and Bohrok) were sold in 2002 in the US alone - that's more than $135 million worth of construction toys.
First came bricks, then came directions, then came a storyline to tie it all together...
Powerful heroes are summoned to the island of Mata Nui to help protect the villagers from the insidious plots of Makuta, a dark force with a knack for infecting things with his evil influence. The biomechanical protagonists must collect masks, Kanohi, to gain powers to defeat Makuta's naughty tricks. The kanohi are sold separately in several colors and are collectibles in themselves, especially some rare "misprints" available only in Europe in early 2001.
Six color-coded Toa, each with their own personalities and tools, six Turaga (village elders), and assorted villager characters (Matoran) defend their island home against the depredations of Rahi, creatures with infected masks controlled by Makuta. The storyline progressed from introduction to first act throughout 2001, aided by support on nearly two dozen platforms: comics, web sites, LEGO sets, accessories, card games, board games, video games, fast food tie-ins, and so on helped spur awareness of the brand.
In the detailed and multifaceted storyline, baddie Makuta was defeated by our valiant heroes (or was he?) and new foes introduced, the Bohrok Swarms. 2002 Bionicle began with the Bohrok, continued with some new goodies for our heroes (the Exo-Toa and Boxor), introduced some more bad guys (the Bahrag twins, Cahdok and Gahdok), and saw the heroes converted by "protodermis" into the Toa Nuva. Now, in early 2003, we see the Return of the Bohrok in the form of Bohrok-Kal, essentially the same sets but with a different paint job and story role. Oh, and let's not forget the Krana, a rubbery collectible carried and flung by the Bohrok. This coming summer we'll see more villagers, some critters, a new-n-improved Makuta his own bad self, and the Rahkshi – the best new sets since the Toa.
And then comes the BIONICLE: Mask of Light release in September.
A warm breeze from the direction of the lobby is closely followed by Bob Thompson, one of the executive producers of Mask of Light. He's one of the driving forces behind the movie, indeed one of the key players behind the whole story of Bionicle. This tall, genial Brit is finishing up his latest two-week west coast stay before jetting back to London for a fortnight. Then he'll turn around and do it again. Later in the day, he'll meet with the producer of the film, the scriptwriter, and the two directors - one of whom has just returned from his own exhausting overseas trip. And he'll manage to squeeze in a few hours talking with the media. (Is a single member of the media a "medium"?) All without losing his easygoing smile.
Bob Thompson Click to Enlarge
Settling into a comfy chair, Thompson shares some of the history of how Bionicle came into existence. Far from having a single genesis, the concept for Bionicle grew from a variety of people: several LEGO employees came up with various concepts, banged thoughts around for a while, and started the juggernaut that was to become Bionicle. Soon, they drove the concept toward implementation, managing the creative machine within LEGO and adding to the concept using the company's external creative partners. But first came the focus group studies, focusing on two groups of boys: those who bought LEGO products, and those who didn't.
In the late '90s, LEGO studies realized there was a growing divide between the types of products they were offering, especially within the Technic range. One type of LEGO builder bought complex kits and spent up to 80 hours constructing them and displaying the final build. The second type of builder wanted something to play with, and shorter build times were important. The result of one study was a short videotape that described what LEGO kids were interested in: skateboarding, action, adventure. Extreme sports. In a nutshell, a high-energy lifestyle. Thompson referred to this target audience as the "Bionicle boy" and they enjoy chasing things, they multi-task, they want to build and display but also want to play with their creations – physical role playing, as in creating situations with models and not just posing them. LEGO understood it needed an easy-to-build product with a strong story and well-developed characters.
Once LEGO execs recognized the need to add more of a story element to their products, they created a new role: Character and Story Development. They found their first story person at the BBC, working in the acquisitions department. Bob Thompson, a graduate of University of Wales College in Cardiff, spent seven years with the British Broadcasting Company, in international rights acquisition for youth programs, drama, and animation. Some of the projects he worked on include securing international TV rights for a Dr. Who film with Paul McGann, and developing the original S Club 7 for the BBC. Late in 1999 LEGO approached him with an offer to develop and design stories that could be used in international toy campaigns and other media, and Thompson took it for two reasons: to be able to play with LEGO products, and to be in a position to create something kids would talk about.
Talk they did. More than two-thirds of a million posts on BZPower.com and nearly a hundred thousand Google hits on the word "Bionicle" prove just how successful LEGO has been so far, with fan activity slowing not at all.
Bionicle wasn't the only project Thompson worked on. Jack Stone, Racers, Belville, and other projects were adding background and storylines to the products. But the first project he started in November of '99 was Bionicle, which now takes up most of his time. Today, a full character and story development team works alongside Thompson while he concentrates on shepherding Bionicle through development and production.
Martin Riber Anderson, a Design Manager at LEGO, first approached Thompson with an idea he'd been kicking around. Riber Anderson basically took a Technic product design, Slizers, and ended up with the concept of the Toa. Meanwhile, Christian Faber, the Art Director for Advance Advertising (one of LEGO's ad agencies) came up with the idea of setting a story on a tropical island. Erik Kramer, a Director at LEGO Technic, wanted to develop a story and pretend it was a film. Pretty soon there were 14 people sitting around a table brainstorming this concept when somebody hit on a title of "Biomechanical Chronicle" (also referred to as "Biological Chronicle") and its abbreviation, "Bionicle," which resonated with everyone. "Quick, get the domain name!" someone said... and within half an hour "Bionicle.com" had been registered. That was that.
A complex and detailed background "story bible" was then written by Alastair Swinnerton, at the time a principal of Skryptonite. The original 60-page document has since tripled in size. Each character had a page, each region had two or three pages, and special places like Kini-Nui had its own entry. By Easter of 2000, the document was in "pretty good shape," says Thompson.
Bionicle reflects the interests of the team, for example:
Set designer Christoffer Raundahl was a baker-turned-designer who is into performance sports cars
Martin Riber Anderson is interested in action games (especially on his PlayStation 2) and science fiction movies
Bob Thompson is partial to SF, adventure stories, and extreme sports
Christian Faber is fascinated with settings, expanses, wide vistas like desert, ice, etc.
Alastair Swinnerton's interests lie in Manga animation and mythology
... and so on
Pohatu, Tahu and Gali from Bionicle: Mask of Light
The Toa emerged as heroic, smart-thinking action heroes. They use their brains rather than brute force to solve problems. Their tools are symbolic of empowerment, rather than being weapons of destruction. Once the idea of Toa wielding "environmental powers" was added to the mix, it seemed obvious to have those powers flow through their tools.
One of the key concepts for the story was the ability to tell standalone tales with the characters, each of which is self-contained and satisfying in itself. The character and story development team worked with Danish LEGO designers and learned new techniques on how to create a story that could be put together almost like a LEGO brick creation – piece by piece, interlocking yet distinct, each building to a whole. Stories on different platforms should build the overall theme, but no one presentation (e.g. comic book, online game, video game, etc.) should give you the entire story. "That would be a disservice," according to Thompson. "Kids are a lot smarter than adults sometimes think they are."
Thompson is characteristic of LEGO's culture with his obvious respect for the people he's writing for; the company takes its responsibilities and customers seriously. "People tend to treat children as being not as smart as they are. My experience is that children (particularly the age group into Bionicle) are probably a little bit smarter than someone 20 years before would have been. They are more accepting." Of course, there are also quite a few adults mesmerized with Bionicle's story and sets.
The complete story outline for Bionicle includes at least seven story cycles. The first story is composed of three 12-month acts, which will culminate toward the end of 2003, most likely with the release of the Mask of Light video. Thompson is understandably close-lipped about the story past that, wanting to focus on the immediate future.
There appears to be no end in sight for the phenomenally successful product line, which in 2001 was one of the top-selling action figures in the U.S.
Coming on Tuesday: from plastic to DVD, how LEGO is bringing Bionicle to life. Find out how the movie is becoming a reality, and meet the man putting words in the masks of the characters, Henry Gilroy.