NYCC: Rebooting ‘ReBoot’ with Gavin Blair and Dan DiDio
There was no shortage of confused, then surprised, faces in the long line for Sunday’s "ReBoot Panel with Gavin Blair and Dan DiDio" at New York Comic Con. Attendees were at first incredulous that the line was so long, then happy to discover so many fellow fans of the late-’90s animated television series.
Even the creators of the series were surprised.
"Oh, my god! Can you believe this?" exclaimed Dan DiDio as he approached his fellow ReBoot creator Gavin Blair.
"I am blown away by the turnout," explained Blair. "I recognize a quarter of these people from coming by the booth. But the rest is like, ‘Oh my god, where did you come from?’ What’s blowing me away about this con and the Toronto con I was at in August is the age range of the people coming up to me."
"I got little kids, their parents and I got their grandparents coming up to me about how much they love the show," continued Blair. "We wrote the bright, colorful, wacky graphics for the kids and we put the grown-up jokes for the adults. Now the kids are grown-up saying ‘Hey, now I get those jokes.’"
Booked in one of the smaller panel rooms, the event filled to capacity with people sitting in the aisles. The panel was organized to promote The Art of ReBoot hardcover book and the initiative to re-launch the series as a theatrical movie. Panelists included supervising animator Gavin Blair, story editor Dan DiDio (now Executive Editor at DC Comics), character modeler (and producer of the hardcover) Jim Su and Paul Gertz of Rainmaker Entertainment.
Blair and DiDio quickly became the focus of the panel as they reminisced about the groundbreaking CGI animated series that imagined what electronic life was like inside a computer. In the series, Bob the Guardian and his friends defended the system from viruses, hackers and troublesome games. Since the show is no longer on the air, the tone was unrestrained and the panelists were frank about their memories of the series.
As DiDio explained, he wasn’t originally one of the creators of the series. He was the series liason for the ABC network.
"The first show I was assigned was ReBoot," said DiDio. "You’re looking at the first computer-animated television series ever. Nobody knows what’s going on. Nobody knows how it’s being done."
Blair then explained that, as they showed DiDio around the Mainframe Entertainment production studios, they had the same staffers sit in different rooms so he would think the operation was bigger than it actually was.
"I completely fell for it all," laughed DiDio.
Innovation didn’t come without a price, though. DiDio said the first episode took 10 weeks to produce and subsequent episodes weren’t much faster. But it wasn’t for lack of work.
According to Blair, the animators wore sleeping bags so they could sleep when the computer was down rendering images. After just four episodes, the show went on hiatus because production was behind schedule. Since the last cliffhanger episode showed everyone frozen in stone, the studio produced bumpers (short ads) showing the characters still immobile and ran them during replacement shows.
One holdup was that the scripts were written with traditional animation in mind. Characters would talk about big events instead of showing them. Dialogue alone would go on longer than the alloted 21 minutes in what was supposed to be an action-based show. Since CGI didn’t have the same budget restrictions, they could show quick, big moments easier than with traditional animation — which would have made a "show, don’t tell" approach more efficient.
Eventually, DiDio said they had to step back and realize, "We’re approaching this as traditional cel animation. It’s not cel animation. It’s live-action."
They then switched up to tradional Hollywood scripts, where a page represents a minute of film.
The panel then moved on to a discussion of broadcast network standards and practices at the time. According to the panel, shows were routinely rejected for no reason whatsoever during the Reboot days. A character landing on her butt and then rubbing it was considered risque.
"Bad Bob," an episode that parodied the Mad Max movies, received a report from the censors with a single line: "Show completely rejected."
"Ian [Pearson, Reboot producer,] called Broadcast directly and said, ‘We made the show just for you,’" said DiDio. They resubmitted it soon after and it was approved without a single change. The struggle was so crazy, in fact, that animators had the cityscape lights read (in binary code) "Fuck you, broadcast standards" in one episode. They even placed the initials of the broadcast representative in an episode titled "Talent Night" — as a person who rejects every act.
During the second season, ABC TV was bought by Disney. Both DiDio’s division and the show knew they would be canceled.
"If we were going to get canned, we were going to ignore the rules," said Blair. "We’re going to do whatever we want. We don’t care."
During the "Web World Wars" arc, characters were dying left and right. The violence escalated, there were explosions and the cute "binome" background characters would die horrible deaths.
"It was even more fun for me," said DiDio. "I got the phone call."
"The best part?" laughed DiDio. "They ran it."
Disney did shut down his department, but DiDio got a phone call from Pearson that the show was a hit in Canada and YTV was picking it up. They offered him the job of story editor for Season Three. During a dinner in Santa Monica, the team planned out the story while DiDio made notes on the paper tablecloth. When he ran out of room, he folded up random edges to write on the back. The problem, he discovered, was trying to decipher how all the back parts fit together.
"It was a Rosetta Stone," he laughed.
After saying their favorite episodes of the series were "Firewall" and "Number 7," the duo started taking questions from the audience.
After a compliment about the ReBoot parody of The Prisoner, they said that the best part of the episode was that they hid a bunch of golf jokes in there because Pearson had been hit with a golfball during production.
A fan asked, if Disney hadn’t canceled the show, would Mainframe Entertainment’s other shows have made the air?
"They would’ve happened. Doing ReBoot brought those shows in," answered Blair.
DiDio added, "Beast Wars was the show that kept the company going. It showed you could turn toys into television shows. If you like the ReBoot stories, you should hear the ones about War Planets. How do you make a series about planets that fight?"
A Brendan McCarthy fan asked how he was brought in to do concept art. Blair answered that, while they were developing ReBoot, they had been working with Limelight Entertainment. They had used him on the live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie and suggested he would be a good fit to come up with characters.
That reminded Blair and DiDio how ReBoot‘s snooty waiter character, Cecil, was developed.
"Does anyone know what Cecil was named after?" shouts DiDio.
"It’s a strip club in Vancouver," explained Blair. "That’s why Cecil hangs from a brass rail."
"Mouse and AndrAIa’s bodies didn’t design themselves," added Blair. Then they admitted that they even brought in their favorite stripper, Blue Jean, into the studio to model for AndrAIa — fully clothed.
"It was pure research," said Blair.
A continuity buff asked how mapped-out the show was when early hints eventually led to big reveals in later episodes. Blair answered that many of those things were put in there for later writers to pick up on and tie together.
Asking how the unusual fourth season format came about, DiDio answered that, because a variety of investor interests, the season was constructed as two feature-length movies that could be broken up into 8 episodes for TV. If they had been able to keep that going, they would’ve been doing ReBoot like that to this day.
According to the panel, the greatest obstacle the team had to overcome in the early days was the lip-sync package. They also prioritized program bugs by fixing the easy ones first and just not doing the routines that caused larger problems.
They added that Season Three ended happily because they didn’t think they were coming back. Season Four ended with a cliffhanger because they were trying to cram in so much that they ran out of time.
That reminded DiDio with what he called the "greatest failure" of ReBoot, which occurred during the end of Season Three.
"We engineered the system crash," he explained. "The screen pops up. It says ‘Restart the system [Y/N]?’ The user hits yes and rebuilds the system."
"After the whole thing was done, the staff watched the show and said, ‘Wow. Restart. Would’ve been smarter if we had used the word ‘reboot’ wouldn’t it?’" he sighed.
Asked if, in his current position at DC Comics, would he ever consider publishing a ReBoot comic book, DiDio responded, "Interesting. The answer is defintely no. The reason why is, it was unique to its look and style, and to try and draw it would be a disservice in my opinion."
The hardcover collection of The Art of ReBoot is on sale now.