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TV Review: ReBoot (1994-1996)

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By the mid-nineties, Saturday morning cartoons were a blur of occasionally brilliant animated comedy mixed in with a lot of trash made to sell toys and merchandise, but one show rose above the rest for sheer novelty – ReBoot was the first show to be completely computer-generated, and it was set within a computer, turning programs and viruses into heroes and villains. It was a kind of wild, futurist TRON-like world for kids that pushed young viewers to think about technology. Just last week, Netflix released a trailer announcing a brand new ReBoot television series and, to be frank, it looks nothing like the original. As the bastion for future generations of viewers, Saturday morning has always been particularly susceptible to the fad-of-the-moment or whatever happens to be trending. It was only a matter of time before the same cyber-mania that spawned a number of feature films – The Lawnmower Man (1992), The Net (1995), Hackers (1995), Virtuosity (1995), etc. – would find its way into a Saturday morning time-slot.

Enter ReBoot, television’s first totally computer generated animated series. The setting is Mainframe – not some mysterious faraway island, but a city of sprites and magic that exists within the motherboard of an everyday computer. Like any major metropolis, Mainframe has its share of law-abiding citizens, as well as a few static-charged undesirables. Chief among the citizens and the heroes of ReBoot are Dot Matrix, her brother Enzo, and Bob. With the help of Dot and Enzo, Bob protects Mainframe from any electronic threat. The primary villains of ReBoot, Megabyte and Hexadecimal, are deliciously evil viruses that have invaded the peaceful processor in hopes of creating disk errors, chaos and destruction. Lastly, we must not forget The User (that’s us, folks), an unseen character who controls the computer and occasionally threatens Mainframe by invoking a computer game. Sounds like computer ‘Tech-sploitation’? Not really. With strong writing and stunning visual imagery, the creative team behind ReBoot had fashioned a series that was imaginative, fun and hip for both adults and children.

Over ten years in the making, the series’ success comes in part from the fact that it is less a response to the internet craze and more of a thoughtful exploration of it. Producer Christopher J. Brough had extensive experience as a multi-award winning writer and director of numerous feature film and television productions, best known during the eighties for the television series Andromeda and A Wrinkle In Time. Brough co-founded Mainframe Entertainment, the world’s first television computer animation studio, which would become famous for not only ReBoot, but Beast Wars, Beast Machines, Spider-Man, and the Casper and Barbie direct-to-DVD feature films. “There is something a little more important going on at least initially with ReBoot. We developed the show to create a window into technology for children. Basically, when a kid turns on a hard-drive and hears these things clicking, there’s probably a good chance he’s wondering what’s going on inside the box. We are trying to imbue some of those sounds and some of the ways in which a computer works, with stories and with characters that are actually based on the true function of a computer.”

“It’s a bit like the way Jules Verne talked about submarines and shots to the moon. We knew eventually we would get there, but he gave us a sense of having arrived and what it would be like. ReBoot does, in a way, the same thing with things like the internet and the World Wide Web, and children are far less scared. They have far less technophobia than we adults do.” Creating Brough’s window to technology presented seemingly insurmountable challenges at every turn. ReBoot was created by John Grace, Ian Pearson, Gavin Blair and Phil Mitchell, an artistic collaborative of animators known as The Hub. When the series was first conceived in the mid-eighties, the technology was not in place to produce a weekly computer-generated show. Using primarily Softimage software running on the Silicon Graphics platform, producers had to custom-write much of their own programming code to make ReBoot a reality. “We spent years and literally millions o dollars perfecting these technologies. You can buy the same computers and much of the same software if you have enough money. Anybody can write a cheque.”

“What I think makes ReBoot stand out beyond any other product that’s similar is our manipulation of the technology. We simply took the machinery, the existing software and operating system and rewrote it and re-manipulated it, and that is a tribute to the brilliance of a number of animators that figured out how to do this. That was the breakthrough. Jurassic Park (1993) ran somewhere probably between eight and ten minutes of pure CGI, albeit with the dinosaurs, and it took them somewhere in the vicinity of a year and a half to create it. If you look at that time-frame for ReBoot, which is certainly a complex show, we have produced in excess of twenty-two minutes of full CGI in eighteen days.” Technological problems were not the only issues facing the series. In addition to challenging the widely held perception of computer animation as a cold static form, producers faced a TV network system that was (and to a certain degree, still is) uncomfortable with animation as a viable broadcast property.

“It’s something they don’t really know. They feel that traditionally it belongs on Saturday morning and ask ‘What is it doing on prime-time?’ There is a lack of familiarity with it and a lack of freshness and openness to a lot of new ideas. That may be slow in changing. I think the median age of the average network programmer may be levelling to a point where it is a little younger, a little hipper and, hopefully, a little more open. It’s something they have a problem with because they don’t know who the show is supposed to reach.” The quality of computer animation produced for the series, particularly innovative for Saturday morning scheduling, created additional hurdles for producers in dealing with Standards and Practices. “I think that maybe ReBoot presents a larger challenge to those people than ordinary animation because it looks so real. Some of the actions that we could get away with in a 2-D environment are maybe a little too realistic for some sensibilities in 3-D. We fight that all the time because we have the firm belief that by the time a child is five or six, they are as smart as we are and they demand the same kind of level of entertainment.”

“Granted, you have to focus it with some value, but to water down or write down to kids ticks them off. They are not going to buy that anymore, these are pretty bright kids at six and seven and they have their own computers.” Rather than succumb to the traditional animation norms of television, the writers and designers for ReBoot attempted to play to a broader audience and incorporate witty self-reflexive moments with genuine adult appeal into the series. From a humorous lampoon of Captain Kirk losing his toupee, to digital characters whose battle cry is, “Don’t quit without saving!” the series satirises television as well as the computer terminology that has since become a part of everyday language. “Actually, one of the things we like to do with the show is to make so many dimensions with it, story-wise and visually, that it bears repeat viewing. There are all kinds of gags going on in the background, there are references to Star Trek, there are even gags on bar codes. It depends on how far you want to get within the visuals of what the show represents.”

The individual responsible for designing those visuals is 2000AD Comics veteran Brendan McCarthy, who designed films like Epic (1985), The Time Guardian (1987), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), Coneheads (1993), Loch Ness (1996), The Borrowers (1997), Lost In Space (1998), and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) which he also co-wrote. When approached to work on ReBoot, McCarthy was excited about the opportunity to break new ground in animated television. “My attitude toward computer animation was excellent because I knew how good they were. The Hub collectively are some of the best animators in the world. So we knew it was going to be good. For me, as a comic book artist, computer animation is the greatest thing on earth because it is so dazzling and different, and it’s going to take stuff on to a new era. It’s nice to be on the ground floor of something really different. There are big differences between CGI and traditional animation. One of the things that people do is they confuse the two. They are two separate disciplines.”

“One of the things about doing a CGI show is that you spend most of your money in the up-front stage of it. It’s not like cell animation where you draw the background. In CGI, you actually have to build the background. So before you can actually animate anything in a ReBoot show you have to have built and rendered the characters, the background, and what they are doing. Then it becomes progressively easier because you just call up the background that you have made or you call up that city shot. So there is a difference in how you structure it.” The first challenge for McCarthy was to design, or in some cases redesign, the core group of characters. The initial concept for Dot’s rambunctious younger brother Enzo called for a simple round ball with eyes and mouth, not unlike a typical Smiley Face icon. Concerned that such a design for a central character would not sustain itself for the duration of the series, McCarthy revamped Enzo into the more human-like shape seen in the series. Since Enzo was representative of many of the younger viewers who would be watching, the change helped make the character more accessible for the audience at large.

For Bob and Dot, McCarthy employed colour to enliven the characters while at the same time diffusing a problem concerning race representation. “Bob was quite a boring character, so I gave hime blue skin and chrome hair. One of the problems was that we had pressure from the network saying we couldn’t make this a ‘white’ show. We didn’t want to get involved in all that racist stuff, so I said let’s just make their skin types variant so no one can point the finger. That led Dot and Enzo, who are brother and sister, and they’re green. Bob is blue. Let’s just diffuse that issue – because they are sprites, there is no reason for them to be flesh coloured. I don’t get involved in the debate of the token black kid, that kind of nonsense, so we moved around it that way and it made us think outside of the problem.” Complete with a surly chef and a fifties rock’n’roll motif, Dot’s Diner is where much of the drama and camaraderie in the series takes place. The design inspiration for the heroine and her establishment came, ironically, from a television icon and her trademark hairstyle.

“Dot was based on Lucille Ball. What I wanted to do was connect certain archetypes. One of the perennial visions of the diner is you think of the fifties. You notice Bob’s car is a sort of fifties-style car that he’s always playing around with and fixing. There is actually quite a lot of fifties riffs going on in there, it’s kind of like a retro-future look. Originally what we had to do was come up with a simple hairstyle for Dot that could be replicated on Enzo, so that you knew they were brother and sister. And I thought I would give Dot that sort of beehive look because one of the other problems is that hair is really difficult to do convincingly. So what we had to do was make the hair fixed. It had to be a solid lump, but it had to be a lump that looked good. In the end, by making Dot’s hair that fifties-style Lucille Ball shape, it was kind of alright because it didn’t have to move. We could just animate a bit at the front, the fringe area. So a lot of these were technical reasons, but she runs a diner and that seemed to fit her and then you can build all the jokes around her with fast food – it’s a cool milkshake so therefore it’s got sunglasses – and nobody ever eats in the diner because the food is so fast you can’t catch it.”

“We made Dot very strong, she’s the organiser, she takes charge. She actually is connected into the security system of Mainframe, so she’s not just some kind of geeky bimbo.” Producer Brough agrees: “Dot is an interesting character. You don’t get a whole lot of women in television, at least in animation, that are as accomplished as Dot. Basically, I don’t think the networks were that interested in women. I produced a lot of TV series where we were trying to introduce strong female characters and, frankly, the networks weren’t interested. The advertisers were always after primarily young boys six to eleven and that was their target. Even though the female component of the audience was 50% they didn’t exist, so we are proud of Dot, she is a pretty strong character. There are some episodes where Dot clearly saves the day and she has the guts and the wherewithal to figure the thing out. She takes perhaps a less traditional role and a little more strident role than most females in animation.”

Designing Megabyte, best described as Darth Vader on steroids, proved somewhat easier as the producers already had a strong visual idea for the character. In addition to adding more muscle, McCarthy was prompted to make minor changes by network concerns that the two fins on the character’s head made him to appear too satanic. His solution was to add a third elongated fin in a style reminiscent of a fifties rocket shape. It is Mainframe’s second villain, however, who posed greater challenges for the storytellers. Whereas Megabyte wishes only to conquer Mainframe, Hexadecimal, who wears an array of sinister masks that change with her mood, is devoted to chaos and disruption. “We had to tone Hexadecimal down because she was out-scaring Megabyte and the network was worried about her. Also, she is pretty kinky. There is a strange subtext going on with Hexadecimal. She is definitely mentally ill, with all the masks and the kind of sexual aspect. When I designed her, what I was thinking about was Vogue fashion models. Very cold, icy, austere, wearing shoes that looked good but were not comfortable, the opposite of Dot who is very homey and curvy.”

“The point with ReBoot is that it’s the first serious CGI animated series. We didn’t really want to go too left-field in terms of the storytelling because it’s left-field enough just being CGI. Further down the line, we may start theming the directing style of certain episodes around, for example, if we were to do a private eye film noir. If a game comes down and it’s a Maltese Falcon game, we may want to develop shadows and film it in a similar style. At the moment we have just finished doing a Road Warrior episode called Bad Bob. Obviously, we have looked at The Road Warrior (1981) a lot. We looked at some of the hand-held camera techniques and looked at where the cameras were mounted on the side of the wheels. So I think ReBoot is not locked into one style so much, but it’s using styles as just another tool.” Ironically, two decades later, McCarthy would not only design Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) but also co-write the script. “In the end, they are characters. It’s a story and we want you to be caught up in their drama, to like the characters, to care about them, and to be excited. Obviously, visually it’s stunning and there are bits where you go wow!”

After the end of ReBoot‘s third season, two made-for-television movies were produced: Daemon Rising (2001) addressed the problem the Guardians were facing in season three; and My Two Bobs (2001) brings back a corroded and mutated Megabyte in a cliffhanger ending. The two movies were broken up into eight episodes and revealed much of Mainframe’s history, including the formation of Lost Angles, Bob’s arrival in the system, and the origin of Megabyte and Hexadecimal. Due to a change in deals and budget, the fourth season was reduced to these eight episodes. Plans for the fifth season included thirty-minute episodes but, against the writer’s wishes, scenes were cut from the scripts, and it was decided to finish season four with a cliffhanger. Creator Gavin Blair has publicly refused to reveal the plans for the resolution and final episodes, in case he ever got the chance to resolve the cliffhanger. Fast forward a couple of decades, and Netflix announce a reboot of of the series and intend to wipe the slate clean of all ReBoot history. You may not be all too excited for this news, and I wouldn’t blame you.

ReBoot: The Guardian Code will be released worldwide on the 30th of March, 2018, and is described as a thrilling hybrid live-action/CG-animated series following the journey of four teenagers: Austin (Ty Wood); Parker (Ajaye Friese); Tamra (Sydney Scotia); Trey (Gabriel Darku). On their first day at Alan Turing High School, these unsuspecting teens discover they’ve been preselected to become the next-generation guardians of cyberspace with a mission to save the world by defending it in cyberspace. With the help of VERA (Virtual Evolutionary Recombinant Avatar), ReBoot’s heroes digitise into cyberspace where they use their code-based powers to combat viruses unleashed by a merciless hooded hacker. Known only as the Sourcerer, this devious hacker seeks to rule the world by controlling cyberspace, and it’s up to the guardians to stop him. We do see one familiar face in the Netflix trailer – Megabyte – but the wonderful Hexadecimal is gone, as are the old show’s protagonists Bob, Dot and Enzo. Who knows if the new series ends up veering more toward the ReBoot of our childhoods? As usual with reboots, remakes and re-imaginings, I hope for the best and expect the worst, but I remain skeptical that it could live up to my nostalgia-inflated expectations. It’s with this rather sad thought in mind that I’ll make my farewells, and eagerly anticipate having your company again next week when I discuss another glorious anti-classic shoplifted from the bargain-basement remainders bin for…Horror News! Toodles!

ReBoot (1994-1996)

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