By:Steve Fritz
Date: Monday, September 25, 2000

For those who remember last week's column, the Sony Family Entertainment Group is an animation studio without a direct tie-in to a network. As told by executive producers Jeff Kline and Richard Raynis, the studio's success relies on two key principles. The first is that their shows are always based on licensed properties. This allows Sony Family easier access to network programming directors.

The other principle is that the shows must be, to quote Kline, 'hyper-real.' For those not familiar with semeiotics or the work of Umberto Eco (who's the main proponent of the concept), hyper-real is a simulation appearing as close to the original as possible. Eco used the Disneyland exhibit of the dead presidents as an example. Disney invested so much time in making these machines, audiences have been known to suspend their disbelief and accept the automated Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, et. al. as real.

No where does Sony Family push this second principle further than with its CGI-based shows MAX STEEL and the upcoming HEAVY GEAR.


It should be noted that MAX STEEL was not the first CGI-only show Sony produced. The first was ROUGHNECKS: STARSHIP TROOPERS. From there, about the only thing the two had in common was that the animation was computer-generated. TROOPERS was based on the movie, and continued the adventures of the Space Marines against the Bugs. According to Kline, it was a far easier show to work on. Even though TROOPERS is set in space with all the whacked out aliens and futuristic technology, what most cartoon fans never glean is the fact that the hardest thing to animate is the human figure.

'It's thirty years later, and with all this technology, sometimes the best you come up with is a new version of THUNDERBIRDS,' quips Kline. 'When we first thought about doing MAX STEEL, we at the studio didn't want to do CGI specifically for that reason. A show like STARSHIP TROOPERS was designed to be a CGI series. The reason we were able to get away with it was we did five episodes in each specific location, all our characters were wearing these metal suits that didn't need fine movement, all the faces were behind face plates and helmets, and the alien settings just made it much easier for CGI.

'MAX STEEL uses real people in real-life settings. Under most circumstances, that makes it a terrible show for CGI. What happened was it was something the network felt very strongly about so we were willing to give it a try. We learned a lot of lessons from last year that will help make the second season a lot better.'

Based on a Mattel toy line, MAX STEEL revolves around a boy whose body is accidentally infused with nanite technology. An extreme sports athlete, Max's stepfather works for what appears to be a Nike-like sports clothing and gear company, but is really a front for an anti-terrorist organization. Max's step dad was hoping his adopted son would never become involved in the organization's real business, but the nanites changed all that. Now Max is rapidly becoming their top agent in the ongoing fight for world freedom.

The show started out as a late-season replacement on the Kids WB! earlier this year. With the new fall season, it's been moved to the 11:30 a.m. Saturday slot. That's not always the best thing for an animated kids show. 'Max started out great, then sort of settled into just good, and then Warners moved the timeslot and it's building back up,' says Kline. 'We made some changes to the show. For starters, we had some animation problems with one of the studios we were using. They had a problem of not being able to deliver. So we moved to another studio, Foundation, who have consistently delivered us good stuff.

'Also, in the first season, we had this kind of running back story that ended up kind of bogging the series down a bit. That all revolved around the death of Max's parents, his relationship with his girlfriend and the like. It put in too much angst. We've cleaned out a lot of the back story. Now the series will be more of a straight-ahead buddy-action series. It will focus more on extreme sports and espionage. We will introduce a new female character who will go on the road with Max named Cat. She's a younger, more free-spirited character than Rachel, the woman he's currently teamed up with. Rachel was kind of Max's boss and really wasn't that much fun to be around. Rachel ended up usually being the death of the party. Now the party should be a lot more fun with Cat in the mix.'

In all, if it seems MAX STEEL is borrowing a page from its CGI-animated competitor over on Fox Kids, ACTION MAN, you'd be right on the money. The parallels are being pushed even further with the latest wrinkle Sony Family has added to the series. 'We will also have guest appearances by guys like Tony Hawk, who's a real life extreme sports star,' says Kline. 'Hawk and other such sports heroes will make appearances in the series.'

What's even more ironic is ACTION MAN is a creation of Mainframe Entertainment and Mattel's #1 competitor, Hasbro (see the 9/4/00 'Cartoon Shorts' column for more info). The relationship between Sony and Mainframe gets even deeper due to HEAVY GEAR.

Purchase Max Steel toys in the Fandom Store!


For the record, HEAVY GEAR is based on a role-playing game initially developed by the company Dream Pod 9. The game has since been picked up by the toy manufacturer Bandai, who has big plans for toy lines and more in the works. The game is set in the future, where super-soldiers fight each other in ultratech mecha suits. The fact that Bandai also holds the license to the anime mega-series GUNDAM is probably more than coincidental.

'Yes,' concurs Raynis, who Kline admits is more involved on this show than he is. 'It started off kind of GUNDAM-like, because that was how we were directed. It had a very GUNDAM-like story. Then we started doing things that Bandai responded to and liked. What we came up with is characters having these battles in a tournament. So it's less about politics and war, more about competition between characters. It's a little more campy, more like monster trucks and wrestling with huge mecha suits.'

Considering the success Sony had with TROOPERS and MAX, they again subcontracted Foundation to do the CGI work. For reasons that will probably never be fully explained, the job was moved over to Mainframe. 'I had a little bit of disappointment in that I originally was working with Foundation,' says Raynis. 'I worked with them on STARSHIP TROOPERS. I originally intended to develop HEAVY GEAR with them. Then it got pulled from them and given to Mainframe. So now I'm going through the process of getting out of them what I got out of Foundation. It's set me back a little bit, but we're starting to see things become fruitful.'

This ought to be interesting, as Mainframe's animation philosophy is the very antithesis of Sony's. Mainframe believes in pushing the envelope as far as 'reality' is concerned. In other shows it produces, REBOOT and the various TRANSFORMERS series, Mainframe revels in the fantastic and creating its own universes, and then bringing the audience in for the ride. Mainframe also has a deft comic touch that honestly is often lacking in MAX and TROOPERS. Then again, the way the HEAVY GEAR universe is setting up, Mainframe might end up being a good call.

'There's two major powers, simply called The North and The South,' says Raynis. 'That's very much based on the game. We have Marcus Rover, who's a new addition to the Dragons [of the South], and he's the hero. Then we have Major Wallace, who's kind of the main bad guy. Wallace is from the North. The two will compete against each other for the Heavy Gear championship. Sometimes the story will take them on to other kinds of adventures.'

Aiding and abetting Raynis in this process are the creators of Dream Pod 9, who seem to be quite good at finding real life scenarios that match up well with the show. 'I'm not a big wrestling fan,' confesses Raynis, 'but I'm trying to understand that whole world. One of the creators of the game took me to an Arena Football game. The home team was the L.A. Avengers, which he thought was relevant. What struck me is that Arena Football is much more flamboyant than the NFL. It's also much more participatory with the fans. There's more characters on the field. There's more participation in the stands. It's cool.

'So we have the Gear suits behave in ways that you wouldn't expect from other such suit-shows. For instance, at the end of a tournament, one of the suits' pilots might do a victory dance; that kind of fun. It's a very in-your-face and violent boy's show.'

HEAVY GEAR is slated to be aired on the Bohbot Kids Network shortly. At present, Bohbot is in control of all animated programming on the Sci-Fi Network. Expect news on the series debut shortly.

As for the future of Sony Family? Well Raynis is now heading up a new subdivision for the studio, one that will focus on full-length movies. The first such film is being developed with Adam Sandler and slated for 2001. The Sony group as a whole has also launched an all-anime network over in Japan called AniMax over a year ago, and there's rumors that network might come to the United States sooner or later.

And I wouldn't be surprised if Kline, Raynis and company also have more licenses in their pockets that we'll be hearing about early next year. Based on their track record so far, it will be news well worth waiting for.!