Just forget the words and sing along

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Reflections on Mainframe

So I've been watching a lot of Mainframe cartoons lately.  Shadow Raiders is the first TV show where I bought every episode on DVD, and a few weeks ago in the city, I got the new Shout! Factory release of ReBoot:  Seasons 1 & 2  . Mainframe was once the kings of the computer animation for television.  In fact, that was their intended purpose.  When they were first founded in the early-1990s by Gavin Blair and Ian Pearson (still best remembered as the computer animators who did the legendary music video for Money for Nothing), their goal was to be the first studio dedicated to producing computer animation for television.  And it was a goal they achieved when ReBoot premiered in the fall of 1994.

Throughout the 1990s, Mainframe RULED Saturday mornings.  Their programs were noted for their strong sense of character, and focus on character development...something necessitated back in the day, because computer animation was still ungodly expensive, so the cast of characters had to be kept small. 

What added to the pride was that they were a Canadian company, completely based in Vancouver.  They had great exposure here in Canada, as most of their programs were co-produced by YTV, and therefore shown on their network. 

In the late-1990s/early-2000s, they had the reputation of being the most prolific computer animation studio in the world.  They changed owners a few times in the past decade and started getting out of the TV show business.  They go by the name Rainmaker Animation now, and they've dabbled in some special effects work, with the odd straight-to-DVD movie every now and then. 

But back in the Mainframe era, they were kings.  I thought I'd just take a minute to ramble off some reminiscings about their shows.

ReBoot (1994 - 1996; 1997-1998; 2000) - And this is the one that started it all!  The first computer animated TV show.  That alone would have assured it of cult classic status, but what really helped it out was that it was one of the first TV shows that was filled with incredibly subtle references to...well, everything, from computer programming to cult classic films.  It was your fairly standard hero fare.  Set inside a computer, it focused on Guardian Bob (your anti-virus program) and his battles against the virus Megabyte, who set out to conquer (and infect) the whole computer.  As awesome as the first two seasons were, season 3 was where things kicked into high gear, as Bob was seemingly killed by Megabyte, and Bob's kid sidekick Enzo was forced to grow up before his time and become the new Guardian.  With season 3, they also moved from ABC to the Cartoon Network, so the stories became darker, grittier, and more adult.  This program is truly deserving of its cult classic status. 

Beast Wars:  Transformers  (1996 - 1999) - Mainframe's next production was the beloved 1990s revival of the Transformers franchise.  The heroic Maximals, led by Optimus Primal, crash land on a mysterious planets with the evil Predacons, led by Megatron.  Transforming into animals to protect themselves from the unstable Energon radiation, and Maximals and the Predicons did battle with each other over the Energon reserves as they tried to unlock the secrets of this mysterious planet.  Strong character development, coupled with strong serialized storytelling, and some nerd-tacular references to Transformers lore made this a great addition to the Transforers canon. 

Shadow Raiders (1998 - 1999) - Still my personal favourite.  Set in a distant star system, four planets that have been at war with each other for generations must finally put aside their differences and band together to fight of the devourer of worlds known as the Beast Planet.  Season 1 focused on the political machinations of forging the Alliance, season 2 was a tip of the hat to Battlestar: Galactica as our heroes uncovered ancient technology to turn their planets into spacecraft and fled across the galaxy with the Beast in hot pursuit.  Even though it only lasted 26 episodes, I am constantly amazed at the incredibly rich and detailed universe they were able to create.  And great characters, too.  Based upon the short-lived toy War Planets

Weird-Oh's (1999) - Mainframe's first attempt at producing a comedy, focusing on some surreal characters as they raced their surreal hot rods and had all series of wacky misadventures.  I actually lost interest in this one about three episodes in.  It was apparently based on a series of novelty model kits from the 1970s. 

Beast Machines:  Transformers (1999 - 2000) - The follow-up to Beast Wars, as the battle moved back to Cybertron and Megatron has become absolute dictator of all.  The Maximals, now a perfect fusion of technology and organic beings known as "technorganics," seek to liberate Cybertron.  Darker and grittier than Beast Wars, but more introspective and philosophical as well, and that's where it lost people. 

Action Man (2000 - 2001) - Extreme sports star Alex "Action Man" Mann is captured and experimented on by the evil Dr. X.  Escaping from Dr. X's lab, Alex is now imbued with the AMP Factor...a power in which, under extreme stress, he can calculate the most mathematically improbably scenarios and make it happen.  Now, in addition to his extreme sports activities, Alex is also a secret agent,  on the mission to apprehend Dr. X.  If you ever wondered what a Saturday morning cartoon based on The Matrix would be like...you've got to watch Action Man.  Alex's handler with the shadowy government agency dedicated to bringing in Dr. X was very much based on Morpheus...large African-American, dark trench coat, dark sunglasses, speaking in cryptic hints.  And at each episodes climax, when the AMP Factor kicks in, everything turns to that green falling text, like in the climax of The Matrix when Neo finally accepts that he's the one.  Seriously.  This got dangerously close to being The Matrix:  The Animated Series.

Spider-Man:  The New Animated Series (2002 - 2003) - And here's where Mainframe peaked.  They got the contract to do a Spider-Man cartoon.  Officially designed to pick up on the continuity of the 2002 Sam Raimi film, and with Ultimate Spider-Man creator Brian Michael Bendis on board to run the writers' room, this was a really good addition to the long-stranding series of Spider-Man cartoons.  It ran on MTV in the States, and was therefore allowed to be a little more adult. 

And yeah...I stopped following Mainframe religiously after this.  They didn't do much more in the way of TV shows, and they began shifting their focus to straight-to-DVD animated movies.  For TV series, they did a couple of Hot Wheels cartoons...they did a couple of Halloween specials based on the Scary Godmother books....and that was about it.

Nope, for most of the 2000's, their bread-and-butter was straight-to-DVD movies.  They got the license from Mattel to pump out the Barbie straight-to-DVD movies, and it's something they still do to this very day under the Rainmaker name.  They did a Popeye straight-to-DVD movie, they did an Inspector Gadget straight-to-DVD movie.  I kept saying I'd rent them some day, but I never did. 

And yeah.  What was once the most prolific computer animation studio in the world has just kind of faded away.  But their great cartoons will live forever.

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