Monday, 21 August 2017

RRCo. Report: TFNation 2017

- Dorian MacQuarrie

We are just over a week removed from TFNation 2017. Social media is still abuzz with friends both old and new sharing their experiences, there are still haul and reflection videos coming through on YouTube and the official TFNation account remains a presence on our timelines. 

Just like toy cars
Photo by Ben Watson

Building on the success of their debut last year, the team behind TFNation sought to put on a convention that catered to the myriad flavours of Transformers fans and I can safely say they succeeded in presenting a wide array of guests, panels and exclusive merchandise which extended beyond the brand we all know and love. There's always a chance that by trying to cater to the many you can dilute your product but when the guests range from the legendary Geoff Senior to the ever-popular James Roberts and you're offering a convention exclusive Transformers Animated comic, there was no lack of quality for the sake of quantity.

In the months leading up to TFNation, information regarding tickets, hotels, guests, merchandise and general advice for attendees was communicated through official social media platforms, showing from start to finish, the TFNation team had the attendee at the heart of the convention. This also helped to fuel the oh so important hype train, ensuring excitement was at a fever pitch.

Traditionally, the Friday of convention weekend has little to offer and outside of a screening of the 1986 Transformers: The Movie was mostly a bar experience where people could catch up with friends and welcome first timers. Last year TFNation set a precedent with their Rock Lords panel and presentation of the line, showing not only do they aim to cater to early arrivals but also to those would hold interests outside of Transformers specifically. This year was no different, with various panels starting from as early as 12pm, including a Q&A with popular Youtuber Thew Adams and a special look at the Brave series, including an eye watering showcase of many vintage Brave toys. I've never seen so much gold chrome in person.

Saturday morning and doors open. As with the previous year, the dealer room, staging area and signing stations for the multitude of guests were all in one large hall, allowing you to make multiple rounds of the various dealers, artists and writers.

For many attendees the dealer room is the main attraction of the convention. The opportunity to pick up toys normally only available online, the chance of stumbling across some rare gem from Transformers lines of old (or maybe even a cheeky Gobot or two) or even just the satisfaction of seeing such a vast selection of toys in person. This year Titans Return Trypticon was definitely one of the key toys to snatch up, also there was a surprise splash of Maketoys products available in limited number, Thunder Erebus and Galaxy Meteor, the latter of which, as Maketoys has recently announced, might not be available for some time now if at all at this point. Beyond those particular items there were impressive displays from Kapow Toys, The Spacebridge, In Demand Toys, Max and Me Love Toyz and of course, the ever eclectic mix from Toy-Fu. 

Next to the main convention haul was the much lauded Forge, a space for artists from within the community to sell their wares including prints, badges and commission pieces to name a few. This represents a key pillar of the TFNation experience, the community. It is said time and again that the community makes the convention and the team behind TFNation have supported the multitude of artists and creators by providing the space and the means to sell their wares and showcase their talents. 

Over the weekend there are many opportunities to interact with guests, through panels hosted in the main hall or one of the secondary rooms, signing stations which also serve as pick up points for commissions and prints or even at the hotel bar. There is a very relaxed environment surrounding the interaction with guests. Other conventions often operate on a system of premium tickets and paid-for photo opportunities and autographs, not so with TFNation, where you only have to queue up to meet the likes of Simon Furman or Kei Zama and if you're lucky you'll even have a chance to buy them a drink at the bar. The accessibility of the guest experience is yet another unique aspect of TFNation compared to other conventions around the UK. 

As Saturday trading comes to a end, and the main convention hall closes, preparing for another day's trading on Sunday, the secondary hall opens up for the evening's entertainment. Starting with the cosplay competition, attendees are treated to a plethora of various characters from the Transformers franchise. From Sideswipe to Censere the Necrobot, from humanised "Pretenders" to full robot-regalia, the quality of work and craftsmanship on display is astounding. Every year the cosplayers improve and innovate, with increasingly elaborate costumes and evermore obscure characters. 

Following the pageantry of the cosplay competition, the script reading provides some humour and light hearted situational comedy, bringing together the voice actors in attendance and anyone capable of a good Beast Wars Megatron. It's a special event and not one you'd easily find at other conventions. While the entertainment continues, downstairs at the bar other attendees are catching up with old friends, sharing experiences with new ones and of course, tinkering away with their purchases from the day. Try to imagine the entire bar of a hotel, crammed full of Transformers fans of all kinds playing with toys, it's slightly bizarre to be honest. 

This is the heart of the convention, this is the reason many people travel from far and wide, to take part in the most welcoming, accommodating, exciting and satisfying weekend of the year. For many people their love of Transformers might be a private affair or at the very least they might be very limited in speaking about their hobby to friends and family. At TFNation, regardless of whether you're a fan of G1, Bayverse, Animated, MTMTE or even Kiss Players, you'll find common ground with the hundreds of others in attendance. Over the weekend I had the opportunity to talk to some of the organisers and through our conversations I came to the realisation that TFNation is more akin to seeing your favourite band. Sure you might prefer a different album from the fan next to you but you're all still there to see that one band. In this case everyone present is a Transformers fan and that sort of common denominator allows for unparalleled levels of interaction between complete strangers. 

Sunday morning and once again, doors open. Given the options for weekend, Saturday only and Sunday only tickets, the experience of welcoming newcomers and old friends starts all over again. For those who arrived in the previous days the dealer room is less of a focus, allowing more time to peruse the Forge or spend time at a panel in the main hall or of course, a return to the bar for a drink and some more socialising. For those who may have train or plane tickets booked for the Sunday evening, time can weigh heavily on the afternoon. The desire to spend every remaining moment with friends versus the very real need to rest after a weekend of indulgence can create something of a dull mood. Thankfully the Hilton is well placed with opportunities to explore the surrounding lake and foot paths for a chance to recharge and create a little head space before diving back in for the last few hours. 

The closing ceremony of TFNation is a bittersweet moment. Full of cheers, smiles and joy but also the sad realistion that it's all over for another year. In the final moments, the feeling that it has only taken place over the weekend yet somehow your entire world was this one weekend at this one hotel is palpable. The final farewells are more akin to the what is experienced at a family gathering, hugs, handshakes and I'm sure for some people a little sorrow. While a handful remain until the Monday morning, taking up the mantle of "survivors" many head home, their journey back to reality and whatever work, education or other activities make up their day. 

This was TFNation's second year and it was clear that the team are learning from their experiences and are dedicated to providing the best convention experience possible. With plans to deliver a bigger and better event year on year I can only guess at what will be in store for 2018. Enormous praise must go to everyone involved with setting up and running the convention. Their hard work ensures that attendees can enjoy what for many is the best weekend of the year, safe in the knowledge that their tastes are being catered to and that the TFNation team keep them at the heart of all their work. 

Until next time, keep it #Refined. 

Thursday, 3 August 2017

TFNation 2017: Q&A With Team TFN

 - Dorian MacQuarrie

TFNation 2017 is just over a week away and boy oh boy is the hype train up to full steam. With a long list of amazing guests and a bevy of exclusives the team have certainly upped their game from last year's debut on the UK convention scene (and that was already an excellent event). 

If you weren't at the premiere TFNation then not only did you miss out on a double helping of good-times, you also won't be aware of the very special atmosphere that permeates the convention. From a very genuine and warm welcome at the registration desk to the most community driven experience I have ever attended, the TFNation crew definitely put you, the attendee at the heart of their work. 

With this in mind we fired a barrage of questions at the team behind TFNation, asking what sets TFNation apart from other conventions around the UK. 

Let's go!

RRCo: With a diverse fan-base drawn in from three decades of shows, toylines and media, how do you try to cover all interests for potential attendees?   
[Adam] - 'By understanding that every fan has their own passion for the franchise and that can be based on anything from the Bay-verse to the Ladybird books. Focusing on one aspect, even an element as significant as G1, can leave others wanting, so we look to try and offer something for everyone........and then add new areas that attendees wouldn't even consider. A positive trait of our growing, increasingly-diverse, fandom is that they are always bringing their own new element into the folds.....or rediscovering and championing older aspects. We listen and where we can, we act.' 
[Ed] - 'Most prominently, with a diverse line-up of guests that have worked on different Transformers media. Voice actors from the various TV shows, movies and video games, comic artists from the entire history, writers for both fictional and factual backgrounds, character and toy designers......If we get a bead on someone who covers something we find new and interesting, we'll target in on them for inquiries.' 
RRCo: To someone whom has never attended TFNation, what would you say separates this convention from other comic conventions and sci-fi events?
[Isa] - 'I truly think that the community TFNation is built around is very special. We are tight-knit, friendly and always ready to embrace new people into our fold. With us organisers being fans and friends were attendees and organisers of other Transformers events and later came together to ogranise TFNation, that community spirit is the driving force of our convention. We want everyone who attends TFN to feel the same way we did when we first me and befriended this community.'
[Gruffy] - 'Simply put, the community infuses the Con itself. Whilst the majority of conventions I’ve been to over the years have an atmosphere of some description, TFNation holds a special place in many peoples heart as being the place they can catch up with people they only see once a year and hang out in the crowd of internet buddies in a relaxed setting. Add to this, there's a full blown convention going on at the same time that involves the franchise of Transformers, with panels and events exploring all facets of the universe from toys to fiction.' 
RRCo: What aspects of the convention are you personally proud of, and why?
[Andrew] - 'All of it, as being behind the curtain and I get to see the level of planning and attention to detail that gets put into things. So I'd have to say the crew involved in putting it together both before the event and on the day itself as the amount of work and dedication from everyone is massive and it all helps ensure that things go as smoothly as possible.
For the event itself, it's the atmosphere that makes it what it is. The fact is has such a laid back and inclusive atmosphere is something we can all be proud of, although I'd be lying if the ego wasn't massively boosted when people pointed out how nice the stage looked last year.'
[Techbot] - 'Though it may sound clich├ęd, it's the spirit and attendees who make the difference. We are blessed with an amazing crew and volunteers who add to the show. We try to be friendly and approachable and the feedback we receive points favourably to this.'
[Adam] - 'It’s so rewarding to hear from fans who are excited by coming to our event and make that weekend the focus of much of their year. Behind the scenes, it’s just crazy being part of this ridiculously talented group. Aspects like the TFNation art team…. the quality of their work is incredible, whether it be something attendees see, or ideas we have on hold for future years. We get as excited about seeing the results of their work as any attendee does!'
[Isa] - 'I hate to sound like broken record, but I’m afraid my answer to this will be pretty similar as the previous question. It’s about the people. I have had people say to me that TFNation is the thing they most look forward to in the year, or a place where they feel at home, most comfortable in being themselves and celebrating what they love with their friends, even that this community has given them more confidence or positively guided their life in some way. When people say things like that, you must be doing something right! It makes me extremely happy to be a part of creating the event that allows them the space to feel that way.'
[Ed] - 'Oh, man, there's so much to be proud of. That we get this thing together every year, and that people not only want to come back but that it means so much to them to do so... I think that's what I'm personally most proud of; how much we help to bring this community together, how many friendships we've then helped to happen, and how in turn that community become so supportive of each other even out in the rest of their lives.'
RRCo: From the outside the Transformers community is perceived as a very male dominated culture despite the large amount of women involved in various elements of the films, comics and fandom. Is this perception changing?
[Ed] - 'I really hope so. I guess from outside, where folks are only really exposed to the testosterone-fuelled movies based on an old 'boys toys' property that they only kinda maybe remember from childhood it can seem very male-centric. But if you dip in even slightly, I think it fast becomes apparent just how much women bring to it. At the time of writing this, two of the three main Transformers comics' primary artists are women, one of the writers of those books is a woman, and two are coloured by women. Those same books, as well as the TV shows are making a greater effort to, I guess, 'code' their characters more evenly, although there's still a ways to go. And the fans? It's genuinely hard to call where the percentage lies these days, and that is delightful.'
RRCo: Are you seeing more female attendees and what how does that effect your organisation process? 
[Isa] - 'I am unsure of the exact statistics, but I perceive the gender balance of our attendees as being closer to an even split than other events from a few years ago and have noticed this growth. I think this is wonderful. 
As far as this changing our organisation process, I wouldn’t say it has changed something about the organisation process, but that an inclusive convention was something we knew we wanted to strive for from the start. 
In creating TFNation, we wanted to ensure that there is something at the convention for everyone and that as many aspects of the fandom as possible are represented. This, of course, includes ensuring that female fans, creators and voices are not overlooked. This links right back to our large team of organisers, which naturally helps many different perspectives be heard from the ground level when making important decisions about the convention.'
[Techbot] - 'We generally do not separate the sexes and rather see everyone as equal fans of the series. One area however we have tried to increase is within merchandise, different styles of clothing for example. We have also found that our forge area has been popular with a lot of the highly skilled female crafters, so we are pleased to be able to share their talents and work.'
RRCo: With conventions increasing in popularity, the format of charging attendees for signatures (with so-called “premium tickets” for big name star interaction) is becoming the norm. Would you ever adopt this format for the convention in the future?
[Isa] - 'This isn’t necessarily always up to the convention organisers. Some agents will enforce certain criteria for their clients by contract – such as whether and how much they charge for autographs and so on. This is commonplace at big general comic conventions. It is my hope that we can keep guest interaction at TFN free of charge after the price of admission to the event, but if we ever had the opportunity to bring over a guest whose agent wanted to charge for meet and greets and autographs, we would have to weigh up the pros and cons of that particular guest and those particular circumstances.'
RRCo: Would you adopt this format for a big name in the Transformers franchise?
[Adam] - 'As Isa noted, not only do some guests require such “Premium tickets” to fund an appearance, but that’s actually a condition in the contract. It honestly makes sense for guests of a certain level to do this and, while you might not be able to get an autograph from such a guest, following those rules would allow you to sit in the hall and listen to interviews, panels and script readings.If we were ever to consider it, we would reach out to our attendees and be open about the situation. The fact virtually nobody explains the reasons behind such premium pricing is bound to make folks suspicious of convention practices…. Especially in light of recent events.'
RRCo: How do you choose guests for TFNation? What part of the process is the hardest?
[Andrew] - 'Names out of a hat! I think the hardest part is probably the negotiations and discussions, thankfully not something I have much of a part to play in. There are always lots of discussions as much as we would like we can't bring everyone. It's great to get old friends back, but we're also conscious of trying to get new faces and voices, and to try and ensure we have a lineup that has something that covers a lot of aspects of Transformers both current and historic. So getting the lineup right takes a while. 
Yes, there is passion for the guests, as we are all looking to make the convention the best it can be and everyone has someone in mind they want to see at TFN. For me it's a thrill to be able to say we are bringing Bob Budiansky this year as he's someone I've long wanted to see at a TF convention in the UK. Us old farts who grew up with the Marvel comic can meet one of the two pillars of Transformers history, and so that those who have come in as fans a little later on can see how much of what they love as Transformers can trace it's roots back to the work Bob did.'
[Adam] - 'We choose guests based on various factors, but a primary one is will this person be a great guest for fans to meet, and will they enjoy the unique atmosphere we aim for at TFNation. If you hear any TFNation crew refer to a guest as “a great bar guest” you know we regard them in the highest manner.As for the process itself, it’s relatively straight-forward as these guests (and their management teams) deal with events all around the world. Make no mistake, we all have a good laugh at conventions and events, but guest booking is still a very specific and serious business.'
RRCo: How are you using social media and media technology platforms to engage people? Are there any opportunities you would like to take advantage of in the near future?
[Techbot Wrangler] - 'Social and digital media is obviously a growth area but is also something that the TFNation crew excel at. We have numerous plans to make increased use of not only existing social media but also VR, AR and MR technology, along with IOT and more traditional mobile devices, to allow the community of fans to engage with each other and the TFNation brand throughout the year.'
RRCo: Looking ahead to the future what do you hope to achieve with the TFN convention as a whole?
[Gruffy] - 'To grow and achieve further heights. TFN is a different beast to the majority of conventions I have attended, due to the nature of the community it serves. It feed the community's hunger for both the franchise and the social event, whilst the fans very much push the convention each year.  Slow but sure growth may be the best way to do this.'
[Techbot Wrangler] - 'When we started we had a goal to expand the reach of the convention to the core audience for transformers, kids. They are a huge market which is generally not catered for at fan events. As we see more uptake we shall be able to spend more resources in improving the area, which is one of our long term goals.'
[Techbot] - 'To grow the brand, to entertain people and ensure that the quality seen in year one is expanded. we are keen to see what people make of some of our panels, displays and exclusives.'
[Ed] - 'Convention goals... that we continue to be viable and desired, that we can keep bringing folks together, that we can always find a way to up our game. To never disappoint! To be around long enough for the Motorvators to get the love they deserve.'
RRCo: Finally, can you tell us about any surprises for this year? Even just a hint?
[Andrew] - 'Well if I did they wouldn't be surprises then. Do we have anything else up our might very well think that. I couldn't possibly comment.'
[Gruffy] - 'I shall be reading at Perchance to Dream, and I'm bringing something very interesting.'

And there you have it! A wee insight into the workings of TFNation and maybe just a glimmer into the madness that goes into organising a convention. 

Thank you to Adam White, Ed Pirrie, Isa, Gruffy, Andrew Turnbull, Techbot, and Techbot Wrangler for taking the time to answer our questions.

As for the Refined Robot Co., we're planning something very special for TFNation. If you would like to get your hands on our first, limited release fanzine, complete with recommended convention purchases, stunning photography and of course, plenty of words, then keep an eye out for Ben and Dorian across the weekend. 

Until next time, keep it #Refined

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Back to The Beast

- Ben Watson

The past year has seen a long overdue shift in the offerings of the Masterpiece line, bringing (finally!) non-G1 characters into the high-end fold. Beast Wars favourites like Optimus Primal and Cheetor have been given the perfect plastic treatment. This should be huge cause for celebration. I should be celebrating - and spending the requisite funds on pieces of such import. After all, Beast Wars is my thing - so why don't I feel it in the least? 

If my own unreliable timekeeping is correct, this Christmas (or maybe last?) marks twenty years of Transformers digging its talons into my life. Yes, 1997 was surely The Year of The Beast as the most exciting and guitar-shredding-theme-tuned cartoon exploded into my retinas and I was given my first hit of the plastic crack. I started young, as many do and remember trying to take the highlight of my yuletide haul to school to show my friends who'd received similar - but ultimately Waspinator had to stay home. Tarantulas came the month after for my birthday and the very long spiral towards where I am now began. But why do I seem to have fallen out of love with Beast Wars? How do my humble beginnings hold up against the last two decades of assorted excellence? 

For a start, not as well as they used to. For a few years now, I've just not felt the same energy for Beast Wars. Yes, you always remember your first but Armada thoroughly overshadows the Beasties when it comes to how much I nostalgically love a line. No doubt it was a huge stride forward in areas like detail and articulation but perhaps thanks to the intervening years filled with super realistic vehicles given a certain spark by the magic of the live-action movies - I no longer take beastformers seriously. 

The last decade has had no let up in showing audiences that the Transformers are wholly metallic beings whose bodies are made from vehicle parts (and vice versa?). So casting my gaze back to Beast Wars just has me thinking: how does a metal robot come out of a cheetah? And well, there's your problem. Overthinking. 

Beast Wars was what got me into Transformers because it was cool to a four-year old. Perhaps to recreate that long dim charm, I need to switch off the more mature and rational part of my mind. Set aside what gaining a degree in Robotics has taught me and remember it's pretend. Why take it so seriously? The toyline still proves to be an excellent source of great design, fun figures and a kind of energy that's long fizzled out of mainline Transformers toys. Isn't it fun to just stick some robot animals outside and imagine they're in their element? Short answer: yes. 

I think my real issue with Beast Wars today is that stylistically, while it may have informed most of the first couple of years of the 21st century's Transformers - it doesn't fit with them now. Beast Wars is best enjoyed as a standalone entity. Maybe, in the way it was first envisioned: as a toyline heavily influenced by Transformers but actually providing something completely different that wasn't supposed to tie to what you already know. Existing in a bubble in this way really lets you (or at least me) enjoy the figures on their own merits almost as if this is the only way Transformers have ever been. Of course for six-year old me, that was the truth. "So what really ruins Beast Wars is the rest of Transformersdom?" you decry me and I reply "Maybe, yeah." 

I'll always cherish  Beast Wars and the figures that populated my childhood (never as many as I think and hardly any of the ones pictured here) but for this collector, going forward the only way I can reconcile it with the other 90% of my collection that's made up of hard-edged vehicle men, is to leave it alone. To enjoy the figures in isolation and move on with Transformers as it rolls happily along a set of wheels or treads. Until the day it sets paws upon the ground once more - which going by oddly placed logos and rumbling rumours - may not be too far away... Perhaps it's time for a perspective shift. 

Follow Ben on Twitter @Waspshot23

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Five Tales: Connections Created Through Expenditure.

- Leigh Gregurke

There is importance I find in the experience and process of purchasing toys as an adult. I am aware and have always I think been aware of a certain feeling of wonder. The potential and the prize associated with a search.

When I journey to the brightly lit, advertisement abundant and controlled tour experience of a department store I feel no whimsy for what I might find and have little hope of an unexpected discovery. Living in Australia for all its benefits of isolation also results in a separation from consistent distribution. Mainlines deliver in sputtering dribbles, often entire release waves are missed and many stores burnt by poor selling stock make cautious orders.  Living in a time of instant information enables communities however to share information on releases which seems a service to cherish but it oft results in collectors being able to pinpoint stock and plunder shelves leaving naught behind. The only surprise left for the intrepid hunter is a binary one, is it still on the shelf or not?

There exists still a shore of great potential where the wonders of surprise, excitement and passion can equally be met with confusion, indecision and regret. The community toy fair, the market stall, the boot fair, the garage sale and the charity shop are all at odd parallels to the controlled and illuminated palace of the department store but they are dig-sites of unlimited potential.

It is that range of emotions that searching through a bucket of assorted plastic and metal toys creates that makes the process so important to me. The feeling of being a wily bearded prospector hastily shaking a pan, a keen eye trained for that speck of reflective gold. An archaeologist who considers not only the object but its past. Why does it have this sticker applied? What could have caused this damage?  The cultural anthropologist drawing on knowledges of other cultures to identify a variation in printing and an origin of creation.

Like a prospector's investment run dry though, an excavation already scavenged and forgery identified however these wells can be sour. Each purchase has its own story. Through five different purchases I will now tell you five very different tales that cross the full hemisphere of reactions.

The "lost city of gold hidden in the deepest jungle" moment

Perhaps the best find is the one that immediately distills you to actionAt a recent toy-fair, I lined up early and I knew to try and move to the back of the room early and avoid the crowds. I perused over table after table of star wars, matchbox cars, die cast trains then I saw it perched among loosely bagged Lego.......the silhouette of Mega-Pretender Thunderwing as though conjured by Senior's ink itself on an altar of plastic coloured bricks. I knew immediately it wasn't the table of a Transformers aficionado, I inquired if it was complete.....I could see it looked rough but it did not waver my intent. "I think so" he says cautiously as he hands it to me. 

I sigh as it is just the outer shell but I am not swayed, he gives me a price and I accept immediately before the numbers fully leave his mouth. He can tell I am pleased....."I know they sell for a lot sometimes" he says with cautious words....."planning to sell it on?" he adds and I can sense disappointment in his voice. "Never, this is for me, a piece like this should be enjoyed" I rebut sounding to me like a liberator of art, a collector of fine pieces ready to add another artifact to the museum.

The " .... seduced by riches " moment

I like to set a budget, it helps keep me centered in the moment, helps me spread my purchases around so I don't go all in one opportunity.....except for the times I go all in in on one opportunity. I cannot help but feel that pull of the exclusive release even against my better judgement. There was a point where I never owned any Botcon releases and it never seemed likely to be, being so far removed from their source. 

Then a dealer who I struck a conversation with asked me if I wanted to see something a little special.....he flipped open his jacket to reveal a bagged item, mostly obscured. I picked up hints of green and grey. His eyes dart side to side, mine echo the motion.....Botcon 09 Banzai-Tron he tells me in a tone that makes it seem dangerous. I like Banzai-Tron. I like the Energon Mirage mold. Suddenly something inside me wants.....nay craves a Botcon release. The price is delivered in a manner that tells me it's not negotiable and almost as though he had an eye on my wallet, it was my entire budget. Money changed hands, a plastic satchel slides from his hand to mine and I move on. I sigh something that is a mix of excitement, regret and pure adrenaline.

The "there might be something better around the corner..." moment

Somewhat informed by the regrets of the previous experience there are times I am reluctant to pull the trigger.  Perhaps that lure of the feeling there must be something better turned my head. I saw it there, something I had always wanted, Transmetal 2 Megatron, boxed no less with a very acceptable price tag, the type the makes you nod to yourself in agreeance, not a bargain, not an extortion.

I picked it up and then I put it down. It was one of the first things I had looked at. At the second hand market "you never grab the first thing" I tell myself like some ancient mantra convinced there is a better bargain. I console myself saying that if its still there after I have done a lap of the market I will get it. I do the lap, the market is rubbish and of course someone else grabbed it. In a fit of disappointment I spend some money on some regret plastic. I feel dirty and guilty.


The " I don't precisely know what we have here " moment

I think it might be my favourite mix of emotions when you find something fascinating and engaging but you are not entirely sure what it is. Maybe its a variant, a knock-off, a lesser known line or sometimes just a gap in our knowledge. I didn't know a thing about Car Robots when I found an X-Brawn, it was in van mode and I purchased it. Got it home, turns out it was missing a whole arm, I actually spent a good twenty minutes not realizing it was missing and thinking I was doing it wrong.  Sometimes a lack of knowledge creates an instance of regret, luckily I didn't spend much but you hear stories of people spending big money on KO's and reissues unaware. That risk and reward element is just a little exciting.

I have picked many wonderful Machine Robo/Gobots/Select Convertors figures without knowing exceptionally much about them but found them all excellent and worthy of the follow up research and in turn a passion. Sometimes you get offered what you think is a KO and it turns out its an exclusive Euro/Australian release of Brainmaster Blacker as 'Gripper'.  I almost turned it down. 

The " human connection " moment

Perhaps my favourite finds are the ones that begin a new relationship between people. I don't mean the tense haggling or eye rolling at prices but those nice moments of connection where you share a memory. It was freezing cold (by Australian standards) as I walked down the isle of the trash and treasure market. Blankets spread out across tarmac in an old drive in, happy meal toys in buckets and bits of Bionicles in plastic bins line my path. Two middle aged men, scruffy looking, both smoking the last remnants of cigarettes to keep the cold at bay. A tarp littered with holes spreads out before them held down on its corners by four different alloy wheels that I really want to believe weren't hot goods.

I spy a maroon truck under an old patio chair partly obscured by a box of toothless angle grinder discs.

Without wanting to step through the field of old tools I try and catch a look at the truck and one of the men lifts the blanket covering his legs "you want that tape deck mate? five bucks". I know its silly but I feel a bit awkward as I sheepishly ask "Can I take a look at that truck?". He passes it over to me, the chrome has a little wear, two masked figures intact sit akimbo in the cab, the rubber wheels feel supple and stickers still cling mostly to its dusty surface. M.A.S.K. Rhino has always been a little grail for me. He tells me its been sitting in his shed for years, can't remember where he got it from but he stored an ash tray on the back like a trailer. He offers it to me for $2 and I look through my wallet, I offer him a tenner and tell him to keep the change. I share with him what it is, a little about the show and the line and while he doesn't recall it his face tells me that appreciates my knowledge and my passion regardless of how nerdy it seems in contrast to his sprawl of tools. I muse for a second privately on the nature of the stories of objects, the tape deck, the wheels, the toothless grinding wheels. We smile at each other as I walk off with Rhino under my arm, a shared understanding between us.

Go out and explore. Be Curious.

Until next time, keep it #Refined

Follow Leigh Gregurke @ambushthem

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Once and Future King

- mantis nine nines

Recently I purchased a Maketoys Cupola (the KO Data Clerk version to be accurate) and it got me thinking about what it is that defines a “Masterpiece” Transformer. Not because it is a 3P design, and not because it is a KO, but because it is 1:24 scale. Too big for most collectors to fit in with their MP Datsuns and the like, but perfect for my needs. 

For more years than many reading this have been alive, I have collected cars, models, and whatever else I can find in the 1:24 scale. And since 2003, this included Transformers. The original Masterpiece Prime may appear to be an outdated relic these days, but it’s impossible to overstate what a leap forward MP-01 represented for the TF fandom. Full of die-cast, packed with features and gimmicks, and designed to represent the ideal vision of the character, this was a new standard for what a Transformer toy could be. It was also an almost spot-on 1:24 COE truck. I loved it. It sold like hotcakes, and thus began the cycle of excellence that leads us back to the present day. And what a present! Transformers are getting the royal treatment, with loving care lavished upon us loyal Transfans.

The first attempt at a True collector-focused line began with MP-01 and the Binaltech/Alternators. These figures gave us what we were sure we wanted at the time: G1 characters with highly detailed car modes and a large degree of articulation. For years collectors kitbashed and customised figures to be as G1 accurate as possible, and represent as many characters as possible. I remember buying a red KO Hound Hummer with the intention of creating a “perfect” Ironhide. At the time I would have never thought a TF collector could do any better, and I was not alone. Little could I know that the 1:24 scale boom would be short-lived.

Classics was only intended to fill in for a year while Hasbro awaited the dawn of the Bayverse, but it ignited the fandom’s passion like no other. Trading accurate car modes and gimmicks for tighter engineering and more solid robot modes, the fandom seemed to suddenly realise that no, THIS was what they wanted all along.In fact I remember reading forum posts where people stated as much in almost those exact words. Fans wanted anything and everything they could get in this new style. Such was the hunger for Classics that Hasbro alone could not keep up. It was at this time that FansProject went from making gun and matrix upgrades for Alternators Prime and got the ball rolling full speed with City Commander. Hasbro continued to crank out molds as well, and fans were sure that collectors could not do any better.

When the announcement came that a new Masterpiece Prime was being created, much of the fandom were uncertain why. Others were upset that the “final” pressing of MP-01 had just been released, and here we were with a blatant cash grab. Little could we know just how correct this was. Since 2011 Transformers collectors have ridden an unprecedented wave of product aimed at making sure every character, no matter how obscure, is represented on their MP shelf. And yes, once again we are certain that what we have is EXACTLY what we want.

So where do we go from here? As you may have surmised, I believe that what was old is new again. Big bots are back baby, and 1:24 is the future. MPP-10 remains a curiosity for many, but as Wei-Jiang, Robot Hero, and KBB continue to upscale and enhance bots, and third parties like Toyworld continue with their larger than MP scale offerings we creep ever closer to full circle on What Fans Want.

It's not just size either. With Takara delivering all the cartoon accuracy we could ask for, a lane is left open for a shift back to vehicle accuracy. Not at the sake of good looking bots, but in spite of them. Given the brilliant engineering we see from all comers these days I'm sure there's someone capable of making both bot and car perfect. A perfect Prowl that also has a detailed interior? Yes please!

Perhaps one day this post will seem prophetic and perhaps not. Maybe the whole thing will collapse. All I can say for certain is that whatever the Absolute Ultimate Version is today will be obsolete tomorrow. Or not. Sometimes you just have to be patient for the future to catch up to the past.

Until next time, keep it #Refined

Follow Dan on Twitter @mantisninenines

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Generation One Car-Robots

 - Dorian MacQuarrie

There is something quite special about the Generation One Autobot car-robots. By car-robots I mean the first few waves of Autobots, taken from the Diaclone line and presented with new names, characters and in some cases new colour schemes. 

I missed the boat on G1 and it was only in the last ten years I even held an Autobot car-robot but I was immediately gripped by a certain magic that nothing else in the vast world of Transformers collecting, not Masterpiece, nor anything from the Third Party scene has been able to recreate.  

It is the "car" in car-robot that so enthralled me and drew me into a world of diecast, scale cars with real-world counterparts but with a hidden secret of transformation under the hood.

There is a sort of uncanny valley with most modern Transformers alt modes. Even the movie toys which are often based on real world vehicles can still have a hint of robot about them, maybe the paint work or panel lines betray what really lies under the car body. Steps are not taken to give them a worthy disguise. The Alternators/Binaltech line is possibly the only instance where the alt modes were presented as legitimate scale model cars, made for display in alt mode and definitely not to be confused with a Transformers toy(!)

From Hoist's car-towing capabilities to Skids' opening boot (complete with scooter were we talking about Diaclone Honda City Turbo) and of course the obvious but still marvelous car carrying capacity of Ultra Magnus, the G1 car-robots performed the necessary tasks required to pass as a toy car and nothing more. With rubbers tires, die-cast parts, spectacular real world detailing and chromed metalwork, they pass as convincing toy cars to the uninitiated, making their transformation all the more surprising and satisfying. 

Ye Gods that chrome wear 

Transformers have always had that 'two toys in one' appeal, a robot warrior with some sort of alternative mode but rarely do modern toys have an alternative mode that fulfills the toy-based function of its designated vehicle/camera/gun/tape deck etc. 

Universe 2.0 Sunstreaker's alt mode does not pass for a convincing toy car, it is clearly a Transformer and lacks many of the hallmarks that would indicate a toy car with only the intention of being a toy car. And that's fine, that's good, there's nothing wrong with that but cast your gaze over to the G1 car-robots and boy oh boy, they had that 'two toys in one' thing sorted. 

If only I had some drivers

I do find myself wondering why I don't just buy model scale cars, be they model kits or die-cast constructs but the answer is simple, they'd just be cars. That's it. The pure joy I feel over the G1 Autobot car-robots stems from the duality of their nature. They are inherently both a toy car and a robot. I'd say this stems from the original design ethos, to be cars that turned into robots, complete with little drivers (more on that topic in a future article, spoilers, I love drivers for my robots) and therefore they needed to pass as toy cars with all the trimmings necessary to fit that particular sort of toy. 

If you're reading this and wondering why little toy car-robots have such a prime position in my collection then maybe you need to go out and buy some of these G1 gems and experience them for yourself. Pound for pound, date for date, Transformers has never matched those original car-robots. 

Until next time, keep it #Refined

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

The Last Knight Voyager Megatron - Pictorial Review

 - Ben Watson

The Last Knight hits theatres this week and whether you've booked your tickets and are eagerly awaiting it or not, one thing seems to ring true among fans this time around: Megatron's new design is pretty damn slick. Honestly, I didn't echo this sentiment at first. He looks like a LOTR baddie or a Dark Souls boss more than a Transformer but the figure looked to be something well worth getting my hands on and certainly worth getting behind a lens. 

A Leader version also exists which furnishes the inexplicably reborn Decepticon leader with his new tusky faceplate and some flame effect parts along with a generally sleeker alt mode but I much prefer my leaders to not be Leaders. Voyager is enough size for me - and enough expense; because the very first thing to mention about any TLK toys is sadly the price. Every size class now costs roughly what the one above it used to. I.e. Deluxes are now Voyager money. But thankfully Voyagers don't feel as ludicrously overpriced. I've been paying roughly £30 for them for years through online dealerships so it's not much skin off my nose but I can well see how it might be for most. Good thing then, that Megatron delivers and for the first figure of a new movie design, that's no small feat. 

Starting in robot mode as everything does these days, Megatron is a very decent action figure before any conversion comes into it. Every joint is afforded a wide range of motion while actually for the most part being exceptionally tight. The current standard suite of articulation for Generations style figures is present, so sadly no wrists or waist swivel but this is more than made up for with a double ball jointed neck and ankle tilts that go as deep as you could ever possibly want them to. For once this point of articulation is a transformation joint - clever. All of this allows you to make the most of Megatron's imposing feudalistic form and imbues a great deal of character. 

Gimmickry is clearly minimal in a line focused only on accurately portraying on-screen designs but (depending on what you count as gimmicks) Megatron isn't totally devoid of fun touches. Firstly he wields his big new axe-sword / sharp pendulum thing. I have no idea how the describe this top-heavy weapon but it looks weighty and destructive in his grip and feels like a perfectly brutal blade for him to counter Optimus' robo-Excalibur with. This can also be stored on his back but lies just out of reach for him to pose as if he's grabbing for it. 

For the first time movie Megatron also wields his cannon mounted on his right arm. I hesitate to habitually drop the words "fusion cannon" because judging by trailers and the inferences of the Leader version it appears much more incendiary in nature. It sits on his arm in the right place and looks suitably alien - a little Gigeresque actually - and can fold up and retract to the underside of his arm. This motion is really for transformation but it can allow you to create the sense of him extending it for battle - a dynamic from the movies I've always enjoyed.

Perhaps the best touch of Megatron's robot mode however is his light piping. It feels like ages since this was a regular thing and while it's relatively difficult to get to glow, it works so well for Megatron's beady rage rubies. This also provides a very effective hint of colour against his mostly monochrome metallic bod. I can understand the feel they're trying to evoke with the layers of black armour but it does leave Megatron feeling particularly visually uninteresting without good lighting. At least the dull gold accents prevent the deco from being completely dim but there are also some not-so-easily seen silver washed sections to create a touch of depth. 

Transformation is quite entertaining, especially considering the fact Megatron essentially goes from an entirely rounded robot to a purely flat-edged jet. Very little of either mode can be seen in the other and honestly it just leaves me feeling like each was made by a different concept team. Megatron appears to use magic to transform because while you can spot jet sections on the figure, the CG model just has nothing that goes any way to resembling vehicle kibble. This is a personal gripe of mine over the newer movie designs; at least before you could see roughly how they transformed and what into but now, pfft, no chance mate. All this aside, Megatron's new jet mode is certainly distinctive. Echoing some shapes of his 2007 alien form but appearing to be made out of earthen jet sections arranged in a sci-fi way, it almost feels like Megatron. Honestly I keep seeing Beast Machines Jetstorm in its suggestion of a face in the translucent cockpit... But good detail abounds to (for once) give you a sense of a Cybertronian mode that isn't just visual BS. I really hope we get a mildly good look at this mode in the film because if nothing else, it feels kinetic and I'd really like to know why those blue thrusters appear to be facing the wrong way... 

All in all, Megatron delivers a really interesting new design that at least has some kind of character driven aesthetic. The layers of armour give a real sense of kineticism which is really the only objective of any movie design. To be able to imagine how the plates overlap and segment as the robot moves  - possibly as they would on-screen - is a testament to this design. Of course whether this figure carries over the presence of Megatron as seen in the movie remains to be seen, especially when this is the first attempt at the design (remember how awkward that first AOE Optimus was) but something about it makes me feel confident that they've done a good job here. Even with the deeply weird jet mode.

The Last Knight aside, this is a very competent and very unique new rendition of the Emperor of Destruction and I'd heartily recommend it. I struggle to think of anything else in my collection that evokes quite the same sense of restrained malice - certainly not another Megatron figure. Time will tell how strongly this design is received compared to each of Megatron's previous incarnations as he does seem landed with the disadvantage of a new look in every appearance. Will he finally get a break and be allowed to seem as constantly iconic as Optimus? I'd like to be hopeful, but somehow I doubt it. Maybe he needs to be just a touch more #Refined...

Follow Ben on Twitter @Waspshot23