“I was a huge Transformers fan when I grew up, I’m a child of the ’80s, so having played with the toys, and watched the cartoons, and read the comic books, it was an absolute dream come true to see the Cybertron of my imagination on screen for the first time,” director Travis Knight says.
People from his generation will immediately recognize many of the beloved Autobots and hated Decepticons he throws into that opening battle.
Here’s the robot roll-call:
This was probably the most instantly recognizable of the ‘bots — Wheeljack, the Autobot engineer — who built many of their weapons and defense systems. He had a head flanked by two flat panels that glowed when he spoke.
“I definitely wanted to feature Wheeljack even though we only see him for a moment because along with Bumblebee he was the first two robots that we meet in the animated series. So he gets this big beautiful close-up.”
Knight was devoted to returning to the original G1 designs, so Wheeljack looks much the same in Bumblebee as he did in the very first scene of the 1984 cartoon show, where he took the vehicle form of a red, green, and white rally car.
BRAWN, ARCEE, AND CLIFFJUMPER
The Transformers series didn’t get any female robots until Episode 53, when a squad of them thought long-dead was discovered (then, after that episode, never seen again).
In 1986’s Transformers: The Movie, a new female Autobot was introduced as a central and recurring character — Arcee, who took the vehicle form of a Cybertronian speeder, and later a motorcycle.
She turns up front and center in the Bumblebee battle sequence, flanked by two other familiar heroes: Brawn, the taciturn old soldier on her right (who on Earth turns into a Land Rover), and Cliffjumper, the hotheaded red scout who was ostensibly modeled on a Porsche Turbo 924 (but looks a lot closer to the shape of a Suzuki Cultus).
“That was essentially the way the cartoon began, where we see the final moments of the fall of Cybertron, where the Autobots have to go off into the world to try and find a new home because they’re losing against the Decepticons,” Knight says. “So I certainly wanted to pay tribute to that by meeting all these characters in their home world.”
If you’re here, you’ve seen the movie and know that Cliffjumper survives this battle, only to meet a much crueler fate on a moon of Saturn. Arcee survives to fight another day, but … Brawn may not.
“Yeah, Brawn gets taken out,” Knight says. That’s also a tribute to the 1987 movie, which sees the little tough guy going down hard.
IRONHIDE AND RATCHET
Just as the Cliffjumper toy was a variation on the Bumblebee design, which were both inspired by Penny Racer toys, the Hasbro line also included two vans who were basically the same robot with different paint jobs. The cartoon gave them distinct personalities, which made kids want to have both.
The red van was a brawler known as Ironhide, and in the opening battle of Bumblebee, he is fighting alongside a white van, which is actually an ambulance named Ratchet, the Autobot medic.
In Bumblebee, Ratchet is the very first robot we see.
Ironhide is a little less distinctive, but can be spotted in the background boarding an escape pod while Optimus Prime is telling Bumblebee to set up a home base on Earth.
In the background of the escape scene, there’s a hidden shot of another classic Transformers character.
“For the eagle eyes, you can look when the Autobots go to their tower to take off, and in the background you can see Teletraan 1 there in the background, which is the computer that they use when they take the Ark [to Earth.]”
Knight actually wanted to have even more Generation 1 characters in the battle sequence but was constrained by the budget — just like parents when kids ask to add each and every Transformer to their toy collection.
“Every single character was a new build, a new design, a new CG model and had to be textured and rigged and animated,” the director says. That gets expensive, especially if the character only has a few seconds of screen time.
SOUNDWAVE AND RAVAGE
In the original toy line, Soundwave — the Decepticon spymaster — could not just transform himself into a tape player, but he could shrink himself down to the size of one a human might carry around. Within him, he could launch “tapes” that took the shape of a condor (Laserbeak), humanoid robots (Rumble and Frenzy), and a robotic panther, Ravage.
“If I could have Laserbeak or Rumble or any of those other ones, I would have put them all in there,” Knight says. The cost of creating them meant he could only pick one for Soundwave to unleash on the Autobots.
“It was always Ravage, he was always the coolest one,” Knight says. “So we see Ravage try to wreak havoc on Optimus Prime.”
He was also a character that made Knight dig in and insist be included when money for the scene became tight. “I talked to my visual effects producer who said, ‘Okay, we have to lose this… and this … oh, and they want us to lose the doggy.’ And I go ‘The doggy? What doggy?’ And he goes, ‘Well, Ravage.’ And I go, ‘They think Ravage is a doggy?’”
He’s definitely not a nice doggy.
SHOCKWAVE AND STARSCREAM
They were able to populate the Decepticon side of the battle in a cost-saving way thanks to that Hasbro practice of reusing the same model for different toys.
In this shot, we see the tyrannical cyclops Shockwave, surrounded by “Seeker” jets — who historically were all basically clones of each other with the same design.
Bright blue jet Thundercracker makes an appearance, along with black and purple Skywarp. And to differentiate some of the toys later, Hasbro changed the transformation instructions so that the nose cone on the heads remained upright, like a helmet.
“We leaned heavily into like the Seeker designs because the seekers are basically the same silhouette just different colors,” Knight says. “And we did have some of the coneheads in there,” like Dirge.
Another favorite Decepticon villain also turns up — the traitor. “Starscream is in there. He’s got his own special build,” Knight says.
Unfortunately, budget restrictions prevented one recreation of a comical iconic shot from making it into Bumblebee.
“There was a time where I gave him a moment that was basically completely lifted from the 1987 movie where he says that famous line, when he goes ‘Owwww, my foot!‘ in that great Chris Latta voice.”
Before the Transformers arrive on Earth, it defies logic for them to take the shape of one of our vehicles. In the cartoon, rather than assuming the form of fighter jets, the Seekers were pyramid-shaped “Tetrajets.”
That’s another style Bumblebee borrowed from the classic cartoon for the Cybertron aerial battles.
The heroic leader of the Autobots is a supporting character in Bumblebee, but he still gets several important scenes (and is again voiced by Peter Cullen, who has been performing the character from the beginning.)
The opening battle features him in vehicle form charging into the crossfire, then vaulting through the air, drawing his cannon, and blasting his way through the Decepticon line.
“That was a specific shot inspired by the ’86 movie,” Knight says. “There are lots of things like that, that are kind of scattered throughout.”
“It was complete wish-fulfillment for me,” Knight says. “The moment of high-spirited joy, the most giddy I ever was, was when we were doing the Cybertron sequence. It was just such complete fun.”