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Interview with George Dunsay

George Dunsay joined Hasbro in the late 1970s as Director of New Product Development and later became Senior Vice President of Research and Development. During his stint at Hasbro, he was personally responsible for inventing "My Little Pony", the "My Buddy" doll and the "Fresh 'n Fancy" makeup kit. On top of that, during his time as Vice President of R&D, a toymaker named Henry Orenstein brought the concept of a new toy series from Japan to Dunsay's desk, robots that could be transformed into realistic vehicles. Dunsay managed to strike a deal with Japanese toymaker Takara that would allow Hasbro to sell those robot toys in the USA as "The Transformers". Dunsay would act as Hasbro's liaison with Takara until 1988, and later served as a consultant for the Transformers brand from 1992 through 2001.

Something to spice up this interview a bit.
Originally scheduled to make an appearance at BotCon 2004, the Hartmans' unofficial alternative to Glen Hallit's Official Transformers Collectors' Convention, Dunsay later had to cancel his trip to California. He was still able to provide a short interview for the BotCon 2004 Program Guide. Coupled with a panel held by Bob Prupis, Hasbro's former Vice President of Boys' Toys Marketing, and Alison Segebarth, Hasbro's former Senior Marketing Director, that interview was one of the most vital first-hand resources for the early days of the Transformers brand from the Hasbro side of things.

Mr. Dunsay has been kind enough to agree in giving me an interview about the early days of the Transformers brand that answers a lot of open questions while debunking various rumors that have been circulating among collectors for many years. Special thanks have to go to Karl Hartman for establishing the initial contact.

It has been established that a Hasbro delegation attended Tokyo Toy Show in 1983, where they originally discovered the "Diaclone" toys from Takara. It has also been established that a toymaker named Henry Orenstein brought the concept to your desk. What is not clear, however, is whether Mr Orenstein was part of the delegation that went to Japan, or whether he just learned of the concept when the delegation returned to the USA.

George Dunsay:
Mr Orenstein was not part of the Hasbro delegation. To call it a delegation is an overstatement. There was one representative there, and he was not part of R&D or Marketing. I do not remember who it was. There was a death in my wife's family so I did not attend. On reflection, I seem to remember that the reps to the 1983 Toy Fair may have been from Hasbro Europe, but I am not sure. Orenstein brought the toy concept to then CEO Stephen Hassenfeld, who involved me on a trip back to Japan where Orenstein introduced me to the Takara people. The deal was made prior to the name "Transformers" being established.

Who originally came up with the name "The Transformers"? Aaron Archer of Hasbro recently said it was Henry Orenstein, but apparently Joe Bacal of Griffin-Bacal also once credited his son Jay with creating the name. Is there any chance you still remember where it came from? Or was it more like a brainstorming session where one person would throw in an idea or a name, and someone else would pick it up and expand on it?

George Dunsay:
The name came from Griffin-Bacal. Mr Orenstein contributed very little past the original introduction. All contract negotiations with Takara and review of their work was done pretty much alone in Japan by me (as Sr. VP R&D) till 1988. I would bring the best of what they were working on back to Rhode Island where we (management team) would make the final cuts.

What part did Takara's designer Hideaki Yoke play in the early phase? At BotCon 2005 it was stated that he moved to Rhode Island for six months to oversee the development of the line.

George Dunsay:
Yoke-san was the lead designer on Transformers in Japan. Not the inventor or the head R&D guy at that time. His move to Rhode Island was at my instigation. Both he and his wife (she was a girls toys designer) came to Rhode Island as an "exchange program". We sent a number of designers, each on short term spans. He worked on all Boys products, not just Transformers.

Hasbro's corporate logo during the Eighties.
The reason he came was sort of a personal need of mine. I was contemplating leaving Hasbro and expected to work as a consultant bridge between US companies and Japanese companies (predominantly Takara). After the Transformers' success and the fact that I was Hasbro's face in Japan (at this point I spoke enough Japanese to get around), I wanted to capitalize on that position. I needed someone who lived in Japan, worked for Takara and was familiar with the US market. That is why I suggested the swap.

Shortly afterwards, I left Hasbro and became a consultant for Hasbro, Mattel, Takara, Tomy and Toybox. So it all worked out.

As the original idea for the line came from Griffin-Bacal, at what point did Marvel Comics come into play for creating the storyline?

George Dunsay:
I'm not sure I would say the original idea for the line came from Griffin-Bacal. Certainly the packaging and advertising did. The key to Transformers (how they differed most from Diakron) was the conflict of good & evil. Diakron had none of that in the US, just a series of transformable robots. That good and evil part came from Hasbro's marketing group. Griffin-Bacal executed it.

The involvement of Marvel is an outgrowth of our G.I. Joe work. This part was purely the idea of Griffin-Bacal. At the time, in the US market, you were not to do large embellishments to toy advertising on TV. There was a organization called the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) who oversaw all toy commercials. Griffin-Bacal came up with the idea of having Marvel do a G.I. Joe comic book, and then we would advertise the comic book. There were no restrictions on advertising comic books. This led to the same successful concept being applied to Transformers.

The first time I remember Marvel having substantial say in product was for the Transformer movie. That was a product disaster. The key to the Transformer play value was it being interesting in both modes. If you didn't want to play with it in one of the modes then the kids would never do the transformations. This is a point that was not followed by the movie transformers, by some of the competition and some of the later versions of Transformers themselves.

When you say "Marvel", do you mean Marvel/Sunbow? Because currently it's considered an established fact that the original designs for the movie toys came from Sunbow, particularly from a Mr Floro Dery, who also claims credit for being largely responsible for the designs from the first two seasons of the cartoon series (before that, it was assumed that Marvel Comics' John Romita was responsible for those designs).

George Dunsay:
As far as who actually did the designs for the movie toys, I cannot say. I had assumed it was Marvel. In any event it wasn't Takara or Hasbro R&D. We in R&D who controlled everything to that point were told what was going to be made. This was a major departure for the process at Hasbro at that time. R&D always initiated the product, usually with Takara ideas.

The first two years of cartoon products follow Takara designs. Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, etc. designs were from Takara products, not from Griffin-Bacal.

Floro Dery - he could have come up with the transforming planet. Takara took the direction from R&D to create that product. We were asked by marketing. Maybe it's my bias as a product guy (rather than a storyline guy), but the real work was making the toys work. Those are the people I would call designers. It's not very hard to say "Let's make a planet transform", the trick is in the mechanism.

When the [Beast Wars - editor's note] toys were introduced and CGI animation was used, it was based on Takara/R&D designs again (I was consulting during this period). The key innovation here was animal and organic looks. That had never been done before. The idea came from Vinnie D'Alleva (Hasbro Marketing), I believe (not positive). He should be added to the short list of major contributors in the later years. The execution was pure Takara (Yoke-san was in charge by then).

Takara released their own versions of some the "Diaclone" toys in the USA under the name "Diakron" in late 1983, but the line was discontinued after only a small number of toys had come out. Was this because of the licensing deal they had signed with Hasbro, with Takara quitting out of the market in favor of having their products distributed through a domestic company that had a better grasp of the American market and its specific characteristics?

George Dunsay:
It was sold as an exclusive to Toy "R" Us. It didn't do well as Diakron (no marketing, no conflict, no commercials). It was fairly expensive without those factors.

So were the Diakron toys released in the USA even before Takara signed the licensing contract with Hasbro?

George Dunsay:
Yes, they were in the stores the Christmas before we licensed them. You should also note that the Transformers were not the original major part of the deal. Takara had a mini rechargeable car that they were interested in licensing to a U.S. company. At the time they were working with Mattel as the Barbie licencee in Japan. Mattel did not treat Takara well so they took a chance and gave us the licensee for the cars. We never made them as they were cost prohibitive. These were rechargeable motorized cars. They were briefly introduced in Japan but never in the US. Sorry, the name escapes me. We gave a large guarantee to Takara on these cars. As an exit package from that deal, we gave them the license to the Transformer name and use of our marketing and commercials in Japan.

The colors of all the toys available as part of Takara's US "Diakron" line were also different from the versions Hasbro would later release as "Transformers". In fact, some of those color schemes Hasbro used were entirely new and not based on any existing Takara variants. Was this a conscious decision in order to distinguish those toys from the ones that were already available in stores by that point, so there wouldn't be identical-looking toys competing with each other?

George Dunsay:
The colors were chosen by what we thought were the proper colors. The few items they sold in the US were not a factor. Autobot and Decepticon colors were also a factor on some.

In some cases it seems that color decisions were made at the very last minute. One toy [Bluestreak - editor's note] is still depicted in its original Diaclone colors in all the official advertising (the instructions, the 1984 Hasbro catalog etc.), while two other toys [Sunstreaker and Sideswipe - editor's note] with similar car forms seem to have gotten their colors swapped, as the bios on their packaging (presumably written by Marvel Comics' Bob Budiansky) reference each other's physical attributes (which is backed up by the "Cartoon Bible" simply distinguishing the two by their colors). Two toys [Bumblebee and Cliffjumper - editor's note] were even available in multiple color variations way into 1985 despite all the official advertising only depicting one color for each toy, with a third, similar toy ["Bumblejumper" - editor's note] being sold as a Transformer mispackaged as one of those two toys. Some people suggest those toys were old Takara overstock, but evidence suggests otherwise. Another suggestion is that the mispackaged toy was originally intended to be released but was cancelled after some units had already been made.

George Dunsay:
Remember: We picked these items up in June and didn't get really working on them till July. Trade previews were in October/November, so we had to rush. Considering the time constraints, R&D, marketing and Griffin-Bacal did 16 months work in 4-5. Catalogs were also rushed. They were printed six months before actual production (for US Toy Fair), and so were commercials. So we were continuing to develop the product after the catalogs and commercials were done. Some product and color changes were made at that late date.

A totally minor, unimportant toyline from 20 years ago.
I don't remember Marvel having anything to say about any aesthetics the first year or so. The same product with two colors was an attempt to make the line look bigger. Remember, we originally were limited to Takara's original, complete tooling. There was no Takara overstock. The line became so hot they diverted some of their domestic production for us.

You may also want to write something about the non-Takara Transformers that were in the line at the beginning. We attempted to keep any other possible transformable robots away from Tonka (Gobots) and the people who were making Voltron [Matchbox - editor's note]. So we purchased a few other products from smaller Japanese companies. There was a robot that carried train track on his back and transformed into a vehicle that ran on the tracks [Omega Supreme - editor's note]. That came from a company called ToyBox.

More interesting is the two original large airplane Transformers (I forget their names) [Jetfire - editor's note]. They were probably the most complex Transformers we ever made. You may have noticed that Transformers have gotten easier over the years. The kids that play with them have gotten younger (typical of many toys), so they can't be as complex. In any event, these came from a small company whose name escapes me [Takatoku - editor's note]. Just before production, the company was bought by Bandai. At the time, Bandai was making Gobots for Tonka. We were concerned that they would not honor the deal, but they did. In fact, the sold us some insect robots for the second year (Insecticons) [Deluxe Insecticons - editor's note].

I always felt that the Gobots' weakness was not having more expensive, larger robots to sell closer to Christmas. The planes would have been good for them. In that first year of introduction, they had Gobots on the shelves 3-4 months before us. People were talking about Gobots. By the year's end, we had passed them.

Did you mean the helicopter (Whirl) when you were referring to "two airplanes", or was there another airplane from Takatoku that never came out as a Transformer?

George Dunsay:
Funny, I remember two. Maybe we only made one. It's been a long time. I didn't even remember the Autobot Deluxe Vehicles. Now seeing the pictures, I remember the helicopter. But that was not the second plane.

Technically they were licensed from Bandai, who bought Takatoku.

I have one more question about the continuation of the line in Europe after it was temporarily discontinued in the USA in 1990, but since you stated that you left the brand in 1988, that question would probably better suited for someone who was still around by that point.

George Dunsay:
Actually, I was hired by Hasbro Europe as a consultant to work with them and Takara on the reintroduction into the European market. At the time it was discontinued in the US, it was not a temporary decision. It is only after the success in Europe that the US people decided to reintroduce it. I consulted for Hasbro US from the reintroduction through the early 2000s.

Since 1990 or so, Hasbro has had a hard time creating sustainable brands. They consistently go back to G.I. Joe, My Little Pony and Transformers rather than create new products.

A similar thing could be said about Takara, as their Transformers brand has been the most successful over there when they were just following Hasbro's direction.

George Dunsay:
It wasn't so much of Takara following Hasbro's direction as having access to free commercials and Transformer TV shows. Remember, I told you about the mini car settlement. They got use of all that marketing from that deal. Prior to that, Diakron had no strong marketing presence. Because our production quantities were so large, it was no longer practical for them to create their own line of robots, it was easier to use ours. Additionally, most of their R&D was taking direction from me with respect to Transformers, so they didn't have a lot of other bodies to work on their own robots.

Personally, I don't think the situation in Europe has improved much, though. I live in Germany, and all the recent Transformers lines have made a sub-par performance not only in Germany, but in Europe in general. The market could sure be blamed to some degree, but then, there are many distribution decisions that simply make no sense from an outside perspective.

George Dunsay:
I must admit that Hasbro, even in my time, never concerned itself with collectors. Of course, we might have been excused since collecting Transformers was in its infancy back then. In any event, the quantities that true collectors buy of production product is minimal. So toy companies rarely cater to them. Mattel makes a line of ultra high priced Barbie dolls for collectors, but these are not part of the regular product line.

I cannot say why Hasbro does what it does now. I stopped consulting for them four or five years ago. All that seems to matter now is what Wal-Mart wants. Toy companies do not sell their new ideas, they take orders. There is a difference.

Back when I was heading up all of Hasbro corporate R&D (just a little ego trip here: We went from $65 million when I came to Hasbro to $1.8 billion when I left 10 years later), we told the store what to buy. The year we made My Little Pony, it wasn't even our #1 girls' offering. But we forced it into the stores, and it took off. Today, toy companies show products to the "Marts" (Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target), and the buyers make their choices based on what is currently popular. So in essence, you are designing next year against what is popular last year. That's why there are very few new, exciting ideas.

Do you know any details about toys released in Europe concurrently with the US run of the line? It seems that early European releases from 1984-89 were very inconsistent between the individual markets, especially with the involvement of third party subcontractors (which seems to have been an even larger problem in Central and South America). Italy appears to have been a particularly bizarre place, with their company GiG having an additional license from Takara that preceded their deal with Hasbro (which is assumed to have been forced upon them after they made their domestic version of Diaclone too close to Hasbro's Transformers, called "Trasformer"), allowing them to release a lot of toys that were only available from Takara in that form until the European markets became more streamlined in the late Eighties.

George Dunsay:
You are correct about the GiG deal. They were eventually forced into line. At that time we in the US were not exercising enough control over the European operation. All that was corrected in a year or two. If they wanted our TV shows and commercials they had to fall in line.

I'm surprised by how well you remember things, as many other people who worked on the Transformers brand in one way or another back in 1984 seem to have a bad memory and often tend to exaggerate their own contribution.

George Dunsay:
There seem to be a lot of people who seem to think they were instrumental in Transformers. The short list should read:
Tom Griffin - Joe Bacal - Griffin-Bacal - Commercials, storylines, TV show, movie
Okude-san [Nobuyuki Okude - editor's note] - Project leader Takara
Yoke-san [Hideaki Yoke - editor's note] - Head designer Takara
"Rocky ?" (I forget his last name) [Hiroyuki Obara - editor's note] - Transformer inventor Takara
Satoh-san [Yasuta Satoh - editor's note] - President Takara
Steve Schwartz - Senior Vice President Marketing Hasbro
Bob Prupis - Marketing Manager Boys Toys Hasbro
George Dunsay - Senior Vice President R&D Hasbro - Product liaison with Takara
Larry Bernstein - Senior Vice President Sales

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