January 12, 2014 posted by

Out Of The Computer: The Mainframe Story

Back on my post of December 15th, in his comments on the Christmas CGI DVD movie Casper’s Haunted Christmas, reader Shane Skekel said, “I remember seeing that Mainframe/Rainmaker Casper special and found it to be really dull. Speaking of that Canadian studio, I think that would make for an interesting subject.”

Yes, I agree. What began as Mainframe Entertainment, Inc. in Vancouver, British Columbia, is one of the few animation studios that was created around a specific title or project, rather than to make animation in general. What’s more, that project – which actually began life in London in 1986, before moving to Hollywood, then finally settling in Vancouver in 1993-94 – was ReBoot.


In 1985 the popular British rock group Dire Straits (Mark and David Knopfler, John Illsley, and Pick Withers), 1977 to 1988 and 1991 to 1995, wrote and played one of their biggest hits, “Money for Nothing”, both as a single and on their album, “Brothers in Arms”. It won the 1986 Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. MTV wanted to feature it as a music video, showcasing computer graphics. The video was made in 1986 at London’s Rushes Post-Production studio. Ian Pearson and Gavin Blair, the computer technicians who produced the CGI animation for the video, discussed the possibility of producing an entire TV series in computer graphic imagery, emphasizing the “inside the computer world” setting since they could not disguise the basic CGI look. After completing the “Money for Nothing” video (which won “Video of the Year” at the 1986 3rd annual MTV Music Video Awards), Pearson co-formed his own CGI studio, The Mill. In 1989, Blair rejoined him there with a friend, Phil Mitchell. Discussion of “the ReBoot project” resumed and was developed further. John Grace became the third major member of the team. The project changed and grew realistic as the CGI technology improved and it became possible to do more and more with it. In 1990 the team commissioned British comic-book artist Mel Gibson to design the main characters and the world of Mainframe.

reboot-2In 1991 Ian Pearson moved to Hollywood/Los Angeles when The Mill was commissioned to create Def Leppard’s music video “Let’s Get Rocked”. Pearson copyrighted the ReBoot characters, design, and story in the U.S., and took the opportunity to pitch the series to the American TV networks. After a year, he finally sold it to ABC-TV. Pearson quit The Mill to work full-time on ReBoot.

Due to taxation laws and cheaper production costs, the ReBoot team set up the Mainframe studio in Vancouver rather than anywhere in the U.S. The full production grew to thirty people, not counting the voice cast. The studio had to move to larger quarters three times. The first episode was produced during 1993. Seven episodes had been completed by the time the program premiered on ABC-TV on September 10, 1994.

ReBoot is set inside a computer programmed for a computer game. The world is called Mainframe, divided into six distinct sectors. The computer program, anthropomorphized as Sprites (the main characters) and tiny binomes (the 1’s and 0’s), play(s) against the unseen User. When The User drops a coin to activate the game, the Sprites are alerted to go into action. The activated game drops a Game Cube into one of the sectors, sealing it off from the others. A Sprite Guardian (at first usually Bob, the main character) enters the sealed-off gamescape to oppose The User’s character. If the Sprite wins, the sector is saved. If The User wins, the gamescape is “nullified” and the Sprites and biomes inside it are essentially killed (temporarily).

hexAdditional conflict is provided by the evil Megabyte and Hexadecimal, two brother-sister super-viruses out to destroy Mainframe. The main Sprites are Bob, officially Guardian #452, a young soldier/warrior type; Dot Matrix, a businesswoman who becomes Mainframe’s political executive in the Principal Office (and the not-very-romantic interest); and Enzo, Dot’s younger brother and Bob’s kid assistant who disappears for some time and reappears as Matrix, an adult mysterious loner. There are the disappearance of Bob and the appearance of a new main character, the game Sprite AndrAIa (who becomes a new romantic interest with Enzo), numerous supporting Sprites, animals such as Rocky the Raccoon (anthropomorphic) and Frisket the dog (normal), and computer-glitch duplicates.

This is how ReBoot started. As the series went on through four seasons and a TV movie from 1994 to 2001 (Season 1, 13 episodes, September 10, 1994 to January 21, 1995 in Canada and September 16, 1995 in the U.S.; Season 2, 10 episodes, August 31, 1995 to February 1, 1996 in Canada and September 23, 1995 to March 2, 1996 in the U.S.; Season 3, 16 episodes, the first six July 17 to August 21, 1997 in the United Kingdom; the final ten from October 1, 1997 to January 24, 1998 in Canada; and Season 4, 8 episodes, November 18 to 25, 2001 in Canada and November 19 to 30, 2001 in the U.S.), the plot became much more complex; also more dramatic, as the target audience was shifted to more mature viewers (as usual, the TV executives expected a children’s program and were surprised when it developed an older audience).

Advances in CGI technology also made the visuals more detailed. Stand-alone episodes turned into connected serials. Episodes were packed with references to everything from movies like High Noon, Terminator, Aliens, Toy Story, and the James Bond (see embed below) and Star Wars movies to TV series like Batman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons, The X-Files, and Star Trek, the Warner Bros. cartoons, and the Wallace & Gromit series.

The animation studio staff grew to about 300. The fourth series was scaled back and ended on a cliffhanger, leading to pleas and rumors for years that ReBoot was to be resumed on TV or finished on DVDs. Gavin Blair, the keeper of the ReBoot storyline, has refused to reveal the written further episodes due to constantly-changing plans to revive the series. In 2006 the Rainmaker Income Fund acquired Mainframe Entertainment, and on January 31, 2007 Mainframe became Rainmaker Animation and underwent a change in executive management. Rainmaker has kept ReBoot active with an official BringBackReBoot “ReBoot Revival” campaign to keep its fans keyed up.

Returning to 1994, ReBoot’s Saturday-morning audience was enthusiastic. As usual, this did not mean too much in the shifting TV programming game. ReBoot was originally shown on ABC-TV in the U.S. and YTV in Canada. When the Walt Disney Company bought ABC-TV, ReBoot was cancelled in the U.S. but continued to appear on YTV. Other Mainframe productions delayed ReBoot’s second, third, and fourth seasons, and the program has been shown on American, British, and Canadian TV at different times. ReBoot’s appearance on DVD grew even more confusing, frustrating any fans that want to get the whole series on home video. (Today all 47 episodes are neatly packaged on DVDs.)

Mainframe’s second and third(?) CGI TV series were Transformers spinoffs that also emphasized the CGI look. Transformers began at Hasbro in 1984 (not counting its inspiration in various Japanese transforming toys) as toy vehicles that transformed into “giant” intelligent robots: an automobile, a bus, a fire engine, a space shuttle, etc. They were divided into the interstellar good Autobots and the evil Decepticons, who had been fighting for eons; the story began when both came to Earth to continue their war. The toys begat a Transformers Marvel comic book, and a cartoon animated TV series and 1986 theatrical feature (best known as Orson Welles’ final work before his death; he voiced Unichron, an evil artificial planet). The Hasbro toy line ended in 1991. The TV cartoon had been successful, and in 1996 it was decided to create a sequel featuring new Transformer characters/toys that turn into metallic robot animals rather than vehicles (Rattrap, Dinobot, Tigatron, etc.), using CGI animation. Mainframe was selected as the CGI animation studio. Beast Wars: Transformers (titled Beasties: Transformers in Canada) ran for three seasons, 26 + 13 + 13 episodes, from September 16, 1996 to March 7, 1999.

Beast Wars: Transformers was followed directly by Beast Machines: Transformers, which ran for two seasons of 13 episodes each, from September 18, 1999 to November 18, 2000. There was a new plot and characters to justify new toys, but basically this was just 26 more episodes of Beast Wars: Transformers.

Meanwhile, Mainframe was chosen to produce a similar science-fiction TV “cartoon” series, Shadow Raiders: War Planets, during the midst of Beast Wars: Transformers. The toy manufacturer was Trendmasters, and the toyline was War Planets, the warriors of four feuding planets that unite against a new Beast Planet that menaces them all. Trendmasters commissioned Mainframe to produce the CGI animated series Shadow Raiders that filled out the scenario and brought it to life. Shadow Raiders: War Planets ran for two seasons of 13 episodes each; September 16 to December 9, 1998, and March 31 to June 23, 1999. The plot left several questions unanswered that were to have been resolved during a planned third season, but it was never made. The effort of producing both Beast Wars and Shadow Raiders put Mainframe’s own ReBoot on hold.

Starting at the beginning of the 2000s, Mainframe began producing all manner of new CGI TV series and direct-to-DVD movies:

weird-ohsWeird-Ohs was produced from 1999 to 2000. It ran for one season of 13 episodes, divided into two 15-minute stories per half-hour episode, from September 15 to November 24, 1999 and March 8 to 15, 2000, on YTV in Canada and on the Fox Family Channel in the U.S. It featured the grotesque inhabitants of Weirdsville and their grotesque vehicles, based on the deformed human and hot-rod designs of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth that were then popular in decals and plastic model kits. The three main characters were teens Digger, Eddie, and Portia. Other characters included Daddy-O and Mama-B Chassis, Leaky Boat Louie, Killer McBash, and Slingrave Curvette.

Casper’s Haunted Christmas. An 86-minute CGI movie, produced by Mainframe for Harvey Comics. Released as a direct-to-DVD movie by Universal Pictures on October 31, 2000, and shown on the Cartoon Network to 2009. See my column Christmasy Cartoonz, Part 4.

Action Man. A CGI TV series based on the Hasbro toy series. Alex “Action Man” Mann is a super-athlete and a member of Team Xtreme, created by his former high-school coach who performed experiments on his students to give them superior powers. Team Xtreme is opposed by Doctor X and his Council of Doom. Doctor X had captured Alex and his best friend, Brandon Caine, and turned Brandon into a nanotech-enhanced cyborg with Doctor X’s mind before Alex escaped to oppose him. There were two seasons of 13 episodes each, from August 5 to November 18, 2000 and February 26, 2001 to sometime later that year, on the Fox Kids channel in the U.S.

Barbie in the Nutcracker. A 78-minute direct-to-DVD movie, released on October 23, 2001. The Mattel toy company had previously commissioned cartoon-animated DVD movies starring its Barbie doll character, but this was its first CGI feature. Mattel was pleased, and has commissioned Mainframe/Rainmaker to produce 16 more such as Barbie as Rapunzel, Barbie: Mermadia, and Barbie: A Fashion Fairytale to the present. See Barbie in A Christmas Carol in my column Christmasy Cartoonz, Part 4.

heavy-gear150Heavy Gear: The Animated Series. Heavy Gear is a long-running future-military game universe created by Canadian publisher Dream Pod 9 in 1994. It includes video games, role-playing games, collectible card games, and so on. In 2001 Mainframe Entertainment and Sony Pictures Television’s Adelaide Productions co-produced the 40-episode TV series, from September 22, 2001 into 2002. On the planet Terra Nova, young Marcus Rover becomes a Gear (giant battle suit) pilot on the Shadow Dragons team, to fight against the Northern Vanguard of Justice team in the Heavy Gear Championship that has replaced warfare.

scary-godmotrScary Godmother. Artist Jill Thompson’s Halloween-related semi-humorous Scary Godmother series has been published since 1997 in both children’s books and comic books. It has generated two CGI-animated TV specials; the 47-minute Scary Godmother: Halloween Spooktacular on October 31, 2003 in Canada, and the 46-minute Scary Godmother: The Revenge of Jimmy on October 7, 2005 in the U.S. Scary Godmother creator Jill Thompson was given considerable input and approval of the two TV specials, which have been described as looking like a blend of her watercolors with Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Stuart Little 3: Call of the Wild. Produced by Mainframe for Sony Pictures Entertainment, this was the completely-CGI direct-to-DVD sequel to Columbia Pictures’ two live-action/CGI theatrical features. 72 minutes; released February 21, 2006 in the U.S., but in 2005 in Europe and South America. Stuart the mouse and the Little human family go camping at Lake Garland. Stuart, lured into an adventure by Reeko the skunk, saves the forest community from “The Beast” (a cougar).

popeye-mainframeI am running overlength again. To sum up, Mainframe/Rainmaker has produced many CGI television episodes and specials, direct-to-DVD movies featuring Popeye, Hot Wheels, and Barbie (some have been theatrical releases in other countries), and video games since ReBoot ended; getting better with experience all the time. On February 15, 2013, Rainmaker made the big jump to theatrical feature CGI animation, with the 89-minute s-f comedy Escape from Planet Earth, directed by Cal Brunker, for the Weinstein Brothers.

We can expect bigger and better CGI projects from Rainmaker Entertainment in the future – starting with Mainframe and ReBoot again. On October 3, 2013, Rainmaker announced that it was splitting off a new TV division, to be called Mainframe Entertainment. Its first project: a revived/new ReBoot series, with the latest in CGI technology.


  • Fred,
    thanks for yet another entertaining and informative post!

    I was a huge fan of reboot when it came out, and will be looking forward to new episodes.

    If I may point out one thing … the weird-ohs series was not based on the works of ed “big daddy” roth. his characters were sometimes referred to as “weirdos”, and models of the characters were produced by revell. rather, it was based on a series of characters created by bruce Campbell that were named weird-ohs, which were made into a series of models produced by the hawk model company …

    • Eeteed; Thanks for the correction. I see on the Internet that Bill (not Bruce) Campbell created the Weird-Ohs plastic model kits for the Hawk Model Company in 1963, and that they were popular for at least three decades. They were contemporaries of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s Weirdos, which apparently go back to 1958; although they certainly look like Roth’s art, and I think that his were better-known. Roth was a hot-rod customizer, and he made Weirdo T-shirts and headgear, with his Rat Fink the most popular. Roth’s Weirdos were licensed for Revell plastic model kits in 1962. Wikipedia says that the Hawk Model Company’s Weird-Ohs were “clearly inspired by Roth’s work”.

    • Fred,
      here’s a little something I wrote about Big Daddy a while back, and you can also to see my take on one of his characters …

  • “Beast Wars” and “Beast Machines” were not separate series. It was discovered that a lot of countries wouldn’t air a series for children with the word ‘war’ in the title so the series title was officially changed from season two on. (I wrote, with Marv Wolfman, the “Beast Wars” episode “The Probe”.)

    • Craig; Thanks for the clarification. It was pretty obvious that “Beast Machines” was really just a continuation of “Beast Wars”.

  • Can more ReBoot honestly be expected? It looks like it had been teased for over a decade now

  • At one point they were developing an adaptation of the Alien Legion comic book series by Marvel (under the Epic brand). Several pieces of artwork and character bios were viewable on an upcoming projects page on their website, oh, must’ve been at least a dozen years ago now.

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