I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Animation ReBoot: Amend and Defend

by Kristen Bialik
Feb. 23, 2012

A long-lost Canadian computer sci-fi gem, ReBoot tells the story of an inner computer world called Mainframe, where viruses and games played by “the User” pose threats to the stability of system. Mainframe is inhabited mainly by binomes, small mechanical beings that are cleverly shaped as zeros and ones and easily afflicted by viruses. The resident psychopathic villains of Mainframe, viruses, are living computer programs bent on bringing chaos and destruction to the computer system and its inhabitants. That’s where the Sprites come in, our trusty, humanoid heroes responsible for guarding Mainframe and the Net from the evil schemes of viruses, or as Bob the Sprite says, to “mend and defend.”

ReBoot was the world’s first fully computer-animated TV series, but the focus on computer generation goes way beyond the technique behind the scenes. Computers define every aspect of the show. It’s in the setting of a massive operating system, in the shapes of the characters, in the recurring plots of insidious viruses and video games, and coded into the language of every script. The show giddily throws out words that have anything even remotely to do with computer systems, from referring things like data sprites, RAM, and Code Masters. In other words, they REALLY committed to the computer theme.

But I get it. The opportunity to use computers for artistic and creative endeavors was relatively new and each and every reference to the net, gigabytes, and megabytes gushes excitement and even fascination with these newfangled machines that seem to have a life all their own. As geeky as the premise is, the show certainly tapped into an interest that was growing as rapidly as the technology adoption rates of computers. Between the show’s broadcast seasons from 1994 to 2001, ReBoot had been bought and aired in over 50 countries.

The Mainframe world may have been a bit blocky and stilted, in a wonderfully nostalgic early-video game kind of way, but the cost of producing the look was massively expensive. ReBoot’s first season was only 13 episodes long, but cost $10 million to produce. Granted, $5 million went to the upstart cost of buying the computers, but it’s a hefty tab for one season of a Saturday morning cartoon. The start-up costs were so high that Ian Pearson, President and CEO of Mainframe Entertainment and the co-creator of ReBoot, originally relied on borrowed computers to make short, two-minute demos of the show in the hopes of getting backing from a large entertainment company.

With all the übernerdy operating system references, it’s surprising to learn that the TV show was only set within the world of a PC because at the time that Pearson started making the show, he and co-creators Gavin Blair and Phil Mitchell needed an excuse for what they assumed would be a blocky, flat, two-dimensional world. After all, Pearson and Blair’s last greatest technical CG achievement was the animation they created for the Dire Straights music video “Money for Nothing.” Sure, the video was considered groundbreaking at the time, and took home MTV’s “Video Of The Year” award in 1986, but the look was more LEGO than photo. But instead of waiting around for technology to catch up with where they wanted it to be (cough, James Cameron), the creators created a plausible reason for the world to look the way it did – it was inside of a computer! And that was that. The cop out wasn’t even fully necessary, since technological advancement propelled the show into richer, more vibrant settings and more realistic movement each season, so that the show in the late 90s looked nothing like the show when it first started.

Of course, computer animation had been around for a couple decades by the time ReBoot was loaded onto kids’ TV screens. Blockbuster movies like Star Wars and Alien had already made the technology seem exciting and possible, but even twenty years later the medium seemed, to many film and TV makers, equal parts risk, novelty, inevitable evolution, and something in the future just out of reach.

The Los Angeles Times shows this feeling of novelty in its 1994 review of ReBoot: “Animation experts say ABC's new Saturday morning children's show is sparking visions of a new entertainment medium--one not using actors or drawn by hand but rather developed completely inside a computer.” Just how inconceivable and distant the technology was perceived to be is made glaringly clear when the same article later declares that “few--if any--in the industry expect computer-generated animation to replace traditional cartoons.”

Who could have guessed that in just ten years from the ReBoot first aired, Disney would be shutting down its final traditional animation studio in Burbank in favor of a fully CG approach? By the time Disney decided to return to hand-drawn animation for “The Princess and the Frog” in 2009, they had already scrapped all the pencils, paper, and backlit animation desks and needed to rebuild a studio for a process it had entirely discarded. Around the same time Disney was dismantling animator’s sketching desks, the MTV Movie Awards was honoring Gollum with a new awards category: Best Virtual Performance. In no time at all we had Avatar, a fully CG 3D world that leapt before our eyes and seemed so beautiful that for some, the beauty of the real world could never compare to the gorgeous world created inside a computer – a world that, just a few decades before had been ReBoot’s semi-sheepish excuse for not looking like reality.

When ReBoot was being created, they had decided to add Sprites as some kind of human element to this circuited, software world. Now the computer element is deeply engrained into the real, living breathing world. And in terms of art and animation, the lines have blurred. CG can be combined with traditional animation and even live action. Filmmakers can use human motion capture and translate human movement into virtual characters or set human characters into virtual worlds. Reboot existed because a group of guys decided that they weren’t going to wait to put their ideas of expanding a new medium into practice, that they would create what they were passionate about creating with whatever means necessary. CG has seen some incredible years since that time. Just think, with the courage of a sprite and the mechanical prowess of a binome, who knows what we’ll come up with in another couple decades? Maybe we’ll be the characters in a computer-run world. Oh wait…


ReBoot on IMDB

ReBoot Wiki

“Techno-Artists 'Tooning Up: 'Reboot' Is First Series to Be Fully Computerized” by Sharon Bernstein at Latimes.com (1994)

“Before Toy Story there was ... ReBoot” by Rogier van Bakel at Wired.com (1997)

“Disney Moves Away From Hand-Drawn Animation” by Laura Holson at Nytimes.com (2005)

“For 'Princess,' Disney Returns To Traditional Animation Style” by Ethan Smith at WSJ.com (2009)

Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.