The Wikipedia page about me says that I’m known mostly for my involvement with Lego Bionicle. Obviously I hope one day that will change to ‘author of ‘The Flying Monk’ and ‘The Multiverse of Max Tovey‘, but for now, Bionicle is arguably my biggest ‘claim to fame’. Not that you’d know it if you looked on Lego’s official pages of course, including the Brickipedia Bionicle page. I did try doing an edit to the page a little while back, to give the proper credits, but within days it had been deleted. They did say they’d change it back, but they don’t seem to have done. I’ll have another go one of these days, but in the meantime, if anyone fancies editing it, feel free!
In the early days of Wikipedia, I did a search for everything that I’d been involved with, including Bionicle. Nothing. So I put the proper credits in there too, but again they were removed very quickly. Even the fans joined in with what the Wiki page later called the ‘edit wars’, but to no avail. However, at the time of writing, the proper credits on the Wikipedia Bionicle page seem to be holding. For now. The various forums do credit us though, bless them, particularly BZ Power and BIONICLEsector01.
The ‘proper credits’ go like this. In late 1999, Lego hired in various staff from the broadcasting world to come up with story-based ideas, to counter the all-conquering Pokemon phenomenon. At the time, Pokemon was largely credited with Lego suffering their first annual loss in ’98. Many ideas were brainstormed, to a brief from Erik Kramer, then Technical Director, including one that was at the time called ‘Bone Heads of Voodoo Island’. Secrecy was so tight around Bionicle that this original title was known only to the insiders for many years. The key Lego creators of ‘Bone Heads’ were Bob Thompson, who had become Head of Story, and Martin Riber Andersen, then a ‘mere’ toy designer. He very quickly became Creative Director, thanks to Bionicle. The third of the four ‘official’ co-creators was Christian Faber, Creative Director of Danish advertising agency Advance, who created the amazing graphic look of the whole project.
So ‘Bone Heads’ and various other brief concepts were sent out to outside writers. At the time I was one of the directors of a script services company called Skryptonite, and one of our writers, Keith Brumpton, had previously worked with Bob Thompson when he was at the BBC. So the half-dozen or so concepts landed in the Skryptonite inbox. Four or five of us happened to be gathered at the Edinburgh offices at the time, so we took the concepts to the pub, and shared them out. Something about ‘Bone Heads’ caught my eye, so I decided to work on that one. It had a kind of Easter Island vibe to it I felt, and I’d always been fascinated with that subject. The basic story was there – a bunch of characters on an island, not knowing why. But that was about it. So I pretty much started again with the concept, introducing the whole Polynesian feel, and changing the names from ‘Hook’, ‘Claw’ etc to real Polynesian names that reflected the characters I’d created. In those days there were no online dictionaries – there was barely any ‘online’ at all to be honest – and we couldn’t find a Rapa Nui dictionary (the Easter Island language), so we went for the next best thing, which was Maori. To be honest we borrowed words from a few other similar languages too, although this many years later I really can’t remember which ones were which language. There are some out there who have put a lot of time into working that out though! What I do know is that the character names meant the same as the words that we borrowed – I figured that if we were going to use a language, we’d better use it properly, and respectfully. The Maoris didn’t see it that way of course, and it cost Lego quite a bit of money in ‘cultural compensation’. But by then Bionicle was selling in its hundreds of millions, so I guess it didn’t hit their pockets too hard. And so my four original main heroes became Tahu (fire), Lewa (air), Gali (water) and Onua (earth). The four elements. It wasn’t exactly an original way to create four heroes, but Lego seemed to like it. Or so I thought.
So I sent my rewrite of the concept back to Bob Thompson, and he liked it. He liked it so much, in fact, that come February 2000 we were on a plane to Lego HQ in Billund together, along with one of my then partners in Skryptonite, Ken Anderson. It was only when we got into the meeting room that I realised Bob hadn’t actually shown my rewrite to anyone yet. So there were Ken and I, standing at a whiteboard pitching my idea at a whole bunch of Lego executives I thought had already bought into it. It’s not easy pitching big execs when there are two guys playing with prototypes at the back – they turned out to be Martin and Christian, and I got to keep the prototype, which I still have…
It was going OK, but it really clicked when I got onto the Polynesian thing. Erik Kramer’s eyes lit up – they’d been looking for a way to crack the Far East market for ages, and this, he thought, might do it. Job done. I was then commissioned to turn my initial concept into a full blown development ‘bible’, and off we went. By my second visit to Billund, they had come up with the name ‘Bionicle’, as in ‘Bio Chronicle’. I wanted to call it ‘Evoids’, as in ‘Evolving Droids’. They liked the name, but they went with Bionicle. Hey ho – it’s a good name. They also wanted two more heroes, largely because they had six different-coloured production lines, and thus Kopacka and Pohatu were born. And so, I became an official co-creator of Bionicle. It’s a technical-cum-legal term. The majority of that puppy came out of this weird old head of mine.
So I wrote the bible, created the world, the characters, and the overall story, hand in hand with Bob of course. I even came up with the idea that the whole of Mata Nui (the world) was actually a giant planetary evacuation ship that had crash landed into an alien ocean, with only its head, knees and feet sticking out of the water. That was Bionicle’s biggest secret, and wasn’t revealed until very near the end of its run. Somewhere there is a JPEG of a partially submerged giant robot called ‘Al’s rubbish sketch.jpg’ or some such that went into the original bible.
I did the same for the next two releases, the Bohrok (2002) and the Toa Nuva (2003), and wrote the core story that became the first movie, ‘Mask Of Light’ (I came up with the idea of The Seventh Toa on another plane ride to Billund). By then, Bionicle was taking over the world, and it was taking over my life. The story team was expanding exponentially, and I was beginning to try to get a Christmas Special away with the BBC, ‘The Tale of Jack Frost.’ I couldn’t do both, so I reluctantly left Bionicle. ‘Jack Frost’ did go on to get a BAFTA nomination, so I guess my decision was justified. To answer a question that many have asked over the years, no, I didn’t get royalties, I was just a contract writer doing a job for Lego. Maybe we should have pressed harder for some kind of cut at the beginning, but you know the cliché about hindsight. Who knew it would be that big? I’m still very proud of it nonetheless.
So there you go, that’s how Bionicle came to be.