Bionicle – my actual part in its origins

My Wikipedia page says that I’m known mostly for my involvement with Lego Bionicle. Obviously I hope one day that will change to ‘author of 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. 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, my edit on the Wikipedia Bionicle page is 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 only known 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 graphic look of the thing.

So ‘Bone Heads’ and various other brief concepts were sent out to outside writers. At the time I was a Director 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 I couldn’t find a Rapa Nui dictionary (the Easter Island language), so I went for the next best thing. Maori. 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 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 I was, 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). But, 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’. Hey ho. 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 it has to be said. 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. Didn’t make much money out of it of course, but then I didn’t make that much of Bionicle either. No, I didn’t get royalties, but I’m still very proud of it. It would just be nice to get a credit!

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22 thoughts on “Bionicle – my actual part in its origins

  1. Thanks so much for writing this up! You and the rest of the folks on the story team never seemed to get much credit from Lego, so it’s really gratifying to be able to learn more about who did what to build the Bionicle world after all these years. Bionicle was the first (and probably biggest) influence in my life that helped me discover and develop an interest in storytelling – something I’m now working through college in order to make a career of. You’re to thank for that in a big way. So thank you.

    The Multiverse of Max Tovey looks really neat and I’m hoping I’ll be able to give it a read soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks – I’m likewise very proud of TMOMT. Most every concept I create has a multi-layered approach, with red herrings, dead ends, characters who may or may not be what they seem and so on. Bionicle certainly did as you know, and the same very much applies to the book, just this one’s about Time Travel in the myths and legends of South West England, and not Bio-Mechanical droids on a tropical island!

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  2. Honestly, you deserve as much credit and fame as Christian and Greg (if not more). Years 01 to 03 were the best ever. And this is coming from a fan who only realised Bionicle existed in 08. Out of all of them, the original story was the most magical, the most intriguing, the most immersive, and the most shiver-enducing (you know, when you boot up MNOG after a long time, or see Vakama’s fire staff sticking out of your pieces pile, and you feel like a tiny Vo-matoran just waltzed down your spine?). It will always hold a special place in my heart, even though I was never actually there to experience it while it was happening.

    If I had the money, I would pay a lot for even a copy of the original story bible [:P]

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Reading this has given some more insight on the origins of Bionicle, a theme I still hold dear and, quite frankly, am obsessed about. I can’t thank you enough for writing this, and especially for creating such a fantastic story and setting, that still holds up today. You truly do deserve credit for one of the greatest stories out there, that defined the childhood of many people like me.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I have to agree with what Bionicle Fanatic said, the early years were by far the best, and it’s a real undertaking developing and starting from scratch. Greg at least had something to work with when he joined. All this time as a pretty hard core fan who was there from day one, and I never knew this. It’s really sad because as you describe it, you’re the father of Bionicle’s story aspect, which was in my opinion what made Bionicle a huge success, and not just another line of toys from Lego. I’ll be sharing this article with as many people as I can so that maybe credit can be given where it is due, and people could eventually come to know that you started Bionicle’s story line and made it what it really was. Thank you so much for your hard work and thankless effort.

    Dave.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dave, thank you. It wasn’t thankless however, far from it, and I did get paid quite well for the time. No percentages, obviously, but then I was just a writer for hire on another job. Who knew it would get that big? Lego were very grateful, and I even got a round of applause from the big execs when I went to Billund after the first release. I also got a free invite onto their yacht parties at Mipcom and MipTV in Cannes twice a year. Just no credits, except on the film, obviously. But I don’t blame Lego for that – they just weren’t used to dealing with outside contractors. I just blame the autobots on the wiki sites. But really, it was pretty good, while it lasted. I hope the post didn’t come off as me being sad – I’m not, and never was. It was an incredible thing to be a part of, and I’m still very proud of what we achieved. But hey, maybe one day they’ll be making ‘Max Tovey’ sets, huh?

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  5. All this time, you played a huge role in creating one of the most important parts of my entire childhood, and I never knew! I loke giving credit where credit is due so… I just wanted to say “thank you”!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow. Thank you all so much! I hadn’t posted this as a ‘pity me’ thing, I promise. Just every now and then you get to thinking, you know what, it’s time I actually told this story, but you never do. So I did. However, while, yes, I did turn the original idea into what became Bionicle, that is absolutely not to take away from the achievements of what became a vast story team spread out over numerous media, and without them it wouldn’t have become what it did. Bob especially, obviously – once we got going, it was his world vision for the thing that really made it a phenomenon – but also Martin, Christian, and of course Greg and Leah, all of whom brought their own special genius to the story. I just thought the stories up, they ran with them and made them real. But thank you all again – it’s very heartwarming to get such a response.

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  7. Dude, Bionicle was a big formative hobby for me. I’ve been following it for years! And you’re the guy that got the ball rolling! Thanks, man! Cool to know that Ice and Stone weren’t there from the start, ’cause those did always seem the odd ones out to me (moreso Stone than Ice).

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The Maori/Polynesian aspect remains to be one of my favorite parts of BIONICLE, I really wish they had kept that similar feel later on, in regards to names and places anyway. I’m still satisfied with where the story went, but it is great to learn where one of my favorite aspects to the line came from.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Mr. Swinnerton,
    Thank you so much for sharing this! I’ve been a huge fan of the first 3 years of BIONICLE. I was so thankful that Christian Faber and the folks at Templar Studios had shared their artwork from the early days with the fans, but I always craved some early story treatment. I had searched for you and Bob Thompson for years on any info about the 2001 story. The Maori/Polynesian mystical island themes mixed with scifi technology was what drew me in. It reminded me of Star Wars, particularly the art of Doug Chiang (Robota). I’ve heard that your script and Bob’s script for the Mask of Light movie differed, could you share with us how? Also, is the original ‘story bible’ still around? I know a lot of fans who would love to read/hear it. Thanks again for everything and I’ll be sure to check out your book!
    – Matt

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    1. Hey Matt, thanks for seeking me out! The beginnings of Bionicle were fast and strange times indeed. The whole two story thing with Mask of Light, however, wasn’t about Bob and myself, but Henry Gilroy and myself. Bob was the director, not the other writer. Henry and I both put in story pitches, and we both went to treatment, but ultimately the Americans wanted a known writer, I.e., one with screenwriting credits, and at the time I only had TV credits. But, Henry did use a lot of my story ideas in his script, which I was very happy about. Unfortunately, I don’t have the original Bionicle story bible. I wish I did, but a bad backup a few years ago erased all the wrong things, including my entire Bionicle directory. Bob still has it all, I’m sure, but I’m also sure he’s not allowed to share it!

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  10. Mr. Swinnerton, I too wish to offer my sincere and deep thanks. You, and the others, created an absolutely amazing world that’s meant an awful lot to many, many people, and I think the responses here show that. Bionicle is a truly amazing property, and I think it’s entirely because of those early story years.Certainly it’s something I still love to this day.
    Thank you, Mr. Swinnerton, for creating something truly spectacular, and I hope your current projects bring you all the best.

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  11. Incidentally, the first three years of Bionicle were the best.
    You’re like a real-world Toa, a true hero. I sincerely hope your current and future projects bring you the kind of renown someone of your vision deserves!

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  12. Hi sir ! I’ve always been a huge BIONICLE fan but when I was a child, I couldn’t get neither the books, nor the comics, but only toys and the few movies, because none of the books and comics (except like 4 books and three comics but not the whole story at all) have ever been released in France, so my interest in the overall story came when I began high school because I could read english easily. And I became a complete fanboy even though I already loved the toys prior ! And now, seeing how you participated on the story with all the team, how the world of BIONICLE has been created, the things that were scratched, the things that remained, the things that were added… all this work has become this universe that I’ve been loving more and more over the years ! So thanks to you and the others !
    I also have a question since I’m studying the origins of some of the concepts in BIONICLE, and was wandering who were supposed to be Rangi and Papu who were mentioned in Mata Nui Online Game ? If you don’t remember or you haven’t heard of it with these being mentioned in a game that wasn’t canon back then, I would totally understand but I was wondering since they divinities from the maori mythology they might have been important in the creation of some other characters or concepts in the BIONICLE lore.
    At least, thanks for all you did !
    Sincerely.

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      1. Hey Mr. Swinnerton,

        Thanks for keeping active, your posts have been interesting to read. It has me curious, how big of an impact do you recall the controversy having on Bionicle from there on in terms of its storyline? Was Maori mythology just more of a base inspiration for the setting and names, or did it play an even bigger role?

        Seeing you are still active, I’ll be watching your blog for future posts, whatever they might be, and shall take a look at Max Tovey. I was first introduced to Bionicle back in 2005, but I always found myself interested in the first three years, it stood out as the most distinct and well done part of the storyline. Now I know one of the main factors behind that, thank you for your work!

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  13. Thanks James. The whole Maori thing really did get blown out of all proportion, and we only really used the language as a base for the names, as you said. But changing them didn’t really have much of an effect on the storylines – the world we created was always a self-contained one, and independent of their mythology.

    Cheers,

    Alastair

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