Unfolding, folding, opening, twisting, turning, exposing areas and revealing hidden parts is basically what mecha transformation is all about. There is no one way to do it, and the sheer amount of examples there exists eclipses the scope I’m willing to work for free. To tackle transformation schemes in general requires part problem solving and part puzzle making in a nice balance, where a irregular shapes can be turned into e.g. a humanoid and vice versa. By first introducing this sort of base idea of categorizing transforming mechas into will give some foresight how I’ll tackle the subject down the line.
Much like Three approaches in mecha design (which will be rewritten at some point this year,) I tend to employ a similar template for transforming mechas specifically. These three are not necessarily connected to the three initial approaches as some sort of rule, but they do work under them if you’d wish to make a transforming mecha. These might help you to lock down your approach better. This post can barely scratch the surface of it all with the given limit I’ve set to myself.
The three approaches in transforming mecha design are Fantastic, Toyetic and Realistic. As with previous, there are overlapping elements with each of the three and can be even split into sub-categories if necessary. Examples of Fantastic transforming robots are all the outright impossible ones in any form outside animation and movies. Getter Robo and Gurren Lagann are probably the best examples, where thing just fall into their place and morph into new shapes. Mass shifting is nothing short of expected and even mandatory.
The thing with these types of mecha franchises overall is the lack of emphasize on the technical side. The main mecha may be a sentient character on itself, and the cause or source of the transformation is more relevant. However, much like in any good story and concept, it has a logical flow to it, even if it ends up being the power of some cosmic energy. Certainly, you can amuse the concepts how a transformation/combination like the one above could happen in-universe and there’s nothing wrong in that. However, it should be kept in mind that too much technobabble is worse than few lines of common sense.
Robots that have a Toyetic transformations are perhaps the most common, as they are the selling gimmick for Transformers and other similar toys. Unlike with Fantastic, Toyetic transformations needs to take the constraints of real objects into account. A car only has so much volume to it you can use to transform into a mecha, and there are only so few ways you can add volume or change certain shapes. Transformers used to cheat with their transformation in so that multiple parts came in a separate bag and you would put them away during transformations to another, while Poppy‘s Machine Robo didn’t. There were no excess parts to mention, but Machine Robo and by that extent GoBots suffered from worse designs than Transformers. Marketing wasn’t there either, but why GoBots failed is another entry altogether.
This splits Toyetic into two sub-categories; Working and Cheating. Cheating may sound a bit hard, but that’s what it is and probably is the most used way of transformation on television. Transformers is a peculiar franchise that it encompasses both. The toys do transform, and cheat by leaving kibble around, but also have toys that don’t. The same applies to the animated counterparts, with most series opting to cheat with the transformation for the sake of drama and time. Then you have Transformers: Galaxy Force, which replicated the transformation sequences of the toys as accurately as possible, thus often taking lot of time. A friend described it as animated transformation guide, where you can successfully change the toys’ modes if you slowed the animation down enough.
Working transformations are pretty much everything between Transformers to Macross, the Brave-series and numerous other franchises to list here. These transformation concepts are designed and engineered to work in the toy or model without any hitches. Sometimes a nearly perfect transformation scheme is found, and then repeated for about thirty years with slight changes here and there.
Macross’ transformations are often very good examples of Working Toyetic schemes both on and off-screen. They look realistic enough to almost pass as such for some, but in the end their aim is no realism. Toy transformation doesn’t need to take engine blocks or insides of a vehicle into account if they can use that space to shove in more mass and elements to use in the transformation scheme. Depending on the fiction, this is completely legit way of handling the whole deal, but at other times it does feel like cheating. However, this is a comfort zone to most, as fiction often gives leeways with materials and technology.
Realistic transformations are a rare breed in general. This is because they need to take physics into account left and right, and much like with most realistic mechas in general, their design may not serve the end result. FLAG‘s HAVWC, short for High Agility Versitile Weapon Carrier, have a very simple but solid transformation.
FLAG also shows why mechas on the battlefield as they are often portrayed is not the best idea in general terms, but does what it can pretty well. The pose and transformation scheme the HAVWCs use is simple and to the point without any excessive elements or unnecessary weak points. You could argue that the hip joints the legs are connected to are their weakest spot, and I would agree on that notion. However, to compare to e.g. Macross, these joints see far less stress than Valkyries’ do in action. With proper design, machining and engineering, something like HAVWC is possible to build, but would be expensive. There are other more suitable options with the advent of drones.
The beauty of Realistic transformations is that they are applicable almost everywhere afterwards. I’m not exactly talking about in physical, functional 1:1 form, but rather than it’s easier to downsize such a design into toys, television and others when all the details and technology behind it is figured out.
There are multiple styles within these approaches that I won’t go in here. In future I’ll be doing more specific, franchise specific posts about their styles and why they work. However, this does take some time due to material shortage in certain areas. Until then, keep scribbling something on those papers.