The Troubled Genesis of Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles

After a twenty-year absence, Robotech returned as a feature film. We look back at the attempt to reignite the franchise.

In the early 2000’s, Robotech seemed to have hit a dead end. While the classic series was experiencing a minor resurgence thanks to a DVD release, any attempt at continuing the series had stalled. Robotech II: The Sentinels had failed to get off the ground in the ’80s and Robotech 3000, a proposed CGI series set a thousand years in the future from the show’s timeline, had received major backlash from fans.

Where could the franchise go from there?

The final result was Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles, a film which was supposed to kickstart the franchise into a new TV series or even a film franchise. Instead it just became another stalled attempt to bring the Robotech franchise back to prominence and left some fans cold.

It wasn’t an easy movie to pull off from the start. The first question on the creative team’s minds was, where do they even start on a new addition to the Robotech saga? The franchise has a ton of stories and characters it could follow, from all three of its main sagas. The Macross saga character’s mission as part of the Robotech Expeditionary Force lead by Rick Hunter. The Masters saga’s team facing the fall of the Southern Cross and the spreading of the Invid Flower of Life. The New Generation characters attempting to rebuild Earth after the Invid occupation.

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“No one was really sure what to make,” remembers Tommy Yune, President of Animation at Harmony Gold and co-director on Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles. “Carl (Macek, the original creator of Robotech) had moved onto ADV films and aside from assisting ADV in the repacking of Robotech on DVD he was working on his own projects such as Lady Death.” 

Yune thought the most obvious was to follow up on the cliffhanger of the original series. In the final episode the Invid retreat from Earth and Scott Bernard sets out to the stars to find Admiral Rick Hunter. 

The problem in these early stages of creating a new feature film was that, “there were a lot of people involved who were not Robotech fans who had no clue about the history of Robotech. The question was, ‘uhhh. Why is Scott looking for Admiral Hunter and who is this Admiral Hunter guy. What makes him so important?’” 

After some of these issues had been sorted out Ford Riley, a huge Robotech fan primarily known at the time for writing on various kids TV series, was brought on as screenwriter. “I’ve been to Robotech conventions going back to the ’80s and early ’90s so I felt like I was the right person for the job,” Riley recalls.

Riley was well aware of the many abortive attempts to bring Robotech back throughout the years and pledged to do whatever he could to get the film made. “My motivation was look, we just have to make the next Robotech and get it out there and get the ball rolling so there can be more Robotech out there.”

It was one of the most difficult assignments he’s ever worked on, with endless revisions, drafts, and changes. At a certain time in the movie’s production the outline was changing every day.

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With a new audience to serve, the film focused on both a new group of characters and a few returning ones, including New Generation’s Scott and Ariel. Fans wondered why the story didn’t focus on important Robotech characters like Rick Hunter who only made a brief appearance. 

“It was just the economy of characters,” explains Yune, “If we have eighty eight characters to introduce in eighty eight minutes you aren’t going to be able to tell a very focused story.”

Riley specifically cites the ongoing legal troubles between the owners of the original Macross series and Harmony Gold as why the fan favorite Macross characters and mecha were barely seen. This was a huge blow to longtime Robotech fans, since the Macross Saga characters and storylines are far and away the most popular of all three Robotech saga’s. 

The idea of Scott traveling to find Rick Hunter would be a nonstarter if he could barely interact with the lead Macross saga character. For Rick’s very brief appearance his visual design had to be significantly altered (including a scar) to get around any legal troubles.

“He couldn’t look too much like Rick Hunter because that was owned by the owners of Macross.” 

This kneecapped Riley’s plans to make the film more a tribute to all three of the Robotech arcs. “I was hoping that we’d be able to incorporate the Macross Veritechs with Rick Hunter’s Expeditionary Force alongside the transforming Alpha Fighters,” he says.

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While Louie from The Masters did make an appearance, in terms of legalities, “we could only do Mospeada.” 

With the film bursting at the seams with all the content going on, a brutal paring down had to occur with the plot, which may explain some of the plot issues fans had with the film. The film tries to be a sequel to the original series with a ton of references and returning character appearances but it also tries to introduce a new cast of characters and can’t quite seem to balance them all in the short runtime.

“It was too long,” Yune remembers. “We had a budget target to meet. We could have had something way over two hours but we would have missed our budget target. Either one of two things happen. Either you make it cost too much and you go over budget or we keep the same budget and our quality goes way down. What we had to do with editorialize and keep what was absolutely necessary.”

One such example of that paring down was trying to include Ariel in the film without showing Lunk or Annie, who was last seen driving off with at the end of the New Generation saga. To Yune those two would be a distraction. The story needed to stay focused. Still, Yune wanted to hint at their fate so when you first see Ariel, Lunk’s jeep can be seen in the background. 

“If a new fan misses it, it doesn’t matter,” Yune says. “It doesn’t change their enjoyment of the story. If a hardcore fan sees it they go, aaaah. That’s my little hint. Then maybe a new fan who rewatches it understands it later and it works.”

It’s a fairly blink and you’ll miss it moment and while the attempt is admirable it just makes you ask furthur questions of where Lunk and Annie ended up. Why would Lunk just leave his truck there?

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In The Art of Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles, a character design for an updated Lisa Hayes was shown but never made it on screen. This perplexed some fans since if she was designed for the film why didn’t she make it in? She was an integral character in the Macross saga and could have played a big role.

“That was something that was going to be punted down to (the proposed sequel film) Shadow Rising. In the space of the movie we just couldn’t fit her in,” explains Yune.

With these production and story constraints, the team focused as best they could on not getting too bogged down in continuity.

Billy Davis, Executive Vice President of Harmony Gold lays out, “For the person who’s not a hardcore fan how do you bring them into the story in an efficient way? It’s too easy to start going down this rabbit hole or that rabbit hole of continuity.”

To please those hardcore fans, Harmony Gold worked with Wildstorm to release the comic Robotech: Prelude to the Shadow Chronicles. Not only revealing the fate of many fan favorite characters, the comic also brought conclusion to the Robotech II: The Sentinels comic that had been cancelled back in the ’90s.

“For some fans they liked the comic book story more because it told them more,” says Yune, “but it was servicing a different audience.”

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Unlike the film the comic series squarely focuses on the Macross Saga characters (the trouble with the legal rights doesn’t extend to comics) and that alone made hardcore fans happy. It was a continuity heavy tale that would never have worked for a film trying to appeal to a new audience. If the characters couldn’t appear in the film, at least they could carry on a story that appealed to hardcore fans.

Even still, the movie did contain some nods to Robotech’s long history. The big bads of the film, the Haydonites, were taken from the Robotechexpanded universe. Some fans have even noted that the cast of characters picked for the film closely mirrors those present in the controversial Robotech novel, End of the Circle. Since that novel was originally supposed to end the Robotech saga once and for all it’s ironic even a small portion of it was used for what was supposed to restart the Robotech franchise.

Riley had read all the novels, knowing End of the Circle very well, but said the cast of characters was already determined before he was brought on.

During the production Riley strongly lobbied for Lancer’s classic song from the series ‘Look Up The Sky Is Falling’ to close out the film.

“I felt like it would have given a little eerier, more sense of foreboding at the end but Tommy decided that ‘We Will Win’, the sort of classic Minmei song was a better fit,” Riley says. “I totally understand his decision.”

Shadow Chronicles was supposed to lead into another film, Shadow Rising, but production on that film has been delayed for ten years. It’s still a core part of Harmony Gold’s agenda going forward with animated Robotech, as was discussed in a previous update.

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Looking back on Shadow Chronicles ten years later Riley is just happy the film got made and he got to take part in it. “When the opportunity from Jason Netter and Tommy (Yune) came up to be the screenwriter of the next installment of Robotech I was just over the moon. It was tremendously exciting.”

Whatever happens with Shadow Rising in the future, it will need to kick start Robotech again. The audience will need to be introduced to the universe of Robotech once again. The events of Shadow Chronicles might need to be recapped if they follow on from that films plot. New characters might need to be introduced to be audience surrogates. 

They can’t simply pick right up where Shadow Chronicles left off. Sadly that means much of the groundwork laid in the film might be unused, but at least it helped move the Robotech story forward even if it was only by a bit. 

Shamus Kelley needs some ProtoCola. Follow him on Twitter!