|Specifics: Exactly WHAT I dunno... but it needs some!|
Transformation (or Transform if you failed English class) is the process by which a Transformer alters his form between modes. It should not be confused with reformatting, a type of full-body upgrade.
The technical details of transformation, as well as the manner in which the art was introduced to the Transformers themselves, vary between continuities. When the issue is addressed at all, transformation is usually treated as an innovation from some point early in Cybertronian history rather than something that was literally always with them. The Transformers were, at the time of their genesis, simply Cybertronians -- mechanical life-forms -- and became "Transformers" only later. However, just as often in Transformers fiction the "origin" of transforming is simply not discussed.
In most continuities, transformation is not a trait limited to Cybertronians. Both sentient alien races (such as Junkions and some portrayals of the Lithonians) and animals (such as the lipoles on Jupiter's moon Io) exhibit the same ability. The Quintessons also incorporated transformation into some of their later creations including the Sharkticons, Allicons, and Overcharge drones. Some examples of transforming robotic aliens, however, can be traced to colonization in the distant past by Cybertronians. The G1 planet Paradron, as well as the main planets in the Cybertron franchise are examples of this.
Special transformation types
Some Transformers, specifically the Autobot Jumpstarters and the Decepticon Battlechargers, are specifically designed to transform much faster than ordinary Transformers, usually taking less than half of an Earth second to switch from robot to alt-mode or vice versa. How much this ability depends on physical versus mental capabilities is unknown. In the Dreamwave G1 continuity, Triple Changers were also stated to have unusually fast transformations (roughly twice the normal speed, whatever that is).
Multiple alternate modes
Robots with multiple transformations (Triple Changers, et al.) are a special case. Though there seems to be some aspect of natural aptitude at play in one's ability to master multiple forms (for example Dreamwave comics referred to a "genetic potential" within the sparks of such robots), and of course the special physical construction granting those forms, the balance of the matter seems to be one of training. Most Six Changers are said to have mastered their plethora of transformations through rigorous study. The largest number of modes exhibited by any single individual to date is RID Galvatron, who had ten.
Some groups of Transformers such as the Go-Bots use a process similar to reformatting to more radically alter their forms while transforming. This ability to start with one robot and alternate form and transform easily to entirely different variations without extensive mechanical work comes from unique metals in the Go-Bots' bodies, and does not apply to most Transformers.
In the Movie continuity family, Bumblebee seems to demonstrate this ability in the prequel novel Transformers: Ghosts of Yesterday. He descends to the desert planet in his cometary Transition form and transforms to robot mode. Upon realizing he needs to travel quickly, Bumblebee transforms into a very basic four-wheeled all-terrain vehicle. The narration explains that he created this altmode from an internal memory database of vehicle forms. The entire process seems to take practically no time at all, as if he were just transforming into his alt-mode as all Transformers do. The narration does not imply that this ability is only possessed by Bumblebee, and indeed the movie suggests that all Transformers in this continuity can switch altmodes almost at will.
In the G1 cartoon series, the city Transformers Metroplex and Trypticon are both specifically stated to possess devices known as transformation cogs that somehow control their transformation processes, and are essential to allow them to transform at all. Such cogs are rarely mentioned elsewhere in the fiction (the most recent mentioning of the cogs was in the second season of Transformers Prime, when Starscream had his "T-COG" surgically removed, and after that he was unable to change forms) -- even in other continuities -- so it is not clear if all Transformers require them, or Metroplex and Trypticon are special cases, perhaps because of their size. However, one other example is that Nitrostreak ("Unit One" of the Maximal Command Security Force) had his cog damaged in a firefight with Megatron's henchmen. Since this story takes place in an unknown Beast Wars setting, and the Beast Wars cartoon itself takes place in an amalgamated G1 universe, the larger significance of this event is up for debate.
(Marvel UK comic additions in italics). Unicron was the first Transformer, fashioning his metal prison into a robotic semblance of his original form (it is worth noting that, in this instance, it was the alt mode that came before the robot mode). Primus, watching from a distance, was all like, "Oh snap, robots that turn into things? Why didn't I think of that?" and quickly trained his own children to do the same thing.
Some accounts credit the development of transformation to Megatron and the Decepticons, with the Autobots later copying the technique. This, perhaps, implies that the potential for transformation instilled by Primus was dormant until Megatron realised it, or that it was forgotten and rediscovered at some point.
It would appear that neglecting to transform between altmode and robot mode at least on occasion had physical feedback consequences: whilst battling Flame, Emirate Xaaron was well aware that, having failed to transform for hundreds of years, the shock to his system upon transforming to combat mode had a good chance of killing him. Which just goes to show that Continuing Physical Exercise Is Important For Everyday Health.
Just as importantly, neglecting to have all one's body parts connected at the time of attempting transformation was also a very painful, if not impossible, process.
In the animated series, transformation was an Autobot innovation, developed during their first war with the Decepticons when it became apparent that they could not match their firepower and strength. The art of transformation allowed the Autobots to disguise their forms, thereby allowing for stealthy attacks on their enemies. This strategy met with great success, and the Decepticons were defeated, allowing the era of peacetime known as the Golden Age of Cybertron to settle in. The Decepticons subsequently adopted transformation technology themselves, coupled with robot-mode flight powers, and re-ignited the civil war. (See "War Dawn".)
Transformers generally seem able to shift modes at will, although in cases where they have suffered severe physical injuries, transformation is sometimes a strain. In one case, and one case only, a Transformer indicated that staying in his altmode was too energy consumptive, and had to revert to his robot mode: Warpath, when trapped in midieval England and low on fuel. This problem seems to almost never come up, even in cases where Transformers are very low on energy, so its significance is unknown. Perhaps walking is simply more energy efficient than moving his tank treads.
Japanese animated series
With the introduction of the Headmasters, transformation was established to be quite a rigorous task that, at least initially, required intense physical and mental concentration to accomplish, honed over a period of in-depth training. These small robots left Cybertron during the wars millions of years ago, but were so young that they had not actually learned how to transform yet. To survive the harsh climate of the planet they crash-landed on, they developed Transtectors - normal-sized Transformer bodies that they would be able to connect to - and underwent a period of prolonged, intensive training so that they could learn to transform and link up with them. Even the most promising candidates struggled when they first connected with their Transtectors, spasming and becoming stuck between modes as they attempted to trigger the conversion.
Beast Wars and Beast Machines
Beast Wars-era Transformers have their transformation sequences controlled by the same onboard computers which manage a variety of other body functions, such as stasis lock. Transformation is triggered by a command to this computer, usually done by voice, but sometimes with a thought. These computers may have been a part of the Great Upgrade, and once activated they choreograph the shifting body parts, allowing the Transformer to continue to concentrate on other matters. This is in-line with the Japanese portrayal of transformation, in that it suggests transformation is a mentally rigorous task (at least in the sense that it requires a few seconds of concentration), which is now conveniently removed from the equation.
Post-reformatting, the new technorganic forms granted to Cybertron's inhabitants lacked on-board computers, requiring them to re-learn the mental disciplines involved. It may be that a technorganic transformation is more difficult even than a traditional transformation, as the reformatted Maximals often reverted to their beast modes upon losing their concentration or emotional "center". This notion that the transformed state requires constant effort may be related to Warpath's statement about his tank mode consuming more energy (mentioned above).
Due to their technorganic nature, the Maximals of Beast Machines do not transform via any recognized mechanical process. Rather, in many cases their limbs actually change shape via an unknown means, presumably part and parcel of their new condition. One of the most prominent examples of this is Noble, who transforms between two extremely dissimilar and wholly organic forms.
It is unknown in this continuity if transformation was invented or if Cybertronians had it all along. Megatron's reasoning for acquiring the All Spark and the appearance of their protoforms may suggest the latter (as well as the All Spark's ability to shape-shift itself). Transformation requires an alternate mode which is generally of similar mass to the Transformer's robot mode. Once taking the form, however, the Transformer appears to be able to reorder his physical structure, causing some to the outward appearances of the vehicle mode to disappear. For example, Optimus Prime displays an incredibly complex Transformation where some of his alternate mode's appearances seem to be absorbed into his body or outright disappear. This may be due to Transformers being composed of highly dense collections of Nanomachines. Or it might not.
In this continuity, it is also stated that transformations are an extension of the personality, or faction. Decepticon transformations are very violent and angular while Autobot transformations are smooth and more blocky. As for mood, this is also noticeable. When Optimus Prime is angry at the humans for not telling him they had a piece of the Ark is transformation is Very powerful and violent. When he enters the NEST base after being destroyed by Sentinel, his transformation is very somber.
A Cybertronian's state of repair or age also seems to effect their transformation capabilities. In the case of Jetfire, he is so old that when he transforms for the first time in centuries he has to force parts to move in order to fully reach robot form. Another case is Megatron, while hiding in Africa, it is clear that the wound he received from Optimus has badly effected him, when he does change form it is extremely labored.
Transformation in this continuity is explained to be at least physically strenuous on the transformer, as transform-ups, the Cybertronian equivalent of Earth push-ups, were used as punishment in the Autobot Academy.
War for Cybertron
Transformation in War for Cybertron has a sound with the transformation. It starts with a primary major motion, and the transformation uses the momentum to continue the transformation. Once transformed, it seems to take a moment before transformation is possible again. The Leader class has an ability to force a Transformers to transform.
Transformation is often accompanied by a distinct noise--an 8hz pulse, repeated five times, with each pulse lasting a roughly equal amount of time, whose pitch can be represented by the absolute value of a increasing (for alt-mode to robot mode) or declining (for robot mode to alt-mode) sine wave. As a rule of thumb, the larger the robot, the deeper the pitch of the sound, and the longer the duration of the pulses. There is no general consensus as to what onomatopoeia should be used to represent this sound.
Within the early years of the G1 Cartoon, almost all transformations were accompanied by the Noise in some manner, generally lasting the duration of the transformation sequence and being the only noise made by transformations. Headmasters began with most Transformers still retaining the Noise, but around a third of the way into the series, its use became more intermittent, particularly for the Autobot Headmasters themselves. Masterforce still used the sound for the Pretenders' transformations in robot mode, but the Autobot Headmaster Juniors and Autobot Godmasters had new sounds, with most of the Decepticons retaining the original. The Noise was dropped completely for Victory and Zone. By the era of the Beast Wars, however, most characters made more complicated mechanical-sounding noises when transforming (and in fact most characters had their own unique transformation sound). In spite of this, the rebuilt Ravage still made only the Noise when transforming.
The Noise was in fact first heard in the initial Transformers commercial for #1 of the Marvel Comic, but only as part of the Transformers music track, the actual transformations being depicted with a series of generic mechanical sounds. The Noise was subsequently shown to occur the same as the animated series during television commercials throughout the rest of G1 and all the way through G2. It appeared in the first commercials for the Beast Wars toyline, featuring a CG clip of Optimus Primal (bat) vs Megatron (alligator) two-pack, but was dropped once the commercials started using footage from the Beast Wars cartoon.
The Noise was used once during Beast Wars when Ravage transformed into his cassette mode and interfaced with his Transwap Cruiser.
The Noise did not appear again until Robots in Disguise, where the Noise was heard uniformly among all Transformers at the very beginning of transformation sequences, rather than lasting the duration of the transformation like in the past.
Two new versions of the Noise were heard in Armada, and then the second version of the Armada Noise was used in Energon (though not in Cybertron). As with RiD, the timing of the Noise did not seem to correspond to the transformation sequence, instead playing at a random point during the sequence. The original version of the Noise was heard briefly in Armada as part of one of the background music tracks, and in Energon on occasion whenever part of the Japanese sound effects track was not completely dubbed over (the Noise being more prominent in Super Link).
In the 2007 movie, the original Noise is rarely heard, most of the transformations carrying only the sounds of sliding metals, clicking gears and sometimes pistons giving way. The Noise, however, could be heard accompanying a portion of both Blackout's first transformation, and the conversion of the Nokia robot, though in both instances, a foreground object blocked the view of the robot at that instant, leaving it unclear if the Noise corresponded with any specific moving parts. The Noise could be heard during Bumblebee's off-screen transformation as he saves the kids while escaping Sector Seven, and a new, mixed and appropriately slowed version of the Noise also accompanied Ironhide's later slow-motion transformation.
In the sequel, the Noise is almost never heard except for when the Microcons form Reedman. Wheelie's transformation also accompanies the Noise, but in keeping with the first movie he is obscured by a bike wheel. Megatron apparently has his own version of the Noise, something like metallic parts clanking very strongly, that corresponds with his transformation and is somewhat similar to the original noise, albeit much slower and louder. (It could be heard from atop the Pyramid by Simmons and Leo who were far away.) Starscream on the other hand also has a specific sound effect that somewhat seems to come from his motor parts: three very quick high-pitch short motor sounds in succession. He had also made the same Noise above Mission City destroying F-22 Raptors in the first movie.
The Noise accompanies most or all transformation sequences in Transformers Animated, even minor ones including battle masks, Bumblebee's "stinger" pop-out weapons, Blitzwing's changing of faces, Ratchet's magnets, and Sari's shape-shifting Key. In the case of smaller, specific parts, the Noise is sometimes played sped up or higher pitched. After Sari upgrades herself, the sound of transforming between her human and Autobot forms was a series of high-pitched beeping, reminiscent of that of an electronic child's toy (Somewhat fitting, actually).
At this time, neither the cause of the Noise nor its relationship to a Transformer's ability to transform is known. It may just be a side effect to the transformation process.
Though it is speculated that in the live-action continuity, it may be synonymous to a form of mass shifting. The Nokia transformation noise may have been the effect of new mechanical parts being generated for the first time for a Cybertronian robot form before an actual mechanical transformation. The same instance might be recognizable for Reedman's transformation in the theft of the All Spark shard as the individual Decepticons underwent a series of microscopic transformations to form one greater body.
"Transform" as a verb
For reasons relating to intellectual property law, and the need to preserve "Transformers" as a trademark, HasTak does not use "transform" as a verb to describe this ability of Transformers in printed materials describing products. Instead synonyms such as "convert" and "morph" (ho, ho) are used. This does not extend to in-fiction dialog, however.