Interview: Megatron (Technically, Frank Welker)
By: Todd Gilchrist
Like Peter Cullen, the actor who provides the voice for his on screen adversary, Optimus Prime, Frank Welker is a bona fide icon of the voice recording world. Not just because he has more than four decades of work and 600 individual credits to his name. Not just because yes, he provided the voice for Megatron, one of the most famous villains in cartoon history. Rather, it's because people know and identify him just from his voice, which may run contrary to the idea of actors disappearing into their roles, but it demonstrates that what he does is so distinctive and special it transcends the limitations of the medium.
SciFi Squad recently caught up with Welker via email to discuss his illustrious history in voice recording, in conjunction with Shout! Factory's Sept. 15 DVD release of Transformers Season Two, Volume One. In addition to talking about bringing Megatron to life, he talks about the technical and creative challenges of voice work, and reflects on a few of the roles that linger in the memories of movie and TV fans long after the characters left the screen.
SciFi Squad: I'll start with the obvious first: How did you get into voice acting, and by the time you performed on Transformers, was your work as Megatron initially just another job or was the process of getting the role distinctive in your career?
Frank Welker: Well, to your first question, I was doing standup comedy in a club in Los Angeles when this fellow and his girlfriend walked in and sat down in the middle of my dog and cat fight. Based on my performance of barking and growling and hissing, he cast me in a Friskies dog food commercial and his lady friend cast me in Scooby Doo! Now that is being in the right place at the right time.
As for Transformers, yes at the time it was just a job - a really fun job because of the cast, but honestly none of us knew much about Transformers and how popular this show would become. I remember what a surprise it was when someone called and invited me to a Botcon. A what? I had never heard that term before. It has been a fun awakening and my thanks go out to the fans for their support, education and for not forgetting us!
SciFi Squad: How much of the character's persona was defined in the script and how much did you develop? Or, was there anything that you specifically came up with that eventually became a trademark of the character?
Welker: That is a great question but I have to give you a weak answer. Not much, most of what we did was written. Of course, the voice and overacting I can claim as my own.
SciFi Squad: We always hear how isolated the process is or can be for voice actors. At this point is that something you are comfortable with, or does it help you focus on the character in a different way?
Welker: Another great question and hopefully a better answer. I have worked alone and with a cast and enjoy the process both ways. There is more back and forth with a full cast and you can feed off the other actors' performance. Peter Cullen and I loved to do this with Megatron and Optimus Prime. But there is also something compelling about having a sound stage to yourself, and being able to concentrate completely on your own lines and characters. I guess finally it depends on the project and the director.
SciFi Squad: You have enjoyed a longtime collaboration with other iconic Transformers voice actors like Peter Cullen and Chris Latta, at least on screen. How much time did or have you had to build the chemistry your respective characters enjoy on screen?
Welker: I had the pleasure of working with Peter Cullen on many projects before the Transformers and I can say we were good friends and had a strong mutual respect. Chris was new to me but I had seen him around town at comedy clubs. I did not know him well. Our working relationship was great; he was an intense fellow who gave it 100 + and his fire was contagious.
SciFi Squad: How were you approached about providing voices in Revenge of the Fallen, and were you eager or reluctant to relinquish Megatron's voice to Hugo Weaving?
Welker: I was asked to audition for Soundwave, which I was happy to do. Unfortunately, I was unable to audition for Megatron in the first feature due to conflicts in schedules. Of course I would have loved to continue on the long rivalry between Peter Cullen's Prime and my Megatron, but it wasn't to be. Hugo Weaving is a very good and creative actor - whatever he does is interesting. I think with a franchise like Transformers there are changes and iterations but ultimately the fans will choose what they like.
Recently, my friend Corey Burton did a Megatron for the newest TV version of Transformers (neither Peter nor I were asked to reprise our roles) I didn't see the show but I know it is no longer on the air. I have done the voice again in "Transformers The Game" one and two and it was great fun. Also, a prequel for the first film (a bonus in certain stores) on DVD, and Family Guy and Robot Chicken which also were a hoot! So I feel like a lot of the fans see me as the leader of the Decepticons, for which I am very grateful.
SciFi Squad: You've obviously provided voices for Transformers characters over the years, but how if at all was it different to provide them for these CGI iterations as opposed to their cartoon incarnations?
Welker: I think it is much more difficult for the CGI bots. They have less facial expression and are much bigger in size. When we did the animation, the artists had to draw to our recorded tracks. In the CGI versions we had to voice to completed actions or anticipated actions and that tends to lock you in to what is on screen.
SciFi Squad: What sort of direction were you given by Michael Bay for your characters, be it in the recording booth or simply reconceiving the characters for a live-action setting?
Welker: I think Michael was happy with Soundwave and just wanted him to be a little more edgy. We really didn't fiddle with it much. I know some fans were disappointed that the sound effect from the original show was not evident. I have not seen the film nor have I talked with anybody at the studio, but from what I have read Michael was concerned that the audience understand Soundwave's voice and his exposition and the effect may have interfered.
SciFi Squad: Soundwave was always my favorite Transformer. What for you was the essence of his personality, or what was the best way to sort of get into character given the voice modulation, his sort of monotone delivery, and the fact that he had his "cassette army" to command? Was any of that different now that he's a satellite in the film?
Welker: Hey, thanks Todd. You know it is such a fun voice to do. I liked the fact that I didn't have to yell. With Megatron, I was always screaming, but with Soundwave I could make his presence felt with sheer sound. It is a trick voice and the less you push it the better it sounds. There is mic technique but you are right it is pretty much just monotone and that was a challenge to give him dynamics and yet keep him on one level. I think the sound effects that Scott Brownlie of the animation version did with the harmonizer were very cool. Also, having my cassette army helped, Lazerbeak, etc., as you stated all helped. In the feature, I kind of liked the idea of that voice coming from the depths of space but again I have not seen the film.
SciFi Squad: As a voice performer are you afforded a lot of opportunities to improvise? Either on the original series or in the new movie, was there an instance of a memorable improvisation that you're happy ended up on screen? [Also,] your earliest credits include more on-screen work. Is that something you enjoy or want to do as much, or are you completely satisfied by voiceover work?
Welker: I just finished working on camera in Steven Soderbergh The Informant. This is my first on-camera appearance in a very long time. I have a very small part playing Matt Damon's dad. Candy Clark plays my wife Damon's mother. We have our scene together in front of the house where she is pruning roses. I get a telephone call from a reporter and I come out of the house to have her take the call and ask her to come into the house. I started ad libbing each time she came to the house, a different ad lib each take - "Are you pruning or planting?" or "Kinda hot out there?" or "Would you like a glass of water?" Just stuff to keep the scene rolling along. It felt natural as opposed to just standing there at the door. The first couple of times she looked shocked that I was saying things that weren't in the script. I found out later that she went to the director and said, "Frank keeps saying things that aren't in the script, what should I do?" Steven said, "Answer him!" All of the sudden Candy answers me and ad libs her own lines and I was completely speechless. She got me good! She is a very good actor and a great sport, I really enjoyed working with Soderbergh and Ms. Clark. Oh, and I think our ad libs exceeded our scripted dialog!!
SciFi Squad: What's coming up next for you? How is your work on Futurama coming?
Welker: I am happy to say we are starting a new season of Scooby Doo. Also, another live action Scooby movie will be out in September. Futurama starts a new season this week and Garfield the Cat just got picked up for a bunch of shows for the Cartoon Network. Looks like Scooby snacks and Kibble ahead!!!
SciFi Squad: Maybe it's a dumb question, but to folks unfamiliar with the process technically or creatively, is all voiceover work the same? Are there different challenges or levels of artistic investment?
Welker: Not dumb at all, voice work is widely different and I think that is why it is so appealing. [For] example, announcing is a specialty; you need good pipes and usually on the deeper side. Guys, like my buddies Greg Berger and Peter Cullen are very good at this because they are good actors and very good readers and superb voices. I wish I could do it but my natural voice is a little too close to Freddie Jones from the Scooby Doo gang. Then there is looping. This I do well and I don't really know why. I have this peculiar ability to be able to anticipate mouth movements on screen and fill them with words or sound. Let me back up just bit in case the readers are unfamiliar with "looping." "Looping" is when an actor goes into a sound stage and puts vocals to an existing picture. For example, in Rescuers Down Under I played the part of George C Scott's partner in crime, which was this little lizard creature, Joanna. We actually did readings to drawings over about a two the three year period and the artists would draw to our sound tracks. Towards the very end of production, the actors would go back in and loop extra scenes or changes or entire new characters [or] things that you haven't seen before. You voice it on the fly [and] it is great fun. During this picture, George was not feeling well and the sound engineer knew I did impressions in my act. I actually got to help out and some looping for George.
There are live reads which actually terrify me. I have done them and had to give my clothes away afterwards. I will give you a great example of this: my friend and bodyguard Kevin Richardson did the Academy Awards live. They would come to him sitting at a table and he would be reading the script; it was live and he was on and off camera reading French and German names and Foreign films. He was brilliant, I might add. You would have to put a howitzer to my head to make me do that; actually, I still wouldn't do it I would just say, "pull the trigger!"
SciFi Squad: Is there anything that you are proud of or especially happy with that hasn't yet come to DVD or Blu-ray? Or just something you think should be resuscitated?
Welker: You know I have been so lucky to work consistently for over forty years I would have to think about all those years worth of shows. Some I have special fondness towards for different reasons. Now you given me a question that is too tough to answer!!!
SciFi Squad: Is there any chance we'll ever see Spiral Zone, Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends, or Pryde of the X-Men, three of my childhood favorites, on DVD or Blu-ray? Or are there any other shows that you know might be released on DVD any time soon, or for which you participated in interviews or bonus materials?
Welker: Wow, I had completely forgotten about Spiral Zone. I did a lot of voices on that show and anther great cast of friends Neil Ross, the irrepressible Mike Bell and many others. I would love to see these shows on DVD. Maybe the folks at Shout! would consider them.
Thanks Todd for spending much of your youth watching our shows. Apparently somewhere along the line you were studying your English and Journalism, because you asked some very good questions!