Transformers: The Ride-3D - Peter Cullen & Frank Welker
Posted on Tuesday July 30, 2013, 16:58 by Owen Williams in Empire States
As you might have seen in the current Empire, I was invited by Universal last month to the red-carpet opening of the impressive new Transformers ride at their Orlando, Florida resort. There were jet planes, people in crazy stilt suits (or if you prefer for that to stay behind the curtain it was the real Bumblebee and Optimus!), “General” Glenn Morshower, explosions, and Steven Spielberg. Plus, of course, the ride itself: an exhilarating hurl around – and occasionally above – New York in new Autobot Evac, aggressively pursued by Decepticons in pursuit of a bit of Allspark.
A few technological upgrades aside, it’s essentially the same ride that Empire’s Ali Plumb crushed in Hollywood a year ago, so for loads more details, pay a visit to Ali’s own report here. From my trip though, I thought I’d share the transcript of this fun audience with Peter Cullen and Frank Welker: the voices of, respectively, Optimus Prime and Megatron. A voice actor’s lot, it seems, is not an unhappy one: Welker’s vast body of work actually meant that, incredibly, between 1980 and 2011 he was the actor with the highest combined box office gross in the world, until Samuel L. Jackson took his title. Friends since they first worked together in the late ‘70s, he and Cullen may work away from the limelight, but hopefully the following demonstrates that they can also effortlessly play to a crowd. [Welker invades about half way through…]
Peter Cullen: [In Optimus voice] My name is Optimus Prime, and I am the leader of the Autobots. [Back to normal] And I’ve been the leader for a long time! 1984 was when it all started. I was in it for a couple of years, and then it was resurrected back in 2006, I guess, for the 2009 movie. And here we are! We opened the first of these Universal park rides in Singapore, and then recently in Los Angeles, and I had the opportunity to get on the ride, and it was one of the most exciting adventures I’ve ever been on – and I’ve been on a few rides in my life! If you haven’t been on it yet I think you’ll be genuinely impressed. The kids love it. The last kid I talked to said he’d been on it seven times, and I can understand it. I’m still a kid at heart, believe me!
How long is the process between you recording a voice for something like this and seeing the finished product?
There are a few journeys in the making of something like this! In the beginning quite often all I’m working with is a pencil sketch of an idea. Then eventually I’ll get to see some rough animation and then finally the finished product. During the course of that journey of creativity from the artistry to the animation to the writers, a lot will change due to action sequences that were caught differently or lit differently. Words will change. My recording will be on and off over a year. It doesn’t seem like a lot of work but it usually is. But it’s only a couple of hours at a time. Live-action actors work a full day! I just show up and [sheepishly] read into a microphone. I have to slave over a hot mic all day!
Do you ever get to work with the live-action actors?
No, I work alone, with Michael Bay and his crew of sound engineers. Some of it’s impromptu, ad-libbed, off-the-cuff. There’s a very relaxed and creative pace about it. Michael is exciting to work with. He doesn’t come across that way to a lot of people, but I’ve always had the greatest respect for him. I’ve often compared him to a general in a military campaign, because the scope of what he deals with on a daily basis is so huge. He’s like Schwarzkopf in Desert Storm, putting all these pieces together. I just have to sit back and do my lines, but when I put together his puzzle, it’s mind-boggling. I couldn’t do that.
You came to the films because of fan demand – is that right?
I’m not sure of the details but I know the fans had a lot to do with it. The fanbase was really insisting that they bring back Optimus Prime – my Optimus Prime from 1984 – and I was tickled pink. It was a great honour, and certainly I wanted to be chosen. I didn’t want to let those people down, because they were heart-bent on having the Optimus from their childhoods. As the years went on I began to realise how serious that was. But I had to audition three times!
How did you come to be Optimus back in 1984?
I was with my brother Larry, who was in Vietnam as a captain of the Marine Corps. He’s a real leader. He asked me where I was going, and I told him I was off to an audition to be a truck! [Laughs] "He’s a hero truck! And I guess he changes into some robot or something." So Larry said to me, “Peter, make sure he’s a real hero. Don’t be one of those Hollywood assholes. Don’t go yelling and screaming. Be genuine and have him show some concern.” He’s thirteen months older than me and about six inches taller, and his voice has all this volume, but we have a similar sound. He said [Optimus voice], “I mean it, Peter. Be a good one!” And when I was given the lines for Optimus Prime, it was Larry’s voice that came out. I was thinking of him, and of how he treated people genuinely and how they respected him. And about two weeks later I found out that I had been chosen to be the truck!
During this story, Welker has quietly entered the room. When Cullen subsides, he says in a plummy-Brit voice: “Mr Cullen, is it not also true that you auditioned for the role of Megatron and did not get it? IS THAT NOT TRUE?
Cullen: [Launching himself at Welker] ARRRRGH! NO THAT IS NOT TRUE!
Welker: I’m sorry for busting in but you can’t just let the good guys go on and on.
Cullen: This is the king. Frank Welker, the king. Oh boy…
Have you ridden the ride together?
Welker: Yes, we sat together and we were both terrified! Actually it was really fun. We were talking about how impressed we were, and surprised at how all this could come together and how well it works. I think Peter – I mean, don’t let me get in here and steal your thunder – but I think Peter is a little jealous because Megatron has a lot to do in this ride. He’s just trying to stop me but it’s my job to scare everybody!
Cullen: [Dryly] Oh the fun we’ve had. I mean, you just have to imagine, when you’re in the recording studio you’re not on camera, and there’s a lot of downtime between takes when directors are talking to producers or whatever, and the microphones are off. There might be, oh, five or ten minutes of just hilarious exchange. [Pulls face]
Did you meet Orson Welles when you were doing the animated movie [Welles played the voice of Unicron in 1984]?
Cullen: [Note perfect late-life Welles rumble; mimes reading a script, baffled] Oh my god. Shit. What the hell is this all about? Nonsense. Shit.
Welker: It was interesting, because he came in, and he was pretty much the size of a planet, which is what he ended up playing! So that was appropriate. But he had the two smallest dogs you’ve ever seen. [Does brilliant mime of incredibly fat man walking two dogs on leads, while alternately barking like a tiny Chihuahua and huffing like Welles]. It was such an unusual sight. But he had a lot of voice. Hearing him and Peter… I actually got to watch from the sidelines. It’s always a treat to work with Peter because nobody has a voice like that… Did you tell them about Mighty Man?
Cullen: No, I didn’t get to that! We both worked together for the first time on a television cartoon series called Mighty Man and Yukk. I was Mighty Man of course! He was a miniature superhero, who in real life was a normal person that sounded like Bing Crosby. And Frank was the dog, who wore a doghouse over his head because he was so ugly, and if he took the doghouse off it was just mayhem. "Don’t take off that doghouse! No! Arrgh!" [Etc.]
Welker: This is how we met. The fortunate thing was they had us doing almost every single voice, which pretty much guaranteed we got all the donuts too.
Cullen: And we went from there. Him being the bad guy and me being the good guy, Megatron and Optimus Prime, doesn’t relate to any sort of reality. There’s no reality anymore.
Do you enjoy being famous as voices but not recognised in the street?
Cullen: Well Frank worked with Elvis Presley, Jack Benny, Johnny Carson, some of the greatest talents in the United States over the years. Tonnes of people. He’s just a tremendous mimic and entertainer. He was a huge star on all the talk shows. I was on the Sonny and Cher show, doing comedy sketches. One day – I don’t know if this is how it was for you, Frank – I just said to myself, “That’s it, I’m not going on camera anymore. These people are freaky!” I wanted to raise my kids, so I just went behind the microphone and hid, in the place behind my mind where I keep all my stuff!
Welker: It’s really an ideal profession. There are so many different branches that you can specialise in, and yet you still know enough that you can cover other areas. I hadn’t done any on-camera acting for a long time, but a couple of years ago I got a call from my agent saying I was being asked for by a director doing a Matt Damon film [Steven Soderbergh, making The Informant!]. I thought, “I wonder what sort of dog they want me to play. A Poodle maybe?” But they wanted me to play Matt’s father. I felt old! Hello, Mr Time. I didn’t know I was Matt’s father. I thought I was in San Diego the whole time! It was only one or two lines, but it struck me how much I prefer the voice business to the on-camera business. It was almost a full day for my two or three lines. Peter and I will go in and do four or five shows in a day, and have a blast playing a grandfather and a baby and a dog and a transforming truck or whatever, and then go to the golf course. In terms of just fun in acting, voice acting is such a rewarding job. And you don’t have to travel away from home!
You’d be mobbed outside if the kids knew who you were!
Welker: Yeah, that’s fun. It doesn’t happen often. I do forget sometimes who we’re doing this for, but when you see their little faces light up, it’s super-special.
Cullen: It transcends generations. Transformers was brought back out of want! It was a genuine, honest desire to have these beloved characters come back. And now to have those fans’ own children watching, it’s an honour, really. It’s a phenomenon, and it’s a thrill to have something unmatched like that in your career that makes an impression on different generations. It’s mind-boggling.
Welker: I remember one time I was playing golf with a gentleman, a very senior person, and he asked if I would do a Megatron voice for an answering machine message. I asked him what his son’s name was, and he said, “No! It’s for me!”
Want to visit the ride? Here are the details...
Seven nights in Orlando with Virgin Holidays, including scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Gatwick direct to Orlando, accommodation at the 5V Loews Royal Pacific resort at Universal on a room only basis with car hire included starts from £819. Price is per person based on 2 adults travelling and sharing a standard room, price includes all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change. Prices are based on departures on 21st Jan 2014.
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