I recently had the privilege to pose a number of questions to the inimitable Frank Welker. While you may not know his name, you should know his voice. In his continuing 45-year acting/voice-acting career, Welker’s voice has brought Scooby-Doo’s Fred Jones, Transformer’s Megatron and countless other characters to life. Welker is still going strong, voicing multiple characters in Transformers Prime, the title role in The Garfield Show, plus video games, movie work and more.
In this recent interview with Welker, he talked about the changing landscape of the voice acting world over the years, how much time he spends in the studio, which voices give him the most trouble and which roles he’d like to see revisited. He also commented on the recent remarks by Hugo Weaving, who voiced Megatron in Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. Welker also reflects on his long-time working relationship with Peter Cullen, the on-going voice of Optimus Prime. Hit the jump for the interview.
Collider: Your career currently spans some 45 years and has nearly 700 titles according to IMDb (not to mention multiple roles within most of those titles). Could you talk a little bit about how the industry has changed from the first time you walked into a recording booth up to your most recent role?
Frank Welker: First, let me thank you for your interest in me. It’s hard to believe that I have been in the business that long…considering I am only 30 years old but I will take your word for it.
I guess I would have to say the biggest changes would be in technology. Limited animation was big when I first worked at Hanna/Barbera and it was relatively new even then. For the younger readers, that is the animation you commonly see when you watch television’s animated shows the animation is not continuous or to put in another way they use less cells or drawings. Disney of course had those beautiful full step movies but they were very expensive and took a very long time to complete. Bill and Joe were able to change the industry with their limited step process…thus many more shows and features in far less time. Now we have CGI (computer generated images) and other processes that once again have changed the way studios do the shows. I was a little slow in getting behind each one of these (that’s called being out of touch) but with time I have managed to embrace them all. A perfect example of limited step is G1 “Transformers” and “Transformers Prime” is an example of the new CGI. I love them both but cannot believe the superb quality we get now with CGI.
How much time do you spend in the recording studio in a given week?
Welker: I have restricted my schedule to three days a week. I do other things that interest me on the off days. Of those three working days I keep pretty busy doing the shows that I am obligated to…in addition to commercials, film work, games and other assorted projects. A typical day, “Garfield the Cat” 10 to 2:00…drive and then 2:30 to 4:30 looping for a film at a studio across town….notice no time for lunch…I call this the “Voice Over Diet!”
I have been doing this schedule for a few years now and it helps my throat recovery rate (when I do monsters etc.) and most of the studios have been very understanding and accommodating…oh, and I have managed to lose 10 pounds and keep it off!!!
Welker: Probably Megatron or Soundwave…but when I do these voices in short bursts they’re not a problem. Stripe the evil Gremlin used to test my tonsils but again all things in moderation is the rule, right??
You’re well known for voicing Megatron in Transformers, as well as Fred Jones and Scooby-Doo, but you’ve got a huge number of animal/creature roles to your credit. Did you find yourself with a natural talent for those roles from something you developed growing up or did you work at that aspect of voice acting specifically to make yourself more versatile?
Welker: Yes, yes, and yes. At a very young age I found I could irritate people with this born ability to mimic just about anything I hear. I listened to sparrows outside my bedroom window and then could talk to them and other birds, and squirrels, horses, cows and an occasional human. Some folks refer to this as a special talent to me it was a fortunate aberration that has been a great tool in this biz. I try to be authentic in reproduction of animals. When it comes to the creatures it was usually an open page and I really enjoyed creating sound for them usually to picture on screen in a sound studio…what fun!!! Also, this is sometimes punishing to the vocal cords thus the three days. Fred’s voice, I have managed to keep the same for 40 years, it is basically my own boring milk toast voice. With Megatron I tried to do something that would sound different than just a big robot or evil sounding dude. I fiddled with the scratchy sound and multiple voices and settled in on the original G1 voice. For “Transformers Prime” I keep the DNA from G1 but move the voice around to make it a little different, plus with the CGI and slower building story line I am able to add subtle strains to the voice giving me a lot more latitude. To hear my version of the ultimate Megatron, I recommend the “Transformers Ride” at Universal…there you have the culmination of G1, Prime, and a booming robust electronic environment.
Transformers and Scooby-Doo have obviously been incredibly successful at staying fresh, relevant and marketable over the course of your career. As Hollywood continually looks to yesteryear for properties to reboot or remake, are there any roles or titles you would like to see reinvigorated? (Personally, I’d love to see The Pirates of Dark Water revived.)
Welker: How about Jonny Quest?
Weaving: “It was one of the only things I’ve ever done where I had no knowledge of it, I didn’t care about it, I didn’t think about it. They wanted me to do it. In one way, I regret that bit. I don’t regret doing it, but I very rarely do something if it’s meaningless. It was meaningless to me, honestly. I don’t mean that in any nasty way. I did it. It was a two-hour voice job, while I was doing other things… my link to that and to Michael Bay is so minimal. I have never met him. I was never on set. I’ve seen his face on Skype. I know nothing about him, really. I just went in and did it. I never read the script. I just have my lines, and I don’t know what they mean.”
Can you comment on the influx of “big name” actors increasingly taking on voice roles in films and how that has changed the industry over the last decade or so, both from an actor’s perspective and as a viewer?
Welker: Well, I don’t have a problem with big name actors coming into animation. It actually has been done for years and we are after all actors, it is just a different medium that requires a different technique. Disney used a lot of names in their big budget old time features. But I would like to see the directors I work with be a little less star struck and cast on a merit basis. I say whoever is best for the part, and I don’t believe most of the audience really know or cares who is doing a lot of these voices…the rare exception is Transformers, our audiences and fans are incredibly knowledgeable and loyal and have strong opinions on all things Bot.
On a related note, some fans of yours on Twitter have posited the following questions:
-What was your reaction to Hugo Weaving’s comments about his voice role in the Transformers films?
Welker: I think he was just being honest, he was not familiar with the franchise and therefore had no affinity for the project. I have respect for Hugo as an actor and really appreciate what he does with his characters. I think if he knew of the fan base and the history of the “Transformers” he might have responded differently.
Welker: Obviously I have to feel that my incarnation is best because I am competing. I know when I hear a replacement in a project I always miss the original no matter what the project. I think Corey Burton, David Kaye, and Fred Tatasciore as well as Hugo Weaving all did interesting versions. Ultimately, however, it’s the fans who will make the final decision on who they see as the true leader of the Decepticons.
-How did you land the role of voicing Megatron in the original animated series?
Welker: It was a general casting call. There were all these drawing on the table and the sign said pick three…of course I picked nine. I managed to get 7 regular roles right out of the gate. Megatron was attractive from the drawing and the description. I had been playing so many cute, sweet parts that the evil “Leader of the Decepticons” really stood out and was very appealing. The voice came to me very quickly. I was happy to get the show let alone “Megs” and all the other characters.
Speaking of Megatron, you currently voice the leader of the Decepticons yet again in Transformers: Prime. For new fans, could you give us a brief synopsis of the series?
Welker: Forgive me but…I must insist that you watch the upcoming “26 Hour Transformers Prime Marathon” coming to the Hub SOOOON. Really you can see it all and it’s much better to watch everything unfold then have me gum up the story. I will tell you the color and HD are fabo. I love that the Hub is doing this…what a great way to see the whole progression and story line.
My name is Megatron and I approve this message.
Peter Cullen also lends his famous voice to Optimus Prime on the show. Could you reflect for a moment on the long history between the two of you as voice actors, the iconic roles you both perform and how that relationship, both on-screen and off, has changed throughout the various Transformers iterations?
Welker: Peter makes me smile the moment he comes through the door. He is the real deal, talented, big-hearted, with a fabulous basement wall echoing laugh. I try constantly to evoke his rumbling larynx. We have been friends for eons. Though we don’t see each other a lot outside work, we appreciate the time we do spend together in the studio and working. We used to read books and the newspaper during breaks in the sessions…now we laugh at the youngsters we work with… their heads down and thumbs flying over iPhones and iPads. We marvel at the cast; Tania Gunadi, Josh Keaton, Andy Pessoa the humans and our new Autobot Sumalee Montano. Kevin Richardson and Nolan North keep us entertained and laughing…and we are in reverence of our old pro Ernie Hudson. I marvel at Peter and love watching Jeffery Combs, James Horan, Clancy Brown and Markie Post. The G1 cast was so great and now the Prime group it’s like getting two families in one life!!! We still shake our heads in disbelief that we were lucky enough to get a franchise like the “Transformers” and still be going strong after all these years!
We know that Optimus usually gets the upper-hand on Megatron on screen because it’s written that way, but if it came to fisticuffs between you and Cullen, who would walk away victorious? After all, Megatron must have a lot of pent up aggression after all those years of defeat.
Welker: Trying to stir up trouble are you??? Well, remember Megatron is evil and doesn’t have to fight fair. Optimus with his “honor” I am afraid in battle is destined for failure. In life I was able to make Peter laugh water through his nose, need I say more….I think the answer to your question is clear!!!
You recently voiced some characters for Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Parts 1 and 2, as well as the game, “Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two.” Do you have any other projects on the horizon that fans can look forward to?
Welker: Yes, we are currently in the middle of a new season of “Garfield the Cat” and just finishing up “Scooby Doo” SDMI both such great series and much fun. Also, as I mentioned earlier I am doing a sequel to a feature I did a while back that will be out summer of 2013.
Before we conclude, is there any advice you’d like to offer to folks who are interested in getting into voice acting or young voice actors just starting out in their careers?
Welker: Read everything you can get your hands on and read it out loud. Know thy self…be honest about what you want to do, and can do, then do it!
Editors Note: The Transformers: Prime marathon is currently airing on The Hub and leads up to the season finale on Friday, November 2nd at 7pm EST. If you missed it, check the series out on Netflix, with streaming available.