Wally Burr

WALLY BURR: Strong-willed cultivator of the uttermost vocal performance.

From humble, hard-won beginnings in the early 1900s, animation has grown to become a major art form. At its best, it approaches greatness, but at the other end of the spectrum, it often forsakes art to sell toys. For over 50 years, Wally Burr has played a distinctive part in the changing of its face, his fascination beginning with work on animated and live-action commercials for many well-known products, resulting in a body of work that includes the voice direction of over 2,000 half-hours of popular animation. From YOGI BEAR, SCOOBY-DOO, THE FLINTSTONES, and other landmark Hanna-Barbera productions in the 1960s to INSPECTOR GADGET and just about every Hasbro-financed TV series in the 1980s, including the likes of G. I. JOE, JEM!, and INHUMANOIDS, his work has been a hidden key in the entertainment of children and fans of animation the world over. Though THE TRANSFORMERS is but one in a sea of projects, its vocal element is as lively and colourful as that of any of his most satisfying work. Here, Burr candidly discusses the many long days spent on the series and his uniquely assiduous approach to voice direction.

"Welcome to my domain."
King Nergill -- ATLANTIS, ARISE!

TCC: You became interested in your business of choice while you were at university. Did you originally have other plans, or did you simply go with the flow to see where it would lead you?

BURR: When I started university, I was in pre-med. Wanted to help mankind. Wasn't smart enough. Flunked Chem. Could talk! Went into Northwestern's School of Speech. (Sounds clinical, but is mostly theater and broadcasting.) After graduation, was hired to announce and manage programming in a small suburban Chicago radio station. Got into TV announcing, was shocked at the goofs that happened in live TV (before video tape). Decided film -- where you could fix it -- was the place to go. Joined a film production company where I became a director on commercials. A large ad agency hired me as a producer / director. Transferred me to their Hollywood office. After a few years, Bill Hanna (Hanna-Barbera) hired me away from the ad business to promote H-B's commercial-making capabilities to ad agencies. I was lousy at that. Began directing voices on H-B shows. I was good at that. But didn't get along well with Joe Barbera. Was fired. Started my own recording studio and got a lot of directing business from other cartoon makers. Eventually, however, economics took much of that work to Canada and I then decided I'd prefer not to run a studio. I now enjoy freelancing.

There ya go! A career in a single paragraph!

TCC: I understand that you also sought work as a voice talent at one time. Tell me a little about that pursuit. Did you intend it to be a sideline or were you ever tempted to become a full-time voice actor?

BURR: Nope, never felt assured enough as an actor to see it as the one-and-only path. I have always done an occasional role here and there, and still do. But voice acting is not really something that strongly attracts me. On the other hand, I feel that on-camera performing could actually be pretty exciting. Believe it or not, I'm dabbling in that -- occasionally auditioning for roles in movies, etc. We'll see.

TCC: Few people would probably classify a Hollywood living as the most secure of professions. It's not a direction to take for anyone given to doubts, it seems. Was there a defining moment when you knew for certain that you had made the right choice, or did you always somehow know that you were heading in the right direction?

BURR: There was no great epiphany, no blinding flash of insight. Just a gradual realization that (1) I was pretty quick to see a scene or sequence in my mind, and that (2) I could articulate to others how I felt that scene should play. (3) Others seemed to agree that my ideas of how things should play were entertaining. Maybe (4) -- that one could have fun doing all that and also make a living doing it! (Not always easy to do both in the entertainment business.)

Maybe the smartest decision I ever made -- or that was made for me -- was not to try to become a medical doctor. I began university wanting to be one... wanting to "care for my fellow humans." But Northwestern had a pre-med program designed to determine whether an aspiring doctor really had both the desire to be a doctor and the intellectual wherewithal to attain that worthy goal. In other words, could you hack the often tough medical academic program. Analytical Chemistry eventually washed me out.

My second love was language, so I turned to literature, theater, and broadcasting.

Back when I was in my 20s in Chicago and was first working as an assistant director in live-action commercials, I'd closely watch the directors I was working with and I'd notice things in a performance or in the staging that I thought could have been done more effectively. Gradually, I began to get a kick out of thinking, in advance, how things in a script might be done. I began to be convinced that too much production was done without much forethought -- without much preparation. At about that time, I happened to read some of George Bernard Shaw's thoughts on directing. One of Shaw's points stressed the importance of preparation -- of deciding before arriving on the stage, and in as much detail as possible, how you wanted the performance to take place. If you would go through that process, he insisted, you would never find yourself losing your grip on a production. Even if some of your prepared approaches did not quite work out, Mr. Shaw pointed out that the preparatory thinking you'd been through would instantly provide you with any number of alternative solutions. I made preparation one of my rules. When I prepare to direct an animation script, I read every line aloud to myself in character. If something doesn't sound right, I will try several alternative readings until I'm certain I have a reading in mind that I know will work. I mark up my script in detail with short-hand reminders as to where the intensity should build, where dialogue should become intimate, where the actors must breathe more heavily to reflect the physicality of the on-screen character's actions.

Animation dialogue is produced a bit differently than live-action material. That may seem obvious, but let's look more closely. In either film or stage work, actors are expected to come to the stage having studied the script. They're expected to know the story, to be at least familiar with their lines, to have a viable idea as to how to create their characters. In voiceover work, because the actor's lines are right there on the page, he not only doesn't have to memorize them, he doesn't really have to see them in advance of the recording session. As a result, the production companies almost never distribute scripts to the actors in advance of a recording session. The actors arrive, mark where their lines are in the script, and go before the mike. I've tried providing actors with advance copies of scripts and storyboards. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, they are seldom read.

I work in the following way: I indicate where we will begin and end a sequence. That may be anywhere from a half a page to two pages of dialogue, depending on the complexity of the material. Remember, I've seen the screenplay and the storyboard. The actors have not; they have only a dialogue script. I briefly describe the on-screen action for a sequence, then we do a run-through rehearsal of just that sequence. I will usually have some comments to certain actors intended to make the voice performances more compatible with the storyboard, and then we'll begin recording. If someone "blows" a line, I prefer to re-record that section right then, and then continue until there is another mistake.

Union rules allow 4 hours for recording the dialogue for a half-hour show. Overtime must be paid after that time. Based on the assumption that most things (including cartoon shows) can be done better if one uses the allowed time to the fullest, I usually plan to use the full 4 hours. Some directors pride themselves on getting a script recorded in 2 or 3 hours. But the actors are still paid for 4, so I see no point in establishing new speed records when there are almost always scenes or sequences that could be improved by doing another take. And yes, I have a reputation for frequently asking for several takes. I also have a reputation for producing crisp, well-paced, well-acted dialogue tracks.

TCC: What would you personally consider the most rewarding and challenging aspects of being a voice director?

BURR: First, finishing a session knowing the recording is as sharp and tight (real and effective) as one can make it, and then later seeing the finished show and having one's expectations realized. Unless the production schedule and the staff relationships allow -- and unfortunately, they seldom do! -- a voice director almost never has an opportunity to carefully co-plan his efforts with the animation director. This is stupid, but the economics of the business make it a fact of life. (Translated, that means too much "Hey, it's a kid show! They'll never notice!")

Of course, film and / or TV making is an intensely collaborative thing. Directing requires one's collaboration with everyone else assigned to the project. (Live-action directing has to be one of the toughest jobs in the world. Long hours, tremendous responsibility, meticulous preparation in order to have ready answers to thousands of questions from other members of the crew. Voice directing has similar problems but it's not nearly as demanding.)

So, what of voice directing? Lots of input from everywhere! Lots of ego from everywhere! It's very challenging, indeed, to make the choices of refusing this idea, accepting that idea, standing up for your own ideas, giving in to others without compromising your integrity, allowing an actor to have his way versus tactfully saying no to that actor, etc., etc., etc. Deciding where and to what extent to counter-push and -pull is a continuing part of the job's challenge.

In other words, because of the amount of collaboration directing demands, one sometimes feels pushed and pulled from so many sides. The director's job requires handling all of that push-pull with lots of grace under fire. Lots of -- in a word -- cool.

And then there's this: Whether in live-action or animation, directing has aspects of being -- or at least playing -- "God." For the period when you're steering the ship, that has to be part of both the fun and the challenge.

Compare directing with writing. Take a novelist, for example. Now, eventually he's going to have to "collaborate" to a certain extent with his editor, but at least until then, he's free to rule his own world. His "devils" are all his own.

Any director, on any kind of project, is under pressure to get the job done within the time allotted. Doing that -- and getting the best possible recording was always a challenge that I felt strongly. This was especially so on both TRANSFORMERS and G. I. JOE, because they both always had some of the largest casts ever used in an animated TV show. So many bodies and so many characters complicated our operation. Again, the actors' union allows 4 hours to record a half-hour show. If the director allows the show to go over 4 hours on a recording, any actors held longer than that 4 hours received a certain amount of added pay.

Occasionally I would be asked -- by actors, by producers, by management -- if I always had to use that full 4 hours. My answer always was yes. As long as I didn't cost the company any added money and could get a better show, I'd damned well use that full 4 hours! To me it made absolute sense to fully use every minute provided. Sometimes that meant asking a given actor to stay on after he thought he'd successfully completed his work. Sometimes that meant doing quite a few added takes on a line or sequence that I felt needed better performance. I was often very persistent in this. Occasionally the actors -- even the producers involved -- didn't feel the added time and effort were worthwhile. My feeling was always, "Look, Charley! Right here and now, I'm working as hard -- usually a lot harder -- than you are! Allow me to do my job here -- determining what is or is not acceptable."

I did several hundred Hasbro-backed shows without a single complaint about the quality of the recorded dialogue.

"That is all that matters now."

TCC: As you mentioned earlier on, you started your own studio after your tenure at Hanna-Barbera ended. Can you tell me more about the studio and exactly what kind of recording techniques and services were employed there?

BURR: Voiceover studios tend to be the most basic of recording facilities: Start with a sound-proof, fairly "dead" studio room -- "dead" so that dialogue doesn't bounce off the walls making everything sound like it was happening in a toilet rather than in a storm on a mountainside in Tibet; enough microphones so that the actors aren't bumping into each other; a separate control room where the director and the producer are protected from hostile actors and can discuss the performances without contributing to the actors' paranoia; a basic mixing console ("board" feeding to a hard-drive) in that control room that allows a fast-handed engineer (sound mixer) to have only one mike open at a time; some loud speakers to hopefully accurately reflect what's being recorded; and finally, a "talk-back" microphone that allows the director to scream at the actors but, again, prevents the actors from physically assaulting the director. Sometimes the actors wear headphones. That's usually a matter of personal choice on the part of the actor. (In cold weather, many actors like to wear headphones.)

Wally Burr North

BIG BROTHER: The largest of Burr's two voice / foley recording studios.

Wally Burr Recording consisted of two such studios. One of 'em was fairly large -- accommodating as many as 20 actors (20 mikes), and the other was smaller -- up to 10 actors (10 mikes).

Audio signal processing, the general term applying to any modification of the sound -- whether a simple telephone effect or more complex treatment of a robot voice such as we did with all the Transformers) is not done during the voice recording. It's handled at some later stage of post production. However, my studio did create the Transformer voice processing using Vocoders, Harmonizers, flangers, echo and reverb devices, etc., but it was done after the selected dialogue takes were edited into a finished track.

In most cases, we used rental processing equipment available from the many Hollywood companies that specialize in that sort of gear.

Now that's not exactly what we did at Wally Burr Recording, but it's a rough approximation. As we sometimes laughingly say: "Close enough for government work."

TCC: As we arrive at the twentieth anniversary of the birth of the TRANSFORMERS franchise at what seems like the speed of light, you've become aware of the continued existence of a great fervour on its behalf, with fans both old and new. Even now, new toy lines, TV series, and comics are being created, and there is a diverse "populace" of fans, on the Internet and off, that carry on the spirit of THE TRANSFORMERS through websites of considerable variation, Usenet newsgroups, on-line chat rooms, and as you have seen for yourself, even annual conventions. How does all of this affect you?

BURR: As John Wayne used to say, "Wellll, pardner. The way I see it is this:" While it's both fun and fascinating to occasionally immerse one's self in a fantasy world of robots and fictional soldiers, etc., to be honest about it, I'm generally happier in the here and now of the real world. So far, I've had a pretty exciting real life, Rik. To me, the excitement of the TRANSFORMERS afterlife is not all that infectious. I intend to continue in reality mode, with an occasional and brief side trip to never-never.

I do find the digital age a very exciting place to be -- Internet and all -- but tend to find a four-day pack trip into the Montana Rockies or skiing in Canada's Cascades is the real excitement.

TCC: Does it surprise you that THE TRANSFORMERS (and other animated shows you did back then) still enjoys such an avid following?

BURR: Absolutely! Very much so! Frankly, I'm more pleased when something I worked on that was comedy-related turns up creating a fan club or generating a convention.

But comedy is really a lot tougher to do than what may pass for drama or action-adventure. The lines really have to be done right for comedy. Comedy, as they say, is serious business.

We had a show at Hanna-Barbera called THE SUPERFRIENDS. You may have seen it. It was the adventures of a collection of DC Comics characters: Batman and Robin, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, a couple of teenagers -- the Wonder Twins -- a marvelously over-acting narrator, and maybe a role or two I've forgotten. The show wasn't really written as a comedy -- it was considered "action-adventure." However, as we progressed with it, a certain "camp" approach to the dialogue developed. We'd played the show in a somewhat overly serious manner in order to make fun of the often ridiculous situations and ridiculous dialogue. I'm sure the audience shared our frequent winking. It was a very popular show here. (And, for me, a fun show to work on.)

Considering how significant these cartoon shows really are (other than as markers along the trail of our pop culture), I sometimes feel their avid following is a little excessive. There are so many exceedingly more valuable pursuits than the somewhat synthetic "fandom" that has evolved around a toy that gained wide fame mainly because it was the object of an expensive advertising campaign. How's that for biting at the hand that fed me?!

TCC: Having said that, you did attend BotCon 2004 and involved yourself with the fans of THE TRANSFORMERS. Looking back, what are your thoughts and recollections of that experience?

BURR: Well, I enjoyed it a lot. And I was surprised that I did. Part of it is the flattery of all that attention... people asking what I think of this or that. My natural instinct is to say, "Come on! Who really cares all that much about what I think? How important can it be?" But still, one's ego can't help but be stroked by all that attention.

I've always been interested in the word flattery and its inherently contradictory meanings (note dictionary definitions below):

1. To compliment excessively and often insincerely, especially in order to win favor.
2. To please or gratify the vanity of: "What really flatters a man is that you think him worth flattering." (George Bernard Shaw)

3. a. To portray favorably: a photograph that flatters its subject.
3. b. To display something becomingly or advantageously.

I once had a girlfriend who, in the process of dumping me, kept assuring me that my affection for her was "very flattering, but..." She meant "flattering" in the #3.a. or 3.b. sense. I heard her in the #1 sense, and protested angrily that I was not flattering her -- that my feelings for her were genuine -- entirely sincere!

So, I tend to hear the negative meaning of the word -- I'm suspicious of and somewhat uncomfortable with flattery. We don't say, "I wish to flatter him" unless, perhaps, we have an insincere scheme to curry favor. If we want to avoid the negative aspect of flattery, we say, "I wish to compliment him."

Nevertheless, I guess we all enjoy being in the limelight -- playing "celebrity." Also, the fans as well as the guys running BotCon were fun. It all made for a very pleasant experience.

Finally, it was interesting to observe first-hand what a fan convention is all about -- what makes it tick. Participating helped me understand something that probably should have been obvious to me long ago -- that collecting, classifying, evaluating, and sorting, etc., whether one collects stamps, rare paintings, antique automobiles, or butterflies -- is a pretty normal and rewarding pastime!

"Sometimes even the wisest of men and machines can be in error."
Optimus Prime -- S.O.S. DINOBOTS

TCC: Through what events did you come to be involved with the TRANSFORMERS project and just how extensive was your involvement in the production of the series? Where were you in the "hierarchy," as it were?

BURR: It all really started with G. I. JOE. I did not cast or voice-direct the first G. I. JOE half-hour. An animation producer friend of mine for whom I'd voice-directed at Hanna-Barbera was by that time a staff producer at Marvel, and he'd elected to voice-direct the recordings himself for that series. But, when the second episode came up for recording, he found himself jammed with other production details and called to ask me if I could fill in for him on that one episode's recording.

I accepted, read the script, found it exciting (far better than the average action-adventure script), as well as challenging (because it had an especially large cast). I prepared very carefully for the recording and, quite frankly, I blew 'em away. The Hasbro execs were there supervising and they apparently were very excited about my handling of the actors. After the session they had a meeting with the Marvel execs, and I was hired to do the whole series.

When THE TRANSFORMERS came along, I was asked to do that, too, etc., etc.. Along the way, I sort of became a fixture on Hasbro shows.

As to the hierarchy?

Think of Hasbro as this huge amorphous cloud full of of toys and money. They have an advertising agency that advises them on how to promote their products. The ad agency, generally, is paid (by Hasbro) 15% of the cost of making the ads and 15% of the cost of the broadcast time purchased to show those ads. During all the Hasbro shows I worked on, I never actually met a Hasbro employee.

But I did work very closely with the ad agency people. Griffin-Bacal was the name of the New York ad agency. Tom Griffin was the business head and Joe Bacal was the creative head. Joe came up with this idea of creating not just commercials, but whole shows. He sold Hasbro on it. The ad agency (Joe Bacal) hired the writers to write the show scripts, and hired Marvel Productions to make the shows -- that is, to do all the physical production (storyboarding, recording, animation, sound editing and mixing) through to the completion of the shows. The ad agency was also responsible for making deals to get the shows on the air.

Joe Bacal was the one who liked my work and insisted on Marvel's hiring me to cast and voice-direct.

You ask where I was in the hierarchy? Writers are at the top. Should be! Good writing is pure gold. Well, I guess you might say I'm somewhere at the lower edge of the producer-animation director level. I had very little to do with scripts. I would occasionally confer with a writer -- discuss a line of dialogue -- suggest a better way to say something, etc., because my sense of dialogue was trusted. I was allowed to make many line changes in the shows.

Storyboards? The voice director has essentially nothing to do with creating storyboards -- but, because boards determine a lot about how dialogue should be read, a voice director must carefully study the storyboards when preparing a show. If I saw places in a show where the dialogue and the boarding were incompatible, I often would suggest changes, but would not make any changes without getting a producer's okay.

Actors? I would audition actors I felt were capable of doing the roles, and I would work very hard with those actors in auditions to devise interesting characters, but the final selection from my submitted tapes, was usually made by Joe Bacal and the Marvel producer on the show.

A recording session is just about always attended by the show producer and sometimes by the writer. Neither one of them was usually very vocal during a session unless somehow there was a complete misunderstanding about something, in which case I would stop the session and we would talk out the problem. This happened very seldom.

From the TRANSFORMERS Opening Sequence

ROBOTS IN DISGUISE: The biggest TV show Burr worked on for Hasbro.

TCC: From talking with some of the people who worked with you on TRANSFORMERS and other animated series -- and from what you have said so far -- there can be no doubt as to your being very specific about how something should be done. What did you envision, if you will, for THE TRANSFORMERS in that regard? What was your key to grasping, as it were, the universe of personas that Marvel had created?

BURR: You touch on an area where -- in several ways! -- I have very definite opinions. That's partially a joke, Mr. B.!! Oh, yes! I often have very definite ideas about how I want lines delivered, and I also have very definite ideas as to why I have those definite ideas!

Let's begin with the manner in which a stage play -- or to a lesser degree, a live-action TV or film production -- is put together. It's a rather slow-moving, time-consuming process: The actors are auditioned, finally selected, then -- with the actors having presumably carefully studied the whole script (their roles in it, the author's suggested staging and their dialogue) -- a rehearsal process begins.

Throughout this process, the actor is integrating into his performance the set, the staging, the story at hand, the complex nature of his and the other characters' roles, the dialogue, and the director's comments. By this point, the actor has received all sorts of input as to how to play his role.

Again, with the typical animated show, the actors arrive, having never seen the scripts before. They then receive their copies, leaf through them for a few minutes to find and mark their parts, and then the voice director provides a summary of the show's storyline and a verbal description of what happens in the first sequence. There is probably a single on-mike rehearsal of the first sequence, the director asks for a few changes in the readings, and then we begin recording.

Somehow, over the years, this very short-sighted approach to recording dialogue for animation has become the standard. The actors seem satisfied with it. It's now pretty much a habit. I don't recall an actor ever requesting an advance copy of a script or storyboard. As I said, I've tried distributing scripts and / or boards to the actors in advance, and when I was successful in getting them to the actors, it was later very apparent that most of them had not even looked at the material sent them.

Another problem is that, because of production delays and pressures, final approved scripts are seldom available until the night before a recording, and the studio doesn't wish to go to the trouble of messengering last-minute scripts all over L.A.

So, you see, it's what is called a vicious circle.

Now, you may have a better idea as to why I have a reputation for being so specific as to how some things are to be done. I spend at least 6 to 9 hours up front with the script and storyboard for a single episode, and by the time I go into the studio, I know that show in detail and have played every scene several times in my head, and I know what will and will not work. I do indeed know how I want it played.

Again, the voice director must complete recording a half-hour episode -- that's 275 to 300 lines -- in 4 hours. Under these circumstances, in my view, there simply is no time to "experiment." In a stage play or a filmed live-action production, the circumstances of performing in a live set, where the actors can see what's going on, contributes immensely to everyone "getting" it.

Animation voice actors often assume they "see" or "know" what's going on in the animation, but unless they accurately get the voice director's "picture," they're very apt to be wrong. The actors do not have the storyboard to guide them, the voice director does. The actors must almost instantly come up with a reading that supports the scene. If they don't, I'll again explain what I need, and we'll do a second take. If they're still not getting it, I'll read the line aloud for them in the style I need for the show. If by then they're still not getting it, I'll probably begin to get a little impatient.

The bottom line is that, considering the way dialogue for American animated shows is produced, after the director explains what's happening in a scene, the actor has only a few moments before he must read his line. He has minimal time to decide on a reading and make his dialogue work properly.

If we had the luxury of time to experiment with voices and character -- the luxury of being able to rehearse several approaches to a scene -- I would very much enjoy doing so. Under the circumstances that exist, without any doubt, I know one helluva lot more about the script than does an actor who is seeing it for the first time! Therefore, I must make the decisions!

There is a certain pressure in our society to be a "nice guy." I know directors who are considered "great to work with" because they are always jolly and pleasant, and will always allow the actors a lot of latitude. I hear animated shows all the time that definitely sound as though the voice director must have been allowing an awful lot of latitude!

As for your question about grasping the universe of presonas: Every series Marvel / Hasbro produced began with a show "bible" and a list of the characters. Each character in the series was described in minute detail -- personality type and physical characteristics, oddities of speech, etc. Actors auditioning for these parts were given the written profile and a model sketch of the role they were reading for. We'd start with that background material, then often branch off of that into something either the actor or I might suggest. No big mystery, no special genius on my part -- just a slow, evolutionary procedure.

At some point, Joe Bacal and the show producer would review what I submitted, decide which readings sounded most interesting, and we'd call the chosen actor's agent and offer the part. The audition tape that won the part for the actor was always kept in the control booth as what we called a "voice reference." Whenever there was doubt that an actor was staying in character, we'd pull out the reference and play it as a reminder for the actor and ourselves.

TCC: Paul Davids, who was the production coordinator for the majority of the show, told me that Hasbro had the final say even with regard to approving the voice actors, since they were in fact interpreting their product. Seeing as how you held the auditions, how heavily did your word weigh when it came to deciding on cast members?

BURR: Although Hasbro did have "final" on voices, I'd bet it was a "courtesy" extended to them, and I'd bet they told Jay or Joe Bacal to go with whomever they felt was best. In Los Angeles, I'd start the process by calling and reading 10 actors whom I felt were good "probables" for each new role. I'd send 6 of those to the Marvel show producer. In turn, the Marvel show producer probably listened, noted his preferences from the 6, then sent all 6 to Jay and Joe Bacal in New York. They'd let Hasbro hear them, tell Hasbro who they'd choose; Hasbro doubtless would usually agree with the Bacals. I did not have final approval. But I usually began with a group of actors, any one of which I knew I could get a good performance from.

"I'm sure a large audience would enjoy MY performance."
Sunstreaker -- THE AUTOBOT RUN