BURR: To the best of my memory, Welles successfully (except for the tempo problem mentioned earlier) completed all the required dialogue for his role. Nimoy did not do or re-do any of Welles' dialogue.
It's possible that the speeding up of Welles' dialogue may have slightly distorted the Welles voice so as to create some artifacts that could have sounded a little like Nimoy. I don't know. I was not party to that processing. But, as far as I'm concerned, Welles was fully "there" at the recording -- fully capable of playing his part.
My own personal Welles story: As is customary in handling name talent, the production company hires a limousine to bring the actor to the studio and to take them home (or wherever) after the session. I wanted to be on deck when Welles arrived in order to welcome him and hopefully to establish a little bit of pre-session rapport. I was watching through our front door for the limo's arrival. Finally it pulled up. I walked toward it to greet the legend, but there was no one inside except the driver. By now, the driver was out of the limo, walking toward the rear of the car.
I said, "Hey, where is he?"
The driver was now at the rear of the limo opening the trunk.
"Mr. Welles told me he would come in his own car, but that I should bring this."
He pointed to the interior of the trunk.
"Where do you want it?"
There, folded on the floor of the trunk, was a wheelchair! The driver reached in, pulled the contraption out, and unfolded it on the pavement of the parking lot. It was the widest wheelchair I'd ever seen -- obviously custom made and probably 36 inches wide across the seat! My first thought was, Welles is ill.
About then, an ancient four-door Pontiac sedan limped into the parking area next to the limo. Indeed, there was his majesty, stuffed like some pneumatic parade action figure into the front passenger seat. An assistant remained at the wheel. Welles unlatched the door and, in a leisurely, almost graceful fashion, slowly began unfolding and disengaging his immensity from the front seat. First the feet -- shod in very broad black Birkenstocks -- were carefully swung out and planted firmly on the pavement. Mr. W was dressed all in black -- unpressed, baggy black trousers, some sort of shapeless loose-fitting and unrecognizable black shirt or sweater, and a long black scarf that wound a couple of times around his neck with the ends trailing close to the ground. Now, he slowly braced himself -- his left arm grasping at parts of the car door and his right pushing against the center post -- to inch his 325 pounds toward the seat edge. Finally, he began to succeed in shifting his corpulence from the seat to a balance point above his feet, and -- as an imaginary audience in my head loudly cheered and applauded the climax of this fascinating grand entrance -- Orson Welles rose to stand alone and to take in his surroundings.
I gave him a moment to orient himself, then stepped forward, introduced myself, and we shook hands. His grip was warm and steady. He noticed the limo driver waiting at the wheelchair for instructions and deftly and silently gestured him to roll the chair into the studio. Now Welles' assistant suddenly appeared from the other side of the sedan with a small, black, bug-eyed terrier, placed it in the crook of Mr. Welles' arm, where, as I began escorting Orson toward the studio doors, the dog instantly began yapping loudly and sharply at the entire world. Orson reassured me.
"He'll quiet down in a moment."
Sure enough, he did.
Inside, Mr. Welles' wheelchair had been placed at the table where he would be working. As I watched him walk over to it and settle in there, I realized that the wheelchair was probably not related to any illness he might or might not be suffering. It was simply a practical solution, considering his size, for him to have a comfortable chair in which to sit. No ordinary chair -- or pair of chairs -- would have served.
Welles was well known as the one-time radio and TV voice of Schweppes Tonic Water, so I'd crassly attempted to curry his favor by buying a nice stemware wine glass to place on his table with a chilled bottle of Schweppes. Suspecting that he had not read the script, I then decided to sit down across from him for a few minutes and under the guise of giving the engineer an opportunity to set levels, etc., read a little of the script aloud. In the process, I learned that he not only had not read the script, he was unaware that the character he was to play was a huge planet. Considering Mr. Welles' girth, I decided not to make anything of the planet characterization. In reality, Mr. Welles had played so many parts and read so many lines in his time that he really didn't need any background or motivation for his part. He really could tell from a cursory glance at his dialogue that he was playing one mean son-of-a-bitch; that was just about all he needed to know!
But one other thing he did not realize was that his part was not a monologue -- he was not cast as a narrator, a role he'd played hundreds of times. Here, he was one of the protagonists! In the particular sequence he was reading, he was playing against a character that Leonard Nimoy would record at another time. For that reason, I'd taken a chair and was sitting opposite Mr. Welles, and began reading aloud the Nimoy responses to Welles' lines.
A practice that accomplished actors often detest is the director's telling them specifically how they want various lines read by reading the actor's lines to him. It's known as "line-reading" an actor. The rationale behind this objection is that one of the reasons an actor is hired to play a part is because, presumably, he's quite capable of understanding and delivering lines in a creative and appropriate manner. On the other hand, in a situation where, for whatever reason, an actor is not present to play his role, it's not only common practice, it's generally felt to be helpful for someone -- often the director -- to read the missing performer's lines.
That's exactly what I was doing. But, Mr. Welles -- who was notorious for rejecting anyone's suggestions as to how his dialogue should be read -- allowed a couple of the exchanges between himself and me (playing Nimoy), and then he stopped and looked across at me.
"You're not going to line-read me, are you?" he rumbled in a relatively civil fashion.
"I wouldn't think of it, sir."
Now his manner changed. He laid the script down on the table, stared at me, and then bristling toward intimidation, he quietly and slowly growled an intense aside: "But you're doing it!!"
Taped copies existed throughout the business of Welles unmercifully slicing and dicing anyone even presuming to tell him how to handle a line. I could feel myself sliding down that slippery slope of Orson Welles' practiced impatience. Then I realized what had happened. Of course! Welles, still unaware that he was not the narrator, assumed my voicing of a couple of Nimoy's speeches was my line-reading of how I wanted Welles to deliver that dialogue.
Recovering a bit from the abyss, I looked up at the world's most famous voice and respectfully submitted, "No, sir. I was simply reading Leonard Nimoy's lines."
The legend was only slightly taken aback. He slowly looked down at the script where he'd dropped it and began examining it. He studied the page for a moment, then gave as understanding a grunt as legends give and offered a welcome "So you are."
"Perhaps I misjudged you."
In his fashion, Orson Welles had apologized! He'd allowed the monkey to jump from my back to his. The remainder of the recording went smoothly, except for his unwillingness to read the lines any faster than he felt was proper.
I'd survived a recording session with Orson Welles!
After the session, a number of Marvel and Sunbow people who had been observing the great man from invisible nooks and crannies around the building tentatively came out from their hiding places and began to surround Mr. Welles. I'd assumed he'd want to get out of the studio as soon as possible after we'd finished, and might even be irritated by an intrusion of visitors. I was wrong. He sat back comfortably in his wheelchair, began nodding a smiling welcome to the fans, and seemed to fully enjoy their questions.
"Are you doing any projects right now, Mr. Welles?"
A smiling shake of his head, "No."
"What's your next production?"
"Would you mind signing this?"
"Not at all."
And, "Why haven't you finished DON QUIXOTE?"
A pants pocket pulled inside out followed by the universal rubbing together of a thumb and forefinger.
Gradually, the adulatory gathering thinned out. I shook Mr. Welles' hand and thanked him for his performance and he got to his feet, walked to the door and to his ancient Pontiac. The limo driver folded the wheelchair and drove off into the dusk behind the Pontiac.
A few weeks later, a heart attack at age 70 ended the career of Orson Welles.
BURR: As the voice director -- and I believe this would be true of anyone in production at that time -- I was never aware of the various "seasons" I hear fans speak of.
We did a string of shows, then at some point we were told TV production would be put on hold for a bit while we did the movie. Then we dove back into the series. Maybe someone at Marvel or Sunbow was aware of intended broadcast schedules, but that was probably then confidential info.
TCC: Before we leave the subject of the movie entirely, I've always wondered about the vocal choices made for Galvatron on the TV series. For the movie, Leonard Nimoy gave him a powerful, rough sound, but when Frank Welker voiced him on the series -- logical enough, since he had previously played Megatron -- Galvatron's voice had none of that power, though Frank certainly could have matched Nimoy in that regard. Instead, the television version of Galvatron had a rather shrill, high-pitched voice. Why the inconsistency? Could it have been a reflection of the mental instability of the character?
BURR: No! Nothing so subtle... Nimoy was a "star." He was pretty much permitted to create his own Galvatron character voice. One doesn't dictate to a star how to create a character. And you're probably right that Welker could have done a pretty accurate Nimoy. But realize that, as we did the series, we had no idea when Nimoy's movie Galvatron would begin to conflict with Frank's series Galvatron. If the contrast later became an issue, I'm sure someone said, "Let's just live with it." Within the economics of series TV, it would have been too expensive to, after the fact, "fix" all of Frank's voice work to match Nimoy's.
TCC: When so much emotion and care is involved in creating something, I would imagine that you might have become attached to some of the characters that sprung alive in the recording booth. Did you have any favourites that you still remember fondly today?
BURR: Grimlock stands out as a simple but warm and sensitive character. I think anyone who became a fan of THE TRANSFORMERS developed an affection for him. And, of course, Optimus had a quiet dignity that made you respect him as a leader. I've always wondered how the audience could quickly tell the difference between the Transformer characters. After all, I used to study the storyboards very carefully, but I didn't do it to catch the expression on a face -- there wasn't much facial nuance in a storyboard. (If one reviews a bunch of model sketches for this show, it soon becomes obvious that they tend to look more than a little alike.)
No, I studied the boards only to determine whether a character was running, or lifting, or using a radiotelephone, or hiding, or in pain, or shouting etc., etc. In other words, I only wanted to know how the action on screen (as shown in the storyboard) would affect the line delivery. That was exactly what the actors usually could not know just from reading the dialogue script. But, if -- as actors -- they knew how their character would respond to a given situation, all they needed from me was to be told they were running up a steep trail, that they were wounded, and that they were yelling at someone a 100 meters behind them. Every so often I'd sense that the tempo or the energy level had fallen off and I would remind the actors to "Keep it movin'."
Also, any story has an arc to it, and within the arc there must be highs and lows, attacks and throw-aways, and refreshing changes of tempo. I often re-did a scene, not because the acting was off, but because, as I often said, we needed a "spike" there. Something to jolt the viewer just a little.
"The stuff always gives me surges."
A little off the subject, but I've always tried to stay very aware of the intensity that's needed in voicing most animated shows. My feeling has always been that the recorded dialogue is the engine that drives the show. Let the dialogue relax or slow down too much and you'll have a soft, flabby, dull show that's just pretending to be entertaining. It's the voice director's job to keep that train rollin'.
TCC: On a similar note -- and I have every understanding for any problem you might have recalling such specific details after all these years -- would you be able to cite any favourite episodes out of the 98 tales you voice-directed?
BURR: Not really. Sorry, but recalling the specifics of 98 of anything -- 98 restaurants, 98 fun weekends, 98 trips in cars -- is a little difficult, especially after 20 years. With THE TRANSFORMERS it's especially difficult because I never had any strong mental image of these characters. By contrast, with almost every other show I've voice-directed -- including G. I. JOE and JEM!, the characters had a memorable and distinct look. As I did my preparation, I not only heard their voices and sensed their personalities, I saw the individual human characters in my head. During the production of THE TRANSFORMERS, I clearly heard their voices and was aware of their personalities in my head, and I stayed very aware of what the characters were doing, but their physical appearance -- their faces -- for me, hardly existed. In fact, whatever detail may have existed in the storyboard sketches was masked by the fact that these were not humans, they were, after all, robots.
TCC: The final vestiges of the series came in the form of the three-part episode THE REBIRTH. It proved to be the series' swan song. Seeing that you were in such a key position throughout the series, do you happen to know the exact reason it was cancelled?
BURR: Again, I was not party to the strategy behind the plotting. As we all know, Optimus's demise created quite a stir. I can only speculate that killing him off seemed like a good dramatic device at the time -- maybe one that would spark more intense interest in the show and the toy. And the question of "Who wants to buy a dead toy?" must have arisen. It's also possible that Hasbro and their ad agency, Griffin-Bacal, simply felt they'd gotten their money's worth out of that generation, and that they'd get a little more -- less expensive -- mileage out of reruns.
Sidebar: I do remember our getting the script in which Optimus dies. Those of us on the production side were all quite shocked. And, of course, as usual the actors all arrived for the session having not seen a copy of the script until then. Most of them proceeded to mark their scripts and await my request that we "gather 'round the microphones and record this mother."
A few of them happened to notice the part where O.P. "gets it" and some buzz began in the studio over that. But my usual routine was to outline to the cast one sequence at a time, then record it. So, when we finally got to the big moment, I remember the shock spreading throughout the cast. Peter Cullen could hardly believe it. The other actors began commiserating with him, and he was visibly depressed. In fact, no one was certain it wasn't some plot trick -- some device to throw the Decepticons off guard. It was very real -- the sort of "I-can't-believe-he's-gone" experience we go through in life. I guess I should say "in death."
TCC: I may be reading it a bit wrong, but something about what you just said makes me wonder if your last sort of abiding memory of the series was doing the movie, because you seem to have forgotten that Optimus Prime was alive in the final handful of the 33 episodes that came out in the wake of the movie, having been resurrected in THE RETURN OF OPTIMUS PRIME. So what's your perspective / memory of the end of the show, if you can recall?
BURR: We knew up front that making the movie was just a brief break in the series production. We knew there were more episodes on the way. As to Optimus Prime's demise and resurrection, TV is full of characters dying and then returning, so any such plot twist could be, as I recall, a somewhat somber but accepted turn of events.
As for the end of the show, I don't recall reaching the end of any series without a very strong feeling of loss. It's not so much the end of the dramatic context of the series as it is the sadness of knowing that the weekly meetings of the actors and engineers and directors and producers has come to an end. During a series -- especially as long a series as TRANSFORMERS -- there's a strong camaraderie that develops. Even on a shorter series, saying goodbye to each other -- as members of a team that has done a lot of hard work together -- is a bitter-sweet occasion, one upon which I have often shed a tear.
TCC: Looking back, what would you say were the show's greatest strengths? And, while I'm sure this isn't an easy question to answer -- especially knowing that you're someone who prefers looking ahead, rather than behind -- is there anything about the series that you might have liked to have seen done differently?
BURR: Strengths...? A very successful marketing of a fascinating, well-made toy, while providing a pretty damned good piece of entertainment in the bargain. Things done differently...? Yes! And I hold little hope that they ever will be done differently! Somehow allow more time for a number of things, including time for discussion between writers, producers and directors, time to more thoroughly rehearse a recording, time to do a better job on everything! The old rule "Time is money, money's time!" needs modification.
The budget for recording a show -- including the studio costs, the actors fees, and the voice director is usually between 3% and 4% of the total show budget! Considering the dialogue recording's real importance in the overall picture, I feel the recording gets the short end of the stick.
When I first went to Hanna-Barbera, Joe Barbera himself was the only one who directed recordings. And because he was one of our two bosses, he could and did take as much time as he wanted to to record a show -- usually 8 to 9 hours. Gradually, Joe backed off from running the recording sessions. It took too much of his time. But the fact that, for a long time, he felt he was the only one who could direct recordings, shows the importance he attached to it.
BURR: I enjoyed it, but it was so compressed -- so much a "brief demonstration" specifically for an audience -- that it had little resemblance to the real thing. A real session has much more focus and intensity and, of course, time spent on details. To use a rough analogy, it's a little like the difference between maneuvers (playing at war) and actual combat.
"What does it matter? Their destruction is assured!"
TCC: If I may, I would like to ask you for some clarification. You've been saying that you had 4 hours to complete a script, but when I interviewed Dan Gilvezan in 2001, he told me there were times when sessions would last a full 8 hours -- and that it was the animation strike of 1987 that resulted in the 4-hour maximum recording time. Are you speaking from a post-1987 viewpoint when you say 4 hours or could Dan be misremembering things a bit?
BURR: Dan's memory is fine.
Up until the strike, it was merely customary for producers to handle half-hour shows within 4 hours. It was a constraint that I and most other directors tried to observe. Occasionally, if I was having problems getting the performance I needed, I'd hold a single actor a little past that 4 hours.
TCC: While we're on the subject, your inclination for long recording sessions in the name of perfection is cited as a major contributor to the strike. Would you care to give us your side of that story?
BURR: I think I hear Gilvezan's voice in there somewhere. Well, here's how I remember the strike. Beyond the fact that all strikes result from the workers wanting more money for their contribution and management not wishing to offer it, it's somewhat more complicated:
The pay at that time for recording a cartoon show was based on the Screen Actors Guild basic rate for what was called a "day player" -- the basic scale rate for any SAG actor in any context -- live-action or cartoon -- for an 8-hour day. There was no "animation rate," per se. Only a few truly "celebrity" actors -- people like Mel Blanc -- were paid a negotiated over-scale fee. (I believe his was double scale, and considering what "name" celebrities are often paid, that was a paltry amount.)
Even the hot cartoon voice actors -- Michael Bell, Frank Welker, etc., worked for scale. And, at that time, the producers had a contractual right to keep an actor for 8 hours for that scale fee. In practice, that 8-hour "right" was frequently employed on a first episode of a series. And everyone -- producers and actors alike -- pretty much agreed (and still do) that, on a first episode, it takes that long to get all the characters in their grooves and the show itself on track. Yeah, I did a few sessions that went 8 hours, but damned few. I also am aware of voice directors who can handle a half-hour show in 2 hours, but those shows usually sound like they were done in 2 hours. I always figure I was obligated to bring in the show in around 4 hours. If occasionally I felt a I needed to keep single actor beyond 4 hours, my rationale -- before the strike -- was that the actor was being paid for 8 hours. I didn't feel it mattered if I went an hour or so longer than 4 hours. After the strike -- when the 4-hour rule came into play -- if I had to keep an actor beyond the 4-hour period, he / she received "overtime" -- another day's pay!
The truth is this: Actors are pretty much all alone in their situations. It's often easy for producers to screw them. Actors are at the mercy of the production company, so they don't like to make trouble. But because they're so vulnerable, they tend to be a bit paranoid... they tend to assume the producers are going to cheat them. They get used to the attempts but -- over time -- they become cynical.
But back to the specific causes for the strike:
As time went on, some animation producers more and more frequently kept the actors for the full 8 hours that was allowed by the SAG contract. Then, some producers would find that their more recent show recordings were not very well done, and they would record the current show in the morning, then require the actors to redo the entire unsatisfactory past show in the afternoon. From the actor's point of view, they were being asked to do two shows for the price of one. From the producer's point of view, they were paying the actor for 8 hours -- per the SAG contract -- and had a right to use those 8 hours.
Oddly enough, the practice of negotiating an actor's pay rate -- based to a great extent upon the perceived value of a given actor to a given production -- has been limited pretty much to the live-action field. It still is. Negotiating a cartoon actor's fee has never really taken hold -- possibly because the agents have feared that any occasional above-scale salary demands would be unacceptable to the producers.
I think the animation actors' first serious dissatisfaction (and the idea they could successfully pull off a strike) began to gain momentum when a few of the top cartoon voice actors realized that if they could do two shows a day, rather than just one -- say one 4-hour session in the morning and one in the afternoon -- they could just about double their income. A number of them were indeed that much in demand. The fact was, the great majority were not in that much demand. Another fact is that even though a producer contractually had the right to keep an actor for 8 hours, few did.
Nevertheless, the idea of higher fees was attractive. Enough non-star voice actors were persuaded to go along with the few star leaders, and eventually SAG called a strike against the animation producers. Result? I have no figures to prove my point but, in my humble opinion, that strike gained very little for the average Hollywood voice actor, and drove a lot of producers to Vancouver and Toronto, Canada. Up there, the actors work for about 60 or 70 percent of what U.S. actors are paid, and Canadian actors are not paid any residuals.
As Yogi Bear used to say: "Sheeeez!"
See? Nothing is simple.
TCC: Since the Hasbro days of the 1980s, you've moved on to many other assignments. What have been your main activities in the ensuing years?
BURR: Aside from several hundred episodes of other series for Hasbro, I have voice-directed quite a few video games, including a couple of game adaptations of Spielberg's JURASSIC PARK, using the original movie star cast. More recently did a website for 6 to 11-year-old kids with an emphasis on learning. Did sessions on that for two years until just a few months ago when the producers sold the show to another company.
TCC: With all the work you've done over the years, how highly would you rate THE TRANSFORMERS among it?
BURR: I would say I'd place it in the middle. I usually enjoy comedy more than drama, so there are several comedy series I must say I enjoyed more than THE TRANSFORMERS, including INSPECTOR GADGET. I also really enjoyed JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS, a girl's show on which -- before I was accepted as the voice director -- my sensitivity and "inner female" fitness to direct was questioned.
TCC: Although THE TRANSFORMERS still lives on in its own way, it's doubtful that there will ever be another production like it. But, if the impossible happened and you and other people who worked on the original series were asked back, would you consider doing it again?
BURR: Consider it? As the expression goes: "In a New York minute!" Hell, yes! It would be a ball!
TCC: Michael McConnohie once described you as a man who will never really be able to retire completely, and even after such a lengthy and busy career, you still keep looking forward to new challenges. So what does Wally Burr want to do that he hasn't done yet?
BURR: Do it all again, but with the benefit of knowing in advance what I know now. Dream on, WallaBee!
TCC: You may not have realized it then, but you were instrumental in bringing a lot of fun and excitement to children of years past and nostalgia to the adults they became. Is there anything you would like to say to fans of your work?
BURR: Thank you for your interest. One word of advice: Whatever you do in life for a living, fight for the right to do it well. Resist the mediocrities that insist they have a cheaper, faster, and better way.
TCC: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me about the part you played in the making THE TRANSFORMERS the phenomenon it was. I hope, whatever they may be, your future assignments and endveavours will keep you active and stimulated!
BURR: You're welcome! Have enjoyed getting a few of these things off my chest. Sorry it's taken so long. (Maybe we ought to talk to our unions and our agents about fewer hours and more money for this sort of thing!)
"And dat's de name o' dat tune!"
For further information on Wally Burr' very lengthy background and career, visit www.voxwal.com, his official website. Launched in early 2004, it serves as a contact point for clients, providing details on his current voice-recording services, a brief biography, credits, and a number of opinions about the process.