‘Transformers Diary': From The Mouth Of Bumblebee

Veteran actor Mark Ryan wasn’t sure what he was in for when he agreed to read lines on the set of “Transformers.” It wasn’t until the end that he realized that his voice would partially power the fan-favorite character, Bumblebee. In this exclusive guest-column for MTV, Ryan describes the experience of working with director Michael Bay and star Shia LaBeouf on what’s fastly becoming one of the biggest blockbusters of all time.

Well, it’s been one hell of a roller-coaster ride!

It all started about this time last year when I was called in by casting director Michelle Lewitt, who’d spoken with my agent Brian McCabe about a mysterious new project looking for a British actor with theater experience. Michelle faxed over several sides of dialogue and I was sworn to secrecy. She advised me not to learn the material as it probably wouldn’t end up in the final cut of the project, but to be prepared to read several parts at the same time!

It was a very relaxed meeting with Michelle, as I’d worked for her previously, and she ended up filming me doing several parts from the scenes I’d been given. I really didn’t know much about the project and drew character voices from my own childhood favorites, and threw in a few other voices just for fun. I’m not even sure if I was fully aware of the scale of the production or who was involved in it at that point.

I think the first day of shooting was around July 27/28 in a quite suburban area of the 5 Freeway in Los Angeles. Michael Bay was very gracious and open and showed us the animatics (rough computer renderings of the scenes) so we could see how it would look and what he was shooting during a scene outside Sam’s (Shia LaBeouf) house.

I remember looking at the monitor at Prime’s point-of-view — as seen from the “Russian Arm” camera — and thinking “This is going to be very funny!” Just the concept of five giant alien robots trying to be inconspicuous in the back garden of a suburban house was visually hilarious.

Michael Bay is a creative genius. He’s very focused on the set. He’s very energetic and pushes hard, but he understands every single element of a large-scale movie production unit and the nuts and bolts of how to get it in the can. It requires skill, drive, expertise and nerve to pull it off successfully on this scale…and Mr. Bay has all of those qualities.

I’ve been on many large-scale sets, and you better believe that when there’s $150 million on the line you need to keep moving and shoot efficiently and plan every last detail of any big sequence…let alone the scale of action there is in “Transformers.” It’s a massive achievement.

Kenny Baits’ stunt crew were already hard at work by the time I joined the production, but I knew Garret Warren and we did talk about styles and various types of weapons the robots could use. Garret’s a great bloke and he did an amazing job. He knew I’d faced the same challenge as on “King Arthur” of coming up with a lot of varied styles and types of fighting imagery for a large cast of main characters. The whole stunt crew did an amazing job and I hope they get recognized at next year’s stunt awards.

Michael’s whole crew and stunt team is a first-class operation, and a well-oiled machine that pushes the envelope and goes all out. He knows this and he’s both very loyal to them and the concept of filming his productions in the United States.

I did end up working with Shia the most. The guy’s simply brilliant, very talented and very grounded. We ran lines together with Megan [Fox] before scenes as dialogue changed even on the set. I was there just to help them get the best out of their dialogue with the robots by bouncing the drama off another presence. You have to tune into the rhythm and pace of the delivery and place the robot’s lines accordingly, trying not to screw up the actor’s performance or step on their dialogue! The camera’s on them and they’re the money! No pressure, right? But I don’t think that Shia ever said the same line the same way twice! This really brought the dialogue to life though, and made it very spontaneous. I just had to be on my toes.

I also really enjoyed feeding the lines to John Turturro who ad-libbed a lot of funny stuff during the first encounter with the Autobots. He’s a real pro and I’ve admired his acting style ever since “To Live And Die in L.A.” and I told him so. It was a real treat working with him.

Other than that, my constant companions were five, very long, alloy poles with red lights on the end. Sometimes I could even tell which one was which Autobot! I did also spend quite some time with ILM’s visual effects genius Scott Farrar and on-set sound maestro Pete Devlin.

I’ve been asked a lot about the history and fan lore established with “Transformers,” and I was already filming “Robin Of Sherwood” when “Transformers” first aired in the UK so I had no set preconceptions about the Autobots characters or vehicles. When I got the on-set job, I obviously went away and did my research, but I worked mainly from the material I already had and the basic characterizations that were established. The vehicles weren’t set in my head though, which I think was a major advantage later on.

Later on in the post-production phase and edit suite, it was a very relaxed atmosphere and we were just having fun with the dialogue and the characters. I knew most of my material would either end up on the cutting room floor or would be voiced by someone else, so it was easy to relax and just play with ideas and the humorous elements.

Michael would often throw in new dialogue ideas, especially humorous lines and just say, “Try it like this or just say that!” We did a lot of that and we were just like two kids having fun with the characters. Bumblebee didn’t talk in the version of the script I was working from on the set. I’d voiced the scene when the Autobots discussed how he’d lost his voice, so at that point it was a done deal.

During one of these many sessions Michael gave me some new dialogue that I’d never read before, and we just played around with it. We tried several character voices at different pitches. I wasn’t sure how it would be used but obviously I knew by then the Bumblebee backstory. That set me free to voice it with an understanding of the emotional weight of the character and the dramatic effect it might have at that moment in the story. I gave it my best shot, but it was just one of many lines recorded during those sessions to be used for dubbing and editing.

I genuinely enjoyed being involved with the project, and I had fun working with Michael and the whole team but, given the transient nature of the business and the size and complexity of the project, I quietly decided to get on with my life and promptly forgot all about it!

I’m not sure when Michael made the decision to keep the material in the film, but when they first called my agent I actually told him it would be lovely to take DreamWorks money but that “Someone’s got their wires crossed. Bumblebee’s about the only character I hadn’t voiced during the production as he couldn’t actually speak!” Brian said: “I guess he does now!”

Then, post-production boss Rob Yamamoto called me up at home and said, “This is you, right?” And he played the stuff down the phone to me. I said, “Oh yeah, I remember that now! I’d done a lot of variations of dialogue that session, but yup, that’s me!”

As a story of friendship and mutual trust, I really enjoyed the characterization of Bumblebee in this production. Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman did a wonderful job of making him human and humorous and yet a stoical soldier with a sense of duty and self-sacrifice.

…As for the VW Bug issue? I distinctly remember the first time I heard that Camaro come growling down that dark suburban street and I thought, “Oh baby! This bad boy definitely isn’t Herbie.”