If you’ve watched an animated show or film in the last 40 years, you’ve probably heard the voice of Frank Welker. This startling versatile voice actor has been creating characters for decades, from characters like Fred from Scooby Doo to Nibbler in Futurama, to a veritable menagerie of animal sounds and effects for films like Up! and the original Dr. Dolittle.
For those in the know, there’s one role he’s particularly associated with: the raspy-voiced villain Megatron, having given life to the character over two decades ago, and keeping him going through various reboots of the series, as well as in games and the recent big-budget films. We’ll be getting a double-dose of Welker’s Megatron with his return to the robot that was once a gun that would be king in the forthcoming second feature sequel, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, to the new animated series, Transformers Prime, which will be paying homage to elements of the Generation 1 series and movie while crafting new fiction for fans of the series.
Transformers Prime begins airing new episodes on Hasbro’s The Hub (you can find more details on their site Hubworld, and read MTV Movies Blog's interview with "Transformers Prime " producer Bob Orci) on February 11 at 6:30PM ET., an in honor of the return of the series, Mr. Welker was kind enough to answer a few questions about his diverse career for MTV Geek.
MTV Geek: It’s been well over 25 years that the Transformers franchise has been around. What keeps bringing you back to Megatron after all this time?
FW: You know, the great thing about it is that the fanbase tends to support some of the earlier voices from back in the G1 days. And I think that that’s been a driving force that’s let the powers know that they like those characters and they like voices. So when people start casting some of the newer versions, they try to remember some of us from the earlier versions and [try to] see if we work in these new iterations.
I think, first of all, that this would be the call of the studios or whatever, and I’m pretty much identified as Megatron, so when the call comes I’m more than happy and ready to go.
Geek: Does that need for continuity influence what you bring to the role whenever you return to Megatron in each new iteration of the franchise and the character?
FW: Well, you know, that’s an excellent question because early on, when I was trying to get the role and separate myself from the other actors and just come up with something unique, in the very original G1 version I kind of came up with the very scratchy—MEGATRON! [in the G1 voice]—that people sort of latched on to. And that has sort of been [the way] all along.
And in the game version [Transformers: War for Cybertron] there was so much more dialog than we ever had in the G1 [series], that it started to call for a bit of a change in terms of strength and pacing, and just physically dealing with all of those lines we’d just never had before. In G1 we were all-out: there was a lot of screaming and constant fighting and there wasn’t a whole lot of story-building or character building. It was just pretty much an in-your-face type of acting, which was really fun but it had its own time and its own pace.
Then as the feature and the game started changing, we started looking more at the characters. And now, in the Transformers Prime version, it’s terrific for me as an actor because now I have more time. The characters and the action are still there but they build slowly and have more backstory, so you have the opportunity to vary a little bit more not only in the character but also vocally. So I’ve been able to play with Megatron in Prime, which has been a lot of fun since now I can get down into the lower registers and different qualities and still maintain some of the high, scratchy stuff when I want to. It gives me a much bigger palette to play with, and as an actor that is a lot of fun.
Geek: How is Megatron being handled in Transformers Prime ? How’s he different from previous iterations?
FW: I think first, physically when you look at Megatron, he’s quite a bit different: he doesn’t have the gun on his arm like he did in G1 and now he’s a jet fighter and he’s a little bit different in the Transformers Prime series [in that] he has a slightly different look, but when you look at him you go, “Oh yeah, that’s Megatron!”
But the character—in the writing—they want to go deeper into the evil side of him and what’s driving him. He has this desperate need to take over Cybertron and the Earth, so the extent he will go to get what he wants is now more evident in the dialog. So I can now emphasize that in the balance in the voice. It’s countering Peter’s [Cullen, the voice of Optimus Prime] good voice, and also you see a little bit different going on with Optimus Prime.
So the characters—I guess you could say there’s a lot more latitude in what they’re doing, and it makes it a little more interesting and a little different than some of our other iterations.
FW: [Laughs] Well, you know I think I’ve just been really lucky. I remember when I first came out to go to school—I went to Santa Monica City College—I got into the Theater Arts department and I was doing this play and this gal said to me, “You know, you should really do commercials,” and I thought “Um, okay.” So she sent me to her agent and the first interview I went [out for] I got the job. And it was like “Wow, this is easy!” But then I realized it would take 10 more interviews to get the job, but that was on-camera stuff.
But from that moment on I’ve just been lucky and never stopped working. I try to be a moving target so that no one can hit me. I go from doing on-camera stuff doing commercials and pilots for series, and I did some television stuff, I did some writing, and then got into the voice work and stand-up comedy. I was just always, always, always working and this voiceover thing was just always there, even when I go out on the road, and I come back and pick up a series—you know, we were doing Scooby Doo back a zillion years ago and that was my first show. And we’re still doing it, you know?
So, that’s just pure luck, and you have to watch out for a really good franchise like Transformers. [And] they’re really few and far between, so you have to really latch onto them.
One area where I got fortunate was that in my youth, I could make all kinds of noises and do animal sounds from small dogs [barks], to monsters [growls], to ducks [quacks], and on and on. So, I found that there was this niche in motion pictures where if you went in and the editor needed to take a real dog, but the dog doesn’t quite make the right noises at the right time, with the right sounds and emotions that they could have actors do that. And I could save them so much time by hitting all these cues.
I was doing a couple of those and I think the first one I did was Dr. Dolittle (1967), and I did some animal sounds. It sort of took off and it seemed like I was doing a film every week doing some stuff, doing some sound effects, and then characters. It was just a good niche that I guess a lot of people didn’t think about, “Boy, I’d sure like to bark for a living.” But that just happened to be what I did, you know? It fit in and it kept me busy, so I was doing an awful lot of looping and I’d pick up characters and I’d start to do more and more animation.
It was probably good timing, because I was the [new] kid on the block when Daws Butler [the voice of Yogi Bear, Elroy Jetson, and others], and Mel Blanc [everyone from Bugs Bunny to Captain Caveman], and those guys were doing less and less but they were the gods. And I was the new kid on the block and got to pick up all the youthful stuff while they did all of the senior characters. And that’s sort of what kept me going, I guess.
Geek: What kind of influence did Mel and those guys have on you?
FW: Even though I wasn’t coming out here for voice work, I was well aware of Daws and of course, Mel Blanc, and then I met Don Messick [Droopy, Scooby Doo, Papa Smurf], who I was not all that aware of. He and Daws did just about all of the voices for Hanna Barbera. I got to know him very quickly and respect him. He was one of my working idols.
And Daws—there’s just nothing you can say about he and Mel. They were just truly voice gods. They were heroes, so whenever I was in a session, I would watch them and listen to them and just be in awe.
Geek: And those sessions were kind of your way into the industry?
FW: I think [Mel and Daws] were more surprised at me because of all of the crazy vocal things that I could do that was also part of my Transformers thing of being able to do all of the different vocal sounds. Originally Megatron was about [in a lower version of Megatron’s voice] trying to get that scratchy thing. Then I tried to do like several voices at once—you could do 3 or 4 voices at one time. And they were kind of trick voices but they were really crazy stuff.
So I’d notice in sessions that Daws and Mel would turn to me and be like, “Who just did that dog?” And of course, I’ve always been able to do impressions and sounds and pick up just about anything. For example, Barack Obama [drops into an Obama]: “The… the important thing that we’re trying to face today is… conflict in trying to discuss a tremendous amount of… of vitriol between both groups. And what we need to do is settle them as Americans—not Democrats or Republicans—but both groups.”
So it’s just an ear thing, and I felt like I just started doing an awful lot of birds and cars and all that kind of stuff. And being youthful, I kind of covered all the kids in those shows. That’s kind of how I got in, and those guys were definitely idols for me.
Geek: How did you figure out that you could hit all of those registers simultaneously? Was it just a spontaneous thing as a kid? Or did it come later?
FW: You kind of play around with them as a kid—and I’ve been doing this as long as I can remember. Birds, different sounds, impersonating friends, and causing trouble in school—typical class clown syndrome. But then when I got out here and started working professionally, [it was] something I manufactured on the job, or they’d give me something to do.
I think one thing that I did early on in my career is that we’d have read throughs—which we don’t [have] now as much—but back then you’d have the full cast and read through like a play. And while a guy was reading the exposition, the director might say, “And then, the two characters are Dave and Bill. And Dave and Bill are walking through the forest then they cross across the river and there’s a large bird.” And as he’d say that, I’d go [makes an exotic bird song], and everyone would turn and look at me and say, you know, “I like that, we could use that. We’ll write in the large bird there.” So, I would just sort of insert myself into things as they were reading the scripts and [describing] what the action was.
That was one way I sort of snuck in, by sort of being a little pushy—in a good way.
Geek: What else are you working on right now besides Transformers Prime ?
FW: Well, right now, we just got picked up for another season of Scooby Doo! [the new series, Mystery Incorporated], so I’m doing the voice of Scooby Doo and Freddy. And Freddy, I’ve been doing for 40 years now, believe it or not, [in Fred’s voice] “And hey, he’s still a teenager! The reason I’m part of the gang is that I have the license and I can drive the Mystery Machine.”
And Garfield the Cat just got picked up for another season. It was one of those jobs that I really like having, but it’s a sad job because I replaced Lorenzo Music, who was a good friend of mine who we lost a few years ago.
And there’s some rumors that we may be doing more Curious George, which is the little monkey, and the voice that I created for that which is [makes monkey sounds].
It’s kind of fun because you have the evil on one end—I AM MEGATRON, LEADER OF THE DECEPTICONS—and then you have the little sweet monkey. So it’s fun having a range with Garfield you put right in the middle.
Geek: It’s an incredible range.
Geek: I do like that you describe Garfield as sort of morally neutral in the middle.
FW: Yeah, and Garfield’s such a fun character to do because it’s so laid back. It’s just like, [in Garfield’s voice] “I gotta take a nap before I eat so I can sleep.”
Geek: Is there anything you’d like to say to your fans?
FW: I definitely want to tell all of my Transformers fans that I absolutely appreciate all of the support and hanging in there through all of these years. They’re incredibly smart, vocal people, and they really let you know whether they like what you’re doing or if they don’t. And that, I have a lot of respect for. So, I hope that I just keep doing stuff that they like.