…and then there was the time I got to chat with the Voltron Force. Well, not all of the voice cast of the legendary 80’s series, but a nice chunk of it including Neil Ross (Commander Keith, the Black Lion), BJ Ward (Princess Allura, Blue Lion), and Michael Bell (Lance, the Red Lion, Sven the Blue Lion, Pidge, the Green Lion), who were on hand with Team Unicorn to talk about the gateway drug for many of you into the world of anime near the release of the downloadable game from THQ, Voltron: Defender of the Universe. The game represents a reunion, of sorts, for the trio, bringing back classic scenes from the 1984 series and inserting them as pre- and post-mission cutscenes as they fend off the forces of the villainous King Zarkon.
Between the three of them, these voice actors represent a solid chunk of animation history, handling roles in any and everything from G.I. Joe, to Harvey Birdman, to Darkwing Duck, to Samurai Jack. In our pretty expansive (and lengthy) chat, we covered the legacy of Voltron, the unorthodox manner in which the cast had to handle their dialog, getting banned from working alongside Peter Cullen due to pranksterism, and the changing landcape for VO talent in an increasingly CG animation industry.
Neil Ross: The way we recorded the show—because of logistics—we always worked separately. So really, this is the first time we’ve all been in the room together.
Michael Bell: A couple of times we may have worked together, I think. Peter Cullen was with us, and I was initially told to work separately because Peter laughed too much.
BJ Ward: They had to separate you two.
Bell: They did. I was shackled.
But yeah, I mean this is the first time since the show.
On keeping the work interesting when you’re recording a half dozen characters at 00:00:02:12 seconds each:
Bell: Everybody that I know of in the voice world and especially in this group are very funny people individually. And so we always had something to say. And since we did so many characters outside of our central characters, we were able to poke each other and laugh.
In fact, [Voltron] was on recently and my daughter, watching it for the first time—she’s 25—was rolling. She says, “You’re the voice of that little girl?” [Goes into a high falsetto] “Oh please! Oh please!”
I think I lost some parts of my body doing that one.
Ward: I can say that the humor really helped us because we were in a small studio with somebody in a booth and we were at a mic and every line had to be a certain time.
Ward: Timing. And we’d do the line and it would be “Great! Now knock off 3/10ths of a second. Same reading.” Or, “Stretch. We need to add one-point-something seconds.” And that was our acting.
Bell: We didn’t record with picture.
Ward: We never saw it.
Bell: We never saw it until it came out. As BJ said, you’d do the character and it would be 1.312 [seconds] and they’d tell you you have to do it at 1.313. So we all developed these time clocks in our heads.
Ward: We had to kick up the energy and be in peril and do all these things in that little room and well, laughter helped us and we all had a good time and that’s what voice actors do.
Ross: I’ve often said with these sessions it’s like you get to go to this great party—there’s no liquor, and periodically they interrupt the party and make you act. But really, it’s so much fun.
On wrap parties in the animation industry:
Ross: If you’ve heard of wrap parties, well in animation when you record the last episode, they send a production assistant across to the 7-11 to buy a bottle of Old Duck and some paper cups. “Well this is a the wrap party!”
Bell: Then they ask everybody to pitch in for it.
On the changing face of the voice acting industry and the new insincerity:
Bell: The nice thing about voice acting is you don’t have to have all of your hair or a 36-inch waist. Not that I do! [laughs]
But you don’t have to worry about how you look when you get to the set because you’re playing heroes and heroines. You don’t look in a mirror to worry what you look like.
Ward: I would say that that’s the way it used to be. And now it matters very much what you look like, If you have long, brown hair, and you’re 28 years old and going to play the heroine. [pitches voice up high] Even if your voice is up here! It doesn’t matter. They cast youth and they cast celebrities, of course.
Ross: It seems to me that at a certain point, animation had changed [and] you began to run into producers who said “I don’t want cartoon actors.” In other words, if they had a [goes into a high-pitched, cartoony voice] character that they wanted to sound like this, [back to regular voice] they wanted someone to come into the room [back into cartoon voice] who actually did talk this way, who would go into Bank of America and say “Can I cash this check please?” Somehow, to them that made it more authentic than hiring a guy who could do it.
Bell: And then do a second voice and…
And then I think animation went in the direction of a lot of animation that’s almost making fun of animation. “We’re not really into this, we’re making a parody of this.” And it became very cynical. I think the basic sincerity of these shows, the innocence, probably could work again to a group of kids.
Bell: Because on camera, a lot of the Spielberg stuff you see on camera has good and evil, and you’ve got the youngsters and there’s nothing really edgy about it. I know exactly who the characters are which is comforting because we live in a world where you don’t know who everybody is—the problem is the people who we think are our heroes promise you the moon and end up giving you Des Moines. Whereas in these old animated shows, you knew who the hero was—who the bad guy was, who the good guy was.
Ward: [The good thing] is that a lot of the mo-cap people have a theater base—they’re not just radio voices. So, they’re learning the voice over style, but they’re already acting and moving and physically getting into character, so that’s good.
On modern animation attracting kids as well as their parents and nostalgia:
Bell: If you’re talking about children’s shows, I think that they’re trying to make it more edgy so that the parents will sit through the movie or sit through the show, a lot of those animated shows. As far as the ones they’re doing now, there’s a lot of adult animation on the cable shows.
Ward: I think the humor in animated shows [is] much edgier because the children are edgier. We didn’t have even computers in those days.
Bell: I think most kids have ADD since they don’t want to sit still long enough. They have to have something really jump out at them every couple of minutes.
And yet, with the fanbase, I sure that Neil and BJ and some of the other guys with a fanbase on Facebook or wherever, I get so many e-mails telling me how much they love the old shows. Even the young people that are watching them loved the way the old ones were done years ago, for whatever reason. I don’t know, I don’t watch much animation these days, but I’m told they love the old animation and the voices.
Ward: I’m sure it’s like us talking about the old days of radio when we weren’t around the Mercury Theater and those wonderful actors just doing it all, almost ad libbing when they dropped their scripts. So we look back at that time as a pure time and that may be the same distance as it is now.
Bell: I know a lot of our fans have kids now, and their kids are watching some of the older shows. It’s nice, we get a whole new fanbase. It’s kinda cool.
Ross: My dirty little secret: I grew up listening to radio drama and that’s what I wanted to do. And of course, by the time I got out of high school, there was no radio drama. So this was as close as I could get. To me, it’s a radio show—if someone wants to stick on a picture, that’s their problem! [laughs]
On Voltron and the introduction of anime to American audiences, and the changes necessary to get it on the air:
Ross: I can recall odd moments in the script and the director would say, “Well, there was some violence we had to take out. It flew in Japan but it’s not acceptable here. So we have to cover that somehow with this odd line that you’re doing.
The other conclusion I’ve come to is that it must be far easier to express oneself in Japanese than in English. Because there would be a terribly complicated thought explained that somehow in Japanese they managed to convey in 4.8 seconds. Then in English we’d say “My father became a carpenter…” We’d have to rewrite the line desperately trying to convey the thought.
Bell: Also, it’s very funny because sometimes they’d run something by you, and often when you have to do that kind of version and the mouth is continuing to move, you’d have to stretch out the line or you had to end it with “You know?”
Ward: You had to match the mouth movements.
Their favorite Voltron memories
Bell: Well, for me, I think besides the cast, trying to break up Peter Cullen desperately in every single session. Because Peter had that laughter [imitates Cullen’s deep, rich laugh] and he had that wheezy kind of laugh and he couldn’t stop. So finally, I guess my favorite was that I was banned—that I had to do it by myself after that.
Ward: I think the cast was a great cast, it was a lot of fun. I remember we laughed so much and I got very good during that show at shaving off a tenth of a second. As Michael said earlier, we started to have this internal time clock so we could pretty much feel what the timing was. And it was so much fun and I was very happy to have the job. It was great fun.
Ross: Absolutely. For me, that was the first major role in a major series that I ever had. I’d bounced around doing guest shots on various cartoon shows and got my foot in the door. But this felt like “Man, I’m finally in the business!” So I have very fond memories of it.
Voltron: Defender of the Universe is available now on PSN and XBLA for $10 and 800 Microsoft Points respectively. Voltron: The Legend Begins collecting the first arc of the series is available on DVD from World Entertainment Productions.