Some readers may not be aware that I have two jobs: I work in advertising and I’m also a voice actor for things like cartoons and video games. This is one story where these jobs crossed paths. With a giant robot.
As you may know, what with Mark Wahlberg dodging explosions every commercial break this past week, Transformers 4: Age Of Extinction opens Thursday night. Some love ‘em, some hate ‘em. For me, they hold a special place in my heart. For a third of their existence, the Transformers and I were connected at the core. Or spark, I should say.
You see, I wrote every single Transformers toy commercial from 2002 to 2012.
For Armada, Energon, Cybertron, Animated, Universe and movies I-III, every commercial was a labor of love. Not only did I write them, but I acted as toy tech for most, making sure all the toys were converted according to their instructions, then posing them as heroically or as villainous as possible. And finally, one of my favorite things, I’d occasionally voice one of them…usually for a 3 second animated clip amid toy footage.
But when Rise Of The Fallen came along, I got the news from on high that we were going to get Peter Cullen. Peter Cullen. THE ORIGINAL, TRUE VOICE OF OPTIMUS PRIME.
I wrote the spots in the style of Prime’s end-of-movie speeches, in a way that spoke about the toys as if they were the actual, fictional Transformers from space. I could hear the weight of his voice booming in my head as I typed the words onto the page, giving the plastic playthings a gravitas that no other toy in existence could muster.
When it came time to present the scripts to the powers that be, I did my best Optimus performance, (Imitating Optimus Prime’s voice is something every Transfan has done in their lives, whether they admit to it or not.) The presentation was a huge success and the team requested that I make a recording mixed to the spot’s music so they could, in turn, present the campaign concept to others in the company.
We shot the spots, got the CG model for Optimus animated and the studio session with Mr. Cullen was approaching fast. I eagerly looked forward to this, having begun my own VO career on the side just seven years earlier. The man is a voice acting legend and I was excited to hear him work. (Also, I’ll reveal this now: I’d planned on asking him to record a voice mail message as Eeyore for my wife as a birthday gift to her.)
Then something happened. He was suddenly unavailable. From what I understand, he was on the movie press junket and was booked solid for weeks. By the time he’d have been open to record, it would have been past the spot’s air date. There was no more time in the schedule for casting a sound-alike. We had a commercial, but no Optimus Prime. Until someone said, “Why don’t we have Foronda do it?”
When voice acting, creating my own characters and sounds is really what I do best. For fun I’ll do the occasional impression around friends, and those are just comedic exaggerations of existing voices. But sound-alikes are extraordinarily challenging, especially with a target voice so iconic in stature. I was honored to be asked, but make no mistake: I can do an impression of Optimus Prime but I do not sound like him. I would do my very best…but it would still be an imitation.
This was like the nerd version of coming off the bench to fill in for the star quarterback during the last play of a tie game in the Super Bowl. I was both excited and terrified.
I recorded the role using the same Optimus voice I used to pitch the campaign. The sound guys robotized it a bit and it turned out pretty good for what it was. But again, I really wished it was Peter rumbling out of the studio subwoofer instead. I wrote the words for his voice.
When the spot hit YouTube, I knew full well that the hardcore TransFans would know it wasn’t Peter Cullen. They made their opinions known:
Well, that wasn’t so bad!
Michael Dorn? Wow, that’s pretty cool.
But Star Trek Vs. Transformers would be pretty awesome.
I agree wholeheartedly.
Someone thinks I did a good job! That’s nice… Maybe this’ll all turn out alright!
Part of me thinks maybe I should have written an entirely different article and just let everyone think it was Michael Dorn.
There you have it. I am the reviled mystery Optimus from the Revenge Of The Fallen campaign. I totally understand the fans’ dislike, but man, I will never understand what’s up with the extreme vitriol!
When it comes down to it, there’s really only one person I was terrified of disappointing and I will never know what he thought.
So, Mr. Cullen, good sir… If you happen to be browsing the internet some day and you come across this article, I want to tell you I pretended to be Optimus Prime when I was 10 years old because he was a hero. The hero. And your voice made him that hero. I thought about that when I was standing in the booth and felt if I could just be that voice for a least one little kid– not to simply sell the kid a toy, but to make them want to be that hero– imitation be damned, I’d have done right by Optimus…And especially the man who gave him his voice.
By the way, if you ever run into Michael Dorn, like at San Diego Comic Con or something, please tell him any similarity was an accident. Because, man, I do not want to be on Lieutenant Worf’s bad side.