Michael Bell, B.J. Ward, and Neil Ross Talk 'Voltron: Defender of the Universe'

Friday, 09 December 2011 14:16 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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Michael Bell, B.J. Ward, and Neil Ross Talk 'Voltron: Defender of the Universe'

"From days of long ago, from uncharted regions of the universe, comes a legend; the legend of Voltron, Defender of the Universe, a mighty robot, loved by good, feared by evil."  So began the 1984 animated series Voltron, and now, twenty seven years later, the story of five Space Explorers and the mighty robot lions they pilot has proven to be a remarkably resilient bit of popular culture, with fans across all demographics.  Those fans now have the opportunity to engage with the Space Explorers, their interstellar lions, and the mighty Voltron itself, as a new multi-platform videogame experience, Voltron: Defender of the Universe, is available on XBox 360 and PlayStation 3.

The game allows players to take specialized lions, each with their own unique weaponry and strengths, across the galaxy in order to defeat King Zarkon and other familiar villains from the series.  This journey incorporates 1-2 player offline co-operative play or 1-5 player online co-op so that fans can strategize and combine lions, wielding the blazing sword of Voltron.

Voltron: Defender of the Universe even includes cutscenes from the original animated series, featuring the original voice talent in character.  While promoting the release of the new game, three members of the cast took the time to talk to IAR about revisiting VoltronMichael Bell, B.J. Ward, and Neil Ross, who voiced Lance, Princess Allura, and Commander Keith, respectively, are all prolific and versatile voice actors, with well over 600 credits between them (and that's not even counting commercial work).  The three, who have lent their voices to many iconic and beloved characters, engaged in a lively, convivial discussion about the return of Voltron and their place in popular culture, as well as some of the ins and outs of being a voiceover performer in a variety of media.

Almost thirty years ago, it would have been impossible to anticipate that Voltron would maintain an active fanbase, but the actors are happy that it has.  Neil Ross said, "I think we all assumed at the time that, no, it would have its time in the sun and go away and then never be heard from again.  It's delightful.  Amazing."

"It's kind of like, you're married to someone thirty years ago," Michael Bell explained. "And they're suddenly in your life again.  'Oh, hello!'  It's exciting.  It's really interesting because, when you're a film celebrity and you did something thirty years ago, every now and then, if it's the type of film that becomes an underground film or something very special, and they have a revisiting of it or a TV series that's twenty years old, we get so many of these things that come back to us and suddenly have a revision or a new life.  We're lucky that way because something new pops up.  Now, new people may be doing it, but still, it's ours, it's still ours."

One might assume that hearing vocal work from decades ago transplanted to a contemporary videogame would be an odd experience, but in their line of work, these actors encounter their past jobs on a fairly regular basis and aren't too fazed by it.  "I don't think it's so shocking because we're not seen," said B.J. Ward.  "I think if you were Elizabeth Taylor doing, you know, National Velvet and you did Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and you look back at Velvet and you go, 'Oh my god, I was so young.'  But it's a voice, so your voice pretty much stays with you because you were an adult when you did it."

"You're so used to hearing yourself do different things," she explained.  "Sometimes you'll hear yourself and go, 'Was that me? Did I do that?'  I'll hear a spot on the air and go, 'Did I audition for that?  Oh, I think that's me.'"

Ross agreed, saying, "What happened to me, I would be passing through the room and my daughter would be watching television and I would suddenly hear myself as I walked through the room.  And sometimes she would spot me, she would go, 'Daddy, is that you?'  Afraid so, honey."

All three actors have made significant contributions to animated series such as G.I. Joe, The Smurfs, and Transformers, all of which have been recently been adapted into blockbuster live action film franchises.  "It's fun to see the characters come back," Bell said.  "It'd be a lot more fun if we wound up doing them, but it's still fun to see the characters come back"

"Well I can certainly understand when they reinvent something as a live action show," Ross said. "Obviously, they've got to go with appropriate casting, but I've often thought it would really be fun for the fans to have some of us do a little one or two line cameo, like a cab driver.  How fun would that be?"

As a film series, Transformers is undoubtedly the biggest of these 1980's revivals, and Bell had a unique experience when the property's cinematic rebirth occurred.  "We all did Transformers," he explained, referring to the original television series. "And I contacted the producer, Michael Bay.  I heard him interviewed on television before he did the first one, and he said, 'I'm going to try to get as much of the original cast back as possible,' because it's V.O.  And he didn't.  Of course, he got Pete [Peter Cullen, who voiced Optimus Prime].  And I said, 'Look, we don't have to do that, that's fine.  I understand you want to get name people.  But since we're all actors, how about little cameos, the guy on the street?'"

"Then I said, 'If that doesn't work, a lot of us do ADR, which is additional dialogue replacement, we can go in an we'll do some stuff with it.'  And the response was, 'Thanks but no thanks.'  I said, 'But the fans would really love it.'"

In the case of the new Voltron: Defender of the Universe game, though, fans will undoubtedly be delighted to hear the original vocal performances in throughout the gaming experience.  While none of the actors re-recording their dialogue for the game, all three are make frequent auditory appearances in all manner of videogames, and that entails a different – but fundamentally related – way of working.

"It's just different styles," Ward said.

"You have to rely on imagination," Ross explained. "Particularly now with videogames because, in a lot of cases, you don't have a scene, even.  You just have these isolated lines that will be triggered by a player.  And so, I don't know what you guys do, but I just sort of invent a little story in my head and a thing I'm reacting to and then I react to it.  And I find the years that I spent doing animation are really helpful.  There's just a place I go to inside to generate anger, fear, resentment, whatever is called for and I'm able to do it."


Bell went on to say, "When you do an interactive game, you don't just do that one take, but don't forget, in interactive games, for the player, you die many different ways.  They're what those of us in the industry call 'throat-rippers.'  You wind up, we got this through negotiations, you scream at the end of a show, not during, because sometimes you lose your voice for maybe two days after going, 'Ahhhhhhhhh!  Oh my god!'"

"In a Broadway show, you'd have six weeks, eight weeks of rehearsal," Ward related.  "On a television show, you have four days rehearsal, then you shoot it.  It's all so compressed, it's almost like a little haiku in your head, in a way.  You have disembodied lines, like one line, you're saying, 'Get out of here, quick!'  Then in another one, it's, 'Please, he's got to live, don't kill him.'  You're crying, you're weeping, you're yelling, you're addressing your troops and it's really, children do this very easily, and I think it's like playing.  A lot of actors don't know that it's just playing.  You don't have time to make thirty-three choices about the best.  It's your first instinct and you go with it and hope that it's something.  But kids do this all the time."

"There is that child in all the actors," Bell agreed.  "At least that I've worked with, you guys, over the years, there is that.  We don't worry about hair, we don't worry about what we look like, and we immediately immerse ourselves into those characters, into those moments, and as Neil says, there's a separate line and you have to take that moment before that line so that you can get there. And the difference, of course, is that in games, you still work by yourself, just as in an animated show, but in games, you don't have to worry about time.  In an animated show, if you have a line, you can't take the time to elongate something that you really feel, as an actor, you want to do.  But in a game, yeah, you've got the time because it doesn't make any difference."

Voltron: Defender of the Universe is available now, and can be purchased on XBox LIVE Arcade for 800 Microsoft points or the PlayStation Network for $9.99.

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