Interview with Corey Burton
Mr. Corey Burton voiced some of the most beloved characters on the Transformers show, like Shockwave, Sunstreaker and the by far most prominent human character, Spike. All the roles are vastly different, with one being a cold, emotionless ray gun, one a vain sports car, and one a human teenager. Burton pulls it off wonderfully though and created some of the most memorable voices in the series. Of course, since the end of the Transformer series, he's been involved non-stop in a great number of animated tv shows and films, like Toy Story 2, The Incredibles and Disney's Atlantis movie. Throughout the entire interview he showed great respect to me as a fan and always answered politely, which just goes to show what a nice guy he really is!
Björn ”Wave” Rudolfsson, March 2005.
Wave: Let's fire away the first question!
Burton: I've always been a shy person, and have a comfortable, quiet life in the suburbs north of the city, up in the hills. When I'm not working, I'm spending my time with a few close friends and a variety of pets (2 cats, rabbits, tortoises, and a chipmunk). I have never wanted to be married or raise children, and am extremely happy that I have stuck with that decision - witnessing so much difficulty with that 'traditional family life' among friends and colleagues over the years. I'm not comfortable going to parties, and there isn't much "nightlife" for me - preferring to occupy my time with TV, Radio, and DVD entertainment and information programming, along with a great deal of intelligent conversation via telephone, internet, and 'hanging out' at home. I am nearly 50 years old now, but have hardly changed a bit since I was a teenager. I am very lucky to have had things work out so well - as I'm pretty much living the life I'd always dreamed of.
Wave: You have been working in the business for a very long time, but where did it all start? What made you choose acting as profession?
Burton: I knew I wanted to do this for a living since I was 4 years old; and began actively pursuing a career in voice over work at about the age of 15. Inspired by the voices I heard at Disneyland and on Jay Ward cartoons (Rocky & Bullwinkle being the best known), I set out to meet the people involved with that kind of work, hoping to learn the craft, and eventually build my own career.
Wave: Having worked on so many different projects, if you look back, which one would you say was the most rewarding to you experience-wise?
Burton: As the popular expression goes: "It's All Good.". But probably the most valuable experience has been working with the veteran actors, writers, and directors of Hollywood's "Golden Age of Radio" during over a decade of work in Radio Dramas early in my career. Those people were truly remarkable - and taught me everything I needed to know about the craft, show business, and life in general.
Burton: I'm really not sure... Several animated TV series have paid off well, along with my years as a network TV promo/commercial announcer, and several Feature Films (Disney Animation, as well as looping work for several 'hit movies', such as "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial" and "Total Recall"). Currently, I'm going on 7 years as "the Voice Of" the popular Old Navy clothing stores for Radio, TV, and In-Store promotions all over North America; and that's a very good thing!
Wave: Some of your colleagues from the Transformers cast, like Dan Gilvezan, felt that the conditions you had to work under during your time on the Transformers show were not exactly comfortable. Being as naive as I am, I thought that you guys worked in huge studios with personal assistants who brought you coffee as you snapped your fingers, while you leaned back in your ergonomically designed recliners... Or something like that. Apparently, this is far from the truth. So in which projects did you feel you had the worst contra the best working conditions?
Burton: Well... Transformers and G.I. Joe series were certainly among the most difficult, with regard to overall demands of time and energy; along with a fairly stressful, and somewhat stifling 'atmosphere' that seemed to permeate our cramped surroundings on those particular productions. ...And on the other hand, the very best "Died, and Gone to Heaven" working conditions have been with Disney and Pixar Feature Animation: absolutely unbeatable, "royal treatment" on spacious, nicely outfitted soundstages, surrounded by utterly superb, consummate professionals.
Wave: Being a veteran in the business, you've probably worked with more than just a couple of stars. Which one, if any, would you say got yourself "star-struck"?
Burton: There have been so many - it would be hard to narrow it down to just a few. Robin Williams and legendary newscaster Walter Cronkite would have to be at the top of the list; along with incredibly fine actors such as David Warner, Tim Curry, Dianne Baker, Teri Garr, Anne Francis, Brendan Fraser - and on and on and on...
Wave: In the previous question, I asked you if you had bumped in to any stars but, to fans like myself, you are a star too. Still, the majority of people would probably not know who I was talking about if I mentioned some famous voice actors to them. Why do you think it is that voice actors get so relatively little recognition?
Burton: The Characters are the stars. We are not known to the public as recognizable figures, which is ideal for someone as private and shy as myself. We have all the joy and some of the financial rewards that come from being involved with great entertainment projects, without any of the pressure and personal horrors that go along with being a famous celebrity.
Wave: You seem to treat fans with great respect, something that is very appreciated. This seems to be a general theme amongst voice actors and especially you veterans. Why do you think that is?
Burton: Because we are not famous to the general public, it is a good feeling to be noticed by those who appreciate our vocal craftsmanship; and not simply attracted to a "public image" built up by the show business 'publicity machine'. It is a sincere acknowledgement of the quality of our work, and an emotional connection to the characters we perform. It shows that we've been successful in delivering something meaningful or even inspirational to masses of people, while merely enjoying the experience of working on some delightful projects. And as "Grown-up Kids", we are often fans of the various forms of entertainment/information projects ourselves; so we can easily identify with astute fans. They are often "just like us" in many ways.
Wave: Being such a nice bunch of gents, are there any of your colleagues that you spend time with outside of work?
Burton: Sadly, those few I 'came up with' in the business that became close personal friends in "off hours" have since passed away; and not being terribly sociable, I rarely see anyone I work with outside the studios anymore. But the often party-like atmosphere of our job provides a great deal of the very best kind of satisfying personal interaction, without all the planning and effort that has become a necessary part of 'getting together' in our hectic 'modern world'.
Wave: Now, you have voiced classic characters like Brawn, Sunstreaker and, my personal favourite, Shockwave. Are these characters, and the whole Transformers concept, something you have taken to your heart?
Burton: I always thought the clever toys and fantasy setting were very cool. At the same time, I was not a particularly avid follower of series - as my taste leans more towards subtle drama and witty comedy, than most action/adventure-based stories.
Wave: How did you get cast for the roles and which performance are you most pleased with?
Burton: Having established myself as a versatile voice actor at a very young age, and known by a few in the industry as a vocal "stand-in" (or "soundalike") for Mark Hamill's 'Luke Skywalker', Wally Burr felt that I would be a good candidate for several roles in the series (especially the young Spike). There was the usual audition process, followed by a brief "trial period" working on the pilot episode. If I recall correctly, I was actually a replacement for the first actor cast as Spike - who apparently "couldn't cut it" in the studio. Once a part of the cast, I then had the opportunity to read for several other characters, and of course, "landed" a few additional roles. I loved performing the sinister, "icy" role of Shockwave; and was particularly pleased with the emotional notes I was able to 'hit' in the "Autobot Spike" story.
Wave: Ah, yes. Spike Witwicky. The human character that by far appeared most in the series. Now, be honest; which is most fun: To voice a giant, one eyed robot that turns into a wicked space gun or.... a "puny fleshling"?
Burton: Give me a "Grand and Glorious" bigger-than-life character Any Day! I never cared all that much for playing more "ordinary" types of people... Like most actors, I prefer the more "demanding" roles. I just love to 'throw verbal thunderbolts', or attempt to captivate deeper emotions using subtle shades of melodrama. It's nearly impossible to make a meaningful or lasting impression on anyone when playing a "normal" person.
Wave: Yes ladies and gentlemen. It had to come. The question that has hardly any interest to anyone but the guy interviewing (hey, I’d be a fool to pass up the opportunity, right?). As a big Shockwave fan, I just have to ask you this: In Transformers the movie, there is a rumour that there is a scene with Shockwave being crushed by Unicron that was edited out. Do you remember any of this?
Burton: Sounds familiar to me. But so much of what we record for a feature film is not used, that I tend to forget about the bits that 'didn't make it' into the finished production.
Wave: The toys are a big part, if not the biggest, in the Transformer concept. I personally could imagine that it'd be very cool being able to sit in your rocking chair in the golden years, always answering: "Yup! That's me!", when kids ask you about the strange plastic creation standing in your living room! Do you own any toys or other Transformers related stuff yourself?
Burton: There are a few small pieces that I received during the production, and I have bought some as gifts for kids; but I avoid buying and surrounding myself with "trophies", as I never want to become a stereotypical self-congratulating ego-obsessed actor. Of the few items I HAVE collected, I must admit that the toys and 3D figures from various Disney productions I've been involved with are the most prominent ones scattered around the house.
Wave: You wake up in the morning, look in to the bathroom mirror and notice that, yep, you are still Corey Burton. What happens next? What does a typical day in your life look like?
Burton: There are no 'typical' days in a voice actor's life! Scheduling is haphazard and frequently "last-minute", so each day is a unique experience, depending on what I'm called upon to do. If I know what I'm going to be doing, I'll start getting ready 4 hours before the first session, review the material briefly (if provided), have a simple 1 egg breakfast and plain tea, determine where I need to get to, and brave the traffic, to hopefully arrive on time. A lot of the time, I'm only given a vague idea of what I'm expected to do at the session; so when I get into the studio, I often start by asking: "Who am I today?". Sometimes there are several sessions to drive to in a day, and after the last one, I may stop in at a store or supermarket on my way home. Then it's tending to the pets, cooking dinner and attending to other household chores, maybe a little time on the phone, and then catching up on television, audio entertainment and internet (answering email and replying to questions on my website's message board). I'm generally up quite late, depending on when the next day's work begins. These days, I am very fortunate to be able to do a lot of solo voice over work from home, via digital ISDN phone lines; which makes it a more relaxed and 'cozy' day taking care of things around the house. It can be quite a privilege, to spend the day in your bathrobe while still earning a living!
Wave: Drastic changes have been made technology-wise since your time with the Transformers. On your homepage, you are currently giving your two cents on a microphone that isn't to your liking. How would you feel that technology have eased your work though?
Burton: Digital recording and editing systems have made it "safer" to make mistakes, and easier to get through 'tricky' material; but that's not necessarily a good thing. And with fax machines, email, and mp3 sound files over the Internet almost instantly, our profession has actually become more stressful and less 'civilized' - as we are always expected to be ready to turn out a great performance "at the drop of a hat", and have very little sense of control in how we plan and live our lives. To be honest about it, it really seems insulting - that we must be willing to put everything "on hold" suddenly, at any odd moment. What used to be week-long (or even months-long) "windows of opportunity" to audition or work, have since been reduced to, mostly, these "instant" demands - without any consideration of us having anything else to do with our time than wait by the phone all day (almost like a caged pet, being teased with the promise of a treat, which may or may not be given at any moment, on any day of the week).
But, as mentioned before, having a high-fidelity link from home, directly into recording studios around the world, is a fantastic convenience; not only making life easier (without all the exhausting and sometimes harrowing driving around Los Angeles), but increasing opportunities to work with people and on projects that were previously unavailable (without a private jet!). Other than that, not much has really changed in the past 65 years.
Wave: Naturally the fandom is reaching the boiling point with the upcoming live action movie. Boy, have there been many discussions about it! One of the main questions have been whether or not the original Transformers cast would do the voices. Recently, Don Murphy has revealed that he would be "VERY suprised if Cullen and Welker didn't reprise their famous roles". I think I remember reading that you would be willing to do voices if asked. Although I feel that this might become a "No comment" answer; Have you been asked to do any voices for the movie?
Burton: In a word: No. I haven't heard a thing, other than the fact that a lot of fans would like all of us to be included.
Wave: Would you consider reprising your roles in some other medium than on the silver screen?
Burton: Sure. Why not? Although I am certainly too advanced in age to play a convincing teenage "Spike", at this point.
Wave: Would you feel a reunion episode with the Transformer cast would be fun a fun idea?
Burton: Only with a great script and wonderful director.
Wave: Many of us fans believe that Transformers was a really big part of your careers, however, to you it could have been just another job that happened to develop quite the fanbase. Do you have any personal interest in Transformers? Would you, for example, go to see the upcoming Transformer movie even in the case of you not participating in it?
Burton: It was a very important experience in my early career, and has meant a lot to me in establishing a "good standing" in the profession; as well as knowing how well regarded the work has been among fans. But to be perfectly frank, I probably wouldn't have a great deal of interest in seeing a new Transformers movie - UNLESS it simply stands out on its own as a Truly Great Film (like the Spider-Man movies).
Wave: Even though I don't think (or maybe don't want to believe) that Transformer fans belongs to the category, a lot of other sci-fi shows sport quite fanatical fans. What is your general feeling about the fanbase Transformers have developed?
Burton: Interesting. But it makes sense - that an entertainment combining futuristic technology and powerful imagery would prove so inspirational to young minds, as to "stick with" people well into their adult lives.
Wave: Have you ever been to a convention? If so, what were your impressions and would you want to visit one again?
Burton: I have been to NFFC, ASIFA and Disneyana conventions. While it can be exciting and flattering to us otherwise "behind the scenes" people, I must admit to finding it a completely exhausting experience - trying to spend a little time with each and every deserving, kind-hearted individual who would sincerely like to meet and converse with you. And then there is a feeling of laborious entrapment that tends to grip you when seated at a table, facing a block-long queue of autograph-seekers standing before you. Even though most are kind and respectful, there is no avoiding that sense of suffocation one gets when placed in such a seemingly endless situation, trying to fulfill everyone's polite demands in a satisfactory way. It's just in my nature to wind up feeling badly for those who will inevitably be disappointed when time and physical constraints dictate that they must be turned away.
Wave: Leading an international fan-dubbing project of Japanese Transformer episodes is none other than a member of NTFA named Peter Tägtström. He and a guy named Brandon is producing these by themselves, quite successfully I might add. I'm doing some voices too. Which would be your best trade secrets for a soon-to-be star like myself?
Burton: What was taught to me when I entered this line of work: "These are not Voices - they are Characters!" It is a complete Acting performance; NOT simply reading words with a 'funny voice'. It is not for the casual show-off - but a fairly difficult craft that must be developed over years of experimentation, training, and effort, before becoming proficient enough to please a critical audience, and be considered a true Professional.
Wave: What are you currently working on and what are your future plans?
Burton: So many things... But nothing very "high profile" to the general public, at present. ...Not that a Transformers audience would necessarily have a lot of interest in it, but I could mention that I had the honor of playing the role of Walt Disney in a recreation of historic story meetings for "Bambi", featured in the new DVD release of that classic film. ...I continue to work on many Disney projects, as well as Warner Brothers' "Justice League Unlimited" shows as 'Brainiac', and can be heard as the evil 'Commander X-9' in two episodes of the "Duck Dodgers" series... And I continue to provide the voice of Christopher Lee's 'Count Dooku' character (along with several other character voices) for all the LucasArts/LucasFilm "Star Wars" productions and video games, (of course, other than the actual movies featuring Mr. Lee himself). And dozens of other projects, from commercials, to documentary narrations, to theme parks, to Mattel toys and games... The list goes on and on.
As for the future? More of the same, I suppose. I never know what is "around the next corner", so I just continue turning out the best work I'm capable of, hoping to land significant roles in quality, memorable entertainments and meaningful documentaries. I intend on carrying on this way till the end of my days on this planet. It's a good life.
Wave: Thank you very much for answering these questions for us! On behalf of everyone at NTFA and (I think I can quite safely assume) the rest of the Transformer fandom; I wish you good luck in whatever you may undertake in the future!
Burton: My pleasure.