TFW2005 Interview with Mark Ryan (Voice of Bumblebee and Jetfire)

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Currently working on the upcoming third Transformers movie, Mark Ryan recently took some time to answer questions for TFW2005. Mark Ryan is best known as the voices of Bumblebee and Jetfire in the 2007 and 2009 Transformers movies, but was also active as an on-set voice for many of the CGI characters during filming. In our interview, Mr. Ryan talks about his work on the Transformers franchise, his comic series with IDW, and more!

TFW: What led to you being brought on as the on-set voice for the first TF movie? Was there a special attraction to the characters you voiced or to the Transformers property in general?

Mark Ryan: I was originally hired to be the presence and the voice of all of the Transformers on the set. It’s been an amazing experience and I’m now on my third one! In the beginning I was there to help the actors visualize the robots so they can get the best out of their dialogue by bouncing it off another live actor. This also means reacting to script changes and improvisations that are made during a take. You have to try and tune into the rhythm and pace of the delivery and place the robot lines accordingly, while trying not to screw up their performance! The camera’s on them and they’re the focus. But this process also serves to try out new voices that might be used later in the production.

TFW: Can you tell us about what you did as the on-set voice? How did you fit in with the rehearsals and filming? Were lines for Jetfire recorded at the same time as the “live” cast members, or added in post-production, as with the other CGI characters? Were the recording sessions done one actor at a time, or all together, simultaneously?

Ryan: Because of the confidentiality surrounding Transformers productions I usually don’t get the lines until I arrive on the set, but with Jetfire there was so much dialogue that I recorded quite a chunk of it very early on during production, so that Scott Farrar and the ILM/CGI team could get to work early and start rendering the scenes. During filming, one of the places we filmed was Edwards AFB. I did spend some time on the set there being Optimus, and various other characters during filming, but Jetfire’s final character and vocal style was developed later, mainly in post production with Michael Bay in Los Angeles. These post V/O sessions are individual sessions with Mike directing and it’s actually the most fun, I think. The pressure is off and you have a little more time to experiment and play with the character. I was also lucky enough to work with Alex Kurtzman who asked me to improvise the odd slang British phrases I’d thrown in, so they stayed in the final cut. I’m very proud of that!

TFW: Did your voicing of the characters on set at any times differ dramatically from how the lines were delivered in the final cut? If so, can you think of any reasons why this occurred? Were there any lines you rehearsed that were not used, or any scenes you recall that were cut from the final release of the films?

Ryan: There were many lines for Jetfire that were rewritten or tested before the final edit was made, but the only lines I recall that I really liked that we recorded that didn’t make the final cut were the Bumblebee lines in the ROTF teaser trailer: “What is your purpose Sam?” I thought they showed a growing and deeper comprehension of the nature of humanity by the alien Autobots and the growing personal relationship between Sam and Bumblebee.

TFW: Jetfire was a big opportunity for you to show off your vocal talents, so how did you choose to approach the character? What led to you getting the role? How do you feel about the character and how he turned out?

Ryan: The vocal approach I used for Jetfire (in that early stage) must have stuck in Michael’s head. We went back in several times after principal shooting had wrapped and tried out a lot of dialogue and vocal tones and deliveries. Michael wanted him crotchety, noble and funny! Like an aging yet chivalrous Knight of the Round Table! When I found out he was going to be an SR71 Blackbird I was really very pleased! I had driven past a Blackbird every night in Balboa Park while working at The Globe Theater in San Diego some years ago. I used to drive up to it and just marvel at the design and the elegance of her lines. This piece of aviation history is still legendary and an awesome bit of kit. I guess that did play into my conscious approach to the character. Eventually Jetfire evolved into the voice you hear now. I actually borrowed the voice from my old mate Ray Winstone and told Michael during the V/O session that’s who it was. He seemed genuinely pleased!

TFW: There’s obviously some tech involved later, but how much instruction do you get on how to deliver the lines for Bumblebee and Jetfire? How much of Jetfire’s dialog was scripted, and how much did they let you ad lib?

Ryan: Michael knows what he wants but usually allows quite a bit of improvisation and he’s really good with actors offering up ideas. He does like to capture the physicality of the character in the voice and often will describe in detail how he visualizes the character moving and fighting. You can actually see him doing this with me during the V/O session in the Special Features DVD of ROTF.

TFW: Have you found that people see you or your career differently due to your work on the Transformers franchise? As Bumblebee is a very popular character (especially with female transformers fans), do you find you’re getting more/different attention in this regard?

Ryan: I’m met Transformers fans from all over the world; from Hong Kong to Tennessee to Milton Keynes and it’s very humbling to be a part of such a massive, worldwide family. Bumblebee is such a huge fan favorite with the kids that you can’t help but feel connected to the character and the effect he’s had on the international appeal of the franchise. I enjoy talking with the fans and often get told off at conventions for talking too long to folks who are asking for autographs. I just think it’s part of the job and the least I can do. Jetfire is also pretty huge and I’ve actually had a lady stop me in a store and say: “You sound exactly like that black jet in Transformers!” It’s still pretty weird but I’ve been very lucky in my career to be associated with several great characters in other projects that have gained their own following. So I’m very grateful for the opportunity to talk to Transformers fans and get their feedback.

TFW: Can you tell us anything about what’s happening with TF3? What do you see yourself doing in Transformers 3? Will you be continuing as the on-set voice? What would you like to be doing?

Ryan: I am back onset and doing the voices again. There are several new robots, which I’ve played during filming but I can’t give details for obvious reasons. I do feel the storyline for TF3 is the most intriguing one in the series, so far. It’s an area I’m personally very interested in and find the history fascinating. Anyone who’s read The Pilgrim will know about these associated subjects. Having spent a part of my life in the military and in the more esoteric areas of intelligence work myself, I find the back-story for this one to be really cool. Also, the cast is just amazing! I’ve already worked with Frances McDormand and I was blown away with her good humor and down-to-earth approach to the size and scope of the project. Obviously working with both Shia and Josh is always a real honor and joy and I must give a shout-out to Harry Humphries and his SEAL team boys, who really bring the heat.

TFW: Do you have any memorable stories from the set that you can share with us? Did you feel that in being an on-set voice, your experience differed from the rest of the cast?

Ryan: I’ve worked behind the camera a lot, because of the fight coordination, directing and writing I’ve done, so all of that experience comes in when you’re dealing with Special Effects, complex camera moves, editing and the 3D visual process. I feel this also affords a different perspective from that that of the actor standing in front of the lens, as I get to experience and hear a lot more of that than you would otherwise. Because of the nature of the onset mechanics with Michael Bay, I get a pretty unusual glimpse into the visual process going on in his mind. His own site is called: “Shoot For The Edit”, and that is exactly what he’s doing. The actors may not always get to see that complex edited image he’s imagining and building until the final release of the film but there’s no doubt what he’s working toward is highly polished, very technical and precise, and is always visually stunning.

TFW: Aside from acting in Transformers, you’ve done work in many different areas, from direction, editing, and writing, to musical theatre. What draws you to work in so many different areas? How are you able to juggle so many different jobs? Do you have a preferred medium to work in (stage, screen, voiceover work, etc.)? What are some of your favorite aspects of doing such varied work? Are there any disadvantages, or things you wish you could change about the different mediums?

Ryan: It’s all part of the creative process to me. I’ve been as excited and satisfied to see Mads Mikkelson and Stellan Skarsgard performing a grueling fight I’ve choreographed as standing on the stage myself during the premier of Evita, or performing Monty Python at Carnegie Hall with Eric Idle. It’s all derived from the same source. I also get just as excited seeing Mike Grell’s artwork for The Pilgrim or Will Worthington’s for The Wildwood Tarot! The real magic is in making the intangible idea, the creative impulse manifest and live in our reality. I’ve been very lucky with that apect of the business, especially with Nasir and Robin of Sherwood. There’s this great Einstein quote: “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” This business is all about imagination.

TFW: Recently, you worked on the comic series “The Pilgrim”. What drew you to try your hand at writing comics, and in particular, a story about paranormal activity during WW2?

Ryan: I’m really very happy IDW are supporting and publishing the project this summer. It looks really great and Chris Ryall and his team are really good guys! Mike Grell and I are old friends and worked together on the 50th Anniversary Issue of Green Arrow for DC but we’ve developed a few other concepts together in the past. In fact we’ve consulted quite a bit over the years and if you look carefully, Mike often places his pals in his artwork. I think I’ve made it into a couple of his graphic novels, including “Ryan James” in Maggie The Cat! We became friends when I was a guest at a Fan Convention in Seattle many years ago with Ray Winstone and Mike Pread. Over the years we’ve ridden horses and snow camped in the Cascade Mountains, loosed arrows and drained damp glasses together and sat around tables with an odd and eclectic cast of shady characters from all walks of life, telling tall tales.

The Pilgrim however is something I’ve been working on for a long time and I’m really happy Mike and I can work together again on this project. It’s a dark psychic thriller based on historical events and characters. But imagine an entity created of pure mental energy. It can materialize anywhere and perform functions of espionage or assassination, leaving no trace. It knows no boundaries or limits. It feels neither guilt nor pain. It has no memory, no mercy and no fingerprints. It’s the perfect clandestine operator. Deniable, discreet and without a mind of it’s own. Until one day it remembers. It’s based on a legendary occult and scientific theory about The Zero Point Field and contact with extra-dimensional intelligences, not all of whom have humanity’s best interests at heart. We also delve into the occult history of the Nazi “Bell” and anti-gravity propulsion systems and mind control.

TFW: What do you hope that you’ll be most remembered for?

Ryan: Gosh! I guess, as a brick-layers son from Yorkshire, who left school at 15, I hope to be remembered for simply trying. Even if the chances of success seemed impossible and the odds, insurmountable. I’m also fiercely proud of all the work I’ve done and loyal to the people I’ve worked with. I’ve never looked back with regret and said: “That wasn’t so good, or that could have been better.” I’ve usually felt I gave everything the best I could give at the time, with what was available and the time allowed. If I wasn’t going to approach every project that way, then I shouldn’t have taken the job in the first place! You can’t please everyone but I’ve always felt you cannot ultimately lose if you give everything you try 110%. You’ll always learn something useful, even from a failure that can be applied to the next challenge or project. Life is a learning process and I’m very proud of the work I’ve done and the people I’ve worked with. That hasn’t changed with Transformers 1&2 and neither will change with TF3…Which is going to be massive!