Bill Ratner is one of the most well-known voices around. He’s done work for tons of commercials, movie trailers, documentaries, video games, and, most well-known, the voice of Flint from the original G.I. Joe cartoon. Ratner is also a pre-eminent storyteller and can be heard on NPR as well as in storytelling festivals around the country.
Recently, at Grauman’s Egyptian Theater, American Cinematheque held a screening of Transformers: The Movie and G.I. Joe: The Movie along with a couple of panel discussions with Ratner and several other famous voice actors and writers from both series including Neil Ross, Michael Bell, Hank Garrett, Wally Burr, Buzz Dixon, Flint Dille, Larry Houston, and Donald F. Glut. Many fans were dressed up in both Transformers and G.I. Joe cosplay.
I had the great fortune to meet Ratner before the screening and sit down with him over a beer to discuss voice acting and his book, Parenting for the Digital Age: The Truth Behind Media’s Effect on Children and What to Do About It.
GeekDad: In your book, you talk about how the cartoons G.I. Joe and Transformers were really marketing vehicles to sell toys, and, growing up watching them, I had to have everything. But the flip-side of that is that when my friends and I got together to play with them, I always had to have a story for what we were doing, and so for me they were also a vehicle for storytelling.
Bill Ratner: That was the most fascinating part of Joe Con for me. It was the first G.I. Joe event I’d ever been to, and I was sitting at this table and was approached by this older couple and their 30-something-year-old son. I asked, “How do you feel about his being a toy collector?” And she told me a story of his loaning her his G.I. Joes, comic books, and VHS cassettes and her going into her mostly illiterate, 9th grade English class, and it becoming a permanent part of the curriculum by virtue of boosting literacy.
Critics talk about Citizen Kane being an accident. That the director of photography, Wells, the actors–they were just going to make another commercial picture, but it ended up being, arguably, the greatest picture in the history of Hollywood. And I think G.I. Joe and Transformers, in their own way, are like that. The accident of their being unable to do what they wanted to do technically so they had to be dependent on Tokyo, and then Wally Burr and his demand for naturalistic acting and four-hour sessions all made a whole different kind of cartoon series. Forces coming together accidentally and making for a quality product.
GD: How did you get into voice acting?
BR: I was lucky. My dad was in advertising. He died when I was 13, but before that he had a take-your-son-to-work-day and–at the ad agency in Minneapolis back then–ad agencies did everything. They had recording booths, rooms for small orchestras. They had airbrush artists. They had every conceivable type of craft person that made commercials or print advertising all right there. And so here were disc jockeys and local show hosts doing their thing, and I was very aware of broadcast and their voices. But then I did some community theater, and I didn’t start disc jockeying until I was about 30 years old.
GD: And then you decided to come out to Los Angeles?
BR: Someone said to me, “If you’re going to LA, you should do voice over.” And I said “What’s voice over?” He said, “You know, you just did 85 tags (as a DJ) and got paid nothing but your normal $165 a week. The guy who recorded the spot got $250 for five minutes of work.” So he gave me the name and number of a former DJ, Don Pietromonaco, alias Johnny Rabbit, who taught voice acting workshops. So I, sight unseen, called the guy when I got here and started taking classes. And they were much more relaxed than regular acting classes. There’s less at stake because acting, signing, writing, photography, cinematography are taught in college and voice over is not, so the result is more loosey goosey and fun. We’d meet casting people and directors so I ended up taking those classes for years and just didn’t stop. It was fun and I learned a lot of lessons. I got a big agent very quickly and thought, “Huh, that was easy!” I went in every single day for six weeks and read for class A casting directors and got absolutely nothing, and the phone just stopped ringing. So I went to work at this Muzak radio station up in Beverley Hills for 50 bucks a show, and I would send my agent the recorded commercials and I would get nothing. I realized that even though I sounded like a broadcaster I wasn’t cutting it. So I talked to Michael Bell, I took an acting class, I talked to all kinds of people. Casey Kasem I met at an industry event after I’d been at it for like a year and a half, and I say, “Casey, I’m a fledgling voice over guy. Any advice you have?” and he says, “Oh, it’s funny. Here I am the son of Lebanese immigrants from Detroit City. Grew up behind a grocery store. And guys like you, they aren’t doing shit.” And he gets up and walks away. So Neil Ross and I went and did a voice over workshop together. He was a natural voice over on an FM radio station, and we (doing a stereotypical radio DJ) “Sounded like this” so we really had to work as voice actors to get out of that and to do something naturalistic.
GD: So for someone looking to get in to voice over, would you say that voice acting classes are your number one recommendation?
BR: Absolutely. It’s a very weird art. Same for actors; it’s a parallel world. Same with musicians. There are self-taught musicians, but I’m very doubtful if there is any such thing as a self-taught voice actor. That voice actor was either an actor or a radio personality or something because it’s a weird art. An actor in a scene or a movie or a play is playing off of someone else so there is pretty much a singular reason for the scene–I’m trying to get you to loan my money or getting you to lay off my sister or whatever it is, but, with voice acting, the way it’s done is a little artificial. On G.I. Joe, and today for games, you deliver your line and there’s a pause. When we did dialogue back and forth, we rarely overlapped because they wanted the freedom to edit and animate to the voices so you’re having to do it solo, even if there’s another actor there, which in games there is not. In games you’re alone in the studio, and the next actor is brought in after you. So you are simulating dialogue, and unless you have a very natural sense of delivering dramatic lines it’s tough.
GD: A lot of voice actors do workshops and classes. Do you ever host any?
BR: It’s interesting. The only teaching I do is volunteering at the SAG foundation. They have a beautiful lab dedicated to the great Don LaFontaine. But, in teaching, I purposely don’t do it commercially. Maybe in 10 years from now you’ll get it a call, (doing an old man voice) “Hey, Will, I got my new DVD. Want to take the class?”
GD: I would sign up!
BR: I listen to a lot of people in these classes–trained actors, people who have MFAs from Boston University or Northwestern or wherever–when they get in front of a microphone, they have a difficult time translating that naturalistic sense. They suddenly fall into a sort of artificial state. So why voice over classes? The same thing as why acting classes or why singing classes. I have a friend, Roger Love, who goes on the road with Eminem and does a singing lesson with him every night while he’s touring. Also a lot of actors have acting coaches. I went to an acting class, and Ted Danson was there. At the time, he’d been on Cheers for years and at the height of his career, and I asked someone, “Why is he here?” And he said, “He likes to work out with a bunch of nobodies.” So voice acting is a parallel world. I still study with a voice guy whose mom developed this vocal technique. It’s not so much about acting but about vocal reproduction, so you don’t scream and yell. That’s really more voice production than voice acting, but still I learn a lot about how to save myself and how to get different tonalities.
GD: Sounds like voice actors and musicians share a lot in common.
BR: SNL has a house band, Kimmel has a house band, Conan has a house band. What they do is really the closest thing to what we do. They are commercial performers who are given charts at the last-minute, and they have to do it. It has to sound like a beautiful, practiced, orchestral thing. They have to put on a voice, whether it’s R&B or Dixieland jazz or whatever it is. Those guys you would never recognize, but they work all the time.
GD: Do you have a favorite kind of voice acting work?
BR: Video games and movie trailers. They are about storytelling. There’s more work to it. There’s getting a voice and keeping the voice because you do it in an audition, and then you forget, and they play it back and you’re like, “Oh Shit!” So it’s really a voice character, and you can’t lose it. It’s more challenging than other forms. And it’s really fun. Grand Theft Auto is really fun, and I did a bunch of crazy stuff for that. But they really want you to be in character. They’ll say, “Come on! You’re losing it a little bit.” It’s just more challenging creatively. The other thing I like to do is crime shows on Discovery ID. Those are really fun. I do Behind Closed Doors, I Almost Got Away with It, Air Disasters on Smithsonian. It’s like reading pulp crime fiction. It’s very dramatic and the character doesn’t change. The character is the storyteller. You’re walking a very narrow line of “I’m going to tell you the story, and I’m going to scare the shit out of you” but you can’t sound phony.
GD: So how did you get onto G.I. Joe and Transformers?
BR: In about ’82, after I’d been here about four years, came the auditions for G.I. Joe and Transformers. Wally was directing it and he was very, very forceful, (doing a Wally imitation) “Get off that FM crap!” It was extremely helpful. “Don’t pull that shit on me. I was the youngest tank commander in WWII.” I don’t know what his background was, but he wanted method voice acting out of us. It was a huge gift in disguise, and I got cast first to do the five episode miniseries and then the rest of the episodes. They were the greatest voice acting lessons I ever could have had. It was great fun and we had no idea of the magnitude of plans that Hasbro had. They were betting on the mini-series, and then they bet on 26. And when the network passed, Hasbro and Sunbow were literally going around selling it station to station. And it was the old SAG contract where we got residuals. A bunch of us still got residual checks up to 2005. And it so pissed off the management at Hasbro and everybody else that they got the union to change the contract so they wouldn’t have to pay us anymore for a cartoon that lasted so long.
GD: Why do you think there was such lasting appeal for these shows?
BR: There was an ensemble. If I’d been that age and watching, I’d have the same reaction. The characters were good and evil and cool. 2D, no movement, a superimposed mouth over the art–that was the state of animation in television up to that point. Disney techniques didn’t translate to TV because they were too expensive, so they just made what they could get away with. That’s why there was so much live television. It was cheaper to make–Howdy Doody, Mickey Mouse Club. But it was Hasbro and not Disney that brought the level of TV animation up to where it should have been.
GD: Switching gears back to the book, how do you think us geek parents should balance out our love of technology with limiting technology and screen time for our kids?
BR: Have you read the article about Steve Jobs banning digital technology from his house? Just Google “Steve Jobs anti-technology.” When he died, he had a large family of young kids, 8-16 or something, but, needless to say, in that period of time he had shepherded manly fabulous, sexy devices to market. The Times writer’s intention was to do a profile on Jobs as a family man, and one of the first things he asked was, “Your house must be an amazing place for your kids.” And Jobs said, “We don’t allow digital technology in the house.” And the writer thought he was kidding, and Jobs was a little skittish talking about it because he would have had to admit that clearly these are designed to be addictive. That’s why I’m a billionaire. I wouldn’t be a billionaire if we hadn’t designed in stuff that would be so cool to a five-year-old or a two-year-old let alone a 16- or 48-year-old. This guy was so taken aback that he did a series of interviews with other CEOs and CFOs in Silicon Valley who were involved in the creation of hardware and software for children, and they all said the same thing. They were all loathe to discuss why. Some were more frank than others, but, to a man, they all said we know that it creates a problem so we don’t have digital devices in our house. These are the men who created this stuff. It’s like nuclear physicists know the danger of what they’re creating.
GD: (Holding up my iPhone and pointing to his) I see you’re a fan of Apple devices too.
BR: I love … I’m going to get a 6 Plus. I’ve had to really hold myself back. I don’t even care if I’m eligible for an upgrade, and that’s not until July 11th. But I’m going to get it now because I want it. I keep finding reasons everyday to go spend the $700. I’m subscribed to an OSX website. I just got a new MacBook Pro, installed Yosemite. I changed recording platforms from Digidesigns ProTools to TwistedWave. I mean my life has been made a thousand times better because of this stuff. I tweeted from Long Beach Comic Expo. I repost people’s Instagrams. And on and on and on. But if I had parenting to do over, I have two grown daughters, I would have been much stricter! I mean we did stuff to limit them, you can read about it in the book, and I think they benefited from it. One of the things that I did that was fun and that I like thinking about is my daughter came home from 1st or 2nd grade and she said, “Dad, you know you don’t let us watch TV, but everyone in class watches Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and I feel kind of out of it.” So I said, “OK, well let’s go to the movies.” The second one was out at the time. So she was able to tell her friends, “I went to the movie and you didn’t and how about Michelangelo and Leonardo, blah-blah-blah.” But we still didn’t watch the TV show.
GD: So how do we limit them when we have devices lying around everywhere and they see us using them?
BR: I don’t think that there’s any conflict between total technogeek parent and children being able to access technology in a way that’s privileged. Privileged information from a geek parent who really knows and says, “Hey, you’re eight years old. Let’s go take a game programming class at LACC,” and the kid says “I’m not going to do that.” So you say, “Well, ok, I’ll do it by myself.” “Ok, dad, I’ll do it. I’ll do it.” I have a friend who was an ABC promo producer and a new media director at AFI. She forced her kids to take game programming classes before she allowed them to play video games. Now one is on a full scholarship at Stanford working on a PhD in international studies and the other one is a straight-A math student at Berkeley. My argument is that her allowing her kids to have access but in a way where they sort of had to earn it at a privileged level benefited them greatly. Same thing that my dad did for me.
GD: So you don’t think that letting them have some access is going to ruin them for life?
BR: (picks up iPhone) This thing is so addictive. Your kid will sit there, won’t cry, will shut up at the party or shut up at the airport or shut up in the back of the car. It works. But I just don’t think that there’s necessarily a negative destructive effect of that time. The only destruction that’s going on is the absence of human contact at a time where normally you’d be talking to your kid. I look back at the time I spent with my daughters when they were like four or five, six, seven, eight, and I would take them to dance on Saturday morning or gymnastics or whatever, and my favorite moments and our favorite conversations today are about conversations from that time. And had they had an iPhone, those conversations, that relationship, not just from nostalgia but where the child is saying crazy stuff and parents are laughing and the child gets the idea that if their brain works in a creative way and they say funny things, whatever it is, that kid’s brain grows so quickly during those conversations. So it’s not so much that this (iPhone) is a brain cancer or that there’s a corruption of the conscious mind, it’s just a sort of negative space, and it’s not that it should never be there.
I’ve often heard that everyone in the voice acting community is exceptionally kind, and welcoming, and I was able to experience it first hand. After our interview, Bill introduced me to several of his fellow voice actors, “I could say the New Yorker or the New York Times but this is even cooler: GeekDad.com, Will James, ladies and gentlemen. Buzz. Neil. Will.” They were all very friendly and eager to talk and share stories. And apparently we here at GeekDad.com are way cooler than I thought.
As you may have surmised from our brief interview, Ratner is a fascinating storyteller and Parenting for the Digital Age is chock-full of many more great stories. I highly recommend the book to anyone who loves great storytelling or to any parent who, like my wife and me, struggle with deciding how much technology and screen time is good for our kids and at what age. Ratner gives a lot of good advice and tells a lot of great stories that really helped me frame how I want to approach technology and screens for our family.
Note: I received this book for review purposes.