Going Maximus with Optimus Prime

Besides Australian Jessica Gomes, the latest Transformers: Age of Extinction flick features some exotic and gorgeous bodywork

Like me, you probably have fond childhood memories of a favourite cartoon. Mine was Speed Racer, which I watched every Saturday morning sitting on the hardwood floor in front of a black and white TV.

School mates could draw the Mach 5 perfectly; I couldn’t and still can’t. I learned then that words can also create images.

About the same time the old TV was traded in for a new Magnavox with colour, I traded the Mach 5 in my mental garage for something more realistic and with flames.

The Batmobile, like the Barris-mobile from the TV series, was so cool. I set fire to my gokart trying to covert a tin can into a scaled-down copy of the Batmobile’s afterburner.

I’m certainly not going solo when I say a great car is a quality of a good cartoon and the rule applies equally well to TV and to movies.

Thunderbirds Are Go, Bullitt, LeMans, Grand Prix, Mad Max, Ronin, The French Connection, Smash Palace, Little Fauss and Big Halsy (motorbikes), Magnum PI, Gumball Rally, and the Bond and Bourne flicks. What’s on your list?

Transformers the animation series and the movie series must be on someone’s list. Transformers, the cartoon, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, giving the movie series a ready-made audience. Both have been big money earners for toy-maker Hasbro and for Paramount Pictures.

The five movies (including the original 1986 The Transformers: The Movie) alone have grossed almost $US3.8 billion in global box office sales to out-earn Batman, Fast and the Furious and Star Trek, and Transformers is almost equal in earnings with the Spiderman franchise.

To director Michael Bay’s credit, he creatively adapted the animated series to appeal on screen to an international audience, mainly targeting teenage boys and those of us who sat on hardwood floors watching Speed Racer. Bay hit his target audience and Transformers won the 2007 MTV Award for best movie.

The formula is simple. Transformers is about machines, and you expect to see cool cars. Bay delivers in the latest Transformers: Age of Extinction with a mix of exotics like the Pagani Huayra, Lamborghini Aventador and an aging Bugatti Veyron bodied in carbon-fibre with a rich blue overcast. Even an original British-built round-nose Mini appears in several scenes.

The Veyron transforms into the Autobot Drift; a Japanese samurai voiced appropriately by Ken Watanabe, who played the lead in The Last Samurai. You’ll also recognise John Goodman’s voice as the Autobot Hound.

More subtle is the Indian Motorcycles sweat-browned cap Mark Wahlberg dons. The movie, though, is a show piece for General Motors. In addition to Bumblebee – morphing into a 1967 Camaro and into a 2014 Camaro – you’ll see black Cadillac SUVs, a Chevy Volt and even a mid-60s Pontiac GTO and a late-50s Chevrolet  3100 pick-up in early scenes.

Bay honours the city of Pontiac for its support of the film with a wall-sized original Pontiac Division American Indian neon sign in Wahlberg’s barn where Optimus Prime, bodied as a 1973 Marmon cab-over truck, is being rebuilt.

As the yellow 2014 Camaro, Bumblebee wears a new front fascia with a less dramatic grille and smaller headlight fixtures. The tail-lights are basically a less interesting pre-production mockup of the 2014 twin-panel design which replaces the quad-lens layout used from 2009 (MY2010) to 2013. The rear spoiler appears to be the Camaro accessory spoiler from the Chevy Performance catalogue.

The bonnet and front fenders look stock, so the grille change appears to be only a revision to the front plastics. These can’t be hints to future Camaro styling cues, no way. Hopefully, the coming 2016 Transformer movie will give us a good look at what may be the seventh-generation Camaro. Nonetheless, it is obvious GM Design missed an opportunity to create hype about Camaro during a year when Ford launched the new Mustang.

Of course, the new Corvette C7 appears as the Autobot Crosshairs. At times product placement is too intense, and the movie seems like a GM dealer promo. Ultimately, GM dropped the ball again with the new C7 and its limited screen time. Here’s the perfect car to create a great chase. It never happens; instead the main driving action features a Global Rallycross-spec Barina/Sonic/Aveo in a strange four-seat configuration.

GM involvement is deep. So deep the film features a scene shot inside GM’s design studio in the main product review hall, and Ed Welburn, GM’s vice president of global design, has a brief speaking role. And he’s convincing!

A few action scenes are also shot at GM’s Milford Proving Grounds on the high-speed testing circuit.
The real star of Transformers is Optimus Prime, whose distinct voice is the creation of Canadian actor Peter Cullen. He has voiced Prime in the animated series and the movie series, and Cullen will continue to voice Prime in the next two movies.

Cullen is interesting in that he’s not a big man. His natural speaking voice fits his light physical size, yet he somehow creates the deep, authoritative voice of Prime. Don’t forget Optimus Prime is a diesel prime-mover. How do you impersonate a diesel and make it believable?

“I went back to my voice study days where I could develop more resonance through volumes of air and opening of chest and head cavities,” he said of creating Prime’s deep vocal range.

“I also did the voice of Eeyore in Winnie-the-Pooh,” he mentions as we chat about his 30-year career as Optimus Prime. When you listen to Eeyore, the voice isn’t too different from Optimus. Both are deep, as Cullen explains. The difference in each character is how quickly Cullen delivers the words and how he extends the vowels to give confidence to Prime or reluctance to Eeyore.

Cullen’s years with CBC radio are heard in his perfect, direct and clear enunciation. The calm authority you hear in Prime’s voice Cullen credits his brother, a US Marine Corps officer, as the influence. You believe through Cullen that Prime is a warrior.

With all the vocal qualities of a leading man, Cullen has a keen Hollywood eye for on-road talent too. He’s owned four Corvettes, starting with a 1956 three-speed manual. That was replaced by a ’65, and he makes the point of saying “both were used”.

Manuel Carrillo from Corvette Forum spoke with Cullen about those ‘Vettes and shared his notes. You can visit CorvetteForum.com to watch Carrillo’s interview.

“A ’78 Anniversary was new,” Cullen continues and thinks for a moment. “I didn’t have one during the 80s.” He then had a 1990 black Roadster.

“I thought of getting the new C7. My son drove it in Chicago; he’s a stuntman working for Transformers. I saw the new Corvette. Man, I should have bought one. They’ve come a long way,” he says.

Cullen, though, desires for his next Corvette something with more chrome and class. He’d gladly lighten his pockets for a ’59 or ’60 Corvette – you know with the toothed grille. “The styling just brings back so many great memories,” he says.

Coincidence? Watch closely at nine minutes and 44 seconds into Transformers: Age of Extinction. You’ll see the left half of what looks to be a ’60 or ’61 Corvette. Cullen may have missed it. Optimus doesn’t appear on screen for a few more minutes.


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