Like many kids who grew up in the 80s, one of my favorite shows was Transformers, the beloved animated series that brought Optimus Prime and his nemesis Megatron to life on the small screen. Among the show's other millions of fans was a young Jon Bailey, a name you might not ultimately recognize, but whose voice you may have heard plenty of over the past few years, as the narrator of Screen Junkies' Honest Trailers. His career as the "Epic Voice Guy" comes full circle as he voices the character who inspired him the most as a kid, Optimus Prime, in Transformers: Combiner Wars, a new animated web series debuting August 2 on Machinima's new go90 platform.
Taking place 40 years after the great war on Earth, the eight-episode digital series introduces all-new characters that, combined with characters fans have known for decades, will tell the Transformers storytelling in an exciting new way. The Autobots and Decepticons have disbanded and returned to Cybertron. With the days of Optimus Prime and Megatron over, Cybertron is now ruled by a triumvirate. However, an ancient technology has enabled a new threat, the power for multiple Transformers to combine into one massive, dangerous form: Combiners.
Machinima and go90 also debuted a four-part prelude series which kicked off with Optimus Prime. The Optimus Prime episode follows the former leader of the Autobots, reflects on the great war and how it finally ended with a duel between him and the mighty Megatron. The second episode centers on Victorion, a Combiner born from the magic of the 'Enigma of Combination', who describes her anger with this new state of affairs and proclaims her intention to save the Transformers galaxy from the chaos created in the aftermath of disbanding the Autobots and Decepticons.
The third episode follows Starscream, who is no longer the villain we once knew him as. He is now a member of a great 'Council' along with The Mistress of Flame from the planet Caminus and Rodimus Prime. The burden of responsibility is heavy on the three due to the destruction and loss of life from the ongoing Combiner Wars. The final episode follows Windblade, once an official 'City Speaker' to the gigantic 'Titans,' who is tired of the bureaucratic non-action of the Council, who seem to sit idly while her people and her cities on Caminus perish. She decides that the only way to end the Combiner Wars is to take matters into her own vengeful hands. In case you missed the prelude series, we have all four episodes below, along with the premiere of Combiner Wars.
I recently had the chance to speak with Jon Bailey over the phone about the odd jobs he took before his career in voice over, how Peter Cullen's original Optimus Prime voice still inspires him all these years later and much more. We also discuss upcoming projects, his time making Honest Trailers and much more. Take a look at our conversation below.
I've been a big fan of Honest Trailers for awhile, so it's great to talk to you.
Jon Bailey: Thanks. I appreciate it.
I read somewhere that your voice just suddenly cracked as a teenager. Was that kind of the 'ah-hah' moment? Did you realize maybe voice work was something you could pursue then?
Jon Bailey: It sounds like you might be getting a second hand or third hand version of something that happened. The coolest part about the whole story, about being in Transformers, is that was the original show, Optimus Prime's voice in the original cartoon, that made me pay attention and be like, 'Wow I would love to be a voice or do that one day.' So, it planted the seed for me to become a voice actor, and with my wife's motivation to pursue it, I eventually became a professional voice actor. So, coming full circle and getting to work on the brand that inspired me in the first place, is just amazing. As far as the movie trailer voices, yeah, I was 12, singing in school, and I had won first place in a competition. When I went up to sing it perform it at the awards banquet, my voice just decided to change just then, and it was like, 'Ahhh... oh, I have things to go do.' But no, I've been doing impressions since I was like two or three years old. I've been practicing on Optimus Prime for 32 years (laughs).
I was obsessed with that show when I was a kid to, so I get it.
Jon Bailey: Yeah. It was such a cool concept and I loved that the toy was a car and a robot and a puzzle all in one. The packaging was gorgeous, and I was immediately hooked, but that iconic "Transform and roll out," that was just the hook that was all I needed.
Have you actually reached out to Peter at all?
Jon Bailey: I got a chance to thank him in person, in 2011 at BotCon, for the inspiration to pursue voiceover as a career. I thanked him helping put food on the kids' table and a roof over their head and clothes on their backs. He was so humble, and he said, it never ceases to amaze him how this one job and this one character affected so many different people, in so many different ways. I never do an impression of somebody's character back to them, but he actually came out and just asked me, 'What does out sound like?' So I did it and he's like, 'Wow, come here, give me a hug.' He just had a birthday, and I didn't notice it before, but he's the exact same age as my dad and they both have a birthday in July, so that's crazy. (In perfect Optimus Prime voice) "Can i call you Papa?" (Laughs)
In between high school and all of this, I read that you had a lot of different kinds of jobs before pursuing this.
Jon Bailey: Yeah, a lot of food service, a lot of heavy equipment moving around. Apparently, I liked working with machines (laughs). Nothing like dropping a giant pallet full of s--t that takes six hours to pick up.
You have been quite well established over the past few years with Honest Trailers and other things, so when Combiner Wars came around, was this something you actively went out for, or was this something they approached you for?
Jon Bailey: Yeah, they approached me. I've been introducing myself to Hasbro and, more recently Machinima, since I've first been able to go to these conventions. One of the ideas behind going to these conventions was meeting the people behind the things that I loved. I had always gone to the Hasbro booth and I had worked on a Hasbro job way back when I started as a professional voice actor, back in 2009, I think it was. It was the voice for something with Star Wars at the time and one of them happened to be Star Wars/Transformer, and I did the voice for the Annakin toy. So I was like, it's still officially Transformers, so yay! There are a few people who work in different areas, so a few people knew who I was and the more I went out there, the more I became familiar with them. I would go to BotCon, because that's specifically a Transformers/Hasbro thing, and within the last couple of years, once the popularity of the new media stuff I worked on, they started to realize, 'Oh, that's who you are.' So it started clicking and they reached out to me and said, 'Hey, we think you'd be perfect for Optimus Prime.' The first thing I said was, 'Not if Peter Cullen is gonna do it, because that's my hero and I'd hate to take him off.' They said, 'No, no, we're going in a whole new direction, new cast.' OK, I'm cool with that.
I got a chance to see the first few of these episodes, and I thought they were really cool. It's a really interesting take on this world, and it's been awhile since I've seen any of these other incarnations. Can you talk a bit about what you wanted to bring to this version of Prime? He's obviously a lot different than what we've seen in these previous animated shows.
Jon Bailey: I talked about this in earlier interviews, but Prime has kind of evolved on his own. He's kind of transformed, if you will. In the old 80s days, he was kind of John Wayne, and Peter Cullen, used some of his brother. He was in the military so he had a very militaristic, gunslinger cowboy kind of feel. He was always like, 'Autobots, transform and roll out, and Megatron, you don't stand a chance.' He'd use contractions back then, and then, it was like when Matthew McConaughey won the Oscar. He went from being like, (Dazed and Confused voice) 'Hey, all right all right,' to, (Lincoln commercial voice) "All of a sudden he talks like this." In the (Michael Bay) movies, Optimus Prime is very serious and uses epic speeches and he's the inspriational guy, so it's somewhere in between there. You see in the prelude, you see that Optimus Prime is no longer the leader of the Autobots. It came down to a big battle between, finally, him and Megatron, toe-to-toe, one of them was going to take out the other one, and Optimus Prime obviously wins, and the show takes off from there. That happened in the past, and so he's kind of like wanting to keep the peace now. He's a war hero, but he's not currently fighting anymore, and he's trying to prevent another war from starting. You hear that in the trailer, "If you do this, it will only start another war," so he's kind of trying to be a guide, a peacekeeper. It's not that battle-hardened shoot-first from the old days, and it's not that epic speech-giver from the movies. It's a little bit of old and a little bit of new. It still feels familiar to the original character, while adding something different to it.
Are these episodes all fully done and animated when you go in to do the voice? Sometimes you'll only get artwork and sometimes you'll get the whole thing, so what did you have to work from here?
Jon Bailey: Yeah, there was animation to go along with it. It wasn't the final finished version. I'm sure they have to polish it and make it perfect, but we could actually see what was on the screen and had to match the times for what they said and stuff. This is my first animated series, and that's been a goal of mine ever since I became a professional voice actor, to be in an animated series. For your first animated series as a voice actor to be the one that you loved the most? It's the best in the world. I could not have picked a better show to start with. I don't often get to record with other voice actors, even with video games, they don't record you all together. So to get in there with the cast and to have that interaction with everybody, was really cool. Of course, all of the behind-the-scenes stuff was so much fun. As soon as they allow me to post some of that, I will. It was really great. It was like, 'This is it. I'm working on Transformers!' This has been a lifelong dream come true for me, especially to get into the series and the story, it's so freaking good. It's cool.
There are eight episodes for this first season, so has there been talk yet of doing a second yet?
Jon Bailey: I cannot confirm or deny anything about that (laughs).
Is there anything else that you're working on, voice-wise, that you can talk about?
Jon Bailey: That I can talk about, there's Dishonor 2, coming November 11. There's another game that I have coming next spring, but I can't talk about it until they start posting stuff about it. I got to see a few sneak peeks of things I'm working on at E3, and it's really cool. That's about what I'm allowed to talk about.
Is there any particular movie coming out that you can't wait to do an Honest Trailer for?
Jon Bailey: You know, not really. We just did the big ones, so I don't know. I just read the descriptions as they send them to me, so I'm up for anything.
Awesome. That's my time. Thanks so much, and best of luck with everything.
Jon Bailey: Thank you so much, Brian. Nice to meet you.
Transformers: Combiner Wars debuts Tuesday, August 2 on go90 in the United States, as well as launching internationally on Sohu in China and on Vimeo and YouTube in the rest of the international markets. In case you missed them, you can check out all four prelude series episodes below, along with the first full episode of Transformers: Combiner Wars. Stay tuned for more on this hit series as the first season continues.