Robots In Disguise To Starcraft II:
Neil Kaplan Would Rather Help The Troops
Kaplan, not nearly as dangerous as Tychus Fndlay
first met Neil Kaplan a few years ago at SiliCon in San
Jose, where I moderated a panel on creating characters.
At the time, Neil was a successful voice in the gaming and
anime industries, with the possible best-known credit as
what he calls the George Lazenby of the Transformers world
-- voicing Optimus Prime in the Fox Kids version of Transformers:
Robots In Disguise. (That's available on Blu-ray in Europe,
but not yet domestically.)
then, though, Neil landed a plum role in the biggest game
of 2010: Starcraft II, just released in stores. And for
the past few months, his social networking status revealed
another very intriguing project: Audio Theater for Our Troops.
And we pieced together, for full disclosure, that we had
known each other twenty years earlier doing community theater
in Northern California.
the wake of Comic-Con, I got the chance to sit down with
Neil in Los Angeles and talk about these major projects
and their potential impact. I transcribed and edited the
interview, but if you'd
like to listen to it uncut, you may do so here. It's
about twenty minutes long, but Neil is, after all, a voice-over
McCaw: Here with Neil Kaplan, who plays Tychus
Findlay in Starcraft II, and is head of Audio Theater for
Neil Kaplan: Actually, we changed
the title, from "Audio Theater for the Troops" to
"Audio Theater for Our Troops" because eventually
we want to reach out to our allies as well, and either be
adopted by allied nations or at least have our production
design adopted by producers in allied nations.
And of course, that tends to bring people
closer when they hear the title and they're supporting our
troops as opposed to the troops.
McCaw: So talk a little bit about that mission,
because I don't think many people are aware of what you're
Neil Kaplan: I appreciate that.
We're still a fledgling non-profit, even though it is an
idea that came to me several years ago through a rather
circuitous route. Out of high school I had a friend who
graduated with me who served on a nuclear submarine. Two
cousins were in the navy, one of which was on an aircraft
carrier and involved in media production on the ship. That
was the first time I was really made aware of the fact that
there was a need for entertainment. Before that, I guess,
it was just based on seeing M*A*S*H episodes where
they would sit in the mess tent and watch old movies.
In 2001 I was cast as Optimus Prime in
a revival of Transformers. It was called Robots
in Disguise, and we debuted on Fox Kids' television
on Saturday morning, September 8, 2001. And of course Tuesday
morning, September 11, 2001, being the voice of a fire truck
became a whole different experience.
One of the things that happened was a firefighter
in Ohio changed his name to Optimus Prime. He stopped fighting
fires in Ohio and started fighting fires in Iraq, in support
of our men and women fighting and serving.
We would exchange these emails and basically
point our fingers at each other and say, "you're my hero,
no, you're my hero." It was like, "Dude, I do silly
voices for a living, you put your life on the line for strangers,
for men and women in the military. It's amazing. You
are a real hero. What can I do for you?"
And then I thought , oh, I'm a voice-over
guy, I should record something for him. That grew to why
should it just be for him? Why not for all the men and women
that are serving? Because at this point in time, anyone
who owns an mp3 player understands how little space audio
entertainment takes up in the memory of a computer or an
mp3 player or anything of the sort - a smart phone for that
matter --versus video.
Besides which, realistically, and I should
have started with this because it goes even further back
than high school, my mother was a student teacher for a
year or two years for a gentleman who played old radio shows.
This was back in San Jose. He played old radio shows on
Fridays, and I would go and listen to these old radio shows,
and eventually he was my sixth grade teacher.
of Neil's publicity shots.
So I had this natural affinity for radio
shows, and certainly being the awkward kid who did funny
voices at the talent shows and impressions of Jimmy Carter,
Jimmy Cagney and Jimmy Stewart - it was the all-Jimmy show,
just so you know - doing that as a kid I loved audio entertainment.
I loved the old radio shows. So it kind of all wraps back
I realized, or remembered, that when I
was in the sixth grade I would put my head down and for
those minutes that I'm listening, I wasn't in the classroom.
I was in that field with Orson Welles for War of the
Worlds. I was there in New York City with The Shadow.
Again, thinking about those episodes of
M*A*S*H, when they'd watch the movie on the walls
of the mess tent, and of course, out of their peripheral
vision they still knew they were in the mess tent.
So it would only take you so far, transport you so much.
But if you could lay on your bunk and close your eyes for
a minute, you could be in the Batcave. You can be on Mars,
So I started talking to other voice over
actors about doing this. Eventually I started talking to
on-camera actors. And pretty much to every man and every
woman, it was, yes, please, sign me up, what a great idea.
Because let's face it: If I took a week
out of my life and flew over to Iraq and told some jokes
and did some voices, maybe that would be appreciated by
the people that are there, but what about the people who
couldn't get the time off and come see me? What about the
people who are serving in Korea or Germany or under the
ocean or here in the States? It doesn't do any good for
But on the other hand, if I can get an
Oscar-winner in a booth with me for two hours? It takes
up less time out of their schedule, and it's distributed
to more people. It makes a bigger impact. It's there today
and it's there next week and it's there in six months, and
as long as we need men and women serving us, protecting
us, they are going to need to be entertained.
Obviously, Hollywood and Broadway has the
talent to perform those stories, and obviously has the talent
to write those stories. So we're just at the beginning.
We're trying to reach strategic alliances with the performing
unions, with the writers' unions, with hopefully the networks
one day, so we won't have that limitation on what we can
why did this one pop into my mind? I don't know.
My dream, my goal, eventually, is to bring
old casts back together. Because we could get a cast
from an 80s sitcom and perform one of the many episodes
that were written but never videotaped.
McCaw: You could do lost episodes…
Neil Kaplan: And if you saw it,
well, people would recognize that these actors are considerably
older, and it wouldn't be the same. On the other hand, most
of them sound the same. It's a way to reunite them, present
Look, let's face it, nobody's going to
sign up for the Marine Corps or the Coast Guard or the Navy
or the Army or the Air Force just to hear a radio show put
together by Neil Kaplan and his friends. Not gonna happen.
But if just for a moment, they can understand
that we're doing this just for them, it may make a difference.
If only for that brief moment, you know? The same sort of
thing when other organizations send over care packages,
or food from home, or screeners from the Hollywood community.
These are all noble efforts, and I commend them. We're just
seeking to do the same, because we really cannot do enough
for those that are willing to lay down their lives for us.
McCaw: Can you name some of the other people
you have involved so far?
Neil Kaplan: No, I cannot. I can
say that my vice-president on the board is a Colonel in
the Marine Reserves and is a producer in the Hollywood community.
I'm very honored to have a man of his stature and his talent
at my side and at my back. There are times when sometimes
the charge up the hill seems a little much for a creative
person like myself, but when I look and I see a soldier
of his quality, I know I'm doing the right thing.
McCaw: On July 27th, your voice hit a lot of
people's consciousness if not your name, because of a little
game called Starcraft II. Do you want to talk about being
you've heard of it?
Neil Kaplan: It's been a blast.
I've worked on that for three years, and up until about
a year ago I had to sit on the information. Nowadays working
on videogames is a wee bit different than it was a few years
ago. Producers are addicted to non-disclosure agreements.
They don't want you saying a thing.
I think it was Summer 2008 that Blizzard
debuted a trailer in Korea that featured my character being
put into his own personal prison of an armored suit. And
it was one of the most amazing trailers I've ever seen,
between the artistry of the cinematic and the sheer talent
in the editing, it was just absolutely amazing. It built
to this frenzy which ended with my character saying the
line, "Hell, it's about time."
When you talk about a game that people
have ultimately waited twelve years for, that line is very
appropriate. Between the amazing trailer they cut together
and the stunning appropriateness of the line, that trailer's
been viewed many millions of times around the world. Most
people who may be familiar with the game, if they listen
to my natural speaking voice, they're fairly well convinced
that I'm not Tychus Findlay.
And that's a lot of fun. You just go up
to somebody's ear and do the line, and they sort of step
back and look and go, "oh no, you are." (laughs)
I spent a couple of years with just "Autobots transform,"
and people would go, oh, yeah, that's cute, that's nice.
But to really have that sort of visceral effect on people
now is a whole different thing.
McCaw: Not having seen the trailer or played
the game, what is the difference in vocal tone between Tychus
Neil Kaplan: He's an octave or two
lower than I am. The character himself is six foot eight,
three hundred and eighty pounds. Most people tend to think
that the actor would be about the same size. I'm six foot
and trying to get back down to two hundred pounds. (laughs)
McCaw: You want to say something in his voice?
Neil Kaplan: I'm actually hoping
that you could patch something, maybe one of the videos.
To be honest with you, it's such a deep bassy thing, that
I'm afraid that if I held your mic up to my voice just to
hear it, it might be blown out and garbled.
are quite a few out there, and I can guarantee you, folks,
that it was not digitally altered. That is me. I do get
all the way down there. And of course when you compare that
to some of my stage work, which includes playing Mary Sunshine
That's some comparison indeed -- check it out below...
After I turned off the recorder, Neil walked over and did
the line in my ear. Yes, I spilled my iced tea...