The Invisible Mythbuster- Mahmoud Taji Interviews Robert Lee Narrator For Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters (Part 1)

Hello folks, I can’t tell you how excited I am to present to you the first part of my interview with one of the most recognized Narrator in the Business Today. It’s very possible that you are already a fan and you don’t know it. If you’ve ever spent more than a few minutes on the Discovery channel you’ve probably heard my guest today Mr. Robert Lee Narrator for the Hit Discovery Channel Series “MythBusters.”


As you might already know Mr. Lee works out of Sydney Australia and I out of Cairo, Egypt so we had to co-ordinate this interview over the interweb over a period of a few weeks. I will be publishing the interview in 2 parts so check your Emporium RSS feed for the latest update of Taji’s Voice Emporium:

In case you have been living under a rock or have had amnesia here is a youtube clip of mythbusters being introduced by Mr. Robert Lee.

Mahmoud Taji:
First I’d like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to conduct this interview… I’m a huge fan of Mythbusters (it appeals to the male gene in me that likes to blow things up) also as a Voice over artist I appreciate all the subtleties that you put in your work with mythbusters.

Lets start at the beginning… I read on a mythbusters fan site that you were born in the UK… moved to North America (spent some time in Canada I believe as well as the states)  then moved to Australia… Could you give us a little more detail on your early years and what made your parents move to north America… and why you decided to move to Australia?

Robert Lee:
My family moved from England to Canada when I was just seven years old.  I grew up there, did spend some time in the States, but largely a Canadian upbringing.  Then moved to Australia in 1974 with my father (who was an Australian) and sister (who’s now an author back in Canada – Barbara Phinney).  They stayed a year, and went back to Canada, while I stayed on here – there was more opportunity here than I could ever have managed to drum up in Canada, on reflection.  I became an Australian citizen in the late 80s.  Naturalized.  Not by birth and not by voice!
So, I’ve been here for a while, but my formative years were spent in North America.  I like this cultural diversity (if it qualifies as diversity!). But it’s something some people have a hard time understanding… yes, a natural American accent, not bunged on, to use an Australianism.  Some people think I have a natural Australian accent and I perform with an American accent.  Not so.  I certainly can’t do Australian accent, unless you’re after some comic value.  Anyone who tries to put on an Australian accent who comes from somewhere else, is just kidding themselves – it’s the hardest accent to imitate convincingly – there are so many nuances and colloquialisms applied in very subtle ways, to your average American it may be convincing, but an Australian can pick the fake a mile away.  Enough on this.

M T:
How did you get introduced to the Voice Over industry? and have you  worked as anything else?
R L:
I started working in radio in Sydney when I was 16 years old, and I was in awe of the voices around the place.  Many of them were leading voice overs  in Sydney as well as excellent, experienced radio announcers.  But at 2CH I did a couple of ads and got hooked on both radio and voice work.  I did demos and used to play them on the reel-to-reels while the announcers were on air!  (It was a Beautiful Music station, so they were normally doing other things during music ‘sweeps’ – like checking the racing guide or reading a novel.)  They were good days in radio back then.
I moved to one of the network’s regional stations, 2AY Albury, where the manager let me do Wednesday afternoons (so he didn’t have to pay me overtime), as I had expressed an interest in doing airwork before I moved.  I did commercials soon after.  And then moved to drive at 7LA Launceston.  We worked with SMC automation gear, and the tech developed a great method of being able to trigger a song at the right spot in pre-records, allowing us to record voice, and keep talking over the intro.  Mostly, though, it was announcer-assist mode.  But still cutting edge automation (this is 1977!).  After that, back to Albury then Bendigo, then left to do tv audio before heading to 2CC Canberra as copywriter.  Then to 2DAY FM Sydney as copywriter (the only one!) Then back to Canberra, then to Newcastle, Canberra again!, and then to Sydney.

But during this time, in the early days the youngest or newest announcer had to do much of the carting (commercials, etc.).  I’d hear these national voice spots, overseas movie spots, and stuff from the likes of Street Remley Studios in Adelaide.  Street was an American ad man who moved into audio production and one of the greatest radio writers and producers.  Occasionally he’d do spots, and I thought, ‘well, if he can do them in Australia, why can’t I?’
I then bothered the hell out of Ron Scott with demo tapes and phone calls, who ran Australia’s first (and only at the time) voice talent agency, RMK.  He wouldn’t put me on the books, saying there was little call for American accents.  He did, however, have Roger Newcombe on his books, who had an American accent  – an actor I recall being in a evening soapie called ‘The Box’.  Eventually, Ron threw a job my way while I was in Newcastle, to do a job in Sydney at Gemini Studios – for Continental Airlines – a post-sync to a TV spot about the shoot-out at the OK Corral.  Talk about high pressure!  Until then, I’d done all my voicework sitting down and running the panel – alone!.  For this one, I had to stand up! And there were three clients, three agency and one engineer.  All looking at me.
Sometime after that, Ron put me on the books and I found myself in the company of the most talented bunch of voices in the country.  I think this was back around 1983.  That was my first national voice job.  They came in slow, but regularly after that.

Forgive me for mentioning all these places and people – they all deserve a mention. And if the web behaves anything like any other network (if you’ve seen “Connected: The Science of Networks – or similar title – you’d know what I’m talking about here), their names shall linger longer in the electronic ether!

In my other job, I’m an e-marketing and web content manager, and have worked in new media since 1994-ish.  Firstly, on cd-roms, before the web existed, and then building websites and working on content management systems.  Prior to that I worked with the Australian version of the RAB, marketing radio to advertisers and agencies.
I’m always glad I had a career besides voicework, as I’d probably go brain dead if all I did was voicework year-in year-out.

M T:
Could you tell us more on how and when you started to work with the discovery channel… I understand Mythbusters wasn’t the first time you worked with them?

R L:
To be accurate, I mainly work for producers who put shows together for the likes of Discovery.  I remember going along to do a few narration auditions at Beyond when they were in East Chatswood, and never getting anywhere.  But I tried to persevere.  Eventually I ended up doing a seven ep or so series ‘American Spirit’ for Beyond, which aired on Discovery.  That was in 1997 I think (hazy on the exact year).
I’ve since done other documentaries for Discovery and others, including Medical Incredible,  Doping in Sport, Miracle on Everest: The Lincoln Hall Story, Connected: The Power of Six Degrees (by director Annamaria Talas) and others.  I’ve also done some Mythbusters promos for Discovery.

M T:
This Brings us to Mythbusters…. how did that come about? How has that changed your life?

R L:
Soon after I did quite a few travel and adventure and ‘science’ documentaries for Beyond, Peter Rees bailed me up one day around the audio suites, and asked if I wanted have a go at the pilots for a new show.  But, he warned, the read is to be nothing like I’d been doing.  So, he and I worked a bit to get to the area he wanted, we put one ep down, then the other two in the pilot series of three shows.  This was Mythbusters, of course.  Soon after, he got back to me with the news Discovery wanted a few more eps, and off we went from there.  I must say the delivery style has changed over the years.  As it should.

As for changing my life? Well, it’s changed my professional profile.  Usually voiceover artists are anonymous, or mostly – and happily.  Doing a show that seems to have caught on does bring a little more than usual focus to the role.  But, really, it’s still an invisible or comparatively low-profile role and that’s fine with me.

M T:
Do you get to go to Mythbusters show filmings at all? I’m sure you’ve met the crew Jamie, Adam, Tory, Kari and Grant… are they different to how they are on the show?
R L:
Well, living in Sydney means I don’t get to go on location whenever I’m in the neighborhood.  I have had the pleasure of spending time with them a year last October when Adam and Jamie were doing ‘plane on a treadmill’ episode.  Everyone I met there was fantastic.  It’s a small, hard-working crew, well-grounded and talented.  This includes, of course, Adam, Jamie and Kari, Grant and Tory.  Each of them is an ordinary person doing an extraordinary job.  And they’re good at. I particularly like the way they apply their tools and experiences to other tasks.  Tools they developed for a specific task have proved useful for many other totally different applications.  Eg. It takes Jamie, what, an hour, to convert  a car into a remote controlled one.  Brilliant! How handy would it be if we could all do that?!   And I must mention the crew – all of them very cool people.
As for screenings, I’m occasionally invited to Beyond’s screenings, but more often than not on the screening days I’m there, I’m more likely to be putting down an ep in the studio.

M T:
Now if you don’t mind lets talk technical… Dan Tapster the Executive Producer on Mythbusters says “Rob is the consummate professional when it comes to recording. He takes direction extremely well (not that much is needed because of the prep he puts in),” how do you prepare to record the shows. Could you describe the final recording process for us?

R L:
Sure!  A few days before the recording session, I receive a fine cut on DVD and a script.  This usually has the producer’s voice on it for editing purposes.  I read the script through, inserting punctuation because generally they’re lousy at it.  And a comma does make a difference, guys!   I’ll then watch the fine cut, which is as close to the final product I see before it gets to air.  Throughout this process, I’ll make more notes for suggested tweaks, carefully prepared ad-libs, etc. They’re very generous in allowing us (producer and me) the opportunity to fiddle with sentences, quips and the like.

I get in the audio booth with Nathan (head of audio at Beyond) or one of his highly trained and diligent staff running the desk.  The producer (who usually is the writer of the episode) slides in beside them. And after farting around with levels and telling tall tales about how big it is, we put it down cold.  I’ll get directions along the way, but we get it down.  It’s a collaborative effort, making a line sound one way rather than another.  Sometimes lines are said that say one thing, but could possibly infer something else.  We have fun with the words, too.  I recall one episode where the producer included the line, because it was correct and contextually relevant, someone “is playing hide the salami” or similar.  However, I’m kept in line by the producer.

We don’t record to pictures because this just takes too long.  We know what we’re trying to achieve (after 150 hours of programs) and it comes together, mostly. Lol.   I just pity the poor person laying up the tracks because they have to sit and listen to much tripe and silliness along the way.  The producer, Nathan and I have that uniquely Australian trait of abusing each other in jest.  But the problem for me is the talkback isn’t recorded so they never appear to be responsible for the banter – just me!

Each producer has both a writing and producing style, but all in all, we’re pretty efficient at the recording and it’s great to work with everyone on the team.

End of part 1 of the interview… stay tuned…

Listen to Mr. Lee on the Seventh Season of Mythbusters airing now on the Discovery Channel.

Visit Mr. Lee’s website Here

Copyright © Mahmoud Taji 2009. You may not repost or reprint this Interview without Permission of the Author


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