In 1966, animation studio Filmation was about to close their doors for good when they were saved – literally, by Superman.
That story and dozens of others, fill the 288 over-sized pages of a new book devoted to the life of Filmation founder Lou Scheimer. The book was written with the help of Star Trek tie-in writer Andy Mangels but rather than produce a boring, factual biography, Andy let’s Lou tell his tales and that’s what makes this volume worth reading.
From page one, Lou Scheimer: Creating the Filmation Generation reads as if you’re sitting down to coffee with Scheimer himself. The passages have a tendency to ramble and a couple of the anecdotes sound like puffed up whale tales, but that’s what it’s like when you’re pulling memories out of a Hollywood icon.
Yes, I said Hollywood Icon.
Lou Scheimer and his partner Norm Prescott revolutionized Saturday morning television. If you were a kid in the 70’s, you watched Filmation cartoons on TV. Archie, The Hardy Boys, Fantastic Voyage and Star Trek: The Animated Series.
Filmation did very well with animated adaptations of popular TV shows. The Brady Kids, Lassie’s Rescue Rangers, The New Adventures of Gilligan and My Favorite Martians.
They also brought the beloved superheros of the DC comics to life with their first big hit, The New Adventures of Superman and later, Aquaman and Batman.
But what really set the company apart from their competitors was their distinct animation style. Since they were doing all the work here and not abroad, Filmation had to find a way to cut costs and speed up the work. Disney animators had years to turn out a movie, but Filmation had to turn out a new TV episode every week.
They quickly learned that they could reuse stock shots of common actions. It began when they started using frames of a flying Superman to pad a short episode. Why create new frames every week when Superman is doing the same old thing? From there, they began getting ahead of the game by creating stock footage to use prior to drawing each weekly episode.
This technique is the reason many people complain about the low quality of Filmation shows, but looking back, it’s what made them stand out in a crowd. And as Scheimer says in the book, “the audience really grew to enjoy it because they knew what the characters acted like and moved like. And our stock stuff looked great!”
My favorite Filmation cartoon was The Groovie Ghoulies. I was, and still am, a classic monster fan, so I couldn’t get enough of Frank, Drac, Wolfie and the gang. And they weren’t just funny — they sang and they had their own album. (Which I owned and wish I still had.)
In 1972, Filmation made another major breakthrough in children’s television with Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. This cartoon was set in a gritty, urban world and offered weekly lessons in morality. Backed by a board of educators from several major universities, Fat Albert taught kids how to deal with their problems in a productive and respectful manner.
It was one of their most successful and high-profile shows running on and off until 1985.
Where No Cartoon Has Gone Before
The section devoted to the infamous animated Star Trek series is peppered with trivial details and names that will be familiar to any fan of the original show. Specifically, Scheimer remembers DeForest Kelley as “a gentle soul. . he didn’t have to act; he was [Doctor McCoy]. He also remembers Nichelle Nichols being “prettier in person than she looked on screen. And she was sweeter than she was on screen.” He talks about how she whooped for joy when she read a script where Uhura takes over the Enterprise.
As for the two leads, Scheimer says, “About the only problem was that Shatner and Nimoy counted their lines. If one got too many more than the other, we’d hear about it.”
From there Lou Scheimer: Creating the Filmation Generation delves into the company’s live action period where they produced Shazam, Isis, Space Academy and Jason of Star Command. Then they reinvented the genre again as the force behind the wildly popular He-Man and the Masters of the Universe franchise.
I could go on and on. Honestly, every page of this book was like revisiting my childhood and I loved getting a candid, behind the scenes look at how these shows came together — most of them by the thinnest edge.
The book is also loaded with photos of Lou and his animators, the talented voice actors and there are plenty of cartoon graphics as well. Most of the photos are black and white, but there’s a six-page color spread mostly devoted to He-Man, but a few other properties show up as well.
The only thing missing from this over-sized paperback is an index. I would have like to look up my favorite shows before sitting down to read from page one, but that’s a minor quibble.
If you’re a fan of TV animation (or you have one on your holiday gift list), pick up Lou Scheimer: Creating the Filmation Generation. It’s new from TwoMorrows Publishing and it’s a great read.