They were upstarts in the world of animation and rose to be the top contender in the Saturday morning programming business. By bluffing their way to gaining access to a worldwide icon, they got their first big break. From the late 1960s to the end of the 1980s they owned a large share of the animated viewing audience. They built a business mostly on licensing icons from other companies and along the way created a few of their own. Their company changed the rules on what kinds of content could be shown on Saturday mornings, winning awards and cementing their place in animation history. This is the Saturday Morning Experience look at the world of Filmation.
An art school graduate a year behind Andy Warhol from Pittsburgh, a radio disc jockey from Boston, and a former Disney animator seemed an unlikely trio to form a new animation company that would rival Hanna-Barbera, the kings of Saturday morning, in both quantity and quality. Yet they did just that. After a few false starts, and an amazing amount of hard work and great networking, they finally got their company off the ground.
Lou Scheimer, recent art school grad from Carnegie Tech, was working for Larry Harmon Pictures making Bozo and Popeye cartoons with Hal Sutherland who had worked for Disney. When Larry Harmon closed down the studio in 1961 they went to work for True Line, working on ten short animated films based on the life of Christ for the Lutherans. There they met former DJ Norm Prescott, who had been working on “Pinocchio in Outer Space”. They left True Line, and Scheimer started working on commercials with a company that would eventually become Filmation. Lou decided on the name because they were working on film but doing animation. They weren’t excited by the name, but it stuck.
Their first big project was a feature film called “Journey Back to Oz” which after story boarding, voice recording, and music scoring had run into financial trouble. The movie had to be put on hold. They continued to work on commercials and then tried unsuccessfully to sell an animated pilot for a series based on The Marx Brothers. After another series failed to sell they were looking at closing down until a fateful meeting with DC editor Mort Weisinger who was looking for someone to do a Superman cartoon.
The folks from National Periodical, DC comics’ name at the time, wanted to take a look at the studio to see if this new company could handle the project. At the time, the only people working there were Lou and Hal. They had 24 empty desks with a mannequin with a wig and glasses for a receptionist. Lou told Norm to okay a meeting and then went to work calling family (Lou and his wife and daughter all ended up doing voices to save on costs), animation friends from other studios, and voice actors to pretend to work at desks.
They even borrowed a moviola and had Lou’s friend, Ted Knight, pretend to be an editor working at it. Since Ted didn’t know the first thing about working a moviola, Lou told Ted if they asked him anything to say “I’m busy, there’s trouble at the lab. I can’t talk to you now.” The bluff was working as the exec seemed impressed at all the people there and then one of the animators had to get back to the studio where he actually worked and got up to leave. As he walked out the door, Lou said “Dock that son of a gun.” Then Ted Knight came in eager to say his line and said “There’s trouble at the lab!” leading the exec to be impressed at the tight ship he believed them to be running.
That ruse led them to their very first contracted show for network TV. On September 10th, 1966 “The New Adventures of Superman” aired on CBS. It was very close to its silver age source material as Mort Weisinger supervised the the writing of the episodes which were written by comic book writers like Leo Dorfman, Bob Haney, and George Kashdan.
Bud Collyer, the voice of Superman/Clark Kent from the old Fleisher shorts and the Superman radio show, reprised those roles for the series. The show featured two Superman segments and one Superboy segment which often featured Krypto the Superdog. The show was a great hit and it got two more seasons. They added Aquaman the following year along with segments with other DC characters; Green Lantern, Hawkman, The Atom, The Flash, The Teen Titans, and The Justice League. Batman and Robin were licensed elsewhere which is why they weren’t a part of the show at that time.
Next up they made a show for ABC loosely based on Jules Verne’s novel “Journey to the Center of the Earth”. Back at CBS they produced the first of what would be many different series based on The Archies comics characters. They teamed up with Don Kirshner, who had produced the music for the Monkees, to create the Archie’s sound and they had a massive hit with “Sugar Sugar” right off the bat. This would be one of the first shows to add original pop music into the cartoons which would be a trend that would last for many years. The rights to Batman and Robin freed up and Filmation added them to the lineup next along with Batgirl who had just been introduced in live action only a year earlier.
The 1970s brought Filmation some of its greatest successes as well as some of its lesser quality shows. Among the hits were “Sabrina and the Groovie Goolies”, “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids”, “The Brady Kids”; “Star Trek: The Animated Series, “The New Adventures of Gilligan”, “Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle” and “The New Adventures of Flash Gordon”. The 70s also got Filmation involved with live action programming. They found great success with “Shazam!” an updated version of the old Fawcett Comic’s Captain Marvel. That success was followed up with a similar program to attract a female audience, “The Secrets of Isis”. “The Ghost Busters” and “Uncle Croc’s Block” were a couple of comedic live action programs. They found they were better suited to the sci-fi fare than comedy and created hits with “Ark II”, “Space Academy”, and “Jason of Star Command”.
Moving into the 1980s Filmation found more success with syndicated weekday shows rather than Saturday morning programming. It was then they had hits with “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe:”, “She-Ra: Princess of Power”, and “BraveStarr”.
One of the ideas they put forward in a lot of their programming was to teach kids morals. This was most evident in the Shazam and Isis programs as they actually had a separate morality segment at the end of each show (in case the message may have not been clear enough in the episode). From Fat Albert to He-Man they found it important to use their platform to teach kids basic messages of good behavior and keys to success.
Filmation did have a go at some theatrical productions. They finally got their “Journey Back to Oz” movie finished and on screens in 1972. That same decade they produced versions of “Treasure Island” and “Oliver Twist”. Their last project before closing down the studio for good was “Happily Ever After”, a sequel to Snow White released in the early 1990s.
The ownership of the studio changed hands a few times before Westinghouse finally closed the studio in 1989. They sold everything to a company led by L’Oreal which ended up owning the library. Of course since much of their library was filled with characters owned by other companies the VHS and DVD libraries have been varied throughout the years. Many of the programs rights’ were eventually retrieved by the original owners for their production to the home video market. You can find many of their shows in either collections or series in their entirety on DVD releases today.
So it was that a little production company operating out of Reseda, CA took on the giants of the animation business and ended up becoming one themselves. No matter how much a fan of Hanna-Barbera or Sid & Marty Krofft shows you may be, there’s a better than good chance you enjoyed plenty of Filmation shows on Saturday mornings. They had some great music programs from the Hardy Boys, to the Archies, to the Brady Kids, and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.
Their use of rotoscoping helped them develop their own unique recognizable style. They had success with great super hero shows, some great sci-fi shows, and some great comedies. Their stable of voice talent which included Ted Knight, Larry Storch, Allan Melvin, and Howard Morris was top notch. They introduced Rick Springfield to a children’s audience who would go on to be some of his biggest fans as teenagers. They taught morals and had positive messages in their shows. Filmation was a huge part of The Great Saturday Morning Experience. You can’t have grown up as a kid watching TV from the late 1960s to the early 1980s and not have experienced some Filmation somewhere.