America’s Animation Studio: The Story of Filmation
By John C. Alsedek:
I was a strange kid. When most of my peers were watching cartoons on Saturday mornings, I was engrossed in old horror movies and Japanese live-action kaiju shows such as Ultraman and had zero time for the anemic dreck that ran on the networks in that time slot. But during weekdays over the summer, cartoons made it onto my viewing schedule. Most of them were strictly background noise, but a few got my actual attention; and chief among those was The Adventures of Batman.
For an eight year old like me, it checked all the boxes: a lot of action, a little humor, recognizable supervillains instead of the generic scientists/aliens on then-current shows such as Super Friends, catchy theme music, and the booming voice of the late, great Ted Knight. Shortly thereafter, I discovered other cartoons such as Fantastic Voyage (which to me still has one of the all-time great TV themes), Superman, and Aquaman. And then I realized that they all originated from the same company. That company was Filmation.
Filmation Associates was a production company based in Reseda, in the San Fernando Valley just north of Hollywood. It was founded by Lou Scheimer, Norm Prescott, and Hal Sutherland in 1962. The fledgling company originally began with the intention of doing animation for films but soon moved over to television, doing commercials and trying to develop several original series. But the trio found no takers for the shows and were on the verge of shuttering the studio doors when fate took a hand. They received a call from DC Comics editor Mort Weisinger, who offered them the opportunity to produce a Superman cartoon series for CBS. Desperate for that big break, they immediately accepted. But first, the CBS executives wanted to come visit the Filmation studio, which posed a small problem: there really wasn't a Filmation studio. Oh sure, Scheimer and company had a suite of offices in an old bank. But in terms of personnel, the three of them were the entire production staff! So the day before the CBS execs arrived, Scheimer et al. called in basically everyone they knew—including family members—and had them pretend to be the Filmation production staff. The ruse worked, CBS gave Filmation the green light, and The New Adventures of Superman went into production, premiering on September 10, 1966.
The New Adventures of Superman was a big hit, and Filmation was suddenly the hottest animation studio on television. Within two years, Scheimer and the Filmation crew had brought multiple other DC Comics stars to TV, including Batman, Aquaman, Superboy, and the Justice League of America. However, Filmation’s superhero shows would all soon be cancelled, not due to low ratings but rather to the efforts of Action for Children's Television, a grassroots organization dedicated to getting violence out of children's television in favor of more educational programming. ACT was so successful that there was nary a punch thrown in a children's show for almost fifteen years. But fortunately for Filmation, it had already moved into its next phase of growth.
Starting with its second big hit, 1968's The Archie Show, Filmation entered its golden age. During the seventies and eighties, it was almost impossible to tune in to a block of cartoon programming that didn't include at least one or two Filmation shows. And while a lot of it was pure filler (Gilligan's Planet . . . really?), Lou Scheimer and the Filmation gang made a concerted effort to create genuinely educational programs when the opportunity presented itself; in particular, they were a pioneer in terms of diversity. The best example of this is Filmation's Star Trek: The Animated Series, which brought back most of the original show's cast in voiceover roles as well as some of its best writers; the result was a Daytime Emmy. Other examples include the critically acclaimed Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, BraveStarr, and the live-action show Ark II. Even the later, more commercially geared He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (it was based on a line of toys by Mattel, after all) featured individual episodes that went beyond the typical cartoon tropes to teach real-life lessons.
At a personal level, I have a lot of fondness for Filmation—and not just because their shows were such a part of my childhood. No, it's because of Lou Scheimer himself. It's easy to bag on Filmation's often rudimentary, repetitive, and clearly padded animation; heck, even as a kid I would look at a Superman or Batman cartoon and think, "Don't they use that exact same shot in every episode?" And it's true: compare the Filmation Superman cartoons to the Fleischer Studios Superman animated shorts, and Filmation's version of the Man of Steel comes up short in pretty much every department. But you have to understand why Scheimer and company cut corners wherever they could. It wasn't that the studio lacked the talent to produce higher-end animation; Filmation proved itself capable of theatrical-quality work with series such as their Flash Gordon serial. It's that animation is an expensive, time-consuming process, and Scheimer cut those corners because he was absolutely determined to keep his entire Filmation staff employed at a time when all the other big U.S. animation studios had outsourced most of their artwork overseas. So, I tend to cut Scheimer and Filmation all sorts of slack.
Still, Scheimer could only hold off the inevitable for so long. The end came in 1989 when Filmation's parent company, Westinghouse, sold Filmation to Paravision International, a consortium led by cosmetics giant L'Oreal. Scheimer had serious reservations about the sale but was assured by Westinghouse that Filmation would continue on unchanged. So he signed off on the sale . . . only for Westinghouse to immediately—and I mean immediately—close the Filmation studios, doing so just ONE DAY before a new law requiring companies to give sixty days' notice before mass terminations went into effect. You see, the new owners never had any intention of continuing to produce new programming, they just wanted Filmation’s film library. So Scheimer, in shock himself, had to gather the entire Filmation crew and break the bad news. That they reacted not with anger but with applause for Lou's long-time efforts on their behalf was a testament to the true family atmosphere that Filmation possessed.
You know what I wrote at the beginning about not watching cartoons on Saturdays? I just realized that wasn't entirely true. I did watch Filmation's Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, the star of which, Bill Cosby, had previously made television history on the sixties secret agent series I Spy. We'll be talking I Spy next time . . . until then, thanks for tuning in!
Writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment.