When I think about the beginnings of the Saturday morning cartoon era in animation history (a period that started in the late fifties), I immediately think of Jay Ward and Hanna-Barbera. But if there was a third head on the Mount Rushmore of Saturday morning cartoons it would be Filmation. And you know what? They made some cartoons that could easily stand toe-to-toe with Jay Ward and Hanna-Barbera’s output, and a few even surpass them in quality. That might not be saying much if you know what the quality of most of those shows were like, but I do think Filmation stood out in a few interesting ways.
The three people who founded Filmation in 1962 were Norm Prescott, Hal Sutherland and Lou Scheimer. Hal Sutherland, an animator from Cambridge, Massachusetts, worked for Disney in the fifties animating on Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp and Sleeping Beauty, and he would become the directing force behind most of the Filmation output thanks to his experience with the medium. While working on Bozo the Clown and Popeye TV cartoons for Larry Harmon Productions in the late fifties, Sutherland met Lou Scheimer, a Carnegie Mellon University art major from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the two became friends. Larry Harmon Productions closed down in 1961, so Sutherland and Scheimer began working together on TV commercials instead with the animation studio that would eventually become Filmation Associates.
Luckily the two men were hired to continue making animated TV cartoons by the Japan-owned studio SIB Productions (the company later known as Sib Tower 12 Productions and then MGM Animation/Visual Arts after Chuck Jones took over the company following his departure from Warner Bros. to make animated films like How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, The Dot and the Line and The Phantom Tollbooth for MGM). Once Paramount bought SIB, Norm Prescott was brought on board. Boston-born Prescott was a radio DJ in the forties before becoming a station director in the fifties and serving as vice president of music and merchandising at Embassy Pictures Corporation.
Prescott, who would go on to co-produce the Belgian animated film Pinocchio in Outer Space (1965) by Belvision (an animation studio founded in 1954 and later known for animated adaptations of Tintin and Asterix), would be the man who helped Filmation get their first major project going when they decided to work on the animated film Journey Back to Oz, although despite being finished in 1962, it ran into financial problems and would remain unreleased for years until finally being shown in 1972. But in the meantime, Filmation was having much better luck working with SIB on television.
Their first animated project for SIB was a cliffhanger-filled space serial called Rod Rocket (1963) about a boy named Rod and his best friend Joey (“Gallopin’ galaxies!”) who are sent on a mission into space by Professor Argus and battle two dimwitted Russian cosmonauts along the way.
That show lasted one year, but Filmation would have a lot more success once they adapted previously existing IPs into animation, like the CBS series The New Adventures of Superman (1966-70), which led to other animated DC adaptations from Filmation starring characters like Superboy, Batman, Aquaman, The Flash, Green Lantern, the Teen Titans and the Justice League.
Most prolific was the CBS series The Archie Show (1968-69), which was based on the Archie comics and was Filmation’s first major hit, especially when the fictional band from the show had an actual hit song in the real world called “Sugar, Sugar,” which remained a number-one Billboard Hot 100 chart-topping seller for four straight weeks, from the 1969 album Everything’s Archie.
The Archie Show morphed into The Archie Comedy Hour, which introduced Sabrina the Teenage Witch to the world of animation, and later Archie’s TV Funnies, Everything’s Archie, The New Archie and Sabrina Hour and finally The U.S. of Archie. Meanwhile there were spin-offs occuring at the same time like Sabrina and the Groovie Ghoulies, which would eventually lead to The Groovie Ghoulies and Friends.
Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (1972-76) would be another well-regarded series from Filmation. It was educational but also lots of fun, full of music and surprisingly funny for a Saturday morning cartoon at that time, which was likely due to the influence of comedian Bill Cosby, who was also becoming one of America’s most beloved comedians in those days. The show even briefly returned in the eighties on syndication right before Bill Cosby‘s other hit series The Cosby Show aired on NBC.
Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973-74), which featured the same actors from the live-action version, was just as entertaining as the original Star Trek, and it may have even been the best written American animated series of the seventies, even winning an Emmy for its writing, a first for the Star Trek franchise.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983-85), based on the line of action figures by Mattel, inspired a run of animated shows used to sell toys, which might be the lowest period in the animation medium’s history, although some of those shows like Transformers and My Little Pony have gone on to have ardent fan bases, so the strategies from companies like Mattel and Hasbro technically paid off, and He-Man also opened the door to the idea that animated TV shows could be successful in first-run syndication, which was definitely a good thing because it meant that NBC, CBS and ABC did not necessarily need to find value in your show in order for it to find success on television. He-Man’s success also led to the spin-off She-Ra: Princess of Power (1985-86), which was also successful.
Other animated shows from Filmation include The Hardy Boys (1969), Lassie’s Rescue Rangers (1972-73), Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle (1976-80), The New Adventures of Flash Gordon (1979-82) and the space Western Bravestarr (1987-88), as well as film adaptations like Journey to the Center of the Earth (1967-69) and Fantastic Voyage (1968-69), and animated versions of live-action TV shows like The Brady Kids (1972-73), The New Adventures of Gilligan (1974-75) and its spin-off Gilligan’s Planet (1982-83). And after Journey Back to Oz finally came out in 1972, Filmation made a few more animated features like Treasure Island (1973), Oliver Twist (1974), Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night (1987) and Snow White sequel Happily Ever After (1990).
Filmation also ventured into live-action television production with shows like Shazam! (1974-76) based on the DC comic; The Secrets of Isis (1975-76) which was the first American live-action television series about a female superhero, pre-dating The Bionic Woman and Wonder Woman, and often crossing over with Filmation’s Shazam! (Isis was later adopted into DC Comics continuity); The Ghost Busters (1975) about a group of bumbling ghost detectives and starring Larry Storch of F Troop fame; post-apocalyptic sci-fi kids’ series Ark II (1976); Space Academy (1977) and Space Academy spin-off Jason of Star Command (1978-79).
Side note: the creators of the unrelated 1984 Ivan Reitman comedy Ghostbusters had to obtain permission to use that name, but that didn’t stop Filmation from trying to capitalize on that film’s success by creating an animated reboot of their old series in 1986. When DiC created their animated TV adaptation of Reitman’s film the same year, they called it The Real Ghostbusters as a dig at Filmation.
Filmation went under in 1989 and most of their cartoons that aren’t based on pre-existing IPs were absorbed into Classic Media (now known as DreamWorks Classics, the current holding company of properties like Felix the Cat, VeggieTales, and the Harvey, UPA and Rankin/Bass libraries) and are now owned by DreamWorks Animation, which led to things like Netflix’s 2018 She-Ra reboot, which DreamWorks produced.
My opinion of Filmation is that it was led by savvy business people but was not particularly interested in making great art, which made it similar to Hanna-Barbera, a company that also cared more about quantity than quality. The cost-cutting on TV animation was also very noticeable at that studio from its constant use of recycled animation, occasional rotoscoping and LONG background pans (gotta save money on character animation somehow), but I don’t blame them for those things because that was the reality of TV animation budgets. I do however blame them for their extremely formulaic plots, especially when Jay Ward already proved you could tell great stories with limited animation back in the fifties. With the exception of a few truly entertaining shows like Fat Albert, Star Trek and Flash Gordon, only the least judgmental animation fans could sit through the majority of Filmation’s TV output without getting bored, especially when in those days they hit many of their educational and moral lessons so squarely on children’s heads that it felt almost condescending, although Hanna-Barbera was sometimes guilty of this too. But while Hanna-Barbera and Filmation had a lot in common, Filmation’s cartoons sometimes felt a bit more ambitious, with Fat Albert exploring subjects like racism and Bravestarr featuring what might be the first animated character in TV history to ever die from a drug overdose. Those kinds of things actually paved the way for TV animation to evolve into a more mature storytelling medium by the time it ventured away from Saturday mornings and into prime time and cable.
I have to watch the Filmation films someday. I’ve only seen Journey to Oz.
Don’t expect any masterpieces.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Tarzan is my nostalgia trip. I was in the first grade when it was on the local TV and we were collecting Panini stickers from the show (with a collector book) and all the exchange extravagance that comes with that. 😀
OMG you made me google it and I found it!
LikeLiked by 1 person