Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Filmation's Last Days -- Part I

A while ago I wrote about working at Walt Disney Productions (as it was then called) and my ten years in the creative trenches. What follows is about working at a studio on the OTHER end of the San Fernando Valley -- Filmation. It's about my time there, which also happened to be the last nine months of the studio's existence. ...

“Mr. Hulett! Mr. Hulett!”

The thirteen-year-old girl pounded up the stairs, sliding to a stop beside me. I turned and glared at her.


My voice had a serrated edge that could have ripped fur off an eight-week-old puppy. She and I had not been getting along. She now blinked at me. Swallowed.

“Never mind,” she said. With that, Drew Barrymore went back down the stairs, head down.

It was the last day of the school year. I stood outside my classroom at Stoneridge Prep, a private school in the heart of the San Fernando Valley where I had been teaching English the previous nine months. Ms. Barrymore was one of a couple hundred upscale students to whom I had assigned essays and reading assignments and the other flotsam and jetsam that goes with middle school English.

I was making $350 per week. ...

For the previous few months, Stoneridege Preparatory School had been my own private circle of hell. A snot-nosed eighth-grader had vandalized by car, and that had let to a fight with the school’s principal (and owner) over who was going to pay for the wrecked hood of my Toyota Corolla that the kid had jumped on. Stoneridge students had grown rebellious as June approached, and well-aimed spit wads lofting toward the white board or the back of Teacher’s head had become an art form for some of the older boys. Added to which, I had grown tired of the endless sixty-hour weeks.

I listened to Ms. Barrymore’s footsteps clack into the distance and thought to myself: Maybe I’ve gotten into the wrong profession.

I had been teaching for two years, but a couple of months before I’d sat in a ballroom at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel watching “The Great Mouse Detective” fail to win an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America. Envy and regret gnawed at me. All my old Disney co-workers were sitting there drinking wine, still making animated features. Still making magic.
There had to be some way I can get back into the business of making cartoons. But no handy routes came to mind.

Stoneridge Prep’s school year ended. I gave notice and went searching for other work, since Stoneridge’s meager salary was not near enough to live on. Back on the job market, I used the tried-and-true method I had employed the previous two-and-a-half years: Apply for jobs at different Southern California secondary school and get turned down, while at the the same time applying for work at different Los Angeles animation studios and getting turned down.

I went for an interview with the story editor of Marvel Studios. The place was deep into a series about giant robots, but the guy supervising the writing of all the giant robot scripts didn’t think I fit Marvel’s parameters. “It’s great you wrote Disney features, but cartoon on tv are different. You need to turn out scripts fast. And I’m not sure you can write for The Transformers.”

By now it was mid-July, and I was getting desperate. No teaching jobs in sight. Not a flicker of hope for script-writing work. My wife’s ink-and-paint job at Disney Feature was the only thing keeping us afloat.

Roll-Aids time.

As July became August, two life rafts floated past my line of vision at the same time. John Muir Middle School interviewed me for a job teaching English and History, and offered me the position. Two days later Filmation Animation Studios stopped asking me to jump through multiple hoops and said they would hire me as a staff writer on “Bugzburg”, a series they were in the middle of doing.

The clouds were parting after months of torrential rain. The writing job paid union scale, which was more than what I could get from the Burbank Unified School District shaping the minds of fourteen-year-olds. Mrs. Hulett argued in favor of the teaching job: “It’s steadier! And longer term! How long can a cartoon series last?!”
But I yearned to get back to making cartoons. I accepted the writing gig, and my wife bit her lip. The only thing I was sure of was doing half-hour scripts about insects was more to my liking than dodging spit wads and grading papers until midnight.

So early on a warm August morning I reported for work at Filmation. The studio was housed in a non-descript brick building at the western end of the San Fernando Valley. Three years previously, Filmation had been the largest animation studio in Los Angeles, producing hundreds of thirty-minute TV shows and launching a theatrical animation division. The company’s first effort – “Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night” was also its last. (It bombed THAT badly at the nation’s box office.)

When I walked through the doors of the place on that warm summer’s day, Filmation had shrunk back to its pre-feature size. Camera and editorial departments were on the first floor, animators and directors were house on the second, while writers, board artists and a sprinkling of executives occupied offices on the third.

I met my new boss Arthur Nadel, a corporate Vice President and story editor, in Arthur’s big corner office. The space contained the usual desk and chairs, scripts on various shelves, and a big poster of an ancient Elvis Presley movie called “Clambake” on a wall next to the door.

Weird. Maybe Mr. Nadel is a fan of the King?

Arthur was seated behind the desk. He had a bald head, a bristly moustache to balance the baldness, and black-framed glasses that gave him an owlish look. He extended a hand. I shook it.

“Glad to make your acquaintance,” Arthur said, “We’re putting you on ‘Bugzburg’, find out what you can do.”

I was familiar with the We’ll put you to work to find out what you can do meme. It had been used at Disney every time I was assigned to a new project. At least here it was justified, since they had no idea of my capabilities.

A tall man with a thatch of dark hair came through Arthur’s door. He lifted his eyebrows as Arthur said, “This is the new writer, Lou. Steve Hulett. He starts today and we’re putting him right to work.”

I introduced myself. Lou Scheimer told me his name and pumped my hand energetically.

“Really glad to have you aboard, Steve. Tom Tataranowicz recommended you highly. I suggested to Arthur that we bring you on.”

I nodded, suddenly understanding the tall man’s enthusiasm and Arthur Nadel’s subdued hello. Employing me was Lou Scheimer’s idea. Arthur was the dutiful underling, doing what the boss wanted without liking it much.

“Tom’s a good guy,” I said.

“One of our top directors. He tells me you worked at Disney.”

I said I did. I didn’t mention that Tom and I knew each other from the union executive board. This was the head of the studio, after all, unlikely to be fond of labor organizations. And I had a mortgage, wife and two-year-old son I needed to support. There was no point in torpedoing my prospects before I got started.

“Well, you’ll be fresh blood around here. We’ve got a lot of episodes left to do and you’ll be a big help. Arthur will tell you what we need you to do.”

With that, Lou Scheimer’s wide smile vanished out the door, and I was left with the stone-faced Mr. Nadel, who now took an interest in the Number Two pencil lying on his uncluttered desk.

“It was Lou’s idea to hire you,” Arthur said, underlining the obvious. “Have you … ahm … written TV scripts before?”

I told him I had. I didn’t tell him it was a grand total of one.

Arthur twirled the pencil. “We’re in the middle of a 65-episode order. With bug characters. They were … ahm … supporting characters in the “Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night” feature. It didn’t do well, but Lou made a deal to do a show around them. The scripts are around thirty to thirty-five pages each.”

“How long to write them?”

“I like our staff people to create a script every three weeks. Or two weeks, if possible.”

I had no clue how long it would take to produce 30-plus pages of action and scintillating dialogue. Or mediocre dialogue. I was used to sitting around a table with a director, animators and other story persons, beating on a sequence script until it was black and blue. And I possessed only a marginal idea about what level of quality Filmation required in its scripts, so I asked Mr. Nadel if I could have copies of “Bugzburg” teleplays, the better to see what kind of competition I was up against.

“I’ll have one of the girls give you four of our best scripts. Let me show you where your office is.”

We walked down the hall. My future writing space turned out to be thirty fee from Arthur’s office, and twice as big as the storage closet I’d been housed in at Walt Disney Productions. The windows looked out onto a narrow parking lot, a narrow street, and two non-descript industrial buildings hunkered on the far side of it.

Within five minutes a pretty woman with a lot of blow-dried hair dropped four bundles of typescript on my desk and said brightly: “Arthur thinks you’ll enjoy these. He asked that you have ideas for scripts as soon as possible.”

“As soon as possible.”

“Tomorrow, if you can.”

I smiled and nodded. Nobody dawdled at Filmation. At least, not in the teleplay department.

The rest of my day and a chunk of the evening was spent reading three scripts and the “Bugzburg bible”, which wasn’t a holy book but a bundle of pages containing a pilot script, descriptions of the major characters, and a summary what the show was about. The lead character was a Jimmy Stewart type named Gee Willikers, with a tittering love interest named Honey Bee. Other cast members included a Brit officer type named Grumble bee, and a clan of hillbilly hornets who behaved as through they’d been snorting crystal meth since early childhood.

Two scripts were so-so. The script that was part of the Bugzburg bible was a fun read. The last script was awful.

I was in shock. Had I misheard the secretary? No, “Arthur thinks these are pretty good” was what she’d said. Was I such a dweeb and newbie to TV cartoons that I couldn’t tell good work from bad?

I re-read the awful script. It remained lousy the second time through. Palms sweaty, I called my father-in-law Charlie Downs, a long-time animator, board artist and currently a producer-director at Marvel Animation. He knew a lot more about the working of the television cartoon business than I ever would, and I hoped he could give me some clear-eyed perspective. He listened to my descriptions of the “Bugzburg” samples I’d been handed, and after a long pause said:

“One script out of the four was good? Yeah, that ratio seems about normal.” ....

More later.


Site Meter