Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Filmation's Last Days -- Part II

A recording session for "Bugzburg" -- the series that never was. Left to right: Frank Welker, Linda Gary, Peter Cullen, Jonathan Harris and Pat Fraley. (From the Lou Scheimer Facebook Page).

So here's the second installment recounting that time when part of the roof sheltering the House of Cartoons caved in:

(And here is Part Uno)

The next morning I arrived bright and early with my script premises, typed out on three sheets of paper. I walked into Arthur Nadel’s office and handed the pages over. Arthur said he would get back to me.

Then it was down the hall to my office, where I plunked down and turned on the company computer. I stared at the green phosphor screen, feeling like I was back in 1976 again, sitting in another small room at a different cartoon studio, tense with anticipation and fear. I needed this job, but I had no idea if I could write TV scripts that would satisfy Arthur Nadel and keep me employed for more than a couple of weeks.

I was determined to do whatever it took to succeed: Turn scripts in on deadline. Take criticisms cheerfully. Curb my smart-ass tongue and build a winning, Potemkin-style personality around the real one that had helped me get canned at Disney. I was broke, and it was more important to get a steady paycheck than to argue about my artistic vision.

Fidgety as a tomcat under a full moon, I got out of my chair and prowled the hallway. A young writer named Jamie Davis, who had only recently been drawing storyboards, occupied the office to my right; a silver haired man with a neat beard was bent over his word processor inside the one to my left. The silver-haired man’s name was Don Heckman, and he looked like a college professor. I would soon learn he held down three jobs: by day he wrote scripts for Filmation; during the evening he composed jazz reviews for the Los Angeles Times; on weekends he turned out live-action teleplays for live-action network dramas.

Heckman saw me staring in at the doorway. “You the new writer?”

I said I was. He beckoned me into his office.

“Arthur says you worked at Disney.”

I nodded. “A few years ago, on features. I’ve only done a little TV work.”

“Well, Arthur keeps staff writers busy. We’ve got a sixty-five episode show order and not much time to do them. Staffers also rewrite freelance scripts.”

“There’s a lot of freelance scripts?”


“I’m guessing Mr. Nadel gives you some extra time to re-write them?”

“No, the schedule stays the same. You just speed up.”


“You’ll get used to it.” ...

I sighed and looked out the window at traffic rolling along the street far below. I definitely wasn’t an employee of Walt Disney Productions anymore.

“What’s with the Elvis Presley poster in Arthur’s office?”

“A movie he directed. ‘Clambake.’ Not a big hit, but Arthur’s proud of it.” Arthur worked in live-action a long time. Edited. Produced. Did a lot of television. He came over to Filmation to supervise a live-action show and ended up staying. Lou likes him, likes what he does. He’s an executive and the story editor.”

“He rewrite scripts?”

“Arthur doesn’t write. Arthur supervises writing. He expects us to turn scripts in on time and take an hour for lunch and two fifteen minute union breaks. In at eight and out at 5. Those are the company rules and Arthur follows them.”

“Filmation runs a tight ship.”

“Filmation runs a junior high school. But you learn to live with it.”

I went back to my office, spent more time playing with the computer. Arthur materialized after twenty minutes and said to work on idea #2 from the list I’d given him.

“Do you want, like, an outline first?” I asked.

“Just write me a couple of paragraphs. Then you can get to work on the script.”

“When do you want it finished?”

“As I’ve said, there’s a three-week turnaround for in-house teleplays. If you can finish yours faster than that, I’ll be delighted.”

With that he departed. And I got to work writing an episode of “Bugzburg,” a soon-to-be syndicated series that Filmation had pre-sold to local television stations across the fruited plain, and that covered 80% of the United States.

Arthur Nadel’s story department was light years from Woolie Reitherman’s animation fiefdom at Walt Disney Productions. Where Woolie would hold an eight-hour story meeting over three pages of script, Arthur expected four pages cranked out before lunch. Time was always of the essence. After I settled into the job and Arthur was used to me, he would come into the office in late morning or early afternoon with a sheaf of pages in his hand and grunt:

“This freelance script is eight pages too long. I need you to cut it down.”

“It’ll take some time to read. …”

“Read fast.”

“What about the other script I’m writing?"

“I still need that one by Friday.”

To keep to Arthur’s schedule I kept to a rigid routine: In the office chair by eight, pound away until lunch, then race across the street to the Soup Plantaion and wolf down tomato soup and a salad. Then back to the desk.

It was a routine that concentrated your mind, but I worked to find a way to juice my output. Every few days I snuck downstairs to director Tom Tataranowicz, who went over my script of the moment and offered suggestions for improvements:

“Your dialogue’s weak, Hulett. And there’s too much of it. Keep more of the action off-screen, we don’t spend much money on a camera shake. We do if we see the characters crash into that tree.”

Tom wanted to field a gag crew to punch up scripts, but Arthur protected his turf like a mother grizzly and would have none of it. The scripts were his department, damnit, and he wasn’t going to allow any damn animation directors muck them up.

And I got a dose of “the studio is run like a junior high school” ethos when I asked for permission to leave fifteen minutes early to pick up my two-year-old from day care. As soon as I went into Arthur’s office and got the question out of my mouth, his eyes widened and both eyebrows went up. It was like I had broken wind during Bible study.

“You KNOW what the rules are, Steve. Work ends at five o’clock.”

“I know, but the kid’s day care charges extra money if I’m a minute late. And the kid could get thrown out of the facility if I’m late all the time, so …"

“Then you’ll need to get here earlier.”

"Will do.”

I got the heavy sigh again. “This is highly unusual, but I’ll let you leave at 5:45.”

“Thanks, Arthur. I really appreciate this. Really.”

I would have kissed his ring if he had held it out to me. I hurriedly left his office before he could change his mind.

Week by week I got more comfortable with the high-velocity tempo of cranking out thirty pages of dialogue and prose week after week. And I came to learn the history and heritage of the company.

Filmation had been the last TV cartoon studio that did everything from scripts to final color in its San Fernando Valley facility. The place had been founded twenty-seven years previously by layout artist Lou Scheimer, animator Hal Sutherland and production exec Norm Prescott, all three working not on a shoe-string but a gossamer thread.

Back during their rocky start in 1962, the trio had a small rental space, a microscopic amount of work, but a chance to produce 26 half-hours of the newest version of “Superman”. The deal hinged on convincing the show’s backers that Scheimer, Sutherland and Prescott were operating a viable animation studio. However, that was going to be a heavy lift because all they had were desks, peg-boards and pencil sharpeners.

There were no actual employees. That happens when you have no money or operating budget.

Even so, a lunch-time studio inspection by the show’s backers was scheduled. Scheimer scrambled around, wheedling friends, acquaintances and former co-workers to come to the tiny Hollywood office on lunch hour, there to sit at empty desks and pretend to work. On the day the show’s backers walked through the seedy office space, every seat was filled, artists drawing furiously on sheets of pegged paper destined for the waste basket. But the visitors were convinced that Filmation was the studio for their super hero show, and gave Scheimer, Sutherland and Prescott a contract for 26 half-hours of “Superman”.

By the time I was hired in the late eighties, Filmation was shipping ink-and-paint work overseas, but animation was still on the second floor of the building as “Bugzburg” snaked its way through production. I kept hearing about new animators being hired onto the show, and one week I was startled to discover that my father-in-law Charlie Downs, his work completed at Marvel Animation, had accepted a position as an animator.

Up in the story department, things were going swimmingly and I was actually starting to enjoy myself, so of couse the warning lights should have been flashing. One afternoon Arthur called me into his office and asked me to sit down. I did. He spun the paperweight on his desk and frowned at me like a disappointed parent.

“Steve? You know we run a well-knit department here. And you’ve been doing good work. But … ahm … we do NOT take our scripts out of the deparmtnet to … ahm … show other people.”

“Outside the department?” I said. I knit my eyebrows together and opened my mouth, trying to mimic surprise and concern.

“You haven’t been talking to the directors, have you?”

“Why no. I mean, I talk to Tom T. here and there. But never about SCRIPTS.”

I wondered if my lie sounded as transparent and obvious as it felt coming out of my mouth. Arthur peered at me through his Coke-bottle-bottom glasses, pursing his lips. My stomach gurgled. Finally he stopped fiddling with the paperweight.

”Okay, then. Make sure that you don’t.”

I nodded solemnly. “I won’t show scripts to anybody except you, Arthur.”


As I left Arthur’s office, I silently resolved to never again show any of the directors one of the story department teleplays. I would take detailed notes, then pick their brains over lunch at a restaurant. Better to have technical deniability than be forced to lie outright.

Sneaking off to get gag ideas from Filmation’s directors and board artists was my only act of rebellion, and I kept it well hidden. At my previous story job, I had made it a point of honor to argue and fight all comers:, directors, board artists, even producers. Feisty, that was me. “Argumentative” was part of my middle name.

But now in the West Valley I transformed into a meek, placid, agreeable scribe. Whenever Arthur wanted a change on a page of script, I changed it. I no longer ragged on artists who added improvements to my precious prose when translating words on the page into the panel drawings of a production storyboard. In the interest of professional survival I built a phony, agreeable personality around my contentious inner core, and it worked like a charm. Arthur dropped one of his staff writers and a couple of his free-lancers, but I was kept on.

I got into the groove of cranking out half-hour scripts, but it wasn’t always easy. Arthur would toss rewrite assignments at me, which slowed me down. And now that the 2-year-old was in day care, I got exposed to a wide array of little kid germs and viruses that kept me blowing and honking at my computer keyboard two weeks out of three. If I had pushed my face into a bacteria-laden Petrie dish every morning I could not have been sicker.

Meanwhile, the tempo of production on “Bugsburg” accelerated. Animators were being added to staff day by day. Filmation let the new hires know there was a year’s worth of production work on the show lying ahead of them.

Morale climbed as word circulated that Filmation was close to being sold to a huge French conglomerate that wanted to expand production. Soon after, Don Heckman plunked down in the visitor’s chair in my office and said:

“I just found out there’s going to be lots of development work on new series after the last scripts on “Bugzubrg” are done. We’ll have work for at least a year. Probably a year and a half.”

Hot damn! Steady employment. Maybe the wife and I would finally get out of debt.

But in the meantime I had another “Bugzburg” half-hour to get out. Arthur now trusted me to produce scripts on schedule; all I had to do to get one rollig was to tell him in three sentences what it was about. He would blink at me through his thick glasses and grunt:

“This is okay. So go write it.”

So I'd get to work. But Arthur would still come in every three days to find out how the script was progressing. The routine was always the same:

Arthur: Where are you with this?

Me: Halfway. (Which really meant a third of the way). When do you want it?

Arthur: Yesterday.

And I would plunge on with script pages that went like this:

BUGSZBURG – Production 75037 – 12/05/1988

“Mother’s Day For Maw”



On a bright, Spring morning, CAMERA TRUCKS IN as we HEAR:

MAW (V.O.)
Awright you three! …


MAW stands by the door. HARLEY, HONEYBUG and SPIKE stand before hre timidly, like privates in front of a steely-eyed General.

MAW (cont.)
I’m gonna be back from Mama’s at TWO this afternoon! So stay outta trouble!


But … you just saw yer Mama last sweek! Why you goin’ back so soon?

Maw into scene – favoring her dimwitted son with a wide, phony grin.

MAW (sweetly)
Ya might not remember, Harley my sweet, but today is MOTHER’S DAY!!!

She pushes him away and turns to walk offscreen.

Maw storms out the door, slamming it with an angry CRASH. The whole nest shakes.

Staring stupidly at the door through which Maw has just stormed.

Dang! We done went and fergot AGIN!



He wrinkles his brow, purses his lips, counts out “5” on his fingers.

SPIKE (cont.)
Fer the THIRD year in a row. …

Next: Filmation's collapse and Lou Scheimer's tearful farewell.


Tom Ruegger said...

A recording session for "Bugzburg" -- the series that never was. Left to right: unknown, Linda Gary, Peter Cullen, Jonathan Harris and Pat Fraley.

UNKNOWN?!?!? That's the face of the most successful and most talented animation voice over artist of the second half of the 20th century, and he's still going strong today. Yes, that unknown face belongs to the wonderful and legendary FRANK WELKER!

Steve Hulett said...

Oops. I'll correct. I rely on others captioning ... to my sorrow.


Love reading about this Steve. My grandfather was good friends with Norm Prescott (they served in the Navy together) and my early exposure to Filmation as a kid gave me the animation bug. I still have framed original Filmation animation cells for Zorro and The Lone Ranger that Norm gifted to me. And now I'm all grown up and an animator myself.

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