Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Largest Animation Studio (in 1985)

Twenty-one years ago, the largest 'toon studio in Los Angeles -- and probably anywhere -- wasn't Disney, wasn't Hanna-Barbera. Care to guess what it was? Filmation Through most of the eighties, Filmation Associates was headquartered in Reseda, but when I went to work there in mid-1988, Filmation was out in the far western end of the San Fernando Valley, housed in a large brick building at the corner of Victory and Canoga. There was no pretense about Filmation. Lou Scheimer was the chief. Arthur Nadel, who had been a live-action television director and also helmed the Elvis Presly feature "Clambake," was the creative Vice-President and story editor. Tom Tataranowicz was the lead director. Production was straight-forward and without frills. You wrote the script, you got it boarded, you put the result into production. And production, because Lou wanted it that way, was done entirely in Los Angeles. I was assigned an office up on the third floor, down the hall from Arthur Nadel, turning out scripts for a series entitled "Bugzburg." Filmation was kind of a cultural shock after Disney, but I found the work invigorating. I would pitch a story to Arthur, he'd grunt "Fine, go do it," and I'd pad off down the hall to my small quarters to pound out a draft. (No endless story meetings like at Diz Feature Animation. Speed was of the essence.) Four days into the script, Arthur would enter my office and the following conversation would take place: Nadel: So. How far through this thing are you? Hulett: (Short pause). Oh, two-thirds of the way. This was a lie. We both knew it was a lie. I was actually at the forty-percent-of-the-way mark. Arthur would then frown. Hulett: (continuing nervously) When do you need the script done? Nadel: Yesterday. Hulett: Oh. Well, I should have it finished, ahm, Monday? Nadel: (sighing) Then I guess that's when I'll get it... I wrote five "Bugzburg" scripts like boomity-boomity-boom, and Arthur and I had five variations of the above scene. Filmation did not like staff writers to linger over animation scenarios. Time was money. If you spent three weeks on a half-hour screenplay, you were a laggard. And that included the freelance script Arthur would invariably drop on your desk to cut, rewrite or otherwise punch up while you were laboring over your own little masterpiece. In January of 1989, another writer and I were assigned the tasks of developing new series ideas. Don Heckman, the other writer, exulted to me, "This is going to be great. There'll at least a year of development work for both of us. I've heard that the new corporate owner wants a lot of new product..." That turned out to be 180 degrees from reality. What the new corporate owner -- the French company L'Oreal -- wanted was to get its hands on the library of Filmation's OLD product and shut the studio down. In early February dark rumors started circulating that the company was on thin ice; two days later Lou Scheimer called the staff into the projection room and tearfully announced that after twenty-six years of production, Filmation was closing. The end of the week. The final forty-eight hours of Filmation's corporate life was funereal. Studio employees went out for gloomy lunches that were, for the first time, longer than an hour. Employees clustered in hallways, talking softly. On that last Friday, I filled a cardboard box with personal possessions and took it down to my car. In the next parking slot, my boss Arthur Nadel was putting his own cardboard box into the trunk of his Jag. He looked at me. "Steve. Any plans about what you're going to be doing next?" I told him I had a teaching credential and would probably teach high school for awhile. (Which turned out to be true.) I asked him what he intended to do. He shrugged and sighed. "Just go home and quietly starve." (Which turned out not to be true.) And so ended Filmation's quarter century of active life. I learned a great deal working there, not least of which was that nothing is permanent. When a company goes from the largest animation studio to non-existence in four years, that lesson is driven home. But I still had a hell of a good time working there.


Anonymous said...

Insightful story, Steve. I never worked at Filmation, but had many friends who did, and I still remember that final week.

Stories like this should be told to the many starry-eyed youngsters now starting out in the business. Don't get too comfortable in your cushy job. It could end tomorrow. Animation is still a business after all.

Kevin Koch said...

Why L'Oreal shut the studio down? Because they were really interested in Filmation's library of completed shows, not in spending money on new product.

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