Lou Scheimer (1928-2013)
this world of Netflix and DVD box sets and 24-hour TV channels, it's
really hard to appreciate just how limited viewing options for cartoons
used to be. Outside of cable and VCRs (both very new technologies in the
'80s), the only place to watch cartoons on any sort of regular basis were
on Saturday and Sunday mornings (often times at incredibly early hours of
the morning) and maybe for an hour or so during the weekdays if one of the
three stations in your area that wasn't PBS felt like devoting the time in
the mornings or after school (unless you lived in an extremely large city,
and then the number would balloon to five). And even with all of those
hoops to jump in order to watch even the slightest amount of cartoons, you
had to deal with the fact that the cartoons were being forced by the
networks and various activists to be as bland and inoffensive as possible
for a painfully small amount of money, even by television's rather modest
standards. As a result, you had many producers either ignoring the medium
as much as they could afford to (and specializing in specials for
prime-time, for which the content and budgetary restrictions were somewhat
less onerous), or producing work so far below their abilities that they
ended up sullying once-great reputations by playing to the lowest common
.....Seemingly the only studio that made an honest attempt to rise above this poor standard in the '70s and early '80s was Filmation. Founded in 1962 by animators Hal Sutherland and Lou Scheimer and ex-radio disc jockey Norm Prescott, the studio had found great success by adapting Superman for TV animation in 1965, which spearheaded a massive wave of action-adventure cartoons that lasted until the activists started looking for scapegoats after 1968 proved to be one of the bloodiest years in recorded human history. Filmation reinvented itself as a home for musical comedies with a strong focus towards featuring meaningful educational content before slowly reintegrating action-adventure shows (as well as a smattering of live action shows) into their lineup. The preceding description could be adapted fairly easily for Hanna-Barbera, but with two massive exceptions: Filmation's executives actually cared about the pro-social messages they were injecting into their shows, and they produced all but one of their shows (1981's The New Adventures of Zorro being the sole exception) with American animators, even as inflation made it increasingly impossible for TV animation to use domestic, union labor.
.....The man most responsible for Filmation's strong ethics, Lou Scheimer, died three weeks ago. While a great number of animation fans (read: snobs) are breathing a sigh of relief at the end of an era that they loathe (with some of the more compassionate among their number praising Lou's commitment to union labor), those of us who grew up with the many, many iconic Filmation cartoons and TV shows are devastated. In an era when Saturday morning TV shows were bland and quite often terrible, Filmation tried. Yes, the stock system was a bitch and a half, and the dependence on adaptations was a bit distressing, but the shows worked far more than not. Fat Albert is an iconic entity, and for a long time was the only Filmation show even acknowledged in the greater world, with t-shirts by FUBU and Time-Life's home video releases. Star Trek, despite being de-canonized by the machinations of Richard Arnold (Gene Roddenberry's notoriously horrible hanger-on/assistant), maintains a strong level of support and popularity, with fan cartoons starting to pop up, and Arex making a noticeable return in the prominent live-action fan series, Star Trek: Phase II. And He-Man...... Quite simply, it saved cartoons on TV. Sure, G.I. Joe and Inspector Gadget were on the air in 1983, but neither could be the show as constituted. MASS Device has a freaking body count, besides being a mere five episodes. He-Man's insane success allowed Sunbow to dodge a major bullet and institute the maligned "parachute rule" with The Revenge of Cobra. And Inspector Gadget, presuming we ignore the reality that DiC announced it for syndication after Filmation announced He-Man, the show is even more locked into its formula than He-Man, or most everything on network TV at the time. Don't get me wrong, I love Inspector Gadget, but it's entirely because of the life that Don Adams, Cree Summer, and Frank Welker breathed into the characters. The plots are almost the exact same, and very little in the episodes seems like it would have run afoul of network censors. Revolutions are not started with sentences like, "It could have been a network show."
.....As much disdain as Lou Scheimer and Filmation get nowadays, he and it managed an astonishing balancing act: union animators were kept employed (and in fact nurtured new talent, as many of the key personnel behind Warner Bros.' renaissance in the '90s were ex-Filmation employees, for example), the parents groups were kept (mostly) placated, kids loved the shows (and, given the chance, still do), and perhaps most amazing, serious animation fans (related not only by J. Michael Straczynski after he went to the 1984 World Science Fiction Convention, but by Owen Sharp's early-but still amazingly important-He-Man fansite). Tarzan, Flash Gordon, and Star Trek earned Filmation a lot of street cred in an era where faithful interpretations of pulp and science fiction classics were wildly uncommon (just look at Dino de Laurentiis' adaptations of Flash Gordon and Conan the Barbarian). It was only when the fascination with Japanese animation hit America that hating on Filmation became popular-a hilarious proposition given the wildly differing economic circumstances fueling Filmation's work and that of the booming Japanese industry in the '80s and '90s.
.....The irony of the backlash against Filmation is that it's largely taken on technical grounds, as Lou Scheimer went out of his way to run the studio to the highest of ethical standards, and half-hours like "Yesteryear", "Busted", and "The Problem With Power" still ring true for their story content and quality. The thing is, Filmation was consistently innovating technically. They were the first studio to actively use double-exposure effects animation in America (with the use of moire patterns for force fields and portals being a trademark of later productions), and the model photography for Flash Gordon successfully predicted one of the key uses of CGI in 2D cartoons. Later stock sequences liberally used rotoscoping after Ralph Bakshi used it to some success in his adaptation of Lord of the Rings, and effects animation in the last few years of the studio's life looks like it was computer-aided. In the studio's dying throes, Scheimer had been forced to outsource ink-and-paint operations, but was moving towards a computer-coloring process (like the one Hanna-Barbera was incorporating during this time), and had already managed to institute a computer filing method for animation (though a sale of older cels was underway at the time).
.....But, ultimately the Filmation story is that of Lou Scheimer. Part of this is because Hal Sutherland became an occasional freelancer in the '70s, preferring to live in Washington where he paints to this day. Furthermore, fellow partner Norm Prescott (who, for many years, was the other name in the infamous circular producer credit that Filmation is known for) left after Westinghouse acquired the studio, prophetically warning that the company was not to be trusted because of poor experiences working at Boston's pioneering radio station, WBZ. But even when Norm and Hal were around, it's was Lou's values that defined the studio. And, since Scheimer built a prolific voice acting resume (though not intentionally-he initially began acting in Filmation shows in a budget-saving measure, which is also why his children, Lane and Erika, and Hal Sutherland's son Keith acted for Filmation to varying degrees), he was quite literally the voice of the studio.
.....One consequence of Scheimer's voice work (besides being the narrator for every show) was that he took it upon himself to voice just about every kid-friendly mascot character that Filmation had, from Bat-Mite to the Twiggets to Orko.
Orko is where Lou's mascot performances reached their creative apex. With
an abundance of episodes for the character to grow, Orko evolves from
Funny Comic Sidekick #2 (Cringer and Battle Cat occupy the first position)
to Goofy Kid Sidekick to a nuanced, experienced ally to He-Man and She-Ra
who never loses sight of the joy and innocence of youth. Without Orko,
"The Problem With Power" could not work, as it is he who questions Adam's
reaction to the "death" of the disguised Tataran and spurs our hero into
action upon delivering word of Skeletor's deception. While Orko certainly
had episodes where he was used just as annoyingly as such sidekicks as
T-Bob and Snarf, the baseline for him was far superior because of Lou's
performance, and his understanding of the character's importance as an
audience identification figure in a TV show where the main hero can do
just about anything.
.....Therein lies the secret moral of not only He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, but of Filmation and Lou Scheimer's life: we can't all be He-Man. In fact, no matter how hard we try, we may end up like Orko, making mistakes left and right in between our great successes. The thing is, though, is that Orko ultimately makes everything and everyone around him better, and that's precisely what Lou Scheimer did: the man fostered more talent than pretty much anyone in animation this side of Walt Disney, which continues to spread out and grow to this very day. So, really, if you find yourself as one of the overwhelming masses that can't be He-Man, be Orko, because when it's all said and done, it's Orko that we all need the most in our lives. And with the death of Lou Scheimer, we may have lost the greatest Orko of them all.
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