A Corollary To Lou Scheimer’s Eulogy

Obviously the editorial I recently posted took a pretty long time to post, even when you factor in the whole “Red Sox winning the World Series” thing. So, yes, the procrastination monster attacked. However, that’s not the entire story. While writing, the character of the eulogy shifted, and I think for the better. But, since the death of Lou Scheimer signals a substantial sea change for the future of the Filmation legacy, I think that such things need to be fully discussed.

First, it’s probably a good idea to provide a bit of context as to what Filmation shows I was exposed to in the ’80s. The earliest shows I can recall seeing are The New Adventures of ZorroThe New Adventures of The Lone Ranger, and Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle. The details on Zorro are a bit hazy in my mind, but I at least rented a tape of The Lone Ranger, and I saw Tarzan when it was reran during the ’83-’84 season on CBS. Given the quality of these three shows, it’s not that shocking that I became a fan of the studio.

And then there are Filmation’s two most famous shows, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Fat Albert. While the start date is currently in doubt, He-Man was one of the shows that aired after school on WVNY, the ABC station in Vermont that did all of us kids a favor and refused to air General Hospital for years (well into the ’90s, in fact) in order to show more cartoons. (The reason for this is that Vermont had a whopping 5 TV stations serving the state-in addition to WVNY, which was Channel 22 and cursed with a perpetually snowy picture, there was Vermont PBS, WTVK [nominally Channel 44, but it had a number of alternate signals], WCAX [Channel 3, the CBS station, which avoided cartoons like the plague on weekdays, instead airing Donahue and a succession of hour-long reruns-Wonder WomanThe Waltons, and finally Little House on the Prairie], WPTZ [Channel 5, an NBC station broadcasting out of Plattsburgh, New York as opposed to Burlington, which had some……interesting programming choices but ultimately avoided most weekday cartoons until DuckTales hit the airwaves in 1987], and WNNE [Channel 31, also NBC, but serving southern Vermont out of White River Junction, and something I only could watch when given access to cable-while it was a unique station in the ’80s, it’s now merely a clone of Channel 5 these days]. If you were like me and didn’t have cable, it was an utter crapshoot if the closest CBC affiliate, Channel 6, was viewable, and it was often in French since Vermont is south of Quebec! Lastly, there was Portland, Maine’s ABC station, WMTW, on Channel 8, which was the only ABC option in Hardwick and Greensboro, and didn’t air cartoons or Star Trek like Channel 22, and was the utter bane of my existence when spending time with relatives in those two towns.) Seasons 2 and 3 definitely aired on Channel 22, with that last year being at the fairly incompatible time of 3 PM, or before me and my brother would get home from school most days. For the 1986-87 season, He-Man was gone, but there were still the USA reruns to watch whenever visiting relatives with cable.

Fat Albert is a bit of a mystery to me, because while I was one of the like 10 people nationwide to watch it when it was rerun on NBC, I was pretty familiar with the series by then. However, this pales in comparison to Channel 3 airing Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Hardy Boys on the weekends for a time as part of their oddball lineup of cartoons and the Adam West Batman (this lineup was so odd that Inspector Gadget was introduced well after the show had run its course on Nickelodeon in the ’80s). Speaking of Nickelodeon, there was of course Star Trek, which I never did see enough of to suit my tastes, especially since I was already settling with not be able watch every episode of the original (as Channel 22 pared down the rotation to 65 episodes). Ghostbusters was a whispered about rumor, and BraveStarr never appeared, despite my strong desire to see it. And with only 7 theatre screens in the Barre/Montpelier area (9 in the summer with the now long-closed drive-in), seeing any of Filmation’s theatrical features wasn’t in the cards.

So, if there’s a baseline for my Filmation experience, the above three paragraphs are it. In the wider animation context, Filmation shared a “most favored nation” status with Marvel, Sunbow, classic Warner Bros., Disney, and classic MGM. So, when I talk about Filmation, I’m really passionate about it. And given just how much of their shows I saw as a kid (and how, to my pleasant surprise, they’ve all aged pretty well particularly when the stock system is taken into account), it really burns to see these shows edited, time-compressed, and poorly restored. And with it essentially being an open secret that Lou Scheimer has a personal archive that may just solve many of these issues (and could very well be of a quality that would warrant Blu-ray releases if they’re film prints), there’s no excuse for taking the cheap and easy way out. The thing is, with Lou Scheimer now dead, and the majority of Filmation’s staff rounding into their golden years, it’s now up to us, the fans, to defend and expand the studio’s legacy.

This means pressuring the various rights holders for quality DVD releases (Warner Bros. being the worst offender at not releasing their Filmation catalog). It means pushing to have Filmation shows up for streaming. It also means rejecting releases that are substandard, and efforts that cheapen the Filmation name. Other than a precious few DVD sets (both varieties of Ghostbusters-the cartoon having two time-compressed episodes-and Ark II), anything released by the owners of the core Filmation library (currently DreamWorks, though they still seem to be using the Classic Media name) have been absolute disgraces. Time compression is the order of the day, and nearly all have massive issues with the restorations because they used digital video noise reduction (DVNR), which has a habit of rendering cartoons as formless blobs while in motion. Many releases (He-ManFat Albert, and the Archie family of shows) are edited, either due to vague “print damage” or because Hallmark’s last transfer (still being used over a decade after it was made) was from an edited rerun print as opposed to the uncut master negative. This is because the bulk of the Filmation library is controlled by what is called an IP mill (“IP” standing for “intellectual property”), which exists to make as much cash off a set of existing brands with as little effort as possible. These people are vultures, and should not be supported for any reason!

The Classic Media IP mill seems to be one of the worst, as even though Rocky & Bullwinkle has a technically complete release (all shorts included, even the “Stokey the Bear” installment of Dudley Do-Right that urban legend states was supposed to have been wiped clean from the face of the Earth at the demand of the US government), the intros and end credits are all altered (supposedly because of the various issues with the show’s syndication packages), and each short has a watermark at the start. The former is annoying (and could have been easily rectified in the special features), but the latter is preposterous. Underdog is an even more infuriating example, as the Shout! Factory DVD release was promoted as taking extreme steps to assemble all elements of the series (and this is indeed the case, as some of the segment intros and closings are pretty clearly sourced from an ancient TV recording), but the overwhelming majority of segments are from time-compressed prints. So, like that, the one chance Underdog fans had for a good DVD release has been totally squandered.

And it’s Classic Media that controls the bulk of the Filmation library.

Lastly, there’s the issue of Filmation’s stance towards outsourcing. In 2013, the issue of outsourcing has become an epidemic, and one that the mainstream media ignores as a result of the corporate consolidations of the past 20 years. But in the ’70s and ’80s, outsourcing wasn’t a concern for most Americans, but it was for the animation industry. Dubbed “runaway productions”, an increasing number of shows were exported to foreign companies. While Jay Ward Productions (and consequently, Total TeleVision) was long believed to be the first American studio to outsource (to Mexico, at Gamma Productions), Hanna-Barbera actually did it first. As Hanna-Barbera has (mostly) survived the ravages of time with its reputation intact (likely because its founders, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, won multiple Oscars directing the classic Tom And Jerry cartoons while at MGM), this means that the heinous practice they introduced into TV animation (and almost singlehandedly made the industry standard) has largely gone uncriticized. In fact, with the fetishization for the Japanese style of animation, outsourcing animation work to other countries has become celebrated.

However, with outsourcing now an epidemic in America, Lou Scheimer’s efforts to protect the jobs of American workers-and unionized workers, at that-stand to firmly establish Filmation as superior to Hanna-Barbera in every way. The loss of American artistry on television right as the medium is experiencing a new Golden Age of quality is astounding, and there’s just no way that we’re getting them back, unless some visionary producer finds a way to demand an all-American cartoon show. However, with organized labor finally starting to agitate effectively against the excesses of corporate America, Lou Scheimer and Filmation can provide an example to pro-labor forces that is perhaps even more instructive than Costco.

The key to all of this is not Time (already been done), but action. Sure, I can bitch and moan and raise a regular stink about Filmation’s fate (and I have, repeatedly), but I can’t be the only one if things are to change. It’s all of our responsibilities to stand up for the studio and for Lou now. And it won’t be easy, either, fighting against apathy, ego, and ignorance. Nor will there be any guarantees of unedited, uncompressed DVD box sets. And recognition is probably not in the cards. But it’s the right thing to do, and that in and of itself is the reward.