Finding Filmation: Their Humble Beginnings and Rod Rocket
It goes without saying that Hanna-Barbera were the kings of 60’s television animation, no one else could really compete with them on scale and notoriety. But one studio would eventually rise to at least be nearly as much a household name as them by the 70’s. A studio with far more humble beginnings and an even bigger underdog story, leading to great heights and eventually an even greater downfall.
That studio was Filmation.
The tale of Filmation starts with two of its three co-founders, Lou Scheimer and Hal Sutherland. Neither of the two men were strangers to the animation industry; Sutherland got his start in the animation department at Disney in the 1950’s, working on such films as Peter Pan, Lady & the Tramp, and Sleeping Beauty. Scheimer, on the other hand, got his start doing backgrounds for commercial work at Kling Studios (a minor studio that mostly did promotional and educational videos) before bouncing between various other studios in the L.A. area, including Warner Bros, Walter Lantz Productions, and even Hanna-Barbera!
Larry Harmon Productions
Around 1957, looking for work in a market where theatrical animation was quickly losing steam, Lou Scheimer was hired by Larry Harmon to work on a series of TV cartoons based on Bozo the Clown. Harmon, who had performed the character in local television, managed to acquire the licensing rights to the character from Capitol Records (after Bozo’s creator Alan W. Livingston left the company) and was preparing to take the show to the national level with local versions in every major market. To go with these shows, Harmon had decided to make a syndicated cartoon that would air as part of it. Scheimer was one of the first animators hired for “Bozo: The World’s Most Famous Clown”, and would eventually be the very last to be let go when production wrapped a few years later in 1961.
It was at Larry Harmon Productions that Scheimer met Hal Sutherland, who joined after leaving Disney. The two became friends and, after finishing the Bozo series, both went to a small commercial company called True Line, run by one of the then-owners of Reddi-wip, Marcus Lipsky. True Line had partnered with a Japanese-owned company in Chicago named SIB Productions to produce an animated TV series, but True Line was disorganized and it was looking as if they would be unable to produce the project. After having a discussion with an accountant about the show, Scheimer and Sutherland decided to make an offer to take on the project themselves, forming a studio that would soon be called “Filmation” (a combination of “film” and “animation”). The first series they would produce, the one SIB had been trying to fund, would be titled “Rod Rocket”.
Distributed in syndication by CBS, Rod Rocket followed the space-fairing adventures of a boy named Rod Rocket and his friend Joey in their ship, the Little Argo. They had been sent on an explorative mission by their mentor, Professor Argus, who waits for them back on Earth with his granddaughter Cassie. Together, Rod Rocket and Joey fight a pair of Russian cosmonauts who aren’t too bright, as well as learn educational facts along the way.
Rod Rocket ran for 65 episodes, each five minutes long and running in local cartoon packages, typically during shows similar to Bozo the Clown. It featured the voice talents of Hal Smith and Sam Edwards, both of whom would’ve been familiar to audiences of the time from their roles in The Andy Griffith Show.
Struggling to Find Their Way
However, despite the moderate popularity “Rod Rocket” had garnered at the time, Filmation hardly saw any money from the production at all, due in large part to the general shadiness from their financers at SIB Productions. Where Filmation really made the money which helped get their company off the ground was in commercial work, such as animation in ads for Ford, and a ten episode series funded by the Lutheran church titled “Life of Christ”.
It was at this point, in late 1962, that the third of Filmation’s co-founders entered the picture: Norm Prescott. Prescott had been in the music business for the past 15 years, starting off as a disc jockey in 1947 and working at various stations until he left radio in 1959 to work at Embassy Pictures. He soon got into the animation industry, beginning by creating the concept for “Pinocchio in Outer Space”, a Belgium-American co-production that would eventually be released by Universal Pictures in 1965. He next sought to produce an unofficial animated sequel to MGM's “The Wizard of Oz”, but wanted production this time to be done in America, and entered into negotiations with Filmation Associates.
Funding for "Journey Back to Oz” movie was initially approved by Walter Bien of SIB Productions initially, but things took a turn for the worse when it became clear that Bien was seeking to replace Scheimer with Chuck Jones. SIB Productions (who would rename themselves as “Sib-Tower 12 Productions”) had entered into an agreement with MGM (who would eventually buy the studio) to produce a series of new Tom & Jerry shorts with Jones poised to spearhead SIB’s animation department, the same position Scheimer had been holding for the past year; It was at this point that Scheimer and Sutherland decided to leave SIB, taking on Prescott first as a client and then as a partner. They rented a studio across the street and officially became an independent entity.
But things continued to be rough for the Filmation staff. While the studio found work projects here and there in advertising, the money was going right into keeping the lights on, and they were operating in the red. They attempted to pitch a new TV series, “Stanley Stoutheart”, which would soon be retitled “The Adventures of Yankee Doodle Dandy”, about a boy named Stanley (later renamed Dandy) and his dog Yankee Doodle who went on space adventures and learned moral lessons (a theme that would become a huge staple of Filmation productions). However, while production went as far as a demo reel, they found no takers. As a result, with the studio gaining no profits, the three co-founders had to borrow money where they could and were racking up tens of thousands in debt.
Perhaps the studio’s darkest hour came when the company that had been financing "Journey Back to Oz", a private airline run by Norm Prescott’s brother, went out of business. As a direct result, with no funding coming in and the studio’s own heads having to file for unemployment, the animators involved in Filmation’s Wizard of Oz film were let go and the film was left only half finished; This film would remain incomplete for the remainder of the decade. It seemed as though, after only a few years in operation, Filmation had reached its end. Not with a bang, but a quiet fizzle.
That was, until, the studio received a phone call, mere days before the Filmation trio were planning to close the studio, a call would start a snowball effect which would turn around the studio and lead them to firmly place their mark on the television landscape.
That phone call was from Mort Weisinger, story editor at DC Comics, who wanted to talk with them about Superman.