Finding Filmation: 'The New Adventures of Superman'
The first few years of Filmation’s existence had been rough, to say the least. The initial duo of Lou Scheimer and Hal Sutherland had produced a TV series (Rod Rocket), but despite its success, they and their studio saw practically no profit (with the lion’s share going toward their distributor). After Norm Prescott got on board as a producer, they attempted to produce a film which was plagued with financing issues (and would be shelved for half a decade), as well as another series which never made it past a test pilot. By 1965, the trio of co-founders had racked up a considerable debt and had laid off their entire animation staff when the little money they did have ran dry. Prescott was still going around trying to get them work, but Scheimer and Sutherland were only a few days from giving up; Filmation, by that point, was only them, 24 empty desks, and a mannequin they kept around as a joke.
But with the studio on its last leg and in its darkest hour, one phone call would change everything. Mort Weisinger, the story editor of the Superman comics at the time, called them up introducing himself as Superman (as legend has it, this is often how Weisinger would introduce himself). Scheimer, thinking it was a crank call, played along saying “are you calling from a phone booth?”, but he soon realized it was a legitimate offer. They were being asked to bring Superman back to animation and to television.
A Brief History of Superman on the Screen (Pre-1966)
Turning the clock back, this was of course not the first time Superman had been animated or on television. The very first depiction of Superman on the screen, in fact, was his debut in animation; In 1941, Fleischer Studios produced a series of animated Superman shorts for Paramount Pictures, with production later being taken on by their successor, Famous Studios, after Fleischer went under. These shorts were widely praised for their animation, being one of the most expensive cartoon series made up to that point, and continue to influence animators to this day. The Fleischer series featured the voice talents of Clayton “Bud” Collyer as Clark Kent/Superman and Joan Alexander as Lois Lane, both of whom had started the roles in the “Adventures of Superman” radio program the previous year.
Superman would later go on to star in two film serials in 1948 and 1950 from Columbia Pictures, both of which were live-action but used animation to depict his moments of flight. A 1951 film starring George Reeves, “Superman and the Mole Men”, would serve as the pilot for a TV series (titled “Adventures of Superman” like the radio show), which ran between 1952 and 1958. Following the sudden death of Reeves in 1959, a few attempts were made to revive the series in other forms, including “The Adventures of Superpup” (a bizarre pilot with the characters recast as people in dog costumes) and a 1961 pilot for “The Adventures of Superboy”, but none of these were picked up.
How Filmation Won Over DC
In 1965, a young CBS executive by the name of Fred Silverman was looking to do something with the Saturday morning lineup. Up to this point, Saturday mornings had primarily been dominated by programs with live-action hosts such as Captain Kangaroo, compilations of theatrical cartoons like The Bugs Bunny Show, or repeats of cartoons that had previously been in primetime like The Jetsons and The Alvin Show. Series made specifically for Saturday mornings had been very slow in getting off the ground; there’d been a few, but they were typically produced by cereal companies (like Total and General Mills) as essentially advertising space for their products. Silverman also wanted something different, less comedic and more action-focused, and the George Reeves Superman series was gaining a second life in syndication around this time. So he contacted DC (then known as National Comics) to discuss getting a Superman cartoon series on CBS.
With such an important icon as Superman on the table, why would DC trust their star with a studio that had just laid off their entire animation staff? As it turned out, it was a case of creative deception on Filmation’s part which won them over. Weisinger contacted Filmation to speak with Norm Prescott, to see what he knew about getting animation done overseas, but Prescott offered instead to get it done in the United States at Filmation for the same cost ($36k an episode, 20% less than the typical Hanna-Barbera production). The catch was that National Comics wanted to send someone over to take a look at the studio later that week, not nearly enough time for them to hire a brand new staff and make the studio operational.
In a move that Lou Scheimer would later recount in various interviews and his autobiography, he quickly called in anybody he knew; fellow animators, family members, a voice actor (Ted Knight), and several other people. All of them were called in for a favor, to pretend to be animators busy at work when the National Comics representative arrived. Each were handed artwork from the unfinished Wizard of Oz film that Filmation had been working on to use as props, and Ted Knight had been encouraged to perform various voices to make it seem like there were even more employees in the building. When the National Comics representative visited, it all paid off as he left impressed by what a tight ship Filmation seemed to be running.
So it was in November 1965 that production commenced on the Superman cartoon. Filmation moved into a new studio, a new animation staff was hired (including some of the ones who participated in the earlier stunt). Ten months remained until airing.
The New Adventures of Superman
September 10, 1966 - September 5, 1970
It was decided by National Comics (who handled most of the work besides the animation) that, rather than create a half hour program, episodes of “The New Adventures of Superman” would be split into three 7 minute segments. The first and last segments would be the titular program, focused on the Man of Steel in his prime, fighting villains and protecting the city of Metropolis.
In many ways, Filmation’s “The New Adventures of Superman” was largely a reunion of the “Adventures of Superman” radio program that had concluded in 1951. For voice recording, National Comics used the same studio space as the radio program had been performed in, and hired several familiar voices back. Superman and Lois Lane were once more voiced by Bud Collyer and Joan Alexander respectively (both of whom had, as mentioned before, been in the Fleischer/Famous cartoons as well), with Jack Grimes returning as Jimmy Olsen (who he voiced during the final three years of the radio program) as well as Jackson Beck as both Perry White and the Narrator. Beck would also be tasked to voice Lex Luthor, who never appeared in the radio program.
In fact, this program would be an important moment of representation for many of Superman’s classic villains. The Fleischer/Famous shorts were made so early in Superman’s history that barely any of his villains were properly established, and the limitations of live-action at the time prevented his more fantastical villains from appearing in the later productions (with only Lex Luthor appearing in the 1950 serial, “Atom Man vs. Superman”). But with a new animated series removing those barriers, characters such as Mister Mxyzptlk and Braniac could finally appear on the screen, along with new magic-based villains like the Warlock and the Sorcerer.
Meanwhile, the middle segment, “The Adventures of Superboy”, would focus on the adventures of a young Clark Kent growing up in Smallville, sneaking out of school to fight crime as Superboy alongside his dog Krypto. These shorts used a different voice cast from the main segment, with Bob Hastings as Superboy, Janet Waldo as Lana Lang, and Ted Knight as the narrator.
On the subject of the animation, this series was also significant for being the first Filmation production to really use the stock animation techniques that the studio would become (in)famous for. While limited animation like Hanna-Barbera used was just the standard of TV cartoons, Filmation pioneered the idea of animating a sequence and then reuse that same sequence (sometimes flipped) any time the same action was needed in another episode. This meant that by animating Superman flying once, they didn’t have to redraw him flying again, saving time and money. Same with closeups of characters talking, walking, and so on. This technique did have its drawbacks, especially if the footage was flipped, but it fulfilled its purpose.
“The New Adventures of Superman” premiered on CBS’s Saturday morning lineup, on September 10th, 1966 at 11am. Fred Silverman made true on his goal to fill the Saturday morning schedule with new original programming, as Superman was one of five new cartoons to premiere that morning (by comparison, ABC and NBC had 1 and 2 new cartoons respectively). As Lou Scheimer would later brag, Superman was, right out the gate, one of the highest rated shows airing on Saturday mornings, absolutely dominating the shows up against it on the competing networks. Beyond the initial season of 17 half hours, Superman and Superboy would continue for two more seasons that would see the program expanded to an hour, first being paired up alongside Aquaman and several other DC heroes, and then with a Batman series.
Filmation had finally put itself on the map, and helped give birth to the rise of Saturday morning cartoons. With demand soon rising from all three networks for more animated content, the studio would only expand from here.
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© 2019 Josh Measimer