Hal Sutherland Looks Back at an Animated Career - Part 1
Can you name the first Star Trek show to win an Emmy? It wasn’t The Original Series or The Next Generation or one of the subsequent shows. Rather it was Star Trek: The Animated Series, which ran from 1973 to 1974 and temporarily provided fresh Trek stories for those fans still mourning the loss of TOS, which had been off the air for several years by then. The animated series was produced by Filmation Studios, which ultimately turned out 22 half-hour episodes, many of them written by familiar Trek and/or sci-fi names, including Walter Koenig, Margaret Armen, David Gerrold, Howard Weinstein, D.C. Fontana, Larry Niven, Samuel A. Peeples and more. Directing most of the episodes was veteran animator/director and Filmation co-founder Hal Sutherland. To celebrate TAS episodes streaming on StarTrek.com, we’re going to devote a week of interviews to TAS, starting with a two-part conversation today and tomorrow with Sutherland, followed by chats with Koenig, Gerrold and Weinstein.
Let’s go back in time. Where are you from? And what first got you interested in art?
Sutherland: I was born and raised in Cambridge, MA. I lived alone with my grandmother in a corner house. I stayed in the house quite a bit of the time sitting by a large window where there was a stuffed chair, and my grandmother was able to place a board across the arms to fashion a small surface for me draw on. Thinking back, I remember looking forward to the milkman and the garbage man coming by with their horse drawn wagons. I assume it prompted my later fascination with horses. Once, the garbage man gave me a ride on his wagon horse around the corner, which I remember even today. During the winter months when the world seemed covered with snow, the milkman put “sleigh runners” on his delivery wagon and now and then rode the neighborhood kids around the block. That was quite a thrill for me. A little later on, as I began to age, I took on a job delivering copies of the Saturday Evening Post around the neighborhoods. I loved sitting under the back porch to glance through the pages and admire the fantastic illustrations in each issue before the actual deliveries. I’m sure a good deal of my inspiration to draw and paint sprang out of those moments and are still harbored within me today. I’ve spent many moments in life depicting what I considered “good stories” in my art.
We’ll talk more in depth about your early career and the formation of Filmation tomorrow. But let’s get straight to Star Trek: The Animated Series. Who actually ran the show? And how involved was Gene Roddenberry with the production?
Sutherland: I retained absolute control of every faction of the production. Adjacent to my executive office, there existed a workroom where Gene and I conferred over the scripts. And if I had occasion to do any animation or drawing, etc., this was the control point. Gene was a perfectionist by leaps and bounds. He reviewed the scripts handed steadily to him by Dorothy Fontana, sometimes two or three times making changes to attain the perfection he so desired. She worked between Gene and the freelance writers. We reached a point at one time I had to tell Gene we were getting seriously close to overshooting our first production deadline. He immediately passed me the script he was again revising and told me, “Oh, I’m sorry, Hal. Thank you for letting me know. That’s all I have to know. If I get stuck in another rut just get the megaphone out give me a good blast!”
You ended up doing far more work on TAS than you initially anticipated. Why?
Sutherland: I desperately searched about trying to find a couple of experienced storyboard artists to work exclusively on the Star Trek project. Forget it! There wasn’t anyone who possessed the qualifications the project required. I finally made a decision to do all the rough storyboard sketches and designs, and plan the special effects and camera work myself. If I could then find someone to follow behind me and do the finished sketches over my roughs, I thought I might be able to keep a handle on everything. Finally, I procured a young fellow by the name of Brad and soon after a young girl named Dawn applied for a job at the studio. I tested her drawing ability following the directions I’d set in a rough storyboard. She proved adequate and I hoped in time she’d improve. I sat both of them in the workroom next to my office to keep close tabs on their artwork; it was a tough and demanding battle. I spent a great deal of time going over their sketches, making corrections where necessary, and trying to educate them. Little by little they did improve and required less supervision.
I designed an elaborate stock system to implement throughout the production. Rule of thumb was to use 30% stock animation to 70% new film footage. This formula seemed to keep the studio within the budget area and enable animators to complete scenes that didn’t require an abundance of talent. A great deal of attention was focused on duplicating the feel and look of the “live” series audiences were used to. We used the original cast of actors from the live series for voiceovers and got along well with everyone. In fact, I’m proud to say we were really a great team working together. Scheduling recordings at times was ticklish as the actors were on call or performing on camera elsewhere. Their dedication to the new series was wonderful, each and every one of them.
What was the network’s reaction to the first episodes they saw of TAS?
Sutherland: When the first show was finally completed and shown to the network officials, they were extremely enthusiastic and pleased at what they saw. Not long after we hit the air, the show was rated number one in the ratings. Almost simultaneously, when the production was complete (on season one), it was time for me to leave, as my time had run out according to the contract.
Which TAS episode did you like best?
Sutherland: One that stands out for me is the “More Tribbles, More Toubles.” The conception of (continuing) storylines from The Original Series to animated episodes was unique and (they) were full of humor.
You ended up directing most of the episodes, but other directors realized the shows produced in the abbreviated second season. How did you try to lay the groundwork for those following you?
Sutherland: I’d previously announced to (Filmation co-founders) Norm (Prescott) and Lou (Scheimer) that I indeed would be leaving the studio. In a way, I felt guilty knowing that production within the studio was going to suffer tremendously. I’d done my best to set up a series of procedures to follow much before the end of my term. If they’d follow those procedures, all would probably go well, and I did believe there indeed would be difficulty getting others to follow my work patterns. As far as other directors taking over following my exit, after all these years I’ve definitely run short of space in my mental loft upstairs and would have to read something to note who was directing some of the (later) episodes in the series.
You more or less retired after Star Trek. Why?
Sutherland: I left the animation world to follow a career in painting, which I’d dreamed of all my life, and to be with my dear family. The stress of productions kept me away from the family a good portion of the time. I wanted to be a part of their lives while on earth.
Tomorrow, in part two of our exclusive interview with Hal Sutherland, he talks in detail about the early days of his career, first working for Walt Disney and, later, forming Filmation Studios with Lou Scheimer and Norman Prescott. To learn more about Sutherland and for a peek at his output as a painter, visit his site at www.halsutherlandart.com.