Hal Sutherland Looks Back at an Animated Career - Part 2
By StarTrek.com Staff - March 08, 2011
Yesterday, in part one of our interview with Hal Sutherland, he talked about directing the bulk of Star Trek: The Animated Series via Filmation Studios, the company he co-founded. Now, in the second half of the conversation, Sutherland recounts – in great detail – his formative years in the business, the early days of Filmation and how Star Trek came into the Filmation fold. He also shares a touching story about The Animated Series’ Emmy win and catches us up on what he’s doing these days.
Yesterday, we spoke mostly about Trek. But you’ve worked on everything from Sleeping Beauty and Lady and the Tramp to The New Adventures of Superman, Archie’s Fun House, and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. So let’s go back in time to the mid-1950s, when, after some fits and starts, you wound up at Disney. That’s where you got your formal entry into the world of animation, right?
Sutherland: I was lucky to find assignments within the studio that exposed me to many facets of the animation world, (things that) most artists who had been there many years ahead of me never viewed. I was fortunate to work on short subjects and features such as Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, plus the very last theatrical short with Donald Duck. I spent several years absorbing that precious information and training. This training gave me a view of the technical sides of animation and later, when a very busy Walt Disney’s attention was detracted from the animation world -- to creating Disneyland -- the studio fell out of its production scheduling, forcing many layoffs. I was fortunate to be kept on for a good bit of time after most artists had gone to work at outlying small studios. Near the end of my tenure with Disney I received a phone call from one of my former supervisors who was now working with Larry Harmon Studios. They were in the throes of beginning a new animated TV series featuring Bozo the Clown and gave me a good offer of employment, which I hastily accepted.
Compared to Disney studio this was a pretty small operation, but the opportunities were vast, the salary comparable, and eventually very fulfilling. I strove hard in the new environment to prove myself and hopefully advance to a higher level in the profession. The directors, animators and the checking department occupied small separate rooms. The assistants, background artists and the layout artists worked primarily in one large room. This room was an interesting place to be for a lot of reasons. Lou Scheimer and I met and formed a friendship that would span the rest of my professional career and beyond. I learned a vast amount of technical knowledge that wasn’t available to the average employee at Disney. I gave it my all and, as I did at Disney, tried to reach the top of the list for production speed. Unbelievably, it wasn’t long before one of the “old-timer” animators called me aside and suggested I slow down or they’d be asking everyone else to match my output! I had a hard time with that one. I figured we were there to work, and if another possible layoff came I wanted to be considered a valuable asset. I ignored his sly request and poured on the speed.
The system was based on an animator picking up work from a few directors who had work available after all the scenes of a prior production had been passed out to other animators. I hit it just right one week when I happened to be the first animator to pick up work on a new episode. I wound up doing the whole production alone, much to the chagrin of the director who’d been in charge of the commercial unit when we were at Disney. After the black and white film tests came back, the director and animators who’d worked on the episode would trudge down to the editorial room and view the tests. To everyone’s amazement, I’d made few errors and they gave me solo screen credit for animation. I took a lot of joshing for being a “showoff” from everyone, but a few grumpy old timers didn’t hesitate to show their scorn. I figured if they wanted it that way, they were welcome. I was determined to do it again just to get their goat, but the timing never worked out.
After opportunities slowed down at Harmon, you and Scheimer worked at Paramount and other companies, creating animation for films and commercials. What do you remember of meeting Norm Prescott and the under-funded early days of Filmation under you, Scheimer and Prescott?
Sutherland: Lou and I both had to go back on unemployment to exist, as the funds we’d received from (a popular oil commercial they’d done) were held aside strictly for operating expenses. Lou went in on Mondays and I went on Thursdays for our weekly interviews. Both of us always stood in panic for fear someone would recognize us and blow our cover as “successful producers.” One day, a fellow by the name of Norm Prescott was introduced to us, and there began another milestone chapter in all our respective careers. He and some unknown partners had been trying to produce an animated sequel to MGM’S Wizard of Oz film. They had a prestigious cast of well-known actors that defied imagination, a musical score of delightful songs written especially for the film by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, with Liza Minnelli, daughter of Judy Garland, playing her mother’s role. All of this was already recorded on a magnificent soundtrack. They needed about a minute and a half of film to go along with their presentation to acquire financing for the project. We agreed to produce the footage at almost cost provided we’d be guaranteed the balance of the production. We shook hands, drew up an agreement and dove into the project with dreams of grandeur and “money.”
We were able to procure some of the best talent in the animation business to work on the project (which eventually emerged as Journey Back to Oz, directed by Sutherland and released in 1974, a decade after production began). It turned out well to everyone’s satisfaction. Norm began canvassing the country in search of financing and Lou and I waited. We experienced a lull in regard to “new” incoming business and fell behind in the rent for six months. Thankfully, the studio had faith in us and fully understood the pitfalls of the film business, as they too were also in a production slump. Things were looking pretty dim when finally Prescott called from the east coast and said he’d been talking with a producer from Action Comics. They’d been approached by CBS to allow them to use their character Superman in a Saturday morning cartoon series for their children’s lineup. Norm told the exec from Action he knew of a fine studio he himself was involved with regarding the Oz project. The fellow viewed the film footage we’d produced and announced he wanted to personally inspect the studio. Between all of us we concocted a scheme to put on a show for the fellow that would impress his pants off. We scheduled a date for him to visit the studio and made arrangements with friends, neighbors and anyone one who’d present a professional image to take up positions sitting at all the empty desks. This would hopefully present an image of the successful and well-operated studio Norm had described. Some friends were professional actors; others were recruited from the unemployment lines and friends in the animation industry. The main character in the plot was Ted Knight, an up and coming actor capable of projecting a variety of voices and accents.
Norm ushered the exec from Action Comics into the studio, past the temporary “live receptionist” -- I believe it was Lou’s wife, Jay -- to our main office, where Lou and I sat twitching. After our initial introduction, we took him on tour of the imaginary “successful” studio.” It was a brief tour as planned. We didn’t allow him to observe anything in detail for fear someone would look inept at what they were trying to portray. We soon had him cornered back in the main office where we discussed future relationships and arrangements to produce the series. As we sat behind closed doors, Ted, using a variety of voices, wandered back and forth through the hallways outside the office, keeping everything audibly active and impressionable for the ears of the poor exec meeting with us. He was extremely impressed and we got the contract. Within 30 days we were in the beginning stages of producing the very first of the “Underwear Heroes” series for television. This set a pattern of ‘fodder’ for children’s programming for many years to come.
Filmation continued to grow and the company landed more and more superhero programming…
Sutherland: Superman was a tremendous success for us and we obtained contracts to produce other series bases on Action Comics’ heroic stars, such as Aquaman. We also made a deal with 20th Century Fox Studio’s to produce an animated version of Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” film as a Saturday morning series. Again, we had to move due to the enlarging of the workforce and lack of workspace. We found a building close to Warner Brothers’ studio in Studio City. At last, we didn’t have to look up to Hanna-Barbera across the street any more. By 1968, Filmation was really on a roll, our personal finances improved with an increasing amount of revenue, and we were able to raise our own salaries. My wife Fay and I personally experienced the luxury of starting a modest savings account and purchasing a few items of furniture for our small home. We paid cash for everything for fear of being caught in another financial crisis. At the studio, we were able to hire more talented personnel, which eased some of the pressure. I hired additional directors to take some of the burden from me as I rapidly was becoming incapable of keeping up with the consistent beat of the drum.
We acquainted ourselves with an amazing array of actors, aspiring producers, writers possessing “the script” or “premise of the decade” for a project that would definitely set Hollywood on its ear. Any minor actor of a successful television series was considered fair game to take to lunch, hoping they might sway some influence upon their producers to ‘give a listen’ to a project we might have concocted. Another angle for us was to gain animation rights to established “live action” series that enjoyed good ratings. We had our share of those in the heyday of Filmation. We gained rights to Gilligan’s Island, Lassie, The Hardy Boys and a host of other shows which are now nostalgia.
You, Scheimer and Prescott eventually sold Filmation, but part of the deal was that you’d all stay on for another five years. Take us to 1973, when Star Trek entered your orbit.
Sutherland: The studio was running well and the television networks seemed pleased with the quality of work we were putting out. In the last season of my contractual tenure, we were asked by NBC to produce an animated version of Star Trek. This was a real coup, and I was requested to personally handle the project. I worked side by side with Gene Roddenberry. He was a gentle fellow and we got along well. There was an extreme shortage of talent qualified to work on the project. As a result I had to make some drastic changes in order to maintain the quality in the production. The network granted Roddenberry and Filmation free rein as to story content and design. This was a first in the history of TV. And… thank God. It was imperative to do an outstanding job, seeing as Trekkie fans around the world would critique the show. Also, my own ego and pride was on the line.
Star Trek won an Emmy for the season you’d worked on, but we know that the story surrounding that Emmy win is bittersweet. You and your family had already moved out of L.A., to Washington State, when you got the call that TAS had been nominated for an award. What happened next?
Sutherland: This was exciting news and I spread the word to all of our friends and neighbors in case Filmation picked up the Emmy. Later, I remember gathering the family to watch the award ceremonies with me. I hoped to make them proud of what we had accomplished in some way. Sitting in front of the TV, I watched with anxiety as the nominations for best animated series came up. Lou and his family were there in New York, where the festivities were taking place. This I had known in advance, but what came next I totally took me aback. The award envelope was opened and Star Trek was announced the winner for its category. Lou stepped to the podium to make his acceptance speech and after a moment or two, started speaking of “someone else” who should be standing there beside him to accept the award. He recounted how the series could never have been produced without this person and his untiring efforts to put the show together. Tears welled in my eyes as he spoke those words. Then he unbelievably stated the actual credit should go to Norm Prescott! I believe it was one of the most disappointing moments in my career, to hear this from someone I’d considered my closest friend. I never mentioned this to Lou in all the years hence. Though I really wanted to ask him “Why?”
Cut to 2004. You, Scheimer, and his daughter Erika took part in a video interview for a piece about Filmation’s history. What do you recall of that day?
Sutherland: During Lou’s moments on camera, his voice softened and he turned to me sitting behind him in the first row of a theater, which was being used for the interviews, and sorrowfully related to me an apology for his “drunken” statement at the Emmy affair regarding his confusion between Norm and I and the production credits. We’d both carried that haunting memory all those many years, neither wanting to bring up the tender subject. We later kissed (and put the issue behind them).
TAS is on DVD. The episodes are available here on StarTrek.com. How does it feel to know that nearly 40 years later, so many people are still watching and enjoying TAS?
Sutherland: The Star Trek series has continued showing through the years to new and older audiences throughout the world. I recently received a letter from the Ukraine asking for a pair of autographs for a fellow and his brother who are still viewing the shows. It’s so amazing that the popularity is still there and seemingly everywhere. (Conventions) around the world are also fascinating to (for him) attend, with chances to meet childhood fans that are now grown and entertaining their own children with these shows that are still available on TV. Their thanks for the work we did back then is very personal and rewarding.
Where do you live now and what are you up to these days?
Sutherland: Washington is still our home in the sky, and the regrets of leaving friends in California have faded. I still enjoy painting and visiting the art world around the country. Once in awhile I spot a Saturday Evening Post magazine somewhere, which immediately brings back those now-special childhood memories.
To learn more about Sutherland and for a peek at his output as a painter, visit his site at www.halsutherlandart.com. And to check out TAS episodes on StarTrek.com, click here. To read part one of this article, click here.
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