When it comes to bringing big-named characters to life, Tom Cook has practically animated them all!
Animator-Director Tom Cook has worked on many iconic cartoons throughout the years, including The Flintstones, the Super Friends, Scooby-Doo and The Smurfs. But for 10 years, he worked at the only animation company based in the United States, Filmation, where he helped bring to life Blackstar, BraveStarr, The Original Ghostbusters, Pac-Man: The Animated Series and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, along with She-Ra: Princess of Power, among others. At the Wizard World Nashville Comic Con 2013, I spoke with Mr. Cook about working at Filmation, doubling down by working on multiple series simultaneously and reacting to the first glance of the King of the Hill character models (Editor’s Note: That boy ain’t right).
How long did you work for Filmation?
– “I started out with Hanna-Barbera back in 1978 and moved over to Filmation by 1981. I was there until they closed the doors, in ’89.”
Can you tell me a little about working on Masters of the Universe.
– “Most of the shows had been sent overseas by the other studios. Filmation was really the only studio doing work in the United States. Suddenly, they came up with this ‘He-Man thing,’ and we were like, ‘What the heck is this?’ Normally, you did 13 episodes for a season. With He-Man, we were going to do 65 episodes a season. So, roughly, six-years of work, almost, for one year, because it was going to be syndicated and on every day (instead of just on Saturday mornings). It really saved our careers, because it started a whole syndicated thing, following that with She-Ra, Ghostbusters and BraveStarr… They all followed the same He-man kind of way to do things. He-Man, by far, was the biggest thing I’ve ever worked on, as far as popularity, because of the toys. It had an automatic sales-mechanism built into it.”
How did they initially brand the show, to you?
– “Well, they came to us with the toys. They basically said, ‘We don’t have a storyline, we have no idea what to do with these, but we think they’ll be very popular.’ So, we came up with the whole Eternia storyline. That’s kind of how it got started. I don’t know how much input Mattel had into the storylines… I don’t think a whole lot. I think they were pretty happy with the initial ideas that we had. Of course, it took off, and 35 years later, I’m still talking to people about it.”
Were you working on Masters of the Universe from the very beginning?
– “Yeah. The studio probably had maybe 60 or 70 animators in it. We all had to take a test, to be able to get the job, on He-Man. You basically came in at 7 in the morning and worked eight hours. Whatever you got was what they did of a pencil-test. I was right there, from the very beginning. When they started putting together the stocks, they would just re-use the same drawings any time a character would run across the screen, so they didn’t have to redraw a character every time. It was a way to cut corners, to be able to compete with the Japanese, who were charging much less per show.”
After working on the show, whatever happened to the majority of the animation cels?
– “It seemed like, to me, with He-Man, somebody kept a good catalog of it. In addition to the stock work, we also had ‘same-as scenes.’ If somebody did a really good fight scene, or something like that, they would save it and put it aside. Add it to the catalog. If somebody needed a good fight scene, they could flip it and have them fight on the other side of the page.”
“I know there’s somebody who bought the whole catalog… he was at Power-Con. He had bins and bins of cels. It was something else. He told me, ‘Go ahead and look through it. If you find one that you did, I’ll give it to you.’ I looked for an hour and I never found one, because there are so many cels. If he had them catalogued a little bit differently, I might’ve been able to find something. Usually, I can recognize my writing at the bottom of each scene. I can recognize my handwriting. Somebody’s got ahold of those old cels and backgrounds.”
Do you have any He-Man cels?
– “I have a couple. I have He-Man riding on Battle Cat, jumping through the scene and a couple of Orkos, but no backgrounds. I’m probably going to connect with the guy and get something from him, because I want to have a full-cel setup in my studio.”
Was there any particular scene that was difficult that you remember working on?
– “I had one scene on She-Ra, it’s in the episode “Loo-Kee Lends a Hand.” It’s this little character, Loo-Kee, you have to look for in every episode and at the end they would reveal where he was hidden. Everybody in the show was about to have something happen to them — like they were going to run into a tree or something like that. That was the scene I did for Rob Lamb. Madame Razz — kind of the witch character — was flying through the forest on her broom. She was just about to slam into a tree and everything stopped. Loo-Kee froze time somehow and put this big pillow there. So, when time came back in, she slammed into the pillow. I have the pillow explode, with feathers flying everywhere. That’s something the director didn’t ask for, but I thought it would look really good. I turned it in and he was ecstatic that I took the extra time to make it extra special.”
Did you work with Robert Lamb very often on He-Man?
– “The great mystery of Filmation and animation series, in general, is that even though we worked in the same building, I hardly ever saw him. They had another wing of the building. They basically hung out with other writers or storyboard artists and they go to lunch with other writers or storyboard artists. We’d go to lunch with our animation friends. Knowing him was more of talking to him a few times, but not really to the point were I got to be great friends with him, like I did with the guys I sat with in the animation studio. He was always one of those guys, very vocal, really excited to have worked there and one of the really good guys of Filmation. It was really nice to see him again, after 30-something years.”
When She-Ra was spun off, were the animators split between working on two different shows in a short amount of time?
– “Yeah. They didn’t do any test episodes, they just went full-in with 65 episodes. We were finishing up the second half of He-Man and all of a sudden we had to start on She-Ra. We were stretched to the limit. It used to be, in the old days, you’d start work in February and you’d work through the season till September and then you’d get laid off. Then you’d have to wait, to see if the show got picked up by the network. If it wasn’t, then there was a mad scramble to whatever studio was hiring. For that 10-year period, we were working, working, working… which was great, because I was unmarried at the time. So, I had nothing better to do. Even though we were working, it still was a lot of fun. It was really frantic, when we were doing both series.”
“We started to get Ghostbusters going, just as She-Ra was winding down. So, there was always a period where we had a couple of months’ worth of so many episodes to do and so little time.”
Was there ever a gag-reel for He-Man or She-Ra?
– “Usually, it was too costly to add gag reels, because we’d have to waste cels, ink and paint. They did have a reel they put together just of mistakes, I think it was shown at a Christmas party or something like that, but I don’t remember a whole lot of details about it. I remember we had a scene where Fred Flintstone blinked and his eyebrows blinked with his eyes. But somebody had forgotten and also drew the eyebrows on the cel below. He had four eyebrows for a blink. They never corrected it. They just let it go out that way because it was too costly to fix.”
You also worked on King of the Hill. How would you compare/contrast the two shows?
– “Well, on King of the Hill, I was working as a director, so I didn’t really do any drawing. Before the show started, somebody contacted me and wanted me to do some episodes. So, I said, ‘Sure. I’d love to do it.’ I got a packet in the mail that had all the model-sheets of the characters, and I said, ‘Oh, my gosh. These are the ugly Beavis and Butt-head characters.’ I hated the artwork. They gave me the soundtrack and as I’m directing, I’m listening to the story. Man, it was really funny. This has really got a chance of making it, and of course, it was on the air for 10 years. It ended up being a really, really clever show.”
“I did about three or four episodes before it aired. The only one I recall was the one where Bobby gets caught smoking and Peggy and Hank end up getting hooked on smoking cigarettes again, like they were when they were younger. It was a pretty good episode. It was so ironic, because I hate cigarettes and I’m so against smoking… so I have to do the episode about smoking. It was really quite the challenge, but it was a lot of fun.”
What are some of your current projects?
– “Actually, I’m pretty much retired and just traveling around, doing conventions and meeting the fans.”
Where will you be headed next?
– “This is the first year I’ve done this and it’s been really good. In Austin, TX in November, I think Portland in January and then Emerald City Comicon in Seattle — I think that’s at the end of March. I’m also looking at getting into the Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con. I’ll be pretty busy next year.”