By the power of Grayskull, Robert Lamb has the power!
Back in the ’80s, cartoons were kings on the TV dial and Filmation created many memorable animated TV shows, including the very popular He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Robert Lamb worked for the animation studio during its heyday as a storyboard artist (and later as a writer, as well as Storyboard Production Coordinator) and worked on many of the company’s programs. In this interview, Mr. Lamb discusses behind-the-scenes information of working on He-Man and its spin-off, She-Ra, notes how he became a writer on the show, details the last few days of Filmation and gives his thoughts on the Cartoon Network remake.
Could you tell me how you initially got your start with Filmation?
– “This one is easy, because I wrote it out on my Website. Rather than repost the volume of information here, I’ll give the link to the page that answers this question.
From an animation perspective, did anyone forsee He-Man’s forthcoming popularity?
– “No one that I know of. We expected it to do better than average, but the immense popularity caught us all by surprise.”
Who was your favorite He-Man/She-Ra character to storyboard? Who was your least favorite?
– “Orko was the easiest to draw for obvious reasons. I liked Ram Man, Granamyr and Frosta. My least favorite was a tie between Hordak and Mantenna. Hordak, for the bone collar/hood and Mantenna, for his multiple legs. I didn’t like Leech either.”
How did you become a writer for Filmation?
– “During the first season of He-Man, I got to board several Larry DiTillio scripts, who was one of the best writers. When the second season started, I got one of the worst scripts called Fisto’s Forest, not by Larry. You can read my complaints on the FF page on my Website. Annoyed at some of the lame scripts coming down the pike, I wished for stories that worked off the themes set up in the series writers guide, most of which had been ignored. I had an idea for a story, in which someone falls into the abyss around Castle Grayskull and witnesses the gush of power when Adam becomes He-Man.”
“I pitched the premise to Arthur Nadel — the head of the writing department — with the hope that Larry would write it, so I could board a good story. Larry was busy on another script, so Arthur asked if I would like to write it. I took the challenge and wrote it at home at night, while boarding another script, Jacob and the Widgets during the day. Arthur liked my script and asked if I had any more story ideas. I came back a few days later with an outline for Not So Blind. On the strength of those two scripts, Arthur offered me a staff writer position for the rest of He-Man and all of the first season of She-Ra. After that, I returned to the storyboard department.”
Do you think storytelling has changed in animation, from back in your He-Man days?
– “Yes, it has. With few exceptions, it has gotten worse, in my opinion. I have actually stopped watching most TV animation. The commercials put me off, to the point that I’m not even curious anymore. Sad.”
Was Masters of the Universe first conceived as a cartoon or as an action-figure line?
– “The toyline was created first, but Filmation was brought in early to develop the cartoon series. It takes longer to develop and produce a TV show than it does a toyline.”
Star Wars basically created the entire action-figure community. Did Filmation attempt to copy this process for a cartoon?
– “Not Filmation, Mattel. They wanted to repeat their Barbie success with boys: i.e. dolls with accessories: clothing, vehicles, playsets.”
Apparently, Hasbro instructed G.I. Joe writer Larry Hama to introduce new characters in subsequent comics and episodes of the cartoon. Was Filmation ever instructed to do the same?
– “Hasbro dominated G.I. Joe production, to the frustration of the animators who worked on it. Lou Scheimer deliberately stipulated, in the contract with Mattel, that each party should not interfere with the other. We wouldn’t tell them how to make toys and they wouldn’t tell us how to make a cartoon. We tried to accommodate Mattel and use characters where possible, but we had the right to reject them as well. Stinkor was one we passed on (pun intended).”
Could you tell me how She-Ra: The Princess of Power orginated?
– “It was planned as a five-episode lead into the series that would be edited into a single movie.”
Eventually, there was an animated He-Man and She-Ra movie. Was there ever any plans to merge the two storylines together?
– “Not in every episode. We did do several crossover shows, where He-Man came to Etheria to help his sister. I wrote one them called Loo-Kee Lends a Hand. Even managed to get Skeletor and Beastman in, for a cameo.”
What He-Man and She-Ra ideas do you remember that ended up being deleted?
– “Each writer would submit several story ideas to Arthur Nadel, head of the writing department, who would choose which stories we did. I don’t know about the other writers’ ideas, but I had several, including many Frosta stories. When I get to posting about She-Ra on my website, I’ll dig up the page of premises I know I have somewhere. I did write a He-Man episode that made it to second draft, before it was shelved. It was called Flight of the Fairwind and was kind of an airport-like disaster story, with comic-relief characters. It wasn’t very good and the fans deserved to be spared that embarrassment. Later, I used the name of the aircraft, Fairwind, for the name of a sailing ship in The Ancient Mirror of Avathar, which was a story I wanted to be a two-parter, but there were no script slots left. A few years ago, I wrote the story for James Eatock’s Cereal Geek magazine #7.”
Were animators pulling double duty, worn out from working on both He-Man and She-Ra simultaneously?
– “No. We finished He-Man before moving into production on She-Ra. Actually, everyone was grateful for the continuous work. Before He-Man, animators usually only worked six to seven months, then were laid off for six months with no pay, until the next series started.”
Was violence ever an issue that needed to be toned down on any episode?
– “Lou Scheimer was very sensitive to objections to violence. We were constantly dealing with groups like Action for Children’s Television, who were convinced cartoons were damaging children, everywhere. We had a child psychologist as an advisor, who read each script and made recommendations. The tags at the end of the shows were part of our ‘pro-social’ stance on children’s programming. We didn’t fear upsetting groups, but we did want to be sensitive to our audience.”
Was magic ever an issue that needed to be toned down on any episode?
– “Magic was one way of creating interesting action scenes without violence. However, some people of faith have issues with the depiction of magic, to varying degrees. One show that received many letters from Christian parents was Daimar the Demon. The objection was that a demon cannot be reformed or redeemed, as it was in that episode. Because it was known that I am a Christian, I was called into a story conference, because an outside writer had a demon in his story. ‘Are your people going to give us trouble over this?’ I read the premise and suggested the writer change the term to ‘monster,’ since the character was not classically demonic. And so a potential complaint was avoided by simple word substitution.”
How did the series Bravestarr originate?
– “It started during the production of Filmation’s Ghostbusters. While looking at sketches of prospective villains, a Western character named Tex Hex caught Lou Scheimer’s eye. It gave him an idea about doing a Western in space. So, he pulled Tex Hex from Ghostbusters and tasked the development department with creating a show around this villain.”
Did most of the animators/writers/directors of He-Man and She-Ra work on Bravestarr as well?
– “Most of them are the same. Some moved on after She-Ra to Marvel, because they didn’t want to do comedy. We also got new folks in, too.”
Before Filmation closed, there was a proposed Bravestarr spin-off series. Could you tell me a little about that?
– “That was Bravo! aka Quest of the Prairie People. Scripts were written. Boards were drawn. Animation had started. I think we produced at least one episode. I wrote a script for it called The Bold and the Cold, but I don’t remember if it made it out of writing. The show was basically a comic spin-off, featuring a small group of Deputy Fuzz’s people who accidentally are thrown back 10,000 years to New Texas’ primitive past and their efforts to return home.”
I’m a child of the ’80s and a huge cartoon fan. As an animator, did you watch any rival ‘toons back in the day, or was it just a job?
– “I watched some of them. All the Filmation shows that I worked on, to see how they turned out. I remember watching Mighty Orbots, Gummi Bears, RoboTech, Galaxy Rangers, TMNT. Most I had to tape and watch later, since I worked when the weekday afternoon shows were on. And no, it wasn’t just a job for me. I loved working at Filmation. Whenever I was frustrated with a lame script or director’s revisions I didn’t agree with, I just reminded myself how much better it was than working retail or restaurants.”
Were you ever inspired by other cartoons of the day?
– “We were jealous of the freedom in action sequences the other studios had by sending much of their animation overseas. But we also resented the other studios laying off animators. Filmation did everything to keep all the work at home, but eventually we couldn’t any longer and by 1989, it was too late.”
Could you tell me the sequence of events during the last few days of Filmation?
– “I highly recommend you get Lou Scheimer’s book, Creating the Filmation Generation. He gives a great deal of details about the entire history of the studio and especially the closing. I was there and I didn’t know half of what was going on, those last days. I can tell you this: we were in complete shock. We had just hired back animators and layout artists two or three weeks before we closed. We had sold Bravo! and Bugzburg to several TV stations. Our parent company, Westinghouse, wanted out of the animation business and sold the studio to L’Oreal cosmetics, who only wanted the 26-year film library for European distribution. Lou tried to buy back a third of the company, to keep the doors open, but couldn’t raise the money on such short notice.”
With the 30th anniversary of He-Man, what would you say was your crowning achievement?
– “I don’t think I have a singular achievement to point to but I do have a few things I am proud of. I am pleased with most of my scripts: Into the Abyss, Not So Blind, The Ancient Mirror of Avathar, Micah of Bright Moon, Loo Kee Lends a Hand. I am also proud of some of my storyboards: The Dragon’s Gift, Return of Granamyr, House of Shokoti Part Two.”
“There is another thing I am proud of, where I took two years off from writing and boarding to catalog animation worthy of reusing. Filmation had always created and used a stock system of animation, but it was limited and quickly wore out its welcome. Halfway through the first season of He-Man, we recognized that there were very good action scenes that could expand our catalog of reusable animation. It just had to be indexed, somehow. I didn’t originate the system, but when Filmation’s Ghostbusters started production, I was given the title Storyboard Production Coordinator, two assistants and a computer to catalog any animation that could be reused. It kept costs down, rewarded animators for creating good animation, and extended our ability to keep the work on our shores for three years after everyone else went to Korea.”
Were you ever involved in any of the behind-the-scenes productions when the series was released on DVD?
– “Yes. I was interviewed for several of the documentaries for the BCI Eclipse releases. I don’t know if those docs are on the newer DVDs.”
When Masters of the Universe was remade on Cartoon Network, did they speak to you about working on it?
– “No and I was disappointed. It may have been because I was no longer in Los Angeles, but I could be found. I was in touch with old friends in L.A. Later, Dean Stefan friended me on Facebook and we met at Power-Con last year.”
What projects are you currently working on?
– “No animation at this time. I have been illustrating children’s books that my wife writes. There are links on my Website. Mostly, I do graphic design now.”
For More Information:
– Robert Lamb’s Memories, Musings and Mayhem of a Creative Career