I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Fantastic Voyage: Hal Sutherland Makes It Work

by David Selden
Dec. 18, 2012

“Headquarters: CMDF, Combined Miniature Defense Force. Project: Fantastic Voyage. Process: Miniaturization. Authority: Top Secret, highest clearance. Team: Jonathan Kidd, Commander. Guru, master of mysterious powers. Erica Lane, doctor/biologist. Busby Birdwell, scientist/inventor, builder of the Voyager. Mission: In their miniaturized form, to combat the unseen, unsuspected enemies of freedom. Time Limit: 12 hours.”

The opening narration of Filmation Associates’ Fantastic Voyage, succinctly states the premise of the show, which had been spun off from the successful live action feature directed by Richard Fleischer and released in 1966. The 17 episodes of Filmation’s animated version aired on ABC between 1968 and 1969 and are representative of the studio’s prolific output. Long tracking shots of background mattes, repeated frames, jump cuts and other “limited animation” techniques were all required by the pressure to produce quantity, but in Filmation’s case this produced an immediately recognizable style.

The strong composition of the frames and bold line work are reminiscent of the comic books of the era, mass-produced certainly, but also lively and graphic. The background work, under the directorship of Erv Kaplan, is sometimes lavish and has a sweet Jetsons optimism. Combined with the harder edged “pop” sensibility of the line and cell work (and the Blinkenlights fascination with computerisation) the result is visually dynamic piece of 60’s techno-optimism. If the characterisation never exceeds the stereotypical then this is typical within the constraints and demands of rapacious TV scheduling. Hal Sutherland makes a little go a long way and Fantastic Voyage was a large team project, one of many.

Filmation Associates was established in 1963 by Lou Scheimer and Norm Prescott. Scheimer encountered Hal Sutherland, who was to become the studio’s principle director, while working on Popeye cartoons at Larry Harmon Pictures. After a lucrative project making 10 short animated films based on the life of Christ for a Missourian church, they established what was to eventually become True Line, which (after Prescott, a former DJ, had came on board) was to be rechristened Filmation Associates. After some years making advertising the studio had a hit with The New Adventures of Superman which was to last 4 seasons, outlasting Fantastic Voyage. They would go on to become one of the premier producers of animated content for television throughout the 70’s and into the 80’s. Sutherland would eventually retire and devote himself to the production of sentimental painting.

Fantastic Voyage follows a formula that Filmation would perfect over a number of years that was to become a trope of television animation parallel with its becoming a trope of the comic booki. Here our team of superheroes comprises, The Commander - the one with the eye patch and Herculean physique, (the female) Doctor/biologist (this being 1968 and California, she still apparently doesn’t have much to do apart from being blonde), the brainy one (here identified with glasses and a surly belief in materialism) and the Guru, who wears a turban and solves plot holes with an esoteric flourish. Once a week for 17 weeks they would set out to protect mankind from some deadly threat that can only be solved in a desperate act of self-miniaturisationii.

Voiced by Ted Knight, Marvin Miller (the voice of Robby the Robot in the film Forbidden Planet) and Jane Webb, Guru gets the best lines in Fantastic Voyage and ample opportunity to demonstrate his mystical prowess. With the villain often sporting a black moustache and a sinister intonation, the inevitable reversals of fortune won’t come as any surprise. Then again, like Scooby Doo, the very predictability of the plot is half its charm.

Knight was a prolific TV actor who was to become a regular on the Mary Tyler Moore Show and whose own, Too Close for Comfort demonstrated that the American audience of the day just couldn’t get enough ventriloquism. In his final role he played the judge in Caddyshack. Miller, whose screen forte was Asian baddies, had played opposite Cagney and Bogart in the 40’s and would go on to be the voice of Aquaman for Filmation and the narrator ofPolice Squad! in the 80’s. Webb would be the voice of Catwoman, Batgirl (and Barbara Gordon) for Filmation Associates’s The Batman/Superman Hour and Sabrina, in the multiple animated teenage witch related spin-offs that the studio produced.

Although the generic cartoon jazz of Fantastic Voyage’s soundtrack is not that exciting, it is attributed to the extraordinary Gordon Zahler who, despite being left a quadriplegic as a teenage gymnast and seeing his family impoverished by the subsequent medical bills, went on to carve out a career as a high-living Hollywood businessman selling his late father’s music as unionisation made the commissioning and performance of original scores prohibitively expensive for the cost sensitive studiosiii.

Financial considerations were always at the fore at Filmation, who would take “limited animation”, which had made its first appearance in the 1920’s as an alternative to the labour and expensive processes employed by Disney and had been pioneered cost effectively for television by Filmation’s contemporaries, UPA and Hanna-Barbera, to extremes. Stock footage, the reuse of backgrounds, stills, camera shakes and moiré effects lend Fantastic Voyage a memorable graphic simplicity, which the studio would arguably loose as its production line techniques became ever more sophisticated and it ventured into 3d animation and a heavy reliance on rotoscoping in the 1980’s. Nonetheless, Filmation’s run was a long one, delighting children with animated versions of popular films and TV shows including, Star Trek (1973–1974 NBC), The Brady Kids (1972-1973 ABC), Ghostbusters (1986), The Tom and Jerry Comedy Show (1980 CBS), and the Groovie Goolies (1970-1972 CBS), to mention but a few.

Filmation really hit pay dirt with its collaborations with toy manufacturer Mattel, He-Man and She-Ra, but with the disappointing theatrical release of Pinocchio And The Emperor Of The Night (1987), the studio would eventually cease production. Fantastic Voyage itself would inspire the creation of a toy, a model of the Voyager craft which was released by Aurora Models 6 months before he show’s cancellation in 1969. Due to its limited production the original kit now fetches a handsome sum on eBay. Cellar dwelling postmodernists will note that in fitting tribute to a studio that made its name with cheap TV adaptations that Moebius Models now make a copy of Aurora Models original Voyager.


A Fond Look Back At Filmation Associates – Randall Cyrenne, Animated Views 2004.

Limited Animation - What I Learned from Rocky and Bullwinkle . Gary Shannon. 2008


i Hanna-Barbera’s Fantastic Four was a hit for ABC during the same station’s run of Fantastic Voyage .

ii Not quite as desperate as Fleischer’s original crew who only had 60 minutes.

After a long international career exhibiting video installation and photography, David Selden renounced the art world in favor of the far less superficial drag scene and became intimately involved with a number of notorious London fetish clubs. ‘Retiring’ to Berlin in 2007 having run out of pseudonyms, he has written about music for Dorfdisco and about art for Whitehot Magazine as well as contributing numerous catalogue essays and translations for a variety of publications and websites. His misadventures in the world of anti-music can be endured at affeprotokoll.tumblr.com