A Note of Recognition for: Filmation's "Star Trek" Animators
There are a lot of fond childhood memories surrounding the assorted products of Filmation Studios, but it’s pretty safe to say that none of them involve shockingly high production values. This becomes painfully evident when watching the recently released Star Trek: The Animated Series boxed set. Watching the first few episodes, the animation is almost comically limited when compared to most animation of today.
However, this article means to praise Filmation, not bury it, despite the lack of overt technical skill on display. During their heyday, the alternatives for animated programming (if you weren’t Disney) were to do a cartoon cheap or not to do it at all, so Filmation deserves some praise for simply keeping the medium alive. The animators working there deserve kudos for their efforts as well for some incredibly creative thinking and innovation.
Yes, innovation. Whenever budget constraints are decreed from on-high, it’s always the wage slaves and footsoldiers at the bottom of the pyramid who really have to come up with ways to do more with less. In many ways, one can only marvel at their creativity in coming up with ways to save money. Nobody ever sets out to make terrible art (except perhaps Max Bialystock and arguably Uwe Boll), and nothing hurts an artist more than knowing that he or she could have done better if only there were just a little bit more time or money. However, sometimes severe restrictions on money or time are the drivers that push artists to come up with extremely creative solutions to problems. Even if the animation of Star Trek was limited, it becomes clear that the creativity of the animators working under such conditions was not. In fact, there are more than a few instances where the animators managed to turn their weaknesses into strengths in some unexpected ways.
In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the tricks of the trade that Filmation animators used throughout the Star Trek animated series to save money or time on animation. Think of it as a mocking appreciation, like the way you’ll give your friends crap for their weird personal habits while realizing that it’s those weird personal habits that make them your friends in the first place. Besides, if you keep your eyes open, it isn’t too hard to find current shows using variations on these same tricks.
Recycled Animation: Reusing Rotoscoped Shots
Rotoscoping is the art of tracing over live-action footage to produce very life-like animation quickly. Filmation had a stock run-cycle animation that they would use repeatedly in this show (and seemingly in others as well), but in Star Trek they really got mileage out of the technique with exterior shots of the Enterprise. The rotoscoped shots of the Enterprise are just about the only exteriors we ever see. The ship orbits planets the exact same way repeatedly; if we’re lucky, the planet changes color. It’s also pretty clear that the same rotoscoped shot gets a different background and a few foreground explosions to put the Enterprise into the strange cosmic cloud of “One of Our Planets is Missing.”
In fairness, the live-action show was perfectly happy to recycle the same exterior shot of the Enterprise also. In addition, rotoscoping the original shots instead of animating them new created a visual link between the cartoon and the original series, allowing viewers to more readily accept the animated Trek world.
The Silhouetted Long-Shot
Perhaps one of Filmation’s most famous money-saving technique is the silhouetted long-shot. Used most often to animate chase sequences, this allowed the animators to avoid keeping clothing consistent across the shot and also them to re-use the same animation cycles for later sequences. Sometimes, the reuse was painfully obvious, as in “The Lorelei Signal” when four identical Starfleet silhouettes are chased by four identical alien women.
This technique relied on creating a painted background and then moving the camera over the background to create a sense of motion (actually, this is what it looks like to the viewer; in reality, the camera usually stays fixed while the background is moved a frame at a time). Moving the camera laterally, or “panning,” is the most common use for it, although zooming in and out is also used to give a sense of space. Despite the tedioiusness of the technique, panning over a painted background is still faster and easier than creating even the simplest character animation. A great many of the moving camera shots in Star Trek are pan-imation, with animated overlays on top of them being fairly rare.
Interestingly, this budget technique may have yielded one of Filmation’s finest aesthetic touches on the whole show. Several of the alien set pieces are stunning, such as the world of the Loreleis in “The Lorelei Signal” or the bizarre vegetable world of “The Infinite Vulcan” (above left). They would have been well beyond the ability of the live-action show to duplicate, and thus allowed the Enterprise crew to visit some truly strange new worlds instead of worlds cobbled together out of paper mache and balsa wood.
This technique also worked out very well with the distance shot/silhouette technique discussed above, since you could easily paint silhouettes on the frame and then pan around, as seen in “Beyond the Farthest Star” (center and above right). The zoom out in the examples on the right serves to emphasize the size difference between the alien ship and the people standing on it.
Recycled Animation: Who’s on the Bridge?
Lots of static shots were reused on the show. The overhead view of the Enterprise bridge shown above seemed to appear nearly every other episode, but there are plenty of others. This shot in particular was far enough away to eliminate the need lip-sync animation, but still lets you recognize the bridge crew quickly. A jiggled camera over the same shot would quickly put the Enterprise in the middle of a pitched space battle, too.
Of course, it also introduced a few continuity errors, especially when Lt. Uhura was replaced by the very different Lt. M’ress in the subsequent shot, or when different people were at the helm. And why does Lt. Uhura look like she’s about to fall out of her chair?
Avoiding Lip Sync: Cover the Mouth
There are a lot of thoughtful people in Star Trek, given the number of times characters will cover their mouths in thought on the show. However, as revealed during the audio commentary to “More Tribbles, More Troubles,” it was really a way to avoid animating lip sync. Poor lip sync can eviscerate watching any animation, and doing it well is costly and time-consuming. By covering mouths, Filmation could do things quicker and cheaper.
Mouths get hidden by other means as well. People seem to talk a lot with their backs to the camera a lot on this show (center), or in extreme close-up that cuts half their face off the screen (above right). There are valid cinematic reasons to use both techniques, of course (often, it’s to emphasize the reaction of the person in the background), but I’m sure the reduction in lip sync animation didn’t go unnoticed by the crew.
Limit the Acting
Why stop at mouth movements, though? Filmation would actually go ahead and limit animation on entire faces. The 3-image sequence (far left) shows the entirety of Mr. Sulu reporting status during a Klingon attack. Notice how his head and his jawline never move once during the entire shot? As a rule, jawlines only moved in side-profile shots; any frontal view of the face usually meant only the mouth was animated.
Again, however, the live-action Star Trek provided a perfect excuse to use this trick. Mr. Spock’s famous raised eyebrow (center left) must have been Filmation’s dream, since it was well-known and allowed another tie-back to the original series.
There were other times when the understated acting worked in Filmation’s favor. The scene in “Yesteryear” when young Spock says goodbye to I-Chaya reads marvelously well with nearly no animation (center right). Keep an eye out later in the same episode for the reaction shot when Lady Amanda Grayson, Mr. Spock’s mother, hears Spock announce that he will be follow the Vulcan ways (far right). Just by closing her eyes, Lady Amanda successfully conveys poorly suppressed disappointment over her son’s choice. It takes a non-trivial amount of skill to pull that off with such limited animation.
There was another element of the live-action show that was practically tailor made for this trick: the Captain’s Log voice overs. On the live-action show, these voice overs were a quick and efficient device for exposition dumping and recaps after the commercial breaks. In animation, the Captain’s Log entries were a perfect way to explain things without having to animate anybody saying them.
Avoiding Lip Sync: What Mouth?
The second stage of avoiding lip sync is to do away with the mouth entirely. It’s amazing how many alien species in the animated Trek seem to have no mouths or mechanisms for facial expression at all.
However, it’s also worth pointing out that their complete lack of facial features automatically makes these species entirely alien to our terrestrial experiences. It’s also not the kind of thing that can be done easily in live-action without suffocating your actors.
Recycled Animation: Flipping the Cel
A classic animation trick that makes animating a turning character easier. Once you’ve drawn a view of a character on one cel, that same cel can be flipped over and used as the end frame of a turn-around simply by flipping any non-symmetrical elements (like the Starfleet badge in the above example). Add in the in-between frames and you’re done. In the example above, you can also tell that Spock’s face wasn’t animated at all for the turn.
It’s usually not terribly obvious to the untrained eye when Filmation does this, and they often cut the end of the scene very short so you don’t notice the flipped cel in the last frame. Lingering too long on the closing shot can make it too obvious that you exploited the trick, and the editing usually masks it pretty well. At least until crazy fans with DVDs and too much time on their hands start having fun with screen grabs.
Reuse the Actors
According to the producers, Leonard Nimoy balked at voicing the cartoon unless the majority of the cast was hired to reprise their roles as well. Rather than lose Mr. Spock, the producers hired James Doohan (Scotty), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), Majel Barrett (Nurse Chapel), and George Takei (Sulu) before they ran out of money to hire Walter Koenig (Chekov). It may be a coincidence that Doohan, Nichols, Barrett, and Takei seem to voice all the supporting characters as well as their own, but somehow I doubt it.
Not that this is a bad thing, of course. Takei and Nichols are pretty easy to recognize, but it’s always a pleasure to hear their expressive vocal work. Barrett does a fine job in disguising herself into roles, although part of this may be due to her generally non-descript voice. However, the late James Doohan is the one who really seems to have stretched Filmation’s dollar the most. Doohan provided a huge array of voices, many of which are nearly unrecognizable as him. From random redshirts to the Klingon Captain Koloth to the bizarre Lucien from “The Magicks of Megas-Tu”, Doohan does them all. It doesn’t hurt that the only voice people associate with him is the artificial brogue of Scotty, but listening to his varied work on Star Trek makes one think that he missed his calling as a voice actor.
Koenig eventually got to write an episode of the show, “The Infinte Vulcan,” which was the first story he ever wrote, so it wasn’t a total loss for him, either.
Recycled Animation: Super-Easy Space-Suits
In several episodes, the crew uses special life-support belts that allow them to survive in open space rather than space-suits. Unlike live-action TV, a costume change can be fairly traumatic for animators, especially when it comes to figuring out how something like a bulky space suit would affect movement. The solution Filmation hit on was to give the Enterprise crew the life-support belts, meaning they could be sent into deep space just by overlaying a white belt and animating the glow field around each character. Cheap and clever, even if this rather useful technology doesn’t seem to have propagated past the animated series.
This list only scratches the surface of the tricks used by Filmation to animate Star Trek. I’m certain that trained animators can easily find dozens more tricks in any handful of episodes. However, I prefer to look at the limited animation as part of the show’s charm, and consistently marvel at the studio’s ingenuity and innovation at finding ways to animate on the cheap. Besides, taking a quick look at the credits revealed that many of the crew at Filmation went on to bigger budgets and better things. The most notable name is probably Glen Keane, who was lead animator for The Little Mermaid and Tarzan, but there are many other familiar-sounding names if you pay attention to credits. Who knows? Maybe the innovation that animators like Keane learned under Filmation was a good training ground to do more with less, and was instrumental in their doing much more with more when they finally got it.
Thanks to Toon Zone moderator screw on head for technical assistance while preparing this article.