Space Academy and Beyond — Filmation’s Saturday Morning VFX

This entry is part 9 of 8 in the series VFX_archaeology

In 1977 Everything Changed.

Saying that Star Wars altered entertainment and society forever may not be an exaggeration. It’s hard for those not around in 1977 to understand the significant impact that the biggest blockbuster since JAWS had on society (similar to that of the Beatles in 1964). Due to its massive success, every science fiction property in development or that could be revived quickly received the green light, leading almost immediately to a golden age of visual effects in movies and TV shows. To fill the gap until these new shows could be completed, old sci-fi B-movies played on TV over the weekend, and classic films like War of the Worlds showed during matinees as a cheap way to occupy children. They needed new content quickly, and producers didn’t want lumbering men in rubber suits, they wanted flashy visual effects in outer space, with laser guns and explosions.

Space 1999, a show about the moon hurtled free of the Earth, was still on the air, and it had turned up the action a bit, but it was more in the line of older sci-fi content, like UFO, and 2001 A Space Odyssey.  Quark, a prime time science fiction comedy series with some space-based visual effects, premiered right before the Star Wars release and was immediately picked up for a series. Unfortunately, episodes would not start airing until the following year. Battlestar Galactica, the property closest to the Star Wars style (and later unsuccessfully sued because of it), also made by Star Wars visual effects artists didn’t appear until several months after Quark went to air. Since Quark was slow out-of-the-gate, the only series in production ready to fill in the Star Wars gap was a Saturday morning kids serial called Space Academy.

Space Academy was helmed by production company Filmation’s producer Lou Scheimer — who had previously produced the Star Trek Animated Series — which would have plenty of visual effects, and subsequently be one of the most expensive Saturday morning TV shows at the time.  Space Academy featured young cadets on a space station (with laser weapons) led by Jonathan Harris of Lost in Space fame. The following year, the show was renamed and updated as Jason of Star Command, which was led by James Doohan of Star Trek fame and  conveniently took place on the same space station.  Both shows used music and sound effects from The Star Trek Animated Series and had very impressive original visual effects from some of the people who created Star Wars.  Magazines like Starlog and Fantastic Films often covered the visual effects process for films and  popular series like Battlestar Galactica, but had little coverage for either of the Filmation shows. In the decades since, only a few interviews and DVD commentaries provided some insight on the show’s visual effects, but none of them were a comprehensive look at the visual effects work from Filmation on Space Academy, or its subsequent projects.

This is an attempt to rectify that.

“Our budget was high to begin with (reported $150,000 per episode), and we found it wasn’t enough. Now CBS is paying us almost twice as much as a normal half-hour Saturday Morning show … They wanted us to do the best SF show we could possibly do. The important thing here is not that they’re paying the money, it’s that it’s being spent on the show.”


-Lou Scheimer [Starlog 10]




Editors note: This article is assembled research from extant interviews and articles of the time, as well as from more recent bloggers who cover a part of the story — especially useful are the detailed email exchanges with Chuck Comisky, the documentaries on the Filmation Star CommandSpace Academy, and Flash Gordon DVDs, and personal email exchanges with some of those involved. Since the record is so scattered, unfortunately some details, and important individual’s stories may be missing at this time. This article will be updated as new information is discovered.  Watch those documentaries from the links above, or at the end of this article.


The Star Wars Connection

Had Star Wars failed there would not be the visual effects tent-pole picture we’ve come to expect these days, and there would not be a list of thousands of artists in the end credits. Science Fiction films at the time, especially those in space, tended to be very high-minded, or campy, and did little box-office, with effects made by a few. However, by combining space fantasy with spectacular spaceships zooming around like Flash Gordon, Star Wars broke box-office records. With success comes notoriety, and people who worked on the visual effects for the film were instant celebrities.  Nevertheless, in the final days of production before May 25, 1977, all of these young visual effects artists were about to lose their jobs.

Luckily for some of them, Filmation producer Lou Scheimer had been developing Space Academy for a few years (originally pitched to Gene Roddenberry as a Star Trek spinoff), and in early 1977 received approval for the series. He needed a visual effects team to complete the work, and on a tip, visited a group of technicians located near the Van Nuys airport, as Lou writes:

“Now, for those readers who feel that we were riding the wave of Star Wars mania that swept the country by creating Space Academy, I’ll point out that Star Wars didn’t premiere until May 25, 1977, and nobody knew it was going to be a hit. We had already developed and begun creating Space Academy before Luke Skywalker ever took up his lightsaber!

That isn’t to say that we didn’t benefit from Star Wars when it came to production. Several of the people who worked on Space Academy were Star Wars veterans, and others were effects designers who had grown up in a post 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek world. I went out to a little place in Van Nuys, and I was looking for people who could make three-dimensional models, because we had to make some ships. And there was an outfit out there that had been doing a movie in England that was going to be released later on that year… Star Wars! And in the corner of their shop was a robot—R2-D2—and it’s got cobwebs all over it, and there was C-3PO, and X-Wing fighters, and ships lying around all over the place. I thought these guys were nuts! I mean, how can you do that stuff? So, I hired a bunch of them.

Rob Maine, who ended up being one of the effects supervisors, had actually talked us into building the Academy on an asteroid rather than a space station. The asteroid was painted Styrofoam, while the three geodesic domes were inverted champagne glasses and the exhaust pipes were painted cigar tubes. The original Academy model cost about $200 in supplies. John Erland, Lorne Peterson, and Paul Huston also did models for Space Academy, creating the spaceship and the Academy itself in a garage workshop, out of model kit parts from tanks and other vehicles.”


-Lou Scheimer [Creating the Filmation Generation]


Lou repeated the same description in a video interview adding more detail to the story: “I hired a bunch of them … by which I mean two.” He hired Lorne Peterson and Jonathan Erland to build the Space Academy space station model and secondary miniatures. This meeting occurred while Star Wars was still in production, as Lou mentions in the interview that the two were still working on the models for the film when he came by.  It is unclear from available information whether Peterson and Erland had finished working on Star Wars when they started building the Space Academy itself, but the team already had their own business, and were sub-contractors to Star Wars while working on-site.



“The basic body of the Academy was probably foam and bondo,” recalled Chuck Comisky (Visual Effects manager for Space Academy) in an email interview with EJ Small in 1999.  “It weighed about 40 or 50 pounds, was bottom mounted, and was about 6 feet across at its widest, very finely detailed,”  Lorne also built the ‘Seeker’ spacecraft for the series, based on the design of the Ark II truck (A previous Eco-themed sci-fi adventure, in the guise of Logan’s Run)  that the producers had available and some kit-bashed parts from a NASA Saturn-V rocket model.  The cadets would fly around space for their adventures in this ship, which was either shot as a 24-inch model, a roughly 10-inch version (there were several of these from RTV molds), and occasionally cutout photographs on glass.



“One of my memories from that period was the need to produce a light filter at the back of the [seeker] ship which would be lit very brightly. That meant it would get quite hot. So we decided to fashion the filter out of a Pyrex stage light lens. But Pyrex is incredibly hard to cut – successfully.  I went to Judson Stained Glass Studio and they gave me a crash course in cutting Pyrex.”


-Jonathan Erland [email interview 2023]



The detailed parts on the Space Academy model came from various plastic kits and plastic wine glasses, as Lou Scheimer mentions, but also disassembled vacuum tubes which had very fine metal bits in them [Erland]. Some pieces of the Academy miniature also resemble stacked paint buckets. On Star Wars, Erland built the escape pod miniature using two KFC chicken buckets filled with polyfoam and stripped of their paper to create the form. This “paint bucket” shape is also seen on the Death Star surface, and is likely part of the Space Academy design due to the low budget for the model. To put the $200 supply budget into perspective: a gallon of gasoline cost about 55 cents at the time, which is about ten times higher today, so the estimated cost of materials is equivalent now to about $2,000. Cutting corners due to the low budget, thus using “found items” as they are called, enhanced detail.



Eventually, other alumni from the Star Wars visual effects house Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) joined the production of this show, including David Jones, Jonathan Seay, and Paul Huston. Star Wars concept artist Joe Johnston was also hired for design work, although he went uncredited [information provided by Jonathan Erland] — a recent auction of 35mm film slides featuring behind-the-scenes images of the production show Johnston, Dave Jones,  Erland and Peterson working on the model.  The assumption from many of the photographs in this collection, is that the slides originally belonged to Paul Huston (unverified). As of this moment, no production designs for Space Academy or the Spacecraft are in circulation — which would be lovely to see. These slides also reveal Jonathan Erland helping set up the shuttle bay miniature for filming — part of a later second miniature effects unit led by Paul Huston, and supervised by the main visual effects team.

Paul Huston and his team also shot miniature pyrotechnics, mostly small gasoline explosions, in a parking lot late one night.

‘We spent a whole night out there with gasoline bags and electrical charges doing explosions with high-speed cameras.’ Scheimer reported, still delighted by the experience.

-Starlog 10

It wouldn’t be a Star Wars-like show without them. Huston, Erland, and Peterson worked on the show before returning to Apogee Productions (the former Industrial Light & Magic facility) for Battlestar Galactica. Huston became a frequent collaborator with Filmation Productions.





Lorne Peterson recalls that Lou Scheimer wanted to visit them at their shop while they were building the models. Recent photos show the humble condition of this garage shop, so Erland and Peterson would make up reasons for Lou not to drop by, as it was a far cry from the full visual effects facility they had during Star Wars. One evening (about 10pm recalls Peterson), Lou Scheimer called and said he was in the area, and dropped by.  A white limousine pulled up to the front of Jonathan’s house, Lou got out wearing a high quality suit, followed by a few other people — including ladies in evening gowns — having just attended a party. In all their finery, at a jumbled garage shop, looking at the Space Academy model in production. It must’ve been quite an occasion. [personal discussion with Peterson]

The Master of Ceremonies

Steve Nicolaides hired Chuck Comisky to organize and production manage the miniatures,  as well as act as an assistant to Visual Effects Director of Photography Rob Maine — who had worked with several of the original ILM crew on the 1974 soft-porn VFX extravaganza Flesh Gordon, as well as the Christian themed Davey and Goliath children show (an interesting contrast).  By Chuck’s own admission, he knew nothing about “special effects,” and assumed it would take them four weeks to figure that out — but during that time he would get paid enough money to get through the summer. However, as those weeks went on he quickly learned a lot about stop motion, and miniature effects, “I figured things out — with a lot of help!”  He ended up staying for the rest of the series, and built his career from there.

One of Chuck Comisky’s first contributions to the production was to help build convincing star fields, at a reasonable cost,  but the work had already started. With no access to motion control equipment or an optical printer (nor the budget to send the work elsewhere), they used standard film compositing techniques instead. The team had to finish all the shots on one strip of original film, and develop the result. Douglas Trumbull had recently used a miniature front screen projector (bounced off a half-silvered mirror in front of the lens) and a reflective screen made of Scotchlite material (like a reflective road sign) to composite multiple layers of previously photographed planets and star fields in one pass of the camera for his low budget film Silent Running. This approach, also popular in stop motion animation, was favored by Rob Maine, who planned to use stop motion animation to move the spacecraft, and its lighting along wooden tracks, one inch at a time, in front of the projected star fields.

The results were less than satisfactory, and unfortunately a bit slow — the kind of delay one cannot afford on a weekly television series.  Chuck noticed that the images appeared soft or cast misaligned shadows on the screen when the model was too close to the camera. Another technique familiar to stop motion artists, and seen in the series Space 1999 (which was still on the air until November of that year), was to layer multiple exposures over black backgrounds and carefully plot where empty space was left to add other stars and planets.  Chuck proposed using black Duvetyn and Christmas lights at the rear of the stage to represent the stars. With this, they could shoot multiple exposures and splitscreens with minimal camera movement to hide the supports under the miniatures.  He sent an assistant to purchase as many clear Christmas lights as possible (despite it being July – or August) and hung them on the stage. Each bulb was painted black and the tips were scraped off with a razor blade at different sizes to create a realistic star field — or realistic enough for a maximum television resolution of 555 lines. The ‘low-tech’ approach delivered good looking work in less time.

The Christmas light star field wires are clearly visible in this photo from 1977 of Jonathan Erland, Lorne Petersen, and Paul Huston with the Space Academy and Seeker model spacecraft.

Original Caption: Amid fantasies of a science-fiction world stand the creators-model makers Paul Huston, Jonathan Erland and Lorne Peterson, feet solidly on the ground in a Los Angeles studio, what they and their collectors did for the current hit movie, “Star Wars,” they’re doing for an upcoming children’s TV program, “Space Academy.” The special effects visible are the spaceship, “The Seeker,” at left, and the space academy complex on an asteroid in the background, July 26, 1977. (AP Photo/George Brich)



With no optical printer, and low budget, there was no possibility of using a traveling matte process like blue screen to composite the images. Additionally, since they were using film, electronic composite processes like those used on Land of the Lost were not available to them.  Multiple passes on the same strip of film was the best approach.

“On all model shots, the camera is stationary (usually locked off on a ‘Western’ dolly). The models are rod-mounted on a carriage, usually bottom mounted, but not always. The star field (see earlier comment) is ‘practical’. The models and lights (outriggered to the carriage and on roller stands) move.  A large glass pane is positioned in front of the camera. The path of the model is tracked (tilting the camera to lose straight line moves). Black photographic tape is affixed to the glass so that everything below the lowest part of the model (usually the rod mount) is blacked out as it moves across frame. We then shoot this ‘first pass’ only exposing the model and background  that is above this ‘tape matte’ on the glass.  The film is then reversed to the start mark.  The tape on the glass is reversed; taken off and re-affixed to the upper area of glass blocking off any ‘double-exposure’ from the ‘first pass.’ We then photograph the lower portion of the shot (generally the star field) for this second pass.  All of our shots built upon this principle. The complexity grew to as many as 18 to 20 passes on a single piece of negative, each pass carefully choreographed and tape-masked in this fashion. On some shots we initiated camera moves.”


-Chuck Comisky [email interview by EJ Small.]


There were no computer controls on any of the models or their mounting rods.  If parts of the miniatures were motorized, those switches were flipped by multiple people based on a system of verbal counts [Comisky]. Originally the setup used standard wheeled dollies limited by wooden tracks, but those were later replaced with a proper metal track.

“We started with a wooden track and then upgraded to one with steel rails and ball bearing pillow blocks just like ILM’s. We used electric motors running “wild” at first and then upgraded to pulse motors. We ran the pulse motors with a simple control box that controlled speed and number of pulses. The camera platform on the track was the only thing that was motorized when I was there. I think Jim Villeaux may have added to the system after I left … although we used many different camera and model setups, the main configuration was to have the models and model lights mounted on the track and the camera stationary. So the models moved on the track towards or away from the camera. The star field on the far wall thus stayed stationary as if the stars were at great distances. I was reminded of this by the photos of the Mitchell camera mounted on the dolly. Quite different from the ILM approach!”


-Paul Huston [Email interview 2023]


In a video interview, for the Sense Of Scale Documentary, Dave Jones shares a few extra details on the ad-hoc methods the team used:

“I was called in because I knew some of the people that were starting to do the miniatures … On Space Academy we didn’t have all the budget, that meant we didn’t have motion control, for one thing. We had one person set it up and then he got off to another show … we made our own poor man’s motion control. It was fun! You were creative. You got paid almost nothing and you didn’t have anybody over your shoulder … you had to think on your feet and come up with ways to get stuff done with what you had ….That stuff really would get the juices flowing and you’d be surprised what you could do with a camera, some Slo-Syn motors, and Variacs … simple stuff.”


-Dave Jones [ Sense Of Scale]

Under Chuck’s management, the Space Academy team produced a total of 256 visual effects shots in 17 weeks (using $90,000 of the total budget), which including all the challenges of building the facility, and running several stages in the same warehouse as the live action photography.

Space Academy gallery below:




Jason of Star Command – Keeping It Going.

Space Academy was renewed for a second season, but seemingly failed to meet the audience expectations for action, leading to the creation of Jason of Star Command, which required more visual effects shots. The new show used the same sets and miniatures as Space Academy, with additional miniatures being created to represent the new villains and Jason’s ship, the StarFire. Much like the first season, it was the most expensive Saturday morning show at the time, largely due to its visual effects budget.



The large space vessel for the villain Dragos, the Dragonship, was similarly built on an asteroid, much like the Space Academy — but with giant articulated arms, making it look like a threatening weight lifter. The space fighters for the Dragos ship were un-manned drones, and seem to have been cobbled together from various parts of a Saturn V rocket with dynamic engine lights for effect. Kit-bashed spacecraft like this are always a treat for hobby modelers to recreate, and they are relatively cheap to produce.

Below are some recently revealed images of the Dragonship armature and mechanics during assembly.


During this season, the team acquired a motion control system, enabling them to repeat camera moves, but still no optical printer. This allowed for more dynamic fly-bys and layered camera moves with traveling mattes.  One particular shot of the Dragos drone craft launching, drops from the landing bay like a NASA test airplane [link], passes through complete shadow, and emerges into light before engaging its engines — resulting in a dramatic piece of action, especially for a Saturday Morning kid show.

Filming visual effects for Star Command used the same camera system from Space Academy — a Mitchell standard 35mm camera, but now with a bi-pack magazine — purchased from a military surplus store in Hollywood by Paul Huston, mostly replacing the camera owned by Rob Maine.

“It was a little shop… he dealt mainly in military surplus camera gear…. He had a lot of Mitchells. I was worried that there might be some trouble with them and I spent a long time looking till I found two that were clean as new. I think I irritated the heck out of the guy. And then I wormed him down on the price. Sweet cameras … we never had a single problem with them.  The animator Rob [Maine] had a Mitchell high speed that he paid like five times as much as the total cost of the two surplus cameras.  It was a beauty.”


-Paul Huston [email interview 2013]



The multi-pass compositing methods used in Space Academy were enhanced with the new motion control camera setup. The production team used the camera to create holdout mattes for the spacecraft and added additional elements such as sharper star fields and glowing lights by sandwiching the mattes with a bi-pack magazine. Bi-pack magazines allow a second piece of film, which has been pre-exposed on high contrast film stock, to move through the exposure gate in contact with the main film strip. This allows the team to control what parts of the original negative are exposed.


“The Filmation effects unit make use of a computer controlled camera — a system which has become very widespread since the advent of Star Wars. They can produce their own traveling mattes in the camera, all within the space of a day. The essence of the system lies in the capability of the camera to repeat moves exactly. For example, on the first pass, a hold-back matte is produced by loading the camera with a black and white negative and photographing the model against a black background. The model is overexposed so that it appears as a solid black image against a clear field. This piece of film will serve as the traveling matte or mask. A second pass through the camera exposes the model properly on color negative stock. The black-and-white negative is processed in house and then, when dry, bi-packed with the exposed, but undeveloped color negative of the model. The black and white mask is placed on top of the color negative and run through the camera while exposing the film to a star field. In this way, the stars are recorded only on the background and not on top of the image of the models, since the black image of the model on the black-and-white negative as masking out just that portion of the frame.”


-Starlog: Special Effects Volume 01


To generate the matte pass, the spacecraft would be covered in white tape and shot with high-contrast black and white RAR film (Rapid-access Recording stock) in the magazine, with a lot of light on the model to over-expose it. This image would be developed in the facility using a Kodak Prostar automated film processing machine (the Kodak Prostar is an automated film processing system originally designed for black and white microfilm — Here is a great website that shows the process of using an old Prostar  motion picture film process, in which the developed film comes out dry, and is quickly useable) and then threaded into the bi-pack magazine with the undeveloped color pass shot taken earlier, as mentioned in the Starlog article. However, as reported by Pat Sweeney, the tape slightly modified the size of the model, causing the mattes to not always fit perfectly and create “matte lines” — a source of frustration for Lou Scheimer — and all the work re-done from scratch. Some shots required up to 15 layers of double exposure, depending on the action. Lasers and light effects were also added to the ships using back-lit animation and rigged lighting effects on each model. [source: 8111 podcast]


“I think Jason of Star Command sets a record for heaviest matte lines in history … it’s amazing it works at all!”


-Paul Huston [email interview 2013]


The visual effects crew grew in size to meet the increasing demands and included several people who later joined the ILM crew in San Rafael, CA, such as Ease Owyeung (who made models), Jim Veilleux, Mike McCalister, Diana Wooten, and Pat Sweeney. Pat started out on the show as a production assistant and, with such a small crew, often helped out on stage and learned his craft. Jim Veilleux, now the director of miniature photography for the series (Mike McCalister also gets this credit at times), hired Pat Sweeney for production help. Pat spent the first season of Jason of Star Command learning the craft of visual effects. [source: 8111 podcast]

Chuck Comisky shares a humorous anecdote about creating the visual effects for Jason of Star Command. After working on Space Academy, the visual effects team unionized (part of the ballooning budget to be sure), which meant Chuck, as management, was no longer able to work directly on the shots. At one point, the Director of Miniature Photography (whose name Comisky does not mention in the story) was spending a lot of time testing, but not producing shots. Comisky then set up a miniature unit on the main set and announced that, due to the tight schedule, he would have to start shooting miniature effects with the first unit. Under union rules, the visual effects DP’s name would be in the credits for those shots. As a result of this ruse, the main VFX unit quickly produced the final shots.

As an aside (and not about visual effects) it is worth noting that the costume for the lead actress of the Star Command series bears a striking resemblance to a concept designed for Princess Leia in Star Wars by Ralph McQuarrie.  It is unclear whether McQuarrie’s original design for the Princess Leia costume was published at the time or if Jason of Star Command‘s costume designer had access to it through other means. What better way to get the Star Wars feel, then to copy its unused concepts directly and hire its visual effects people?




Motion Control

Most articles mention computer controlled cameras for productions in this time frame, and there was not a full understanding by writers at the time to properly express how the system worked. Jonathan Erland explains:

“There are several references to computer motion control in the Star Wars era.  This is in error.  The Star Wars era motion control of Al Miller (developer of the system for ILM) was capable of recording and repeating motion on tape, but there was no computer involved. One had to drive the camera one track at a time for a total of eight tracks … Computer motion control had to wait for the Apple II and Paul Johnson.  We were well into Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and the early motion control, while wonderful, was actually quite tedious. Making a change in a camera move meant re-recording that entire track. With the Apple and Paul’s software it was possible to design the camera move directly via the computer and make changes just where they were needed. It speeded up the process and facilitated much more refinement. Both Paul and Al Miller got an Academy Scientific and Engineering Award for motion control. Paul and Al joined to form Lynx Robotics, substantially enhancing motion control.”


-Jonathan Erland [email interview].



[The system was not computer] programmable … but with care and using the pulse motors the moves were roughly repeatable, and remember these were space ships against black with a background star field burned in on a second pass using the unlit ship as a hold out — tolerances were pretty large …  I know [Jim Villeaux] got a ProStar machine [after I left] and they were bi-packing mattes.”


-Paul Huston [email interview 2013]


Stop Motion Monsters


Stephen Czerkas animating for Jason of Star Command. Photo: Jim Aupperle


During this time, Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion Sinbad films were still being shown in theaters and the recently cancelled Land of the Lost, featuring stop-motion dinosaurs, was popular among children. There really were very few ways to create fantastical creatures at the time, and this was the best. While Space Academy featured some stop-motion creatures, believed to have been animated by Rob Maine, there were even more in Star Command.

Stephen Czerkas and Jim Aupperle, fresh off their work on the independent film Planet of the Dinosaurs, were responsible for creating all of the stop-motion monsters for the show. They heard through the Hollywood grapevine about Jason of Star Command, and assembled a demo reel, which they played for Lou Scheimer.  He hired them almost immediately.

Stephen sculpted most of the creatures, but an insect-like monster, that plays in every episode’s title sequence remains one of Jim Aupperle’s all-time favorites to this day.  Decades earlier, Stop motion models were built layer by layer with cotton and liquid latex, but advances in materials from the makeup world found their way into the stop motion field as well. Creatures for Jason of Star Command were sculpted in clay over metal skeletons, from which molds were made. With the clay removed, these molds were injected with foam latex which was cured around the metal skeletons in an oven. The creatures were animated one frame at a time over miniature sets, or black backgrounds as needed, with both artists splitting the animation duties. [DieCast movie Podcast].
Here is a link to a page dedicated to some of Stephen’s work on the show.



There were two methods used to composite the stop-motion creatures into the live action scenes, as no optical printer was available. Miniature rear screen projection, and front screen projection — the latter being generally brighter — also known in the industry as “Process Projection.”  A more advanced method using either of these techniques, is often called “Dynamation,” which was pioneered (and trademarked) by Ray Harryhausen.

The Dynamation-style process involves projecting previously shot live action footage on a semi-translucent screen (for rear projection), or a glass beaded, retro-reflective screen (for front projection) behind the model one frame at a time, and then layering a second exposure over the top to place the creature in the scene.  The model is positioned such that the bottom half of the shot can be masked off — up to the creature’s feet — similar to the method for shooting spacecraft in Space Academy discussed earlier. Both the partially exposed film in the camera, and the projected footage are then rewound to the starting point, the masking reversed, and the bottom half of the shot exposed one frame at a time into the clear area of the film. The team used a projector originally built for the 1941 film Citizen Kane for this purpose, and essentially sandwiched their models into the live action footage.



For the second season of Star Command, the team was hired full-time, covering all the stop motion, but also putting together other shots where spacecraft needed to be in the same frame with actors. They would set up the scenes similarly to their stop motion composites, and also add what are called “effects elements,” such as laser beams. In scenes where laser beams flashed across these scenes, Aupperle would use thin metal rods painted red, shot out of focus, which were lined up to pyrotechnic sparks filmed with the live action footage.  He animated those elements in reverse by cutting off sections of the metal rods, advancing the projector, and cutting off the next section. These were likely double exposed into the frame. [DieCast movie Podcast]

A visual analysis of the creatures looks as if some of the models from Planet of the Dinosaurs could have been cannibalized and modified for the series. At the very least they are the same style and sculpting techniques of the artist. Re-using parts of armatures and other creatures was commonplace at the time to save budget, but that they did so is mere conjecture at this point.

The visual effects for Space Academy, and Jason of Star Command, in many ways were an amalgam of methods from the full breadth of filmmaking up to that point, There was financial efficiency in the tried-and-true techniques, which were only enhanced by new technology.


“…We worked there for two years.  That was the best professional time Jim and I had.  It was a happy crew, and we had a lot of control over what we did and how we did it.”


-Stephen Czerkas [My Life With the Dinosaurs]


Jason of Star Command Behind the Scenes gallery below, including a lot of images from the Filmation demo reel at the time (from Peter noble).




Flash Gordon — Pushing The Envelope

After the end of Jason of Star Command, Filmation Productions created an animated series based on The Adventures of Flash Gordon. The success of their earlier Star Trek: The Animated Series (1974) and Tarzan Lord of the Jungle (1976), led the producers to believe that creating fantastical worlds through animation was more cost-effective than building them in real life — as the previous work on Space Academy, and Star Command illustrate. The ballooning budgets of Space Academy and Jason of Star Command predicted that making a Flash Gordon live action film would have cost $30 million to produce. (the live action Dino Delaurentis Flash Gordon reportedly cost $35 million)

The original concept for the show was a TV movie for prime time, but it was later changed to a series of Saturday morning episodes. To appeal to the Star Wars audience, the setting was changed to outer space and references to World War II were removed. The use of animation allowed for the inclusion of fantastical elements such as dinosaurs, robots, and otherworldly creatures, giving the series a strong science fiction adventure feel.


Robert “Bob” Kline, the storyboard supervisor on the Filmation Flash Gordon film, said the production process was divided into three stages familiar to animation production: script, storyboard — where the story was refined — and animation direction. There were 25 sequences in the first few episodes, and one of them featured dinosaur-like creatures based on those in Disney’s Fantasi
. Kline felt the original comic strip creatures were too docile and wanted to make the film creatures more dynamic. [Source]


Flash Gordon definitely improved the capabilities of this studio and expanded its technological know-how,” says Bob Kline. “We didn’t do anything truly innovative as far as the industry is concerned, but in terms of Filmation I think we discovered on our own just what we could do. We utilized bottom lighting, which is the kind of thing that you see in Bob Abel commercials quite a bit, but which we hadn’t used very much before Flash. We used moire patterns to achieve ray effects and the energy screen behind Ming’s throne. All those types of things were experiments that paid off.”


-Starlog 42


Flash Gordon used back-lit animation for effects (bottom lighting mentioned above), a technique popular in Japanese anime, and the main animation was produced using rotoscoping, a process where footage of actors in motion is traced. Filmation had previously used rotoscoping for Star Trek and Tarzan, and some of the action footage from those shows was even reused or redrawn for the current series. The use of rotoscoping allowed the show to be done cheaply, while back-lit animation enhanced the production value.

Hand drawn animation was an industry standard technique, but the company was able to leverage its existing equipment and crew left over from Star Command, to create spaceships for the science fiction series, but with a twist.


“We shot extensive live-action footage of human actors for rotoscoping, so that the human animation would have fluidity. One of the women we filmed was Don Christensen’s secretary,’ Karen, who was both very good at running in slow motion for rotoscoping, and also an excellent belly dancer. For some reason, we never had any problems getting male artists to work on footage of the Flash Gordon girls!

Beyond that, we also developed clay models and maquettes of the characters, ships, and creatures. The models of the ships—worked on by John Grusd and Paul Huston—were painted white and covered in thin black lines, then filmed in live-action with a computerized camera. The film negatives were then printed as cels, creating “positive” versions of the ships for the animators to use. … This was essentially the nascent beginning of the kind of CGI motion-capture technology now used in feature films today… and we were pioneers of the technique on Flash Gordon!”


-Lou Scheimer [Creating the Filmation Generation]


Disney animators using models with black lines for vehicles on 101 Dalmatians. The results were xeroxed on to animation cels for color in the final film.

Disney animators had previously used a similar method for complex vehicles on the film 101 Dalmatians. To save costs, they created cardboard miniatures of vehicles covered in black lines and xeroxed these images onto animation cels. This allowed them to avoid the time-consuming process of drawing the vehicle frame by frame and trying to solve perspective in their head. The technique in this instance, was updated by the Flash Gordon team using a multi-axis motion control camera and miniatures to shoot elements that would be hard to animate by hand. Don Christensen, in Future Life Magazine pointed out that the technique was not far removed from Disney’s work with Xerography: “No rotoscoping will be necessary here, because the frames will be blown up to become the drawings ready to receive paint.”

Recently revealed slides from an online auction, also show versions of the spacecraft that are black with white lines.  One assumes that the plan was to shoot first-generation black and white negatives, rather than positive stock.  There is no record of these experiments in any source yet, but the original images do exist.


Starlog Magazine summarized the work, expanding on Lou Scheimer’s comments:

“Three-dimensional clay models were made of the principle characters — so three-dimensional views of them could be accomplished by any of the numerous animators. Rotoscoping — tracing outlines from live-action footage onto animation cells — has been used in key scenes throughout, lending unusual subtlety to certain human movements. Disney, and other studios involved in so-called full animation, test animation sequences in pencil prior to committing them to cells and paint; at this test stage, corrections in movement, expression, etc., are made. Typically, this stage has not been available to Filmation and others in TV animation. It’s too time consuming. But Filmation has a new videotape system that permits instant replay of pencil tests, and this system was used extensively on Flash Gordon.

Possibly the most innovative system, though, is the one that was used for animating spaceships. A motion-control camera set-up (like the one used in Star Wars and most films since) was used to photograph fully constructed miniatures of the ships and aircraft. These models were white with black grid lines, and were photographed against a black background. Like the X-wings and TIE fighters in Star Wars, the Flash Gordon ships zoom toward and away from the camera, bank, roll, turn, etc., — perform wild actions that would be all but impossible to animate from scratch.

An unexpected plus arose from that spaceship system: It was discovered that with the use of the motion-control camera, long dollies and zooms could be added to portions of painted scenes. In one outstanding sequence, Earth grows menacingly large in the sky beyond the towers of Ming’s City on Mongo, as the planets rush together on a collision course. The planets were cut-out paintings mounted on the motion-control track. This, and other techniques, lend the film a multi-plane look, though no multi-plane equipment was used.”


-Starlog 27

To save costs, Flash Gordon often re-used animation from other Filmation animated series.  Where they re-traced the original footage, or re-drew the cels is unknown. As shown here, frames from Filmation’s Tarzan series were re-used as the basis for animations in the TV pilot version of Flash Gordon.  Re-using animation cels over different backgrounds was also quite common — especially with spaceship shots, in an attempt to keep the budget under control.



Star Wars had a significant impact on the entertainment industry, influencing not only other films and television shows, but also the very shows that inspired it.  The Flash Gordon franchise, whose 1930s serials served as an inspiration for Star Wars, was influenced by the popularity of the latter and ended up resembling it in many ways. The Adventures of Flash Gordon foreshadowed the digital age of visual effects, as new technology allowed for unlimited control over the environment, spacecraft and character animation.

Flash Gordon gallery below:


Threading The Tapestry

As unimportant as a series of Saturday Morning kids shows from the 1970s may seem, these shows filled a need in the global demand for more content like Star Wars, and they inspired many up and coming artists. The artists who built the visuals for that film kept on working, and the impact of their careers is significant. Here are a few examples:

After completing work on Jason of Star Command, Chuck Comisky used his expertise to help establish a visual effects department for Roger Corman’s film Battle Beyond the Stars. Corman approached several companies to handle the visual effects, but they all requested budgets of over $2 million. As a result, he decided to create his own in-house visual effects team and hired Comisky specifically because of his work on Star Command. Comisky and his team used cost-saving techniques such as motion control cameras and multiple passes on a single piece of film  — the methods he learned at Filmation.

Pat Sweeney and Rob Maine were also involved in the visual effects project for Battle Beyond the Stars. Sweeney (although only brought on during Star Command) later became a visual effects Director of Photography at Corman’s, and went on to several major visual effects films, including the Star Wars Prequels at ILM. Maine continued to work in animation and photography throughout his career, with one of his last films being Planet of the Dino-Knights (1995).

“I believe [Dino-Knights] was one of the last dinosaur films to use stop-motion shot on 35mm film using my 1928 Mitchell camera.”


-Rob Maine [source DinoFilms website]

Chuck Comisky later hired a young filmmaker named James Cameron, who quickly rose through the ranks at the company. Comisky went on to work on the last of the big stereo-3D movies of that era, JAWS 3D, which unfortunately faced numerous production issues and performed poorly. However, Comisky and Cameron continued to collaborate on various stereo-3D projects, while pioneering camera systems with Vince Pace.  Comisky was the stereo-3D specialist for one of the biggest Visual effects films of all time,  Avatar (2009) — which truly fulfilled the dream of fully virtual film production, undeterred by physical limitation that Filmation’s later work on Flash Gordon foreshadowed.

The New World Pictures Visual Effects Department, which was set up by Comisky closed in 1983, but went on to create notable visual effects for Escape From New York and introduce James Cameron to Robert and Dennis Skotak, who received multiple oscars and nominations for their work on Aliens, The Abyss, and Terminator 2.  These accomplishments are only a small indication of Filmation’s indirect impact.

Lorne Peterson and Jonathan Erland, the first two visual effects artists hired for Space Academy, went on to have successful careers in the industry. Peterson and Erland’s own company, was left behind as Lorne moved north to San Francisco with ILM, and Jonathan stayed to help form Apogee Productions. Both artists contributed to numerous award-winning films and are known for building exquisite miniatures and developing new visual effects techniques while winning Oscars and scientific engineering awards for the work.

Paul Huston, the longest-serving artist on Filmation’s Visual Effects team, from Space Academy through Flash Gordon, originally worked in the ILM art department before transitioning to the model shop on Star Wars. He has a talent for the visual effects methods used at Filmation and consistently pushed their work to new heights on small budgets. Huston also worked with Apogee on Battlestar Galactica and eventually moved north for The Empire Strikes Back. He spent over 40 years at ILM, and while in the matte department, invented new ways of building photo-real environments for shows such as Willow, The Phantom Menace, and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchises to name a few. Huston’s contributions to the visual effects industry are significant in both practical and digital eras — winning several Emmy and Visual Effects society awards in the process. He cut his teeth on Star Wars, and refined his craft at Filmation.


“It reminds me that Grant McCune once said that the most important quality for someone working in visual effects was … Chutzpah.”


-Paul Huston [email interview 2013]


Although “just the next job” for many of these artists,  their work on the production of Space Academy and other shows of the time are seedlings to some of the most successful blockbusters in history — though little is written about it. There are likely many stories surrounding this production, and this is only a small example of the work done on a seemingly glamorous, though truthfully tiny budget.

Before the release of Star Wars, the concept of being a visual effects artist as a career was unimaginable. However, after the film’s success, the professional visual effects industry was born and provided a path for many aspiring artists. During the disco era thousands of viewers tuned in to Filmation’s Saturday morning and primetime shows, not for the characters, but for the innovative and visually striking effects that were held together by a narrative. These shows continue to inspire many in the visual effects industry to this day.

Star Wars changed entertainment and society forever, Saturday morning ‘kid shows’ kept us alive in-between.

Thank you Lou Scheimer!






Video Galleries

There is no better way to appreciate all this work than watching it.  Below is a link to several videos from the series you can watch.

Below are the original documentaries from the Filmation DVD’s





The Jason of Star Command  Filmation VFX reel on Vimeo:

This is a compilation of VFX from Jason of Star Command lifted from the episodes:


An episode of Flash Gordon that is full of visual effects work.


Here is the rarely seen original Flash Gordon full-length movie, which was unfortunately altered for the series.


Our sincere gratitude to Peter Noble for providing images that accompany this article from the slide collection he acquired recently, and a special effects reel from the Filmation team.  He is on Twitter @PeterNoble


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