In the 1980s, animator Tom Cook worked on several of the most popular animated shows, including The Smurfs, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, She-Ra: Princess of Power, The Original Ghostbusters, BraveStarr, and more. Cook recently spoke to Scoop, recalling the highlights and challenges of his career, the animation industry, his collection, and what he enjoys about attending conventions.
Scoop: Were you an artist as a child?
Tom Cook (TC): Well, I liked to draw. I guess it was about 1961 or so, that Marvel Comics came out with Spider-Man and Fantastic Four. As a kid, I loved collecting comics and then when Spider-Man came out, that’s what really made me want to draw. I kind of drew just for myself, just lots of superheroes. Later on, that ended up being the reason I got hired at Hanna-Barbera – my superhero stuff.
Scoop: Is that how you got into the animation business, through Hanna-Barbera?
TC: Yeah, I was a bus driver, a transit bus driver in LA and I’d done this since, like, ’75, so three years. One day I was having lunch and I went out and got the mail and it was just a bunch of junk mail. So, I went thumbing through the junk mail and sat down to eat my sandwich when I see this little pamphlet in there. I started flipping through this pamphlet as I was eating and it was from the local college with some of the classes they were going to be teaching during the summer. One of the classes was a comic book class. As a class, we were going to create our own comic book. So, I was really interested in that class, plus the teacher was a guy named Don Rico who drew Captain America back in the good ole days, so I thought, “Well, here’s my chance to not just take a cool class, but I’ll get to meet an actual artist in the comic books.”
He had us bring all of our drawings in, our portfolios, and after the second class he said, “Hey Tom, can I talk to you?” At first, I was thinking, “Oh my gosh, what the heck have I done wrong already? I just got in the class.” He said “I work at Hanna-Barbera as a storyboard artist and we’re looking for people that can draw superheroes, and I like your superhero work. We have a lot of people that can draw Scooby-Doo and Fred Flintstone and all that sort of stuff, but we don’t have too many people that can draw really, realistic characters and make them look good. We’re doing a new TV show called Super Friends that’s going to have Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, so we’re looking for people.” I said, “I have no idea about animation.” He said, “Well, I can get you into a class that teaches basic animation. You have to be recommended by one of the people that works at Hanna-Barbera. I’d like to recommend you.” I was like, “Gosh, yes, I’d love to do that.”
So, Thursday nights they had this class, and it was free, so I just had to drive down to Hanna-Barbera on Thursday nights. The first assignment was doing an in-between. So, I struggled doing that, because, like I said, I had no experience doing this at all. After the third week, they came in and announced that out of about 30 people that were in the class, they were going to hire four of us and I was one of the four. Which scared the crap out of me, because I had no idea what I was doing. It ended up working out really good.
Scoop: What’s your working environment like? Did you like having a lot of space, did you listen to music, did you like having a view?
TC: Well, when I first started at Hanna-Barbera they had hired a lot of people. In fact, they would have hired me a little sooner, except they didn’t have any room for us. No room for desks or anything. So, they rented an airplane hangar at Burbank Airport, which was maybe about five miles away and just stuck a bunch of desks in this airplane hangar. That’s where I sat for the first two or three months working there. We were just out in the middle of this hangar, there were no cubicles or anything. There were like six of us. Then they had the ink and paint department, those are the ones that paint the cels. So, there were probably about 80-100 of them sitting in this airplane hangar. We were kind of separated from them because we were a bit noisier. You were allowed to put headphones on and listen to music. Whatever you wanted to do. Early on, I would bring a TV and watch TV while I was working.
Scoop: I believe one of your early jobs was on Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-Doo. How did you feel getting involved in the franchise, which had already been around for 10 years?
TC: That was super exciting. This was one of the things that was so cool about being a fan and then suddenly finding yourself working. I grew up with Hanna-Barbera. I grew up with Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound and Quick Draw McGraw and then eventually Jonny Quest and all those really good shows they came up with. So to find myself suddenly working on Fred Flintstone, because we were doing the new Fred and Barney show, that was one of the first things I ever did.
In fact, the first drawing I ever did at the studio was of Fred Flintstone. I had that put onto a cel and they painted it for me and gave me a Flintstones background. I still have that at my studio – my first drawing ever. But to do Scooby-Doo, that was another that was just huge and of course, it’s probably one of the longest running cartoons ever. It’s been going since ’69, so that’s 51 years. It was really cool to get in there and get to draw Scooby and Shaggy and the whole gang.
Scoop: What was it like working on The Smurfs and its big cast of characters?
TC: Well, it was like in the late ’70s, early ’80s, they came out with the little Smurf toys. These little rubber toys, just a couple inches high, and they would have some of the mushroom houses and stuff like that. I saw those at a store and thought, “Wow, this would be a really good cartoon.” Sure enough, the next year or two, they came up with the cartoon series.
The only negative with working on The Smurfs is that there were so many of them. Now mind you, if you’ve got a scene to animate, you’ve got 50 drawings of Superman in this scene, that’s going to take some time. But now, you’ve got a scene with 50 drawings of The Smurfs, but there are six Smurfs in the scene. Now you have 300 drawings of Smurfs to do, with the same amount of time on screen. So, if it was like, you know, a 20-second scene, I’d rather do the Superman scene, even though it’s a little more complicated because I only have 50 drawings to do instead of 300. That was the tough thing about The Smurfs. Thankfully, they were easy to draw. So, you could draw them pretty quickly.
I remember having a scene where I had four Smurfs on one side, four Smurfs on the other side and they were doing a tug of war. Though each character has to move differently, so you can’t recreate the same action for everybody. It was a difficult show, really for me, anyway, to animate. So many characters to draw.
Scoop: You had long runs working on a few shows, including He-Man and then She-Ra. What did you like about working on those programs?
TC: That we were employed. [laughs] That’s because in 1981, the union the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists Guild, decided to go on strike for more money. Every year we used to have a layoff of two or three months at the end of the season, because once you got the show done, you had to wait and find out if it was going to be a hit and if they were going to do a second season or what new shows they were going to be doing. For the new shows, you didn’t really start working until, maybe February. So, you get laid-off in, like, November, and you have to wait until February to get work. I said, “Look, what I want to do, is I want to get a longer work year, so that instead of losing out on those three months – that will be my raise, rather than getting more money.” But, there were people that just wanted more money and Hanna-Barbera had warned us that if you ask for so much money, we can’t afford that and we’ll have to send the work over to Japan. The union called their bluff and that was it – they closed the studio, so I had nowhere to work.
Lucky for me, I had heard that Filmation, that did He-Man and She-Ra, the studio head, his name was Lou Scheimer, had said, “I’m not going to send work overseas, because this is an American artform, and we have to keep the work here. We have 1,000 or more people in this business, and we need to keep the work here.” But, every other studio, except Filmation, sent all the work to Korea and Japan. And then He-Man came up it was huge. Instead of doing 13 episodes a season for Saturday morning, He-Man was Monday through Friday. So, we had 65 episodes to do in a year and that’s more than an episode a week. So, for the next 7 or 8 years, I never got laid-off again, it was always work, work, work. It was fine with me, because the alternative was not having any work at all and maybe going back to bus driving.
Scoop: Did you have a favorite character from those shows?
TC: I always say, the character I liked to draw the most was Orko, and that was because he didn’t have any legs and I didn’t have to make him walk. [laughs] I could just float him everywhere, so it was an easier character to draw. But, I liked working on Skeletor and He-Man, any scene that had those two in it was a lot of fun to do. Orko, you could get away with more animation, crazy animation because he was a cartoony character instead of a human figure. So, you could do a little bit more with him. As an animator, that’s what you like. It was a little straightforward with a human, they have to move like a human. But, with Orko he could do whatever the heck you wanted him to do.
Scoop: With those two shows and others, you worked in the fantasy genre, you worked on superheroes in Super Friends, sci-fi in Ghostbusters, even a western with BraveStarr. Did you prefer any one genre? If so, why?
TC: Before I worked at Filmation, I worked at a little company, I was only there for about a year because they’re one of the ones that closed their doors and sent the work overseas. But, I worked on something called Thundarr the Barbarian, and that was in the vein of He-Man, but it was a couple years before He-Man. The storyline went that a comet had come and almost crashed into the Earth, and broke the moon in half and it caused tidal waves and earthquakes and everything else, so it kind of wiped out most life on Earth and the only ones left were barbarians and there were some sorcerers left. They were kind of fighting it out to see who was going to rule the Earth. That’s the show that I enjoyed working on the most.
Partially, because it was so well written. The other thing I liked about it was that one of the creators of the show was Jack Kirby, and Jack Kirby was the creator of Iron Man, the Hulk, the Avengers, Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer – all these Marvel characters. Getting to meet him, because he was one of those guys drawing the comics when I was 8 years old and I loved his artwork, and to actually meet him and be able to work in the same studio with him was huge for me. I think that’s the genre I liked the most.
Scoop: In addition to animation, you worked as a timing director on a few projects. Can you explain what that job entails for those outside of the business?
TC: Sure, they call it timing director in animation, mainly because, the storyboard has already been done. So, like, in live-action, if you are the director, you would get together with whoever’s putting the story together and help form the storyboard and that’s what the blueprint is for filming the movie – what’s going to be a closeup, what’s going to be a far shot, that type of thing.
With the timing director, you’re still in charge of timing the show, and getting the characters to move like you’d like them to – if something is going to move fast, or something’s going to be really dynamic, like if somebody’s picking up a rock, do you want him to really strain to get it or is he super strong and going to pick it up like it’s a leaf? It was my job to go through and time each scene so that when you got to the end of the show, you hit the marks for the commercials and that the show would end at the right time.
You had to do something called slugging the board. So once the storyboard was done, it could run 22 minutes, 23 minutes, whatever, but you had to get it down to exactly 22 minutes – like to the frame. That’s what you did, you went in and saw which scenes you wanted to be a little bit longer, which ones you wanted to hold on things for dramatic effect and other things you could cut really quick to get rid of some of the frames you needed to get rid of. You basically worked with the soundtrack and would explain to the animators what you wanted to see from them.
Because in animation, the animator is kind of the actor. The voice does the voice, but the animator is the one that draws the character doing what he’s going to do. So, the animator, listens to the soundtrack, sees how he says what he’s saying and then figures out what he wants the characters to move like. Each animator is different, so everyone is going to take a scene and do it differently. It’s the same thing with actors where, you know, you have Marlon Brando act a scene or Tom Hanks act a scene – it’s going to be different, even if it’s the same character, just based on what they see in that character. As a timing director, that’s what you’re kind of in charge of, but instead of taking a bullhorn and saying, “Okay, Marlon, I want you to walk in slowly and then pick this up,” I’m writing down on what we call exposure sheets what I want the animator to do. So, it’s kind of the same idea.
Scoop: I’m sure you see plenty of neat collectibles at conventions. Are you a collector? If so, what do you collect?
TC: [Laughs] Oh boy, am I a collector. I’m sitting right now in my studio and the studio is 12 feet wide, 40 feet long and it is just covered in collectibles. [laughs] It’s a lot of comic books, because I’m a big comic book collector. I also have a lot of statues of the characters I worked on. I have He-Man, She-Ra, Teela, Man-At-Arms, Skeletor, and Trap Jaw. I have really nice statues that are a couple feet tall. I’ve got pictures on the wall, autographed pictures. I’m a big Star Wars fan, so I’ve got a picture of Princess Leia in the slave outfit autographed by Carrie Fisher.
The other side of the studio, I have a baseball section, because I was a big baseball fan. I’ve got Mickey Mantle autographs, lots of the main stars from the ’50s and ’60s. I’ve got a lot of their autographs – Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Duke Snider, Ted Williams.
On the other side, it’s a lot of collectibles from the shows I worked on, like all the toys. I’ve got lunchboxes, cookie jars, something they used to call soakys, which is the shampoo, the little bottle shaped like the character that you used the shampoo and then collect the bottles. I’ve got a lot of those. Records, just tons of stuff. We could be here another two hours if you want me to describe everything. I’ve got some Pops. I’m not really into the Pops, but they did some of Scooby-Doo and the He-Man characters – I’ve got those. I actually have a Stan Lee one, obviously being a Stan Lee fan.
Actually at the Stan Lee’s Comikaze, the lady that ran it was a huge She-Ra fan, so she, when she found out I was a big Marvel comics fan, set it up that I spent 20 minutes with Stan Lee in a room. I had him sign a bunch of things. I had letters that I sent to Jack Kirby and he had sent back to me and were autographed by Jack. I had Stan sign them. I did some drawings of some of the covers, famous comic book covers, and I had Stan sign those for me as well. He was just nice as can be. I’d met him a zillion times, but each time his handlers are around so you don’t really get to talk to him. But, this time I had 20 minutes of just whatever I wanted to say to him. It was great. That’s one of the highlights of my life.
Scoop: You’re a pretty big Marvel fan, do you have a lot of comics.
TC: Yeah, I used to have everything, literally everything from 1960-1961 up until the ’90s and I sold those at Heritage Auction house and basically paid off my house. So, I don’t have any house payments. Now I’ve been out collecting, getting them graded. It’s easier to sell them if they’re graded because then you don’t have this “what condition is it in?” it already says what condition it’s in, so you can get top dollar for it. I’ve got the Spider-Man #1-50, I’ve got all the X-Men up to, like, #150. I’m going out and getting a lot of the ones that are worth quite a bit of money, but making sure they’re graded and in fairly good shape. I can’t always afford, you know, if you get one that’s in a 9 condition, which is really good condition, but it’s Spider-Man #1. That’s $50,000, sorry, can’t afford that. Some of those, I’ve had to get lesser gradings. When it gets up into the #40s and #50s, I’ve got mainly 9s for most stuff. I collect some DC as well, but as soon as Marvel came along, DC was a distant past, because they just weren’t as good. Now, I don’t think either company is very good right now, I don’t really like what they’ve done to the characters – they’ve changed a lot of the stuff. Any of the early stuff up until the mid-’70s, maybe even into the ’80s are things I still collect.
Scoop: What do you like about attending conventions?
TC: I do a lot of conventions. I probably do 25 a year. I like it because number one, I get to meet the fans. When I was a kid, what I would’ve given to meet Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, any of these people that were working on these cartoons that I loved so much. It’s kind of a way of reliving that, but I’m on the other side of the table. I think a lot of people don’t understand why we are so popular, but I do, because I was a fan too. So, if I get a chance to meet somebody, even some of the comic book artists that I do these shows with, I go up and get a commission piece of art from them because I love their work. I’m like a little kid meeting these people.
It’s really nice to have it the other way as well. I was sitting there one day, I had a line of maybe three or four people waiting, and all of a sudden I look up and one of the main comic book artists, his name is Arthur Adams, is standing in my line. [laughs] I’m like “Wow, this is really weird.” So, he came up and said, “Yeah, I want to get the Super Friends print signed by you because Super Friends is what made me want to draw when I was a kid.” So, it’s the same thing. I drew because of Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby and now this guy’s drawing because of Super Friends and he has a huge career. So, I said, “Look, let’s just trade. I’ll give you my autograph, you give me something of yours with an autograph on it and we’ll be fine.” That’s a lot of fun.
Plus, the characters that I do are so popular that people come up and want a commission. I usually get the commissions during the day and then at nighttime when I get back to the hotel after eating dinner, I’ll sit down and draw whatever people wanted and bring it in the next day. That gives them a really cool collectible from the actual artist that I’ll sign to them. All of that is fun.
The actual convention, they’re all running together, because every convention center looks the same. So, it’s kind of the experience when I get to the city, that I get to do some things in the city. I usually don’t leave until Monday after the show’s over. I try to leave at 5 in the afternoon so that Monday morning I can get up and go visit a museum or something like that. In Cleveland, it was the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I’d never been there before. On Monday, I went over there and enjoyed the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. It gives me the chance to go out and see a lot of things that I would never get a chance to see if not for the comic cons.
Scoop: You mentioned being a fan of drawing Thundarr, did you have any other favorites that really stand out to you? Or characters you wanted to draw?
TC: Yeah, yeah. In fact, Thundarr, I think was my favorite one overall. I also worked on Roger Rabbit, but it was one of the shorts called Tummy Trouble and I really loved working on that because we were working with live-action and the cartoon was in the live-action. It was a really unique process that I’d never done before. That was really fun. Getting to work on The Prince and the Pauper, which is a Mickey Mouse short, and it was the first Mickey Mouse short that had Goofy and Donald in it since, like, the ’40s or ’50s, or something like that. To get to work on Mickey Mouse, you know, first sound cartoon of all-time, that was really cool. I did a really good Garfield special that was on TV and won an Emmy, called Babes and Bullets where he plays a detective like back in the ’40s, like film noir type thing. That was really fun. Paula Abdul had a song called “Opposites Attract” where she dances with M.C. Skat Kat, which is a cartoon cat and I got to work on that as well. That was kind of way off something I never thought I’d do either, working on an actual music video.
Scoop: Wow, that’s cool. I love that music video.
TC: Look, my whole life, as you can see how I got into this business, was a series of lucky things. I didn’t go to art school, I didn’t go to animation school, I just happened to fall into it. I didn’t seek out to work on a video – I just fell into it. Every time I turned around, something would pop up and I’d be able to get involved. So, I was just really blessed to be in this business and to have as long of a career as I did, because after ’81, when they closed all these studios, it was really hard to find work. Thank goodness for Filmation, but even that closed in ’89.
That’s when I moved to Seattle and I got in at Microsoft and it was the same thing, somebody saw a drawing I did from a movie called Rover Dangerfield which is Rodney Dangerfield as a dog. Somebody saw this picture and asked “Hey, who did this drawing?” and the person who had it said, “Oh this is Tom Cook’s, he was an animator down in LA.” The other person said, “well, we need an animator.” Next thing I know, I get a job at Microsoft. I never even applied for a job at Microsoft.
I never applied at Hanna-Barbera. All of these things just – things happened that led me to there. The Microsoft job was one of the best jobs I ever had. Then off of that, they came up with the first 3D computer program at Microsoft, called Softimage, so in 1996-1997, something like that, I was learning how to animate in a computer where nobody else was doing that, so I got a step up on everyone else, animating things on a computer. And I told all my buddies down in LA, “You better learn this computer,” and none of them listened to me and they all got laid-off at Disney because they couldn’t use a computer.
Scoop: As a kid of the ’80s, your animation had an influence on my appreciation for the artwork and shaped my perspective on what I consider good animation.
TC: Did you have a favorite show?
Scoop: I think She-Ra was my favorite. I have an older brother, so when we were kids, we ended up watching a lot of the stuff he liked, including He-Man. So, when they introduced a She-Ra show, I was excited to see the girl lead the show and be the hero.
TC: Of course, I hear the She-Ra story all the time. Because it was the first female who had her own show. We had Wonder Woman in Super Friends, but she was just one of the group. Filmation was always that way, we had the first Indian superhero, before He-Man, there was a character called Blackstar and he was originally supposed to be black and the networks wouldn’t let us make him black because they didn’t think it was the right time yet, for that.
Then, we were the first ones to put the woman first, with She-Ra. To give you an example, I’m at the comic cons, and this has happened twice now, my wife was at Summer Glau’s panel and they asked her, “what did you like when you were growing up?” and she said “My favorite thing was She-Ra.” So, my wife told me that and I took her a drawing of She-Ra and autographed it for her. She was like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it!” She had a big line, so I couldn’t really spend a lot of time talking to her. But later on, at another show a couple months later, when her line got really low, I went over to her and said, “I’m the guy that gave you the She-Ra.” She said, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t get the chance to thank you enough.” So, we had a good talk about it.
Then probably, it’s only been a couple of months, I was in Portland and one of the girls, her name’s Emily Swallow from The Mandalorian was there, and the guy that runs artist alley came over to me and said, “Hey, I was just in her panel and she mentioned that she loved She-Ra.” So now, every show I see her, because we do a lot of Wizard Worlds together, we always get together and talk. She can’t wait because in Chicago, Wizard World this year in August, the voice of She-Ra is going to be there. So I gave her an original drawing of She-Ra and said “Bring this with you and get her to sign it for you. She’s a really sweet lady, you’ll really like her.” Plus, the voice of Skeletor is going to be coming too.
[The showrunners] contacted me and said they wanted to have these people and asked if I could get them and I said “Oh, I know them really well,” so I called them up and asked if they wanted to do a show in Chicago and they both said yes. Alan Oppenheimer, the voice of Skeletor, he’s 92 or 91, but still doing really well. I’m a little worried about this corona thing but I’m sure he’s smart and staying out of crowds. He’s still in pretty good shape. Melendy Britt, I imagine is in her 70s and she still looks great as well. I’m looking forward to getting back with them. I’ve done, probably four or five shows with them and they’re always fun. We do a nice panel with all three of us and all the fans ask questions. It’s really a blast.
Scoop: Well, that’s all I had for you. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.
TC: I appreciate it very much, I love doing these interviews. It’s always nice to talk about the good old days.
For more information on Tom Cook sketch commissions or convention appearance, contact his agent at Eva Ink Artist Group: firstname.lastname@example.org.