Interview conducted by Tim Eldred
One sure measure of a great anime series (or any great work for that matter) is the creative energy it imparts to its viewers and the lengths to which they go to express their dedication. Over the last three decades, a great many Star Blazers fans have elevated themselves to the level of Superfan; those who take their creative energy so far that they add new dimensions to the experience, expanding it beyond its original scope. This was certainly the case with two of the show’s earliest superfans: Michael Pinto and Brian Cirulnick.
Even if you don’t know their names, odds are you’ve heard some echo of their work. Michael (at left) was the founder of the very first organized Star Blazers fan club, and Brian (at right) was the auteur of the very first Star Blazers fan film, a fully-animated episode called Desslok’s Revenge. These gentlemen met under the aegis of Star Blazers, supported and contributed to each others’ efforts, and still collaberate today on many projects including a top-notch website with the enviable name Anime.com.
Their mutual love of Star Blazers and their privileged perspective put many opportunities in their path and enriched their lives in ways neither could predict. Naturally, their Star Blazers memories remain vivid, and they were eager to share them with us. As you will soon see, they do far more than fit the category of superfan—they define it.
What context do you have for the time when you first saw Star Blazers on TV?
How old were you, where were you located, what else were you interested in at the time?
MICHAEL: It was very isolating to be a young teenager growing up without a car on Long Island. Only a few people had VCRs and cable TV was just starting out. There were only about seven channels on TV, and we were lucky to get that many since we lived in New York. I have no nostalgia about those being the “good old days.” In fact, it was also a low point for American animation as well.
I was about 14 years old and still watching cartoons, which was unusual for my age group in that era. Growing up the one anime show that I recall was Speed Racer, which I remember from my early childhood. My first love was re-runs of Star Trek, which was followed by Space: 1999 in 1975, so I always had a love for everything science fiction. So when I watched Star Blazers I was blown away with it on so many levels, it was a dream come true.
I had the good fortune to be born into a very creative family. I had a Great Uncle who was a successful jewelry designer who inspired my father to go to Pratt in Brooklyn. He became an Art Chairman at a high school and my Mom was an English teacher, so I was very encouraged growing up. Not just with art; it was my dad who bought me my first copy of Starlog magazine. It was because of my parents that I was able to think of going to art school as “normal,” and my younger sister went as well
BRIAN: I was always a cartoon fanatic (big time Bugs Bunny fan) but I was most attracted to the stuff that was not the usual humdrum. The two shows that most excited me were Jonny Quest and Speed Racer. In fact, I have an early childhood memory of skipping out early on a neighbor’s birthday party to watch the premiere of Gigantor. I was watching Battle of the Planets when it was on the air. You need to understand that at that time, the choice was that or Huckleberry Hound. There simply wasn’t anything like it, and I was enjoying it even if it was cheezy. So lo and behold, I see the commercial for Star Blazers.
It was to start running at 2:30pm on WNEW, Channel 5 in New York. It was 1979. I was just about to start my first year of high school. Fortunately, the first day was a half-day, and I raced home to catch the very first episode. To say I was blown away doesn’t even begin to describe it. It literally changed my life. All the drama and adventure was there from the very first show.
Star Blazers and three other things forever changed the direction my life was headed:
I was reading Starlog Magazine on a regular basis, because I was a Star Wars and Star Trek fan.
This lead to me attending my first “Creation Convention” (These are comic book cons) in Rockville Center, Long Island. There I attended a “how to draw comic books” seminar, and quickly picked up the basics, as I’d been doodling in class ever since I’d been going to school.
I had a chance encounter with artist Kyle Baker on the bus going home from school. It turned out he lived only a few blocks from me and we became friends. He was the one who clued me in on the Summer and Saturday programs at the School of Visual Arts for high school students that got me started doing animation. (Kyle went on to do work for Marvel and DC before striking out on his own).
What’s funny looking back on it all is how all this started coming together at around the exact same time, like it was fate.
What was it about Star Blazers that grabbed you and kept you coming back for more?
MICHAEL: I came into the show early on in series 1 and was hooked right away! Being a space opera you had no choice but to tune in tomorrow to see if the Star Force would get to Iscandar or not, and that “hurry, Star Force!” line at the end of each episode just drove home the point. Also, unlike Star Trek which had the red-shirt syndrome, there was a chance that your favorite character might buy the farm in the next episode. It was like watching a video game which got better with each new level you explored. The story would just keep getting more complex and interesting.
For starters it was a space opera aimed at an older age range than most of the kids’ shows that I had seen up to that time. I always loved Warner Brothers cartoons as they had a sophistication that other cartoons didn’t have, but Star Blazers had some real character development going on and issues ranging from romantic love to death. Also the fact that that the episodes ran sequentially was a real breakthrough, too.
Part of what made the show work was that the voice acting was treated as if it wasn’t a cartoon, and they took quite a few chances. For example, giving Desslok a high-pitched voice instead of the obvious grunting bad guy was genius. Even Dr. Sane, the most silly-looking character, had a voice that matched a medical professional instead of a sidekick. The use of music also helped tell the story too. It’s important to keep in mind that American animation by the 60s no longer had the budget for a full orchestra. So here comes a show with an amazing soundtrack that also adds to the storytelling. No detail was overlooked. Even the sound effects were fresh and original.
The visual design of the show was wonderful, and I’d never seen any TV show before that featured so much loving detail. Star Trek featured a unique-looking spaceship, but Star Blazers had that plus an explanation of the technology. Also you always had that scene in Star Trek where they’d beam down to a planet that looked like a re-used set from a Western TV show. With Star Blazers every little background of the show was jammed with all sorts of imagination.
BRIAN: Unlike most people, I got to see Star Blazers from the very first episode, although thereafter I had to randomly miss episodes due to my school/bus schedule. But when they changed the timeslot to 6:30am, I became a regular viewer. Yes, I was grabbed right away, not just by the story but also the unique artwork–I loved the spaceship designs and was intrigued by the “wavy laser beams.”
One thing that also grabbed me, and continues to be a large factor, is the amount of realistic science and thought behind how things worked. They explain how the warps are done, they explain how the wave-motion gun worked, it takes many episodes just to get to Mars. This kind of stuff was never done in a cartoon, and sadly, it’s still not done now! Most sci-fi shows just accept that we’ll go along with whatever psuedo-science they throw at us (with the exception of Stargate), but only Star Blazers treated the science and battle tactics as an integral part of the plot, which made you feel like you were a member of the crew rather than a casual observer.
And as a member of the crew, how could you not keep coming back to watch? With its soap-opera format, it really was “watch two episodes and you’re hooked for life.” Then there’s all those dramatic heart-strings, like when Nova is stricken after activating the Cosmo DNA, and when Wildstar is told of this he drops his helmet. I cried like a baby when Captain Avatar died (and I’m getting misty-eyed just typing this!).
It simply was the best TV show ever made, animated or otherwise.
Did either of you have any previous anime exposure?
MICHAEL: The only other anime on the air then was Battle of the Planets. I never fell in love with the show because it seemed rather simple next to Star Blazers. It lacked the science-fiction, the voice acting was very cartoony, and at the time I didn’t realize that Sandy Frank had cut so much out of the show. As a younger child I enjoyed Speed Racer a great deal, but aside from that there was very little anime to be found. The only exception was after Star Blazers went off the air, a UHF station in New Jersey (WNJU) ran subtitled episodes of Cyborg 009 and Galaxy Express 999, which played a major role in getting me hooked into the wider world of anime.
BRIAN: Aside from watching Speed Racer and Gigantor, I had no anime experience. In fact, I was surprised to learn from Mike that Star Blazers was a Japanese production! I knew these shows were different, but until that day I’m not sure I ever understood why. I still remember the day I was reading TV Guide and spotted Space Pirate Captain Harlock listed for Saturday night on Channel 47. It had that all important “space” word in it, so I checked it out. Imagine my surprise to see a show that looked very, very similar to Star Blazers, but all the characters are speaking in Japanese. (Fortunately, they had subtitles.) However, I consider Harlock to be my first true “anime” experience, because I was watching it in Japanese, unedited.
In NYC we have/had a spanish language channel on UHF, Channel 47 out of Newark, NJ. On Saturday and Sunday nights, they devoted 2 or 3 hours to Japanese programming. It was 100% Japanese, even the commercials, for the local community of Japanese living in NYC and Fort Lee NJ. They ran a variety of programming, as Saturday was one “broadcasting network” (I cannot remember the name). They would run Harlock and then later Cyborg 009 and then something called Ikku-San. Sunday was “Entel Television” and they would run GE999 as part of their programming. The subtitles were done by a Hawaiian service if I recall.
The Japanese programming was only on for a few hours, so, it was amazing they were able to schedule anime at all, seeing as it chewed up a valuable half-hour, but apparently people watched.
Did you know each other before you saw the series, or was it the thing that brought you together?
The program director on WNEW just never seemed to get the show, so they played it in the morning with all of the other kid shows like New Zoo Review. To punish the poor Star blazers fans and to make sure it didn’t build an audience, they would keep switching the time slot and showing it earlier and earlier.
In 1980 they pulled the plug! I didn’t own a VCR (almost nobody did) so as a fan you had no way to watch the show again. Star Trek fans of this era had to collect 16mm prints of their favorite show, just to give you an idea of how primitive things were. I was outraged about this and became sort of an activist.
My father was running a summer course for high school art in Manhattan and I would always tag along. I quickly enlisted some of my elder peers to help me make phone calls to Channel 5 and beg them to put the show back on the air. I was very inspired by the Star Trek fans who tried to bring that show back on the air and held conventions and put out fanzines and the like.
To spread my effort I took out a classified ad in Starlog magazine (I think it only cost $35 dollars, by the way) and I think I charged about $5 for yearly membership in the Star Blazers Fan Club. So by high school my career as a fanzine publisher got started. I met Brian while trying to organize a local chapter of the fan club. So if it weren’t for the stupidity of that programming director at WNEW, my life would have been much more boring.
BRIAN: I didn’t meet Mike until well after Star Blazers went off the air. WNEW kept moving around the timeslot, eventually settling at 6:30am. My sister and I would wake up extra early to tune in (and yes, it was right after New Zoo Review. Thanks to that I have the damn show’s song memorized.) I was reading Starlog and saw Mike’s ad for the Star Blazers Fan Club, located in Merrick NY, not that far from me in Queens. My sister and I sent our dues in and were happy to get a newsletter.
Not long after that I got a letter asking me to come out to Merrick and attend a local meeting. We begged our parents to drive us out and we met Mike. By this time I’d already been doing some animation (a robot thing shot on Super-8), and was knocking around an idea of trying to do something more like Star Blazers. I was initially hoping to make it about 5 minutes long.
Mike was trying to organize a lot of different clubs. He had founded the Long Island L-5 society, he had the Star Blazers Fan Club and he wanted to create a Long Island Sci-Fi society.
Most of the important people we would meet through a task assigned to me by Mike. Mike wanted meto take over an APA-zine (Amateur Press Association) from Fred Kopetz, which was essentially a pre-internet “chat room” on paper. Every contributor submitted 30 copies of their own fanzine, I collated it, and everyone got a copy of the completed publication.
That became Trelaina which somehow (to this day I still don’t know how) took on a life of its own and became huge. Through that we met Tom Brevoort (now a VP at Marvel), Mike Kanterovich, Frank Strom and a bevy of other talented and creative individuals.
At left: cover art for the first issue of Trelaina. APA stands for Amateur Press Association. Members-only fan publications like these were the ink-and-paper precursors to internet message boards.
At some point, you both took your appreciation of the show beyond the act of watching the show itself.
What inspired you to do this?
MICHAEL: I already mentioned how it inspired me to start up the club, but it should be noted that Brian was quite brave to make his film. At that point at the School of Visual Arts, their concept of an animated student film was five minutes of pencil tests in the Disney tradition. For Brian to make a half hour film outside of class was nothing short of insane. It was a good thing at the time he didn’t have any clue how much work it would be. He was also able to use an amazing ‘Tom Sawyer’ technique to sucker many of his friends into cel-painting parties. He did everything to cut corners from ripping apart precious Roman Albums for background art (sacrilege!) to resorting to model paint when he couldn’t afford the overpriced cel paint at Pearl Paint.
BRIAN: I’d been doodling in my class notes essentially forever, always drawing spaceships and stuff like that, but when Star Wars came out I knew I wanted to get into film-making. I first started experimenting with filming plastic models in my back yard with a super-8 camera. It wasn’t until Kyle Baker introduced me to the summer program at SVA (sponsored by the NYC Board of Education) that I learned animation was done by making lots and lots of very similar drawings. That was an eye-opener, because now I was only limited by what I could draw (which was still kind of limiting, as I’d never been that great an artist).
I committed myself to doing some kind of Star Blazers animation on the very day I met Mike. When we started talking about the show my mind was literally exploding with ideas. I’d already done a very simplistic giant robot animation based on a poster of UFO Robot Grendizer I’d bought at Forbidden Planet. I was still learning about things like perspective drawing, doing pans and tilts on paper, stuff like that.
Then there was my nearly constant lack of money. Buying paint brushes and markers was a problem! So I became very inventive about coming up with low-budget solutions. For example, I’d use Testors model paint or even latex house paint because I couldn’t afford cel-vinyl. I used office supply “page protectors” instead of real clear acetate. I would cut the connecting edge and get two cels from each page protector. I stole reams of paper from the xerox room at school.
When did you first begin to learn about the Japanese roots of Star Blazers?
What were some of your first Yamato discoveries? How and where did you find Yamato products?
MICHAEL: I was very lucky to have a school friend named Thomas Pignetti; his father worked for Pan Am and his mother was Japanese so he had managed to see some of the Yamato films in Japan and he even had a Roman Album in his collection. Also there was a very good article in Starlog (Issue #35 from June 1980) which gave some insight into the series.
In New York City there were monthly meetings of the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization, which acted as a gateway to finding out about anime in general. These meetings were organized by a small handful of fans who opened the doors to so many. A few of the people I met back then via C/FO NY were Patricia Malone, Richard and Gerald Moriarty and Ken Sample to name just a few. And although I never met them face-to-face it should be noted that Jerry Beck was critical in organizing the C/FO NY, and of course Fred Patten who played a critical role in California.
Another gold mine for us early fans were the two Japanese books stores in New York City: Books Nippan (which closed shop later) and Kinokuniya (which is still in business). In the early 80s you could also find some anime merchandise at places like Forbidden Planet (which had two stores on NYC) and various toy stores in Chinatown. There were a handful of dealers who would show up at comic book and science-fiction conventions who would sell these goodies as well.
To me those Roman Albums and manga collections I came across were real gold, everything from detail-obsessed design to the quality of the printing still give me creative inspiration. Those early model kits were amazing, too.
BRIAN: Although the end credits to Star Blazers told us it was produced by West Cape Corp as Space Cruiser Yamato, the light bulb never really came on in my head that I was watching a 1974 Japanese production that had to be licensed, re-written, dubbed and scrubbed to work on American TV.
Mike was the one who clued me in as to its origins. Of course, that issue of Starlog told the full story of how Star Blazers came to our shores.
We had access to a couple of places to get materials. First was Forbidden Planet, which had Japanese model kits in the basement, mostly from Yamato. There were two known Japanese bookstores in New York City (being an international hub of culture) that carried Roman Albums and manga: Zen Bookstore on 5th Ave (no longer in business) and Kinokuniya. Later, Books Nippan would open its East Coast store on 57th street, but it closed after only a few years.
I can’t begin to describe just how freakin’ awesome it was to open a Roman Album and see character designs, animation drawings, pre-production sketches and the like. It was a gold mine of information. Nowadays with the internet we take all that for granted, but back then…wow…flipping through those pages was heaven.
Did you have any contact with Claster Television or Westchester in the early days?
MICHAEL: My parents took the family on car trips when I was a kid, and I begged them to visit Claster Television in Maryland, but they never stopped the car. However, later I was lucky enough in high school to make a pilgrimage to meet Claude S. Hill in New York City when he had a small office on Madison Avenue.
Mr. Hill made his first fortune in Canadian real estate in the 60s, but he was always a kid at heart so he used his money to acquire the rights to the Krantz film library, which included Marvel cartoons made in the 60s, Rocket Robin Hood and Max the 2000 Year Old Mouse. He was a true gentleman and let me sit and talk to him for a good hour or so.
Mr. Hill came from Tennessee and never forgot where he came from, so he was never a “slick Hollywood show biz guy” but rather more of an old school gentleman. He was very focused on kids’ entertainment, which is a special niche in the wider world of television. I’ve found over the years that people in that business have a sense of mission to their audience that you just don’t see in other segments of show biz. To give you a sense of the man, we were once walking down the street from his office. He had to get to a meeting but he spotted someone who was blind and helped that person across the street. It’s so unusual to see that in New York and from someone who works in the egocentric world of television. It was quite inspiring to see how generous he was with his time for those just getting their start.
Shown at right, cover image for the Star Blazers presskit designed by Michael and Brian for Westchester.
BRIAN: I think Mike pretty much covered it. Claude Hill was a wonderful guy, very supportive and patient with us, particularly in our early days when we were just a bunch of goofy kids sitting in his office. I think he did more to support us in our fledgling creative endeavors than any other single person in our lives.
Did he make any contributions to your respective projects?
MICHAEL: He arranged for us to get a film print of what we thought was Final Yamato to show at the 1983 Worldcon in Baltimore. The funny thing was that the print turned out to be Farewell to Yamato instead. He made it a point to come down and meet some of the fans at the convention, and was no doubt bemused by seeing some of the first examples of cosplay in North America (for which Rob Fenelon deserves some major credit).
By taking a chance with me, he made a huge contribution to my career. Since then I’ve worked on quite a few kids’ projects (example: the Clifford the Big Red Dog website on PBSkids.org) and I can trace that work back to Mr. Hill giving me a start, so I owe him big time. As a client he was ideal, as he’d always encourage creativity and appreciated “the big idea.”
BRIAN: Other than being supportive of the effort and essentially giving his blessing to the film (so I was protected from any kind of copyright infringement), Mr. Hill tended to stay on the sidelines. Although, he was obviously impressed enough with our efforts that we wound up working on projects for him. The first was to redesign his presskit for Star Blazers (which became the artwork used for the Kidmark VHS Boxes), and later we worked with him again to re-animate the opening titles to Rocket Robin Hood, another animation property he owned and distributed in Canada.
How did you decide to structure the Star Blazers fan club and how did you get the word out?
MICHAEL: The club started out as an effort to get the show back on the air in New York City, but it evolved more into getting information about the original show in Japan. The thing that gave the club its initial big bang was the ad I placed in Starlog. Overnight we had over a hundred members and we published a quarterly fanzine called The Star Blazers Fandom Report. The first issues were xeroxed and were produced with Letraset Presstype and a typewriter for the body text.
First issue of the newsletter.
Click to enlarge.
Click here to read it.
People started organizing chapters of the club throughout the country, although most of these chapters were small with perhaps less than a dozen people if you were lucky. There were chapters in places like New Jersery (Robert Fenelon and Nelson Tatham), Boston (Michael Kanterovich, Dan Parmenter and Frank Strom), Maryland (Tom Breevort and Steve Cicala) and Philadelphia (Joe Turner, Luke Menichelli, and Bob Carroll) to name just a few (my apologies to anyone whose name left out or misspelled). Many fans would meet at science fiction and comic book conventions as well.
Early 1983 Fandom Report.
Click to enlarge.
Click here to read it.
I’d say there were about 400 members at the high point. The people who met each other were in the minority, out of those 400 maybe only 40 were what you’d call superfans who would write a fanzine or travel many miles to get to a convention. Also, while we were the first Star Blazers fan club, it should be noted that a bit later in Texas a group called the Earth Defense Command was started by Derek Wakefield.
The fanzine itself acted as a glue to the organization since many members lived in isolation and never met each other. You have to keep in mind that this was an era before e-mail and Facebook, so the way folks would keep up with each other was old fashioned letter-writing with pen pals across the land. What I liked best about the fanzine was that it had articles on what was going on with the show in Japan. By 1980 only a few lucky Americans had seen the first two series, but at the same time the show was hot in Japan and various movies and specials were still coming out. With the Star Blazers Fandom Report we were lucky to have articles from folks like Laurie Knox, Stephen Boyd and Ardith Carlton which covered what was going on in Japan.
What was a typical meeting like for the fan club? What were the usual activities?
MICHAEL: I think people were so amazed just to meet each other that the meeting itself became the main thing. Many folks were young and didn’t have cars, so just managing to see another fan was amazing during the early days. I suspect with many clubs people knew each other previously and were also fans of other related subjects like science fiction shows and comic books.
One of the main things that helped was that many fans got to meet each other at gatherings of related groups. Fandom back then was coming out of the mini-boom of the Star Trek conventions in the mid-70s. We held a Mini Star Blazers Con at a Creation Convention back in 1980, and Creation was mostly focused on Comic Books at the time.
In New York we were very lucky to hook up with the Lunarians, a literary science-fiction club that held meetings in New York City. Many of the Lunarians were also involved in running the Star Trek cons in the 70s, so they were like big brothers and sisters to us in getting things started. It was because of this that we managed to place the first anime room at Lunacon (which was run by the Lunarians) back in 1983. The chair that year was Elyse Rosenstein, a longtime Star Trek fangurl who gave us our big break.
Lunacon program book cover by Barbi Johnson
I hate to say it but in the early 80s most of our fan activity was trading video tapes from Japan. It’s funny that people talk about illegal downloads as something new, but without tape-trading, anime fandom would never have gotten started in the United States. People would have pen pals from Japan send them tapes and they would makes copies of those for other friends. Being an analogue medium, the quality of the tapes got pretty bad pretty quickly. Most of my early anime memories were of 5th generation VHS tapes, chock-full of static, noise distortion and tracking issues. At many conventions we’d have tape-duping parties where we would daisy-chain VHS decks together to make copies. These sessions would run an entire weekend and were the only source of anime for many fans.
It’s rare for any fan club to stay solvent for a very long time, since fans tend to drift apart into splinter groups after a while. Was there any sort of fracturing in the Star Blazers fan club?
MICHAEL: There were some politics, but not much of a split. If you ran a local chapter in Maryland, chances were there wasn’t another chapter down the road, otherwise you’d befriend those folks. It was such a small world that you’d always meet the same people over and over again, and you’d be happy to see them for the most part.
The fan club was going well, but it was quite a bit of work to run. It’s amazing to think of how easy everything is today when you can write something, hit the ‘publish’ button on your blog and people can read it that second. But to get out an issue of the Star Blazers Fandom Report became a real chore, everything organized via phone and snail mail (no email!) and then xeroxed and presstyped together and then going to a printer and then mailing the darn thing out.
Fandom Report #16: the final issue
In 1983 I graduated high school and started my college years at the Parson School of Design (and Brian went to the School of Visual Arts). Both of us commuted to school and it was quite the workload. All of a sudden you had tons of competition from your fellow students who were also “the best artist in their school,” so around 1984 I handed over the fan club to Robert Fenelon. From the ashes of that, Rob published three issues of Anime-Zine. It was light years ahead of the old newsletters, with a color cover and professional typesetting. I was very proud to see that Rob had taken things to the next level and it was a fitting end to the club.
It was around this time that I started to do my first professional design work, although I was still involved in the world of anime fandom until the late 80s. I even ran a small science-fiction convention or two out in Long Island (we got Hal Clement and Isaac Asimov as guests of honor). My dream at that point was to become a professional and move from Long Island to New York City.
During our school years Brian and I (and our friends Craig Owen, Jackson Young, and Brigitte Sleiertin) started a company called Metrozone. One of our first clients was Claude Hill at Westchester Films. We got to re-animate the opening titles of Rocket Robin Hood. After college Brian and I would keep working together and incorporated as Vanguard Media in 1989. By then we were very focused on creating animation with early interactive media. In fact we tried to run a BBS as part of the business, but our focus would always get back to the creative side of things.
How long did the Star Blazers fandom reports go on?
Click on the image to magnify.
Click here to browse through
the Fandom Report
issue by issue.
MICHAEL: By the mid-80s the fanzine was history. Brian was running the APA at that point, so much of our fan activity was just to amuse each other. We also wanted to focus on taking things up a notch and going professional. The funny thing was, as a fanzine writer I was never ashamed of my writing and editing skills, but as I started to become a professional designer I realized that being a wordsmith was a weak point for me so I specialized. It’s somewhat ironic for me to look at the world of blogging today where not being a professional writer (or even having an editor) is seen as all right.
Below: a few stills from Desslok’s Revenge.
How did you begin to grapple with the enormous workload that Desslok’s Revenge would entail?
BRIAN: I never had any clue that it was going to be a half-hour film, at least not until I got done with the sound. Here’s the way it sorta went: I wanted to do something about 5 minutes long. I started doing some sequences with the Argo and some nameless enemy spaceship design I saw on a sweatshirt. I then started designing fighter craft for the enemy. Trying to keep it simple, I essentially just made them circles. I started making some experimental scenes (many of which never made it into the final film), and produced a trailer.
I knew I wanted the ambulance shuttle to be pivotal to the story because I thought it was a cool design. As I worked on the APA and helped Mike with the Star Blazers Fandom Report, I made contact with more and more fans who were tossing about ideas and I remember writing a lot of letters back and forth to various people.
Somewhere along the way, the concept started getting bigger and longer. Stephanie Rendino contributed a script, but it was very long, and…how can I put this gracefully…too “Lt. Mary-Sue”-ish, because it featured Desslok’s daughter “Julia,” who was actually Steph’s alter-ego. To avoid killing off anyone important, I planted the idea of a stowaway who would sacrifice herself to save the ship at the last minute.
In the end, I tossed a lot of Steph’s script and re-wrote some hokey dialog that would support the action sequences, which is what I was really interested in. I had made audio tapes of Fred Kopetz’s soundtrack albums, and though they were pretty scratchy, they helped me visualize the action. I knew exactly which pieces of music I wanted for each scene, and the music is what really drove the story.
In the end, it was the music that determined the length of the film. I put together a cassette tape of the whole score, and I started to see that the film was going to be at least 20 minutes. By this time I had met Craig Owen at SVA, and he started contributing ideas and working on sequences with me.
Then I started contacting everyone I had in mind for voices. In some cases people came up to me requesting to do a particular character. And one fine summer day I threw the biggest Star Blazers party of all time to get everyone in one place to do the voice session at a sound studio where my brother worked.
The next 6 months of my life I did animation during the day and sound editing at night. The only place serving food at 1am on Long Island was a Taco Bell. To this day, I still have to eat at Taco Bell every once in a while because of the addiction. I spent a long time gathering sound effects, putting together the music, choosing “takes” for the final cut, etc. It turned into a mountain of work, and no one was more surprised than me that it came to 32 minutes long.
In the production studio, work in progress.
I started to panic because there was no way I had enough material to fill that kind of time. Fortunately I had also met Brigitte Sleiertin at SVA, and we quickly became friends. She was a natural at drawing anime-style art, so I immediately “annoyed” her into doing work. Anyone who knew anything about Star Blazers immediately caught on to my dream of making this film, and got excited about the prospect of helping out. My enthusiasm was contagious. Martin Landau in the film Tucker has a great line about people catching your dreams, and I think that applies here.
The herculean efforts of Craig, Brigitte and Mike cannot be overstated. Without them, I would have never gotten the film done. We formed the “core team.” We organized cel-painting parties and were the chief architects of the overall vision. Craig would come up with many of the “throw away gags” such as having TIE fighters smash into the third bridge of the Yamato, or that great scene where the Gamilon Destroyer flies into the bay of the Andromeda Empire, firing missles which “break the film.”
There are lots of names in the end credits of your film. What did each contributor do for you?
BRIAN: Practically within the first second of meeting Robert Fenelon, he seemed to be doing a near-perfect impersonation of Leader Desslok, so it was obvious to cast him in that role and he was only too happy to do it.
Mike Kanterovich, Frank Strom, Joe Turner, and Dan Parmenter all hailed from the Boston area, and I met them via the APA initially. They enjoyed coming down to NYC every once in a while. Kanterovich sounds like Sandor normally, and it wasn’t much of a stretch to make him sound like Talan.
Clockwise from top left: Brian directing, Mike Kanterovich
as Sandor/Talan, Robert Fenelon as Desslok,
Frank Strom as Wendy’s father.
Pat Malone and Richard & Gerald Moriarty were very supportive of the project. They ran the NY chapter of the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization and they were selfless promoters of anime, contributing their time, money, energy, video equipment etc., to showing anime to us and giving everyone a spot in NYC to gather every month.
Keith Sewell had been running around Philcon dressed as Zordar (shown below), so I knew I had to get him to do the bad guy voice! He had that “evil-laugh” down cold.
The end credits to that film do sorta read like a “who’s who” of anime fandom in the 80’s and 90’s. It wasn’t until Robotech happened that we got the next big influx of anime fans and then the stage became a little more crowded.
A few scenes in Desslok’s Revenge look almost rotoscoped over Yamato clips or in one case a space scene from the original Battlestar Galactica. What technique did you have to capture pre-existing scenes for this purpose?
BRIAN: A really, really outrageously crude technique. You’re going to laugh. I filmed scenes I wanted to copy off the TV set with a super-8 camera. After the film was developed, I projected it using a busted-up super-8 editor, 1 frame at a time onto a glass plate with a peg bar glued to it. Laying down a sheet of paper, I could just barely make out a faint, blurry image. Working in total darkness so I could see the projected image, I made crude drawings that I hoped would replicate the action I wanted.
The good news is, it worked. The bad news is, it’s not a technique I would recommend anybody else ever use. There’s no way to register the film properly, and it’s really hit or miss. Remember that I was making everything up as I went along, right down to building my own equipment since I didn’t have any money for real equipment.
What was behind your decision to go with silly scenes and in-jokes? Weren’t you concerned about compromising the dramatic narrative?
BRIAN: Oh, you mean like the comedy-relief robot, or the Mr. Potato-head doctor character? Yeah, those guys don’t break up the dramatic narrative! Humor is a part of all anime. I’m sure you know about the Budweiser can missile in the Macross Movie, or the Diacon IV animation which is nothing but in-jokes, or any of the other “Easter Eggs” that are in every anime from Astroboy to Zeta Gundam. I was being exposed to more and more anime as time went by, and one thing I noted was that they weren’t afraid to throw in funny, cheezy, or even downright bad jokes.
By this time, I had seen things like Xabungle, Lupin III, Urashiman, Urusei Yatsura and more. I was regularly getting to see Harlock, Cyborg 009 and Galaxy Express 999 thanks to the Japanese programming on Channel 47. By the time we did the sound session, Crusher Joe had come out, and that movie just turned everything upside down. It was funny, clever, full of explosive action, and if they wanted to throw some kind of weirdness in there, they just did it, and we loved it.
So by that time, there was no problem in my mind with the idea of using humor (good and bad) to break things up and not make the movie too serious. After all, too serious is dull. Too silly however, means that you won’t bother watching it for the story. So there needs to be a balance between the silly stuff and the serious stuff. Believe it or not, that’s one of the things I think I got right in the film. There’s just enough goofy stuff to keep you entertained while you try and absorb whatever plot I’m trying to throw at you.
There’s a backstory in Desslok’s Revenge that deals with cancer. Was this based on any personal experience?
BRIAN: No, not at all. I just needed some kind of motivation for the “Wendy” character to want to live up to something, to have something hanging over her head so that when the moment comes for her to sacrifice herself, the audience can instantly “get it.”
I had the vague idea of a stow-away on the ship that saves the crew after they’ve run out of weapons. I believe it was Steph Rendino that came up with the “research scientist mother killed by radiation” angle to motivate Wendy into doing something heroic because she has this legacy to live up to.
Once your film was finished, how was it screened? On film or video?
BRIAN: I could never afford a film print. I cut the negative with tape to avoid having to edit with an “A/B roll.” In 16mm, you have to have two rolls of neg, with each edited scene being paralleled with an equal amount of black leader on alternate rolls. It’s editing hell and would have taken twice as long. So I cut the negative on a single roll with tape and had that sent to a transfer house where they could run it through directly to a telecine, and then inverse the color, resulting in a “positive” video.
It was screened simultaneously at the C/FO NY meeting and at Philcon in November 1986, meeting my self-imposed deadline. I had made a super-8 trailer three years previously claiming a release date of “late 1986”.
What contributions did you make to each others’ projects?
MICHAEL: Brian was always willing to go that extra mile to make things happen, so it was hard not to be inspired by his energetic spirit. In fact he once rode his bicycle all the way from Rosedale, Queens to Merrick for a get-together, which was over 13 miles! Brian helped a great deal with the fanzine, which you have to remember included mundane things like collating issues and putting stamps on envelopes. Without Brian (and the help of many other friends) the club would never have had any longevity or reach.
Aside from some background art and cel painting, I think my main contribution to Desslok’s Revenge was the typesetting for the titles. In the mid-80s desktop publishing was in its infancy, so the ability to spec and order type was somewhat unusual.
Of course, Brian and I have collaborated on quite a few other projects over the years including the first Anime CD-ROM title in 1992 (shown at right) and the website Anime.com today.
BRIAN: I remember folding a lot of newsletters and stuffing envelopes. I remember Mike getting me to write a series of articles on doing your own animation for the newsletter and we even created a “flipbook.”
My Trelaina APA efforts helped bring people out of the woodwork. I recall that something done for the APA by Kanterovich and Strom was reprinted in the Newsletter, so there was always a lot of synergy between what I was doing and what Mike was doing. It was all about getting the word out there about Star Blazers and anime.
How much access did you have to Star Blazers or Yamato on video then?
Did screenings become part of fan club meetings or reference points in the making of Desslok’s Revenge?
MICHAEL: In the very early days there wasn’t much video, and by the time it started to come down in price (say 1983) the club was fading. At that point people were trading videos at science-fiction conventions and watching them at C/FO meetings. In a way, the increased access to video decreased the hunger to get the show back on the air. This was because if by 1983 you had a friend in Philly and you lived in New York you could be watching episodes (even if they were filled with static and running on 6 hour mode). By the time Desslok’s Revenge happened, the formal structure of the club faded, but the active fans were still very much in touch with each other, maybe moreso as they got older and were able to drive.
At right: a letters page for American anime fans, published in the April 1985 issue of Animage in Japan. Brian’s letter and a still from Desslok’s Revenge appear at lower left. Click to enlarge.
BRIAN: I remember Mike had a crummy copy of a Yamato movie, and he couldn’t even play it on his VCR. I think it was in 4-hr speed and his VHS machine did 2 and 6hr mode only (ah, the infancy of technology). I had nothing. I mean, that was the whole point of me making my film in the first place. I had no access to Star Blazers! So when you can’t watch it, you make your own. Necessity is the mother of invention and all that jazz.
It wasn’t until I was introduced to meetings of the New York chapter of the C/FO that I started getting regular access to anime. Other than that, there were the occasional conventions. Ironically, although I helped to organize the first Star Blazers room at Lunacon, I think I was only able to watch a few hours there. The rest of the time I was helping the entire con, as Mike and I were starting to get involved with the Lunarians, and a bid to bring Worldcon to New York.
Regarding reference points, I’d say as I began to get a wider appreciation for anime in general, the scope of my film kept expanding. For example, I made a decision to put the film into the timeline somewhere between Be Forever and The Bolar Wars. Obviously, that choice wasn’t made until after I had actually *seen* Be Forever.
It should also be noted that I started working on the film before Final Yamato came out. This was probably a good thing, because had I seen Final Yamato first, I probably would never have made Desslok’s Revenge, thinking the storyline was over and there wasn’t anything I could do with it. But because Be Forever was the latest and greatest, (not having seen series 3 yet), that’s where I started the storyline, trying to pick up where the Japanese left off.
We all know these days how comparatively easy it is to bring a group of people together or create animation using desktop computers and the internet, but before those things existed people had to bring different skills to the table. What skills did you both need for your respective projects that you no longer need now?
MICHAEL: Even though technology makes things so much easier today, what amazes me is how little changes; the ability to write well, be creative and have social skills are just as valuable today as they were back then. Although I should say that without the ability to download a video via iTunes or order a toy via eBay we all managed to get much more exercise than we do today, and that may not be a good thing. I think the lack of an internet made people more sociable and willing to travel across the nation to meet each other, which added a bit of adventure to that early scene.
BRIAN: I guess the ability to paint cels is now pretty much obsolete. Other than that, I can’t think of a skill I’ve picked up in my life that I still don’t use on a daily basis. I’ve moved on to other things, such as collecting vintage computers and restoring classic air-cooled Volkswagens, but the ability to creatively break down a project, to come up with unique and cost-effective ways of solving problems is still valid.
A skill that never fades is the ability to learn quickly and remember what you learn. When I was doing my film, I was essentially learning how to do it as I was making it. Trust me when I say I started with no storyboards, no proper layout, no nothing, and just threw my energies into the task and somehow made it happen. I feel that same way today when I pick up a welder and start burning through metal. I learn as I do it.
When people reach the end of a large project that takes over their lives for some length of time, there’s usually a period of listlessness before something else grabs hold of you again. Did you both have this experience? What was the next big thing to come along and get you going?
MICHAEL: The 80s were an amazing time for me because my career was just starting and it was also a critical creative-and-technology moment in time. To give you some examples:
Television was going through a revolution. Network TV was giving way to cable. So growing up there may have been just one show that was music-oriented (American Bandstand or Soul Train) and all of a sudden there was a 24-hour network with nothing BUT music videos. It was also the era of VHS, so for the first time you could own a copy of a show that you loved. That in itself was a revolution of sorts, a wonderful sort of revenge against the local station programmers who controlled what you could watch and when.
In computers there was a revolution going on as well. You had the first generation of affordable home computers. Next you had the first bulletin board systems which were forerunners of the internet (as well as services like Prodigy and Compuserve). And it was also the birth of low-budget computer graphics. You had the Macintosh and the new world of desktop publishing and at the same time you had the birth of the Amiga, and desktop video with the Video Toaster.
Animation was going through a golden age of sorts. In Japan you had several feature films coming out each year, plus TV shows. More amazing was that those shows would start to make it over here, first with Robotech and later on VHS tapes. On American TV there was some very innovative animation going on in places like MTV. If you look at music videos of the era (like Peter Gabriel) some fantastic work was going on. Even by the end of the 80s the slumbering giant of Disney started to come back to life again.
As an adult who grew up watching Star Blazers, my greatest disappointment is that space travel isn’t an everyday occurrence. But I would have to say that the world is still a very different place and many of the changes, especially in media, happened during the 80s. I view Star Blazers as part of the start of that change, and it’s for that reason I still love the show today.
BRIAN: Boy, I wish I’d had that problem.
I was rushing to complete Desslok’s Revenge because I was also working on a “thesis film” (which wasn’t very good due to time constraints), and I was doing occasional freelance cel-painting for some places in New York City. I also started on an original anime film called Kilroy Was Here. I used everything I had learned to make it a great-looking film, with interesting characters and a very intricate plotline.
I showed my test film to a few select people, and many thought it looked better than actual Japanese anime. My most interesting comment came from Prudence Fenton (at the time, of Colossal Pictures), who called it “Film Noir Animation.” This was before Batman The Animated Series had premiered, and it lead to Mike and I getting to do work for MTV’s Liquid Television, a short called Bride of Autoguard.
I also seem to recall doing some animation for another SVA student that involved me meticulously drawing a VW Beetle. (I always seem to come back to the VW Beetle.) And somewhere in that mix was the previously-mentioned Rocket Robin Hood titles, as well as me getting the computer bug in a big way.
It seems that by the time I had finished Desslok’s Revenge, the Commodore 64 suddenly exploded into being and I started calling up Bulletin Board Systems (a precursor to the internet), posting messages, downloading games, also learning the then-nascent desktop publishing scene and getting into the Macintosh. I don’t remember there being a “lull” except for the fact that both Mike and I graduated from school into the recession right after “black monday” 1987, and there wasn’t a lot of hiring going on in NY.
But my life has been so busy it seems like a giant blur of exciting projects, drama, and some really interesting people I’ve met along the way. There’s a lot there, too much for me to remember even half of it correctly! It’s been an exciting ride so far, and there’s no sign that the roller coaster is slowing down. I’m looking forward to the oncoming chaos as yet another adventure awaits me, whatever it is!