40th anniversary of Animalympics: The “Rocky Horror Show” of furry fandom – by Sy Sable
by Dogpatch Press Staff
Here’s a guest article from Sy Sable, AKA Mark Merlino, a founder of furry fandom and its first convention ConFurence. Sy, Rod O’Riley and Changa Lion host monthly parties at their house (The Prancing Skiltaire) in Southern California. The parties screen animation like Animalympics. It became popular at 1980’s fan parties, where furries adopted it as their own cult favorite like Rocky Horror and kept it alive when it might be forgotten. Last week I hosted a furry movie party where the furry-made version (C/FO Cut with rare lost scenes) got a fresh look as an original fandom root. The Youtube video is at end of article. – Patch
To go with the story, Changa Lion provided his scans of a vintage TV Guide from when Animalympics first aired (Jan 26 – Feb 1, 1980). “NBC was at the time in the dumps in ratings and very desperate. It had been this way for some time. They would not dig themselves out until the Cosby Show.” (full issue on Archive.org.)
Animalympics: The “Rocky Horror Show” of furry fandom – by Sy Sable
In 1980 I had my video setup in our family room (pool hall and HiFi sound-room). A Sony (analog) tuner-timer unit connected to an industrial Sanyo V-cord II VCR (not a Betamax, and VHS was not a thing yet). The TV was a 13” color portable rigged with a lens and a curved screen (a crude projection TV). I had seen an ad in the TV Guide for an animated TV special called Animalympics, and decided to watch (and record) it…
It totally blew me away!
The opening sequence of various animals bearing the torch (which was lit by a sleeping dragon), the somber professional narration, great theme music and the striking graphics were not what I had expected, being used to 80’s Saturday morning and (slightly better) Holiday specials. The transforming graphic of the traditional Olympic rings becoming a paw-print, with the glowing script of the logo written boldly across the screen… and the line “Now, Live via satellite, Animalympics!” made a shiver run up my spine (it still does, after watching it hundreds of times)! This was obviously something very special.
This half-hour special was part of NBCs 1980 Olympic coverage. Steven Lisberger (yes, the creator of TRON), with a grant from The American Film Institute/NEA, had made a 7-minute short about the animal version of the Olympics. NBC commissioned Lisberger Studios to create two specials, the 30 (22) minute Winter games and a 90 (66) minute Summer games, to be ran in summer of 1980.
Sadly, with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and US boycott of the games, US TV coverage was cancelled. This included the Animalympics Summer games.
That May my partner Linda hosted a birthday party for me at my apartment in Garden Grove. My good friends Kay and Nicolai Schapiro showed up with a special gift, an unmarked VHS tape. “We want you to watch this right now.” Nicolai insisted. OK, so I put it in the VCR and sat back… completely unprepared for my second encounter with Animalympics… the feature! After the disappointing cancellation of the summer games, Lisberger and his associates edited together the two specials into a 90 minute feature. They premiered it in Florida at a distribution convention, but were unable to interest anyone in a theatrical release. The film was eventually licensed to screen on cable TV, and in Southern California (which had no cable service in the 80’s) on the subscription “scrambled” broadcast service Select TV, which the Schapiro’s subscribed to. They recoded it and presented it to me at the party, but they wanted to be there when I watched it, because…
A Mink sports commentator! A Russian sable gymnast! A river otter swimmer/diver! Really? Needless to say my reaction was what they had wanted to see and I did not disappoint. I am a huge fan of the weasel family; I’m a pine marten, after all. It was the Animalympics I loved, but More! Amazing characters, great voices and music, trippy graphics and clever writing parodying the “close up and persona” TV sports coverage that was becoming popular. The celebrity voice and character impersonations and humor for all ages just worked. The show became a regular at the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization screenings, and one of the influential films that helped start the furry fandom.
It was great that we now could watch the rest of Lisberger Studios anthro masterpiece. What could be better than that? At the time I was helping a friend, Tim Peters, who worked at the audio-visual company that supported the Disneyland Hotel and Convention Center. McCune Audio Visual had a small studio and video editing bay (Umatic ¾” “broadcast” quality cassette) on the second floor of the convention center, which we had access to. At one point, we created a (terrible) talk show called “Who Cares” where I interviewed several members of the local C/FO chapter to send to the New York chapter. Tim handled the camera and I did the intervies, Carson-style. Later we edited in several commercial for local tourist attractions to complete the farce. It was during the editing that an idea hatched in our collective brains (?).
The Animalympics feature combined the Winter and Summer games, with some material from the Winter games left on the cutting-room floor. Having never seen the original Summer games, we had no idea if there were scenes missing from that special. But… I had my copy of the Winter games recoded from the original broadcast, and we had a copy of the combined feature… and an editing bay at your disposal. So, we proposed, what if we carefully removed the clips from the winter games from the feature. Would the material remaining make a credible Summer games?
Luckily the title card at the beginning of the feature was tagged “Summer Games”. We started the project by converting our VHS copy to 2 Umatic cassettes (each tape was only 60 minutes long) then we carefully removed all the Winter game sequences and scenes from the feature, using the scene breaks and adding a couple of additional ZOO bumpers. When we finished, the remaining show was 58 minutes, long enough to be a “90 minute” special (66 minutes maximum with commercials). And it looked good! We then made a “mother” VHS copy with the C/FO color bars (featuring the skiltaire mascot Fanta with her magenta stripe), the complete Winter games, and our recreated Summer games.
That was the birth of the C/FO version of Animalympics. We made copies from the VHS “mother” and began showing them at C/FO meetings and at the 1985 Westercon science fiction convention in Sacramento, CA at the Prancing Skiltare room party, the first “furry” party. From then on, we would screen the C/FO version of Animalympics at science fiction conventions, including World Con in the US and the UK, at comic conventions, including San Diego Comic Con International, and in room parties we hosted at every fan convention we attended.
The show was extremely popular with fans. It included well designed characters of more diverse species than any other animated film made for decades. So many had watched it so often that some of the audience began reciting lines of dialog, making jokes, and singing along with the catchy Graham Gouldman songs. Our special version of Animalympics became an important icon in the development of the furry fandom. We literally played the tapes until they had worn out and could not be shown. The show became forgotten.
Originally Steven Lisberger turned his back on Animalympics. It was a lot of hard work that amounted to nothing, thanks to the Olympic boycott. He would not even acknowledge that it existed for many years, though it did show often on cable networks, HBO and even Disney Channel (with some scenes edited out), and various distribution companies got the rights to produce limited VHS releases. Steven Lisberger had relocated to Germany, and it happens that Animalympics has a very strong fan following in that country. When a well preserved film print was discovered, fans approached Lisberger and convinced him that the show was a masterpiece that he should be proud of. Their dedication and reverence convinced him, and he allowed them to arrange a DVD to be made (2007) and eventually a Blueray (2016) for limited release.
In 2014, my video guru partner, Changa Lion, found the DVD on Amazon.de and purchased it. He suggested that he could reproduce the summer games, using modern non-linear editing systems, and I agreed enthusiastically! Changa also managed to coax a copy of the Winter games off of the aged “mother” VHS tape and set about to clean it up using advanced video enhancement software. He finished the project in April and we planned to premier the remastered version at CaliFur. On a whim I contacted Michael Fremer, the co-writer/director, voice actor and music editor of Animalympics through his audiophile website Analog Planet. (I’m an audiophile myself, having designed and manufactured a line of HiFi speaker systems in the 80’s and 90’s.) An amazing stroke of luck had Mr. Fremer attending a HiFi show in Southern California the same weekend of Califur. He said he’d be delighted to attend the premier and he enjoyed himself immensely, answering questions and telling stories about the production. One tale he told explained the inclusion of a coati mundi (Pepe Rubanosa) in the marathon lineup. The character was based on a pet coati he had at the time!
Once again the C/FO special addition of Animalympics was available to show to furry fans around the world! But the story doesn’t end there… this year Changa obtained the German Blueray of the Animalympics feature, and though it was digitized from the same film print (and missing the same scene) the overall video and audio quality was superior to the DVD. We also had a fresh digitized VHS copy to provide the missing material. So, once again the process began: Cleaning up the Winter games copy (with improved video processing software) removing all Winter games content from the Blueray feature, adding the missing scenes from other sources, and putting it all together: The C/FO Special Addition (4.0) of Animalympics!
Saturday, February 1, 2020 was the 40th anniversary of the broadcast of the Animalympics Winter Games. On that day, Changa made the new version of our special edition available on the Prancing Skiltaire YouTube channel so everyone can enjoy this classic film, and experience an important part of the history of furry fandom!
“…and now Live, via satellite, Animalympics!”
UPDATE: this video about the making of TRON talks about putting together the animation studio and making Animalypics from around 5:00-7:00.
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