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The Unusual Story Behind the '80s Hit Cartoon Robotech

Robotech toys at the Harmony Gold office.
Robotech toys at the Harmony Gold office.
Liz Ohanesian

Sometimes at night, when we're hanging out with friends, we'll start talking TV. Retro TV. We'll rehash pieces of plot that are now only vague memories. "Did I remember that right?" we ask as we chat in living rooms or bars. For those of a certain age, likely over 30, we might flash back to an animated, sci-fi drama that caught our attention in the middle of the 1980s. Robotech was quite unlike what we knew of the cartoon world, filled with action and romance and music. We were smitten. Decades later, we drop reference after reference until someone darkens the mood. Robotech was a show where people -- good people, the ones we call heroes -- died.

The trauma of fiction sticks with you, even when you're an adult, even when you haven't seen the show in years. Death wasn't part of our TV cartoons. Even Acme dynamite couldn't kill the characters we loved. Robotech, though, was a far cry from Looney Tunes.

"It's almost like Game of Thrones now," says Tommy Yune, the Creative Director for Robotech at Harmony Gold USA. The comparison to the HBO hit is warranted. For the elementary school kids of the 1980s, death in Robotech hit like the Red Wedding, swiftly and unexpectedly.

The Unusual Story Behind the '80s Hit Cartoon Robotech
Courtesy of Harmony Gold

Robotech was a lot of things. It was a soap opera that appealed to kids. It was a space odyssey set in a future that was almost the present. It was three separate Japanese cartoon series combined for an audience that didn't recognize the term anime. It's a show whose influence is still felt 28 years after it first aired in the U.S.

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Carl Macek in 1985, seen with Leonard Araujo as they work on Robotech.
Carl Macek in 1985, seen with Leonard Araujo as they work on Robotech.
Courtesy of Harmony Gold

Today, Harmony Gold is releasing Robotech: The Complete Set. It's a massive collection. Twenty discs feature 85 episodes, plus sequels The Sentinels, Shadow Chronicles and Love Live Alive. The latter appears both as an English-language dub and it's original Japanese. There are also hours of behind-the-scenes footage, including a short documentary that dates back to the 1980s. The new box set isn't just about the show, but the story behind Robotech.

Harmony Gold's Sunset Boulevard headquarters appear ordinary from the outside. These days, the nondescript office building is best known for a large theater on its ground floor. It's home to a lot of private screenings, as well as the occasional film festival. Head upstairs, though, and the legacy of Robotech spills out into the hallways. There are posters and a plaster statue of a very large robot. There are offices filled with collectible toys, rare box sets and other ephemera. Then there are the vaults -- multiple, closely guarded rooms filled with the footage that made this phenomenon possible.

There are tapes of the show in a variety of formats that are ready for broadcast. Master recordings of the music used in the show. Tucked into a corner one of the archival rooms are the origins of Robotech, a collection of 16 mm reels that came from Japan.

The Unusual Story Behind the '80s Hit Cartoon Robotech
Courtesy of Harmony Gold

Robotech is a television mash-up, one animated story for the U.S. that was comprised of three series that aired in Japan. Those shows were Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Calvary Southern Cross and Genesis Climber MOSPEADA. Those cumbersome titles are usually abbreviated to Macross, Southern Cross and MOSPEADA. Harmony Gold had picked up the sci-fi series from animation studio Tatsunoko. The Japanese studio already had some success in the U.S. in addition to acclaim in their home country. This was the team behind Speed Racer and Battle of the Planets/Gatchaman. Despite their track record, the new shows would be a hard sell in the U.S.

Inside Harmony Gold's offices, Yune and Kevin McKeever, the vice president of marketing for Robotech, explain what made this project so difficult. In order to get a show into U.S. syndication in the 1980s, they would need about at least 65 episodes. That breaks down to one installment to air every weekday for 13 weeks. The longest of these series, Macross, clocked in at 36 episodes.

That's where a savvy, forward-minded guy named Carl Macek comes into the picture. Macek, who died in 2010, was an early champion of Japanese animation in the U.S. At the time, he was selling anime collectibles and other memorabilia in Orange County and was already familiar with Macross. Harmony Gold brought him into the project and he dubbed three Macross episodes into English. Those were sold by mail order and did well, prompting the company to work towards their TV goals. Macek had an idea to get the series ready for syndication. Since the three shows in Harmony Gold's possession were strikingly similar, they could adapt them as a single story.Macross, Southern Cross and MOSPEADA would be known in the U.S. as Robotech, an 85-episode drama that follows the trials of multiple generations of space warriors.

Tommy Yune with Carl Macek in 2010
Tommy Yune with Carl Macek in 2010
Courtesy of Harmony Gold

Robotech wasn't the first series to employ this technique. While Harmony Gold was piecing together their show, a company called World Events Productions was doing the same thing with the anime series Beast King GoLion and Armored Fleet Dairugger XV. World Events' finished product, which we know as Voltron, hit TV screens a few months before Robotech did.

Robotech premiered in March of 1985 in Los Angeles and New York. Here in L.A., it landed on KCOP-13, where it made a splash in its 4:30 p.m. spot. McKeever points out that it came in third place for its time slot. Only KABC and KCBS's news programming out-performed it. He also notes that, while the show was certainly popular with children and teenagers, it made an impact with another, less obvious, demographic. Women ages 18-49 had latched onto Robotech. The impact of that is still present today, when the Robotech team encounters children at conventions who are third generation fans. McKeever credits this surge in popularity to Robotech's original time slot. In locations where the show aired in the afternoon, they weren't just hitting the after school crowd, but the soap opera crowd. The serialized nature of Robotech could appeal to people who were already watching General Hospital or Days of Our Lives given the similar style of storytelling.

That Robotech was a serial made it unusual amongst cartoon programs. "It wasn't like an episode of Scooby-Doo, where you would find the villain, end of that story, and you would have a new adventure the next day," says Yune. "In Robotech, every story built on what happened in the last episode. It's long, linear storytelling." Serialized shows can present issues in syndication, where air times can change unexpectedly. Still, the show found an audience, one that brought together children and adults. That was all despite the fact that Robotech had what McKeever calls "ratings instability." In other words, it didn't stay in the same time slot, or even on the same station. At some point -- McKeever wasn't sure exactly when -- the show moved from KCOP-13 to KTTV-11 in Los Angeles.

Inside Harmony Gold today.
Inside Harmony Gold today.
Liz Ohanesian

Robotech was a new idea for U.S. television as well as a work-in-progress. Because it was an amalgamation of three different series, each with a unique score, Robotech required all new music. That new score wasn't complete until 26 episodes into the series. The musical accompaniment for the first handful of episodes was essentially a rough draft. It wasn't until the series went into its third round of reruns that the music cues from that first handful of episodes were fixed. For a while, the sound of Robotech's original run had disappeared. "Nobody bothered to save the master tapes of the original mix because it was always perceived that this was an incomplete version of the show," says Yune. Years later, the Robotech team was able to retrieve those old cues thanks to a fan who had recorded the series onto VHS cassettes years earlier.

The show's novel approach garnered a lot of fans, some of whom have remained loyal throughout the years. In its original run, Robotech overcame a lot of the technical obstacles that were in its way. But, the show's inventive style of storytelling lead to one big problem. "It created a whole new universe storyline for which the Japanese would never make a sequel," says Yune. "They might make a spin-off of the individual series, but this merged storyline, which is something that was just in Carl's head."

There were attempts at sequels following Robotech's initially success. The Sentinels was eventually released directly to home video. Eventually, Macek, who had helmed Robotech, left Harmony Gold and co-founded Streamline Pictures, which brought Akira, amongst other famed anime flicks, to the U.S. Robotech went dark for around 20 years. They began producing new Robotech works after the dawn of 21st century. Macek did rejoin the fold as well. He worked as a creative consultant on The Shadow Chronicles, which came out in 2006. Sadly, he died during the production of Love Live Alive.

Robotech toys at the Harmony Gold office.
Robotech toys at the Harmony Gold office.
Liz Ohanesian

Meanwhile, Macross, the source material for the first chapter of Robotech, became a significant anime franchise. That first series launched a number of sequels, which are not part of the Robotech universe. It's a franchise that has a pretty healthy following in the U.S. While there can be overlap between Macross and Robotech fans, the Macross community is distinct. (There's even a Macross convention in Los Angeles.) On the other hand, Southern Cross and MOSPEADA are relatively obscure in comparison.

As anime grew increasingly popular in the United States, genre fans frequently debated the significance of Robotech. While the show has its own camp of fans, there are plenty of anime aficionados who scoff at it because of it's lack of adherence to the original works.

"It reflects what happened in the '90s," says Yune of the divisiveness over Robotech. "There was this huge, fiery sub versus dub debate. Robotech was a dub. It was re-read by American actors. It was reinterpreted. The scripts were adapted."

In time, he says, a lot of that debate has subsided. "I think it's come to a comfortable equilibrium," says Yune, with segments of the fan community who appreciate dubbed works as well as those who prefer the closer-to-the-original translations afforded by subtitles.

Robotech took liberties with the source material. Adapting scripts for dubs is tricky. You have to come up with something that makes sense to the U.S. audience, linguistically and culturally, while matching the movements of the mouths on screen. On top of that, as the story editor, Macek had to find common ground among three different shows.

What came out of that challenge is a cartoon series that served its audience well, not just in the U.S., but in the number of other countries where it aired. Robotech became an entity of its own. Fan debates aside, it helped introduce a generation of people to a different type of cartoon. Certainly, it helped popularize anime. It also showed that animated programming didn't have to be packed with jokes or comprised of episodic adventures. You could use animation to tell multiple, dramatic stories over the course of several arcs and the kids watching cartoons after class would still pay attention.

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