As far as animated TV series go, you’d be hard pressed to find a show more recognized, more historically controversial, more impactful and more successful than The Simpsons. 24 seasons and more than 500 episodes after its December, 1989 Fox debut, the series reigns supreme as the longest-running prime-time sitcom in U.S. television history. The show’s warped but insightful parody of the “average American family” continues to capture the hearts and minds of a new generation, appealing to the “chronic underachiever” in all of us.
UCLA graduate David Silverman has been involved since the very beginning, animating on the first Simpsons shorts introduced back in 1987 to TV audiences during a three-year run on The Tracy Ullman Show. Since then, he has produced and directed numerous episodes as well as The Simpsons Movie, released in 2007, which went on to gross over $517 million worldwide. I recently had a chance to speak with the avid tuba playing director about his Oscar nomination, bringing 3D to 2D animation and his take on what makes a good animated film.
Dan Sarto: First of all, congratulations on the nomination.
David Silverman: Nomination? Oh yes, yes, the nomination. Thank you. The nomination is a tremendous honor and a really great surprise for us. We weren’t bucking for it, we weren’t angling for it.
Dan: Right, but it’s certainly a nice surprise and a great honor nonetheless.
David: Oh yeah. It’s a terrific, terrific honor.
Dan: Tell me a little bit about the genesis of the film. How did the idea come about? What made you decide to make a short?
David: The thing that kicked it of was we were experimenting… when I say we I really should give credit to Richard Sakai…he, along with some of the other production people here was experimenting with 3D. What would it look like to do Simpson in 3D? No specific reason. It’s not like they said, “Oh, are we thinking about doing 3D for the next film?” [There was] no specific reason, just sort of experimenting with the idea. We tried it and we liked it and it was kind of cool.
[For the short] I give credit to Jim Brooks. He had this idea we should do a short. He didn’t say anything about doing it in 3D per se but that was sort of the idea…that we would be doing it in 3D. And it just kind of came out of that. We had this meeting, I think it was March 2011. We got together with Jim, myself…Matt [Groening] I think might have been there on the phone…I think he was there… and Joel Cohen, Dave Mirkin and Mike Price. We just started kicking around ideas back and forth. I think the first thing that came to mind was we should do it silent. Doing it silent, obviously, you would select Maggie. It’s the perfect choice for the character. It just grew out of that. I think within that first meeting, we had the daycare center and many of the other ideas sort of in mind. There were things that were much different in the first story reel, but the big strokes of the ideas were figured out at the first meeting.
Dan: That fast?
David: Yeah. It was pretty nice that we got so much accomplished. [At the meeting] They were all kind of looking at me, like, “Are you ready? What? So, you’re going to put all this together right? Uh…Oh…yeah.”
Dan: And you volunteered by everyone else stepping backwards?
David: Well not so much that. I knew they wanted me to direct it, which was awesome. But [at the meeting], it was like “You got all that?” What? Okay, yeah.” Al Jean was also there of course. Al Jean wrote a treatment. It was scripted but it wasn’t heavily scripted. The jokes were written. The first thing I remember Michael Price saying at the first meeting…we decided we’d go back to the Ayn Rand School, which was done for the A Streetcar Named Marge episode…we’d go back to that location. We were pitching I don’t know what, but at one point Michael Price said, “Raggedy Ayn Rand dolls” and I just laughed. I said, “I can’t wait to draw that!” So it was that kind of collaboration.
Dan: Right. Outside of starting as a rough 3D study, was there any consideration regarding where this short would show, what you guys would do with it? Normally, larger studios do shorts for very specific reasons, like testing technology or testing a director, or there is a lull in production. This doesn’t quite fit into any of those scenarios.
David: Not really. I think we knew that once we decided to produce something there were certain places where we could show it. You can always show it with whatever 3D film might be coming out. We knew that. In some ways I guess we were testing out 3D technology in a sense. But no, it wasn’t like a real grand experiment where we have this new technology to test out. It was more, more like having fun. It’s hard to describe. Part of it too is that when deciding we’re going to do this, we aren’t going to stop and think about why we’re doing this.
Dan: Fair enough.
David: Yeah, but in some ways, we were sort of experimenting with 3D. That’s absolutely the case. They had been experimenting with it as I say, but there is only so much you could test with something that hadn’t been designed to be 3D. And we said, okay we’re really designing this short to be 3D, so let’s see what we can do.
Dan: How long did it take to produce?
David: Well, we came up with the idea and then it sat on the shelf for a little while. It really kicked in at the end of February last year. I had done a version of it [a script]. It had a lot of things that everybody liked and a lot of things everybody felt we still had to adjust and work on. We had another meeting which had a lot of breakthrough ideas of how really to structure this film. After that we were really off to the races. The production period was between March and May. I didn’t have a giant crew but a very experienced crew of artists. The main thing is, I got a crew of “3Dologists,” I guess you could call them, stereographers headed by Eric Kurland, who has done quite a bit of 3D. His mentor was the late great Ray "3D" Zone. He said this was really perfect, in some ways, because his work with Ray was like what we were doing…shifting flat layers to create 3D because this is drawn animation as opposed to dimensional 3D animation.
I’m being a little cagey about our production time because the film was produced rather fast and I don’t want people to think that, “Oh, we just sort of knocked it out.” We didn’t. We just had a very short production time between the time they said go and the time we had to make our deadline, which ended up being for Ice Age 4. We were on a deadline.
Dan: How much did your production pipeline change to accommodate the 3D?
David: We didn’t change our normal animation [pipeline] per se. What we had to do was devise, for the studio in Korea that did the cleanup, ways of dividing up the levels. So somebody was basically in-charge…in every scene, he or she would go through and say, “OK, here are the levels. We’re going to need Maggie’s arm separated from her body and her head. Her eyes and nose we kept as one unit. Eric said that’s [that separation] not necessary. We can manipulate that in After Effects if we want to separate that further.
So, sometimes we did the hand and the forearm or the upper arm and the body, depending on the character. The separation for cleanup was pretty intense. Every scene was like a giant phone book of drawings. A normal scene with one character running across the screen was suddenly, for 35 frames, multiply that by maybe 10 levels or so…
Dan: A lot more work.
David: Yeah, a lot more work. We had worked out a system that…we were really chasing the deadline at this point…we would try to get out 10 scenes of animation to [to our production partner Akom in] Korea and they would try to clean it up and get it back to us in two weeks. It worked out well actually. Of course it helps that we can send [work] digitally now.
Dan: Sure, sure.
David: We sent them the digital drawings and they sent us the digital clean ups. We composited everything here. On the show, generally speaking, it’s composited at Akom or Rough Draft. But we composited [the short] here for a number of reasons. We had a lot of background shadowing. We did all the background paintings here because we did all the 3D dimensionality here.
Dan: Now having gone through this on a 4 minute short, is this something you’d like to do more of on a larger scale?
David: Yeah, I mean, given the opportunity. It worked out very well. I was amazed how quickly Eric and his team would do a turn around on making a 3D image. I mean literally, within the same day, sometimes in a few hours. It was really remarkable. I could see him working on a grand scale. Of course, you would need a larger crew.
David: “I think you’re gonna need a bigger boat!”
Dan: Much bigger. Looking back, what were the biggest challenges on this production?
David: I would say the biggest concern was the 3D aspect. That was probably the biggest challenge on the production because that was the unknown. The other challenge was the whole pantomime performance. We've done pantomime before on The Simpsons but this was a very long four minutes of pantomime and we had to be very clear on the performance. I was very specific. Every bit of the acting, every nuance, every movement, every person that passed by had to have a meaning. That was a very conscious thing throughout [the production].
Dan: Do you normally have to be that deliberate on an episode?
David: No. I’m working on an episode right now. Well, actually, we’re pretty deliberate on all the episodes for that matter. I think training on the episodes carried through on the short. I go through scenes very carefully to make sure that we have the right nuance with the animation and with the acting.
Dan: So it’s really no different.
David: Yeah, in a certain way it’s not really any different. It’s not like a colossal difference doing the show. I do think we took a bit more care in doing the short because it’s going to be on the big screen. We want to make sure that everything looks right, that the line weights are correct and so on. There is a lot of concern about that, how it will look on the big screen.
David: We can have a problem with the pupil size relationships and things like that. So we are very conscious about all those things that you would really notice on a larger screen.
Dan: Let’s switch gears for a minute. Every year, there is an interesting mix of animated shorts nominated for an Oscar. There is also usually a mix with regards to big studio versus crazed independent working in his basement for a decade. Especially outside the United States, you could argue that there is a richer tradition of auteur-based animated shorts. I often hear criticism that big studio films have an unfair advantage over smaller, independent produced films. Bigger budgets, more promotional resources and so on. What would you say to that criticism?
David: Well, the track record is that big studio films don’t always win. That’s number one. Number two, where do you think this [the Oscar for animated short] all started? Big studios. It was Mickey Mouse cartoons versus MGM cartoons versus Warner Bros. cartoons versus UPA cartoons. The first winner that wasn’t a Hollywood cartoon was Ersatz wasn’t it?
Dan: Oh, goodness, now you’re testing me.
[Editor’s Note – From 1932 to 1958, every Oscar for animated short was won by one of the main U.S. animation studios. The 1959 Oscar went to John and Faith Hubley for Moonbird. In 1960, Gene Deitch won for Munro. The first foreign Oscar winner in this category was Ersatz, from Zagreb Film, directed by Dušan Vukotić, which won for 1961.]
David: I guess what I have to say is it started out that way. This is a newer development, with independent foreign films entering into what was once dominated by Walt Disney and Warner Brothers and MGM.
David: Tom and Jerry won Oscars, Bugs Bunny won an Oscar. So I don’t see the problem. You know, to me it’s like, “Why not?”
Dan: I agree. A couple of last questions. First, you’d be hard pressed to find a group of characters and a show that has had as big an impact on contemporary culture as The Simpsons. You’ve been so intimately involved with the show for so many years. To what do you attribute the unbelievably long lasting run, the enjoyment audiences have gotten from The Simpsons all these years and still get today?
David: I would say it’s a mixture of a number of things. Obviously, hilarious writing. But it also goes beyond that. With characters that are so well-defined, people like the fact the characters have such an idiotic view of the universe that they are seriously defending all the time. I look at it sort of intellectually…that’s how we all are. We all have an idiotic view of the universe. But I think people really see themselves like, “Well, I’m not crazy like that, but I do have my beliefs and I do stick to them with great ferocity.” They appreciate that, they like that, they like to see Homer doing that.
There are a lot of different theories, but I think that’s one of them. The other one is that there is an endearing quality to the characters. They really have an endearing quality that’s a combination of the way they’re drawn and the way their voiced. It’s all that alchemy. And we are fortunate that we have a voice, a venue if you will, through which we can keep producing new material. In some way, even the Warner Bros. characters could have kept going if they had had the pulpit, if they had had the venue. But they didn’t. The studio stopped making shorts because the theatres stopped showing them. If it weren’t for that they probably could have kept going for maybe another decade or two.
David: So in some ways we’re like the Warner characters but we still have a place to be seen.
Dan: Last question. At this time of year, between the Annie Awards, the Oscars and many other entertainment industry awards, our industry takes time to recognize its own work. Even though it’s a completely subjective process, things have to be judged, whether by a jury or an entire academy. When you sit down and watch an animated film, what is it that you look for, what is it that you enjoy, what is it that makes you say, “That was a good film?”
David: Oh, that’s a tough one. A lot of things come to mind. Being surprised, I guess, is a big one. I want to have a feeling about the characters. I want to feel. I want a story that not only has great characters but ones that I care about.
Dan: What about a non-narrative film?
David: Well, in a non-narrative film they’re going to do something visual that I hadn’t expected. That would mean some sort of surprising thing. I think good non-narrative films have a sense of story to them. There is a rhythm to them that’s sort of the story. The best non-narrative films are done by people who are still storytellers. They don’t tell [stories] in the traditional sense but they tell in terms of art and rhythm. And they do surprising things. That’s probably why, for example, I like Norman McLaren films. He made a lot of narrative films and a lot of non-narrative films. There was something about them…they had a completeness to them. Begone Dull Care feels like you’ve seen a movie. It’s fast paced but at the end of the day you felt like…there are things in the film that sort of felt like characters.
Dan: I completely agree. That’s a tremendous film and a great example.
David: By the way, it’s one of the most aptly named films. Begone Dull Care. That’s how you feel at the end of that film. Watching it is like, well, all my cares are gone.
Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.