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Nancy Cartwright Chats with David Silverman

In her latest column, Nancy Cartwright catches up with longtime Simpsons' animator and director David Silverman.

Nancy Cartwright.

Nancy Cartwright.

Born on Long Island, New York, and raised in Silver Spring, Maryland, David Silverman started drawing at age 4, and he’s never found a good reason to stop. Winning various student film awards contributed to this inability to stop drawing. And going to the UCLA Animation Workshop definitely didn’t help much in getting off the drawing habit.

Much of Silverman's career has revolved around The Simpsons. After graduating UCLA in 1983, he freelanced illustration and animation until, in 1987, he landed a job animating on The Tracey Ullman Show -- where The Simpsons began. Animating on all 48 shorts led to directing the first shows of the series, the Christmas special in December, 1989, and the premiere episode the following month. He became supervising animation director, and a producer on the show. All told, he has directed 22 episodes and has won four Emmys along the way.

When no one was looking, he snuck away to work at DreamWorks (The Road To El Dorado -- co-director), Pixar (Monsters, Inc. -- co-director), and Blue Sky (Ice Age, Robots -- writing and drawing). But he came back to the show full-time at the end of 2003, and directed The Simpsons Movie, released in 2007. At present writing, he is a lazy slob. Kidding! Presently, Silverman has a number of projects in development, including directing a live-action feature.

Nancy Cartwright: I read that you grew up in New York and had very supportive parents. Tell us what your early years were like and how animation, art, culture, etc. influenced your later decisions about this art form.

David Silverman.

David Silverman.

David Silverman: I was always drawing. From the time that I can recall being around, I was drawing. My parents were more than supportive -- they gave a wall for my brother and [me] to draw on. I was 4 or 5 -- and I couldn't believe it. "You guys can draw on this wall." Amazing choice on their part.

And we were always watching cartoons. The Warner classic cartoons, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Beany and Cecil, Yogi Bear, The Flintstones, etc. -- we watched them all. The comics page was another big influence, especially Walt Kelly's Pogo and Charles Schultz's Peanuts. As I got older, the art and humor of Mad Magazine got into the mix. And my mom working at The National Art Gallery meant a lot of visits to a lot of museums. My mind soaked up a lot of paintings from an early age.

My folks took us to see films of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the Marx Bros. At an early age they took us to see live performances of Gilbert & Sullivan. So -- all I can conclude is this exposure had an impact on my drawing abilities. Specifically, I couldn't say -- perhaps in training the eye, and sharpening the ear for comedy.

NC: How did you get your "lucky break"? And what got you interested in directing for animation?

DS: My first lucky break came in 1980, while a UCLA student. Fellow classmate Charles Solomon (now a noted critic) worked as a stringer for the LA Times. Martin Bernheimer, the chief music critic, asked him if he knew a cartoonist who could lampoon classical musicians. Charles suggested me; I sent some examples, and they were published. This led to various other freelance gigs.

The Simpsons lucky break came through association as well. I was working on the animated sequences of "One Crazy Summer" in 1985-1986. This was due to my friendship with Bill Kopp, who was directing the animation. Wes Archer was also working on the project. So -- Wes had freelanced animation for the Klasky/Csupo studio; Klasky/Csupo won the contract to animate for The Tracey Ullman Show; Gabor Csupo asked Wes to recommend some animators; and Wes recommended Bill and me. We started in March 1987.

And after two years, The Simpsons became its own show, and I became a director. Directing animation was a goal of mine, though I didn't have a clear method of achieving that. I just tried different things, and did my best on every job.

NC: In animation production, the first element is obviously the script. After the voices are recorded, how much are you inspired by the actor's performances in contributing to the final product?

DS: The actor's vocal performance shapes the cartoon character's physical performances, there's no two ways about it. It surprises me when people ask if we record the voices after the animation; well, I suppose they don't know the techniques. But you'd never want to undercut the actor's performance and contribution by constraining it to lip-syncing finished animation.

Additionally, the rhythm of the line readings will help shape the editorial and camera choices. It's similar to how actors rehearsing a scene for film will influence the blocking and camera angles.

NC: You were the first director with The Simpsons creating the look of the show with ink-and-paint style animation. With the constantly changing technical industry, have you found it easier working with digital today? Or do you work harder and equally long because you can get more done in the same amount of time?

DS: Now, now, I was one of the directors setting the look of the show! Wes Archer, Rich Moore and Brad Bird were equally involved. Everyone of us brought something unique to the development.

Every technical advance makes things easier and faster; but we fill up the time making it harder on ourselves. We can make the shows more polished with the digital painting and compositing, and save time with the use of computer storyboarding. These advances also allow us to be more inventive in camera moves -- which start to take up more time! D'oh! We can't help ourselves.

™ & © The Simpsons and TTCFFC all rights reserved. ™ & © Fox Broadcasting. Credit: Fox.

™ & © The Simpsons and TTCFFC all rights reserved. ™ & © Fox Broadcasting. Credit: Fox.

NC: When did The Simpsons really hit its stride and why?

DS: The Simpsons were an immediate hit. I think the whole concept of doing an animated show with top comedy writers was an idea waiting to happen, and it happened with Matt [Groening]'s inspired creation of characters and concept. So the combination was really potent!

My opinion, which is shared by colleague Brad Bird, is the second season was incredible. Each episode introduced a new facet to the Simpsons universe, often a new character that would become a regular. Additionally, the artwork was improving leaps and bounds. The first season was a struggle for Wes and me particularly. We were trying to teach the whole crew how we drew the characters, and trying to get the shows done! Some of the first year artists took to it right away, some took longer. But season two was a marked improvement in design and consistency, and by season three things were starting to click. I suppose we hit our stride by the fourth season, from an artistic standpoint -- but -- from the point of view of the whole show, we did hit our stride as early as season two!

NC: The animation industry has the reputation of being a very tight-knit group, from writers to animators to voices. What does it take to be successful in this part of the business?

DS: Success is always opportunity plus preparedness. That lucky break is only lucky if you have the skill and creativity to capitalize on it. I had my portfolio and the films I made at UCLA to show around to people. That got me the job. Then I worked as hard as I could to do good work. It didn't matter if it was a small or big job. I was always worked for two people -- the client, and myself. All the jobs I got would enlarge my portfolio, and increase my chances at getting more jobs.

NC: So, if I am interested in being a director for animation, what steps would I take?

DS: Well, these days, I don't really know. My path was taking on all sorts of gigs, and exposing myself to as many different people as possible. Doing different aspects of the animation business is useful, as you experience each facet of the process. Hard to say, everyone's path is different, everyone's background is different. I didn't have a plan, other than to stay open to new experiences.

NC: What are my chances of a successful career in animation if I don't live in New York or Los Angeles?

DS: Well, there can be a case argued that as animation filmmaking becomes more doable on your laptop, you can be anywhere and make a film! The work I've seen at international film festivals demonstrates there's great work being done all over the planet.

Big success comes at the big studios, and most are in L.A. Of course, there's PDI DreamWorks in Redwood City, CA, Blue Sky [now in Greenwich, Connecticut], Aardman in London, LAIKA in Portland and Robert Zemeckis' ImageMovers Digital in Novato, CA. So, I can't say. It's everywhere, baby! (lights cigar).

NC: It used to be that voice-overs merely supplemented an artists' desire to act on camera. Nowadays, you can't watch an animated film without seeing the name of a celebrity. Do you believe that any actor could do voice-over work? What constitutes a good performance from a voice-artist?

DS: I am not convinced every actor has the talent to be a great voice-over actor. In the early days, all of them came out of radio. There was a reason for that; these performers were experienced in conveying characters entirely with their voice. Some actors just have more personality in their voice than others.

When I hear a great voice, I can see a great performance.

NC: You were a film student at UCLA and I was a Theater Arts major. Do you remember how we met and what "handshake agreement" we made at the time? How important is networking/relationships in this business?

DS: I remember that very well! We agreed that we'd work together someday, with me directing, and you acting! And that's exactly what happened.

Though -- completely independent of us and out of our hands! I didn't hire or suggest you, nor vice-versa. You came by the studio on 729 Seward, and it was suddenly a UCLA reunion. Well, that's how I remember it anyhow.

But, as I illustrated before with my friendships with Bill Kopp and Wes Archer, yes, these relationships are important in this business. Probably like most businesses!

NC: How does integrity influence the success of a show?

DS: The Simpsons is starting the 21st season. One of the reasons for its success is the integrity of everyone who works on the show. Every writer, animator, actor, director, musician, producer, production person -- everyone is dedicated to making a good show, because they all love the show. And this integrity continues to all the ancillary products.

Well, we must be doing something right.

NC: What is your proudest artistic achievement?

DS: I am proud of everything I've worked on -- even The Adventures of Mr. T! The Simpsons Movie I'm most proud of -- but that may be due to the fact that it's the most recent thing I've done!

Nancy Cartwright is best known as the voice of spiky-headed Bart Simpson on The Simpsons. She has voiced dozens of cartoon characters in a career that has spanned more than 20 years. Currently, she can be heard as the voice of Rufus the Naked Mole Rat on Disney's Kim Possible and Todd Daring in Disney's The Replacements. To learn more about Nancy's career, listen to her audio book My Life as a 10-Year-Old Boy.