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Simpsons director Silverman speaks with UCLA

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By David Landau

Published Aug 3, 2007 3:04 PM


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With The Simpsons Movie topping the box office, director David Silverman, '79, MFA '83, takes time out to talk with UCLA Magazine writer David Landau about being picked to direct the movie, the nuts-and-bolts of animation, and under-appreciation. Silverman studied animation at UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television.

David Landau: The Simpsons TV show has been on the air for going on 19 seasons. It's been translated into at least 16 languages and plays in countries worldwide. What's the best thing about being involved in a cultural touchstone — and the worst?

David Silverman: The best thing is that it kind of fulfills a childhood notion of, "Wouldn't it be great to do something in animation that made a difference?" I seem to have achieved that goal. The downside is … nothing, really, that I can think of. To even ponder a downside would seem churlish, or insensitive, like, "What have you got to complain about?" So I apologize to all those cynics out there waiting for me to say something so profound about fame, of which I have none. The show is quite famous, and my being associated with the show, maybe connects a modicum of fame, but nothing that becomes a nuisance.

DL: What changed when taking the small-screen show to the big-screen?

DS: The two biggest changes would be that the backgrounds have more richness of detail, because you have to fill up a big screen, which would probably not have looked as good with the typical flat color areas. We also added a lot of shadow vignettes on a lot of the backgrounds to help focus the eye, fill up the spaces around the characters on the edges. We added a tone shadow and a drop shadow on the characters in every scene, which we normally reserve for nighttime, dramatic or emotional scenes.

The second big change is that I wanted to do it in the widest aspect ratio available, which is 2:35, called Cinemascope or Panavision. The normal widescreen is 1:85. I enhance [the wider screen effect] by opening the [movie with the] short, 'Itchy & Scratchy,' with an even smaller aspect ratio, 1:77, which is European widescreen and also the ratio of most TV sets now.

DL: Why were you picked to direct the movie, as opposed to other past directors of "The Simpsons?" TV show?

DS: I think they've always liked me. They wanted me to be supervising director after the first season, and they've always liked the way I've done the show. I guess I was always their guy. Also, in many ways I sort of saved the show, because at the very beginning, in the first season, there was another director who handled the first episode, which was "The Babysitter Bandit," but he didn't approach it well (to put it kindly) and this caused two things: they were going to delay the premiere, which was going to be in September or October of '89, and everything was hinging on my show coming back; if my show came back, and I didn't do a very good job, they were gonna pull the plug on the whole enterprise and cut their losses right then and there. My show came back, and it was very funny. It was called "Bart the Genius" — it was where Bart goes to genius school, and they loved it. They loved what I did; they loved the fact that I not only told the jokes well visually, but that I enhanced it, and they were pleased that I didn’t ruin things. I continued to do episodes that they liked, like the "Jacques the Bowler" one, which won an Emmy.

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