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Simpsons director Silverman speaks with UCLA

By David Landau

Published Aug 3, 2007 3:04 PM

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.

David Silverman, '79, MFA '83

DL: I had been told that the animation for the Simpsons and Futurama is done in Korea. Is that true?

DS: For the record, the majority of the animation is done state-side: We do all the key animation poses, the same way that Disney Film would say that the animator does all the key poses and indicates how the in-betweens are done. The Korean animators, who are very talented, do the cleanup, coloring and in-betweening. Also, let's say a character is wearing an elaborate costume: We would just rough it in and leave the rest to the in-between artists, since what we're trying to get is the acting. The nuance, the movement, goes to the Korean animators. So all the inventive animation work is done here, because we need to see it and show it to the writer-producers so they say, "OK, that's great, that's telling the joke right."

This is a system of outsourcing that we inherited from the late 60's, when Hanna-Barbara started shipping stuff to Japan. But when Japan became too expensive, they started shipping to Korea and Taipei and the Philippines. We [U.S. animators] were some of the first victims of outsourcing, and we screamed and bitched and tried to get the other Hollywood unions to support us, but they just said, "Yeah, yeah, that's too bad, animation blah blah blah." Now they're being outsourced too, and we say, '"a-ha, told you so!"

DL: What is it about UCLA's animation department that produces so many great animators?

DS: I think in many ways the freedom that Dan McLaughlin instilled on us back when I was there was key. We were grounded in certain fundamentals about animation and animated filmmaking, but then we were granted a great deal of latitude to produce things and direct animation. There are several talents from UCLA's Animation Workshop who work on "The Simpsons," like Mike Anderson, Nancy Kruse and Chuck Sheetz, and they've all directed the show. I think that's what it is: a base of fundamentals and then artistic freedom to make your own decisions and your own failures and successes. It's a cliche, but you learn a great deal by what you fail at, as well as what you succeed at.

Also, what I got from UCLA was that the [five-minute] film I made there, '"The Strange Case of Mr. Donnie Brooks' Boredom," was my calling card, my portfolio.

DL: Is it going to be a special feature on "The Simpsons" DVD?

DS: It's not going to fit on this DVD. Maybe we'll put it on the next big-package DVD.

DL: Is there a longer director's cut coming?

DS: No, no, I'm quite happy with this cut. There were some scenes that we didn't really want to cut, but the reason we cut certain scenes was that we found with test screenings that they threw the rhythm [of the film] off. It's easy to throw the rhythm off in a comedy; you've probably seen some recent comedies like "Anchorman," where you'll watch deleted scenes and ask, "That was really funny, why'd they cut it out?" But it was probably because it made the film too draggy. In isolation the scene is funny, but in context of the film, it slows things down or makes the rhythm seem lacking somehow. It's hard to quantify. You just have to see it, feel it, and say, "Well, we've got to cut it."

DL: The animation did change a lot from its original form on the "The Tracy Ullman Show."

DS: To be sure, and I think you can see that in most animation. If you look at the early Disney Mickey Mouse and if you look at Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny — they've all changed a lot. You learn by repetition, especially when, as we were, making it up as you go along. And we were doing this in terms of the animation and storytelling. You know what's interesting [to do] ? I did this, and it was really quite fascinating: Look at the pilot episode of a live-action sitcom. It feels different. The rhythm is different. The characters' speaking rhythm is a little stilted, not quite fleshed-out. Just like animation, characters evolve over the repetition of doing show after show after show.

DL: Just like science-fiction writers in literature, animators are under-appreciated.

DS: I'm afraid we are. We've always been the bastard stepchild of the industry, and we still seem to be, regardless of that fact that our films, generally speaking, can make tons of dough, and/or if they don't make enough money at the box office, and are considered flops, their shelf-life is always long. I know that "Surf's Up" didn't do well, but I bet the DVD sales will continue to make money year after year, eventually making a profit.

DL: I think anything marketed at kids makes all kinds of money.

DS: Right, and is continual, as there's not a lot to show kids, and unfortunately, the way it's usually set up, both parents have to work or there's a lot of single parenting, and so TV becomes something of a babysitter. Cartoons are certainly not only a harmless way of entertaining children, they can get some real enjoyment and maybe some artistic stimulation from it, at least I'd like to think so.

DL: Yeah, my brother and I were raised somewhat by "The Simpsons."

DS: Right, I wouldn't doubt it. You guys are OK, right? You're not ax-murderers yet?

DL: Not yet.

DS: Good, good. It usually starts in your thirties.