The World's Biggest Family Business

by Jenny Cooney Carrillo

© Radio Times (UK), 17-23 June 2000

One man and his yellow pens alone can't create such a phenomenon. Jenny Cooney Carrillo explores the industry behind making The Simpsons

They could be approaching Mozart, the way this 35-piece orchestra warm up their instruments and wait in serious anticipation for a cue from composer Alf Clausen. "We're going to loop this baby - strings at the top, please," Clausen suddenly announces, standing in the centre of their semicircle while musicians begin playing and looking attentively at a big screen in the back of the room flashing the face of Bart Simpson. To Clausen, who composes all the songs and underscores every episode, it's just another day on the scoring stage for The Simpsons. "I wanted to make my career as a jazz composer and all of a sudden I'm writing songs for these four-fingered yellow characters and I'm thinking, doesn't life deal you a strange set of terms?" he muses. "Now I think I've got the best job in show business."

On paper, The Simpsons' track record is unparalleled. The winner of 15 Emmys, it was also recently ranked by Time magazine as the greatest TV show of the 20th Century and The Guinness Book of Records lists it as the longest-running prime-time animated series in history (it is now going into its 12th season in the USA). But what's more impressive is that behind the scenes of animation's most famous family runs a well oiled production machine so vast that it covers at least four different locations in Los Angeles and an animation studio in Korea. Even executive producer Mike Scully confesses, "I've been with the show eight years and there are people who work on the show I still haven't met - that's how spread out we all are." To follow the odyssey from start to finish gives you a new appreciation of the laborious process that consumes the team behind the laughs. "Each episode takes about nine months, so it's like having a baby," says Scully, pausing to let this sink in. "Only it's a cartoon baby."

Conception starts in a trailer on the Twentieth Century Fox lot known as the writers' hut, where around 16 writers and several producers throw ideas around. One writer is finally sent off to write a script and a few weeks later the group, bolstered by creator Matt Groening, other producers and a lot of peripheral staff, cram around a large conference table and listen to the actors read their characters' lines for the first time. "We gauge a lot of our rewriting based on the reaction of the people in the trailer that day," Scully admits.

Two days and copious rewrites later, the actors return to record their lines, usually gathering together in another building on the lot in old radio-style format, reading their lines in front of each other. "When I first started working on the show, it was quite shocking to me to sit there and watch all these different voices coming out of basically six people," says Scully, referring to Dan Castellenata (Homer), Julie Kavner (Marge), Nancy Cartwright (Bart), Yeardley Smith (Lisa), Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer. "If you're watching a scene with Homer talking to Grampa and Krusty the Clown, you're just watching Dan basically talking to himself."

Cartwright, an energetic mother of two (three if you count Bart, as she often does), also drops the line that is beginning to sound like a mantra for every body on the show. "This is the best job in show business, man," she squeaks in pure Bartspeak. Cartwright has been surprised by the fanaticism of fans, but does see some truth in guest star Mel Gibson's proclamation that "You can learn all life's lessons watching The Simpsons."

"Some of the shows do have deeper meaning than others," says Cartwright, who is about to release her own behind-the-scenes book. "We also have a lot of cool references in there, such as Hitchcock's Vertigo, a take-off of Huston's Treasure of the Sierra Madre, our own film noir version of Cape Fear and some great musicals."

One of the perks of Cartwright's job is the chance to work with so many guest stars. "I had a lovely time with Mel Gibson, Kirk Douglas, Mickey Rooney and Luke Perry," she says, "but some actors had no idea what they were doing. It's acting, but it's limited in that you don't have your body or face or prosthesis to change your appearance and reinforce who you are. Instead you just have your pipes and a microphone."

The agelessness of the on-screen stars makes life a lot easier for all concerned. "One of the great things about working on the show is, after all these years, there are still so many stories to tell," says Groening, "and, unlike in a sitcom, you don't have to go in and out of the same doors week after week and your characters don't get old and wrinkly!"

"Animation is all an experiment, and you're constantly making adjustments in what you're doing. We're still trying to get The Simpsons right after all these years. You're trying to be original every week and still be true to the characters, and that's a careful balance you have to maintain."

Groening says he's stopped predicting how long the show will continue ("I've been wrong too many times") and he's still constantly surprised by its eclectic fan base. He recently discovered that the late Stanley Kubrick was a Simpsons buff. "It must have been a very odd experience for him to tune in to the show," he says, "because there were so many Kubrick references, he couldn't miss them!"

Across town at Film Roman animation studios, which takes over the third floor of a nondescript North Hollywood building, supervising animation director Jim Reardon takes us on a tour of their frenetic operation, where more than 100 artists are working on various stages of up to eight different episodes. From storyboard to animatic ("We call this the dress rehearsal," Reardon says of the initial flip-book of crude black-and-white drawings), some specialise in drawing backgrounds, others reconfigure the familiar sets to fit within the angle of where the characters are standing, and one patient soul actually spends her entire working day timing every millisecond of the 25,000 or so frames that make up one episode. In an appropriately bright corner of the operation is the colour room, where two women are deep in discussion over which of the 20 colours on their palette they will assign to an unsavoury-looking loincloth in one episode. "Basically we get to do the icing on the cake," says colour design supervisor Karen Bauer-Riggs.

Eight weeks before the show airs, the drawings are shipped off to Korea and, while Clausen is hard at work composing and recording his underscore, 100-plus Korean animators are cleaning up the drawings and meticulously hand-painting every cell. "It's not a business to be in if you're into instant gratification," says Reardon. "They write a sitcom on Tuesday, record on Friday and air it a week later. Here, they write it on Tuesday, record the voices a few days later, and six months after that you get to see an episode!"

Reardon is understandably peeved that the writing takes all the credit. "I say, 'Picture a bald, fat man lumbering across a living room to try and strangle a small child, and does that sound funny to you?' I like to think we have something to do with the show's success, too," he says. "But the truth is we've all worked on other shows that weren't good and it's just a great feeling to work on a show that people love so much. It's really the best job in show business." At this point, you really get the feeling they're not talking rhetoric.

Transcribed by Richard Copping

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Last updated on June 29, 2000 by Jouni Paakkinen (