David Silverman

Interview by John Murphy

© Tyro, Summer '96

"D'oh!", "Eat my shorts!", "Don't have a cow, man!" and others have all entered mainstream America's vocabulary as familiar phrases from the ever popular TV show, The Simpsons. Last fall David Silverman, Supervising Animation Director for the Simpsons, was in Boston for a signing event at American Animated Classics on Newbury street. Tyro was at the event and interviewed David about his work on The Simpsons.

David Silverman was born in New York, grew up in Maryland, attended UCLA, and got involved with "The Simpsons" when it was a series of shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show.

He and Wes Archer were the two animators who worked with Matt Groening back then, starting in late March, 1987. They were both very instrumental in the creation of the characters, as well as giving them their final look, as per Matt's approval and specification. Also involved back then was Gyrogi Puluce, who, as color stylist, gave The Simpsons their distinctive yellow skin. ("Matt saw it and loved it", says David, referring to the color. "I can't say for sure why she chose yellow, but my best guess is because Bart, Lisa, and Maggie have no hairline. With yellow, you buy it as hair AND skin color. If they were flesh colored, the hair would be...eew, freak show!")

Tyro: How long does it take to create the show?

David: Each half hour show takes about six months to put animate. Now this doesn't include how long it takes to do a script, or the post production! There are two writer retreats six months apart. The last one just happened in December. At these summits writers pitch out story ideas. Sometimes it could be a one line idea, sometimes an entire outline. There are usually 12-16 ideas pitched out. [This past fall aired Dec. '94 ideas.] In January the scripts are written - not all of them, of course! That is on going through out the season. A writer will sit down and work over it, taking about three weeks to write one script. Then other writers will then review [the story] and the writer will take notes and write a revision, another couple of weeks.

Now we have the table draft. On Thursdays, the voice actors will come to what's called a table reading. After the reading the writers will rewrite some jokes that need to be stronger and kill jokes that didn't work; every once in awhile they'll have to rework the script again. (An example of a this is in "Selma's Choice", where Selma gets artificial insemination. In the third act Marge was suppose to take the kids to Duff Gardens, leaving Selma at home to take care of a sick Homer and the baby, only to find out that she can't hack it. George Meyer said that that was splitting the ideas too much. The act was then rewritten so that Selma takes the kids to Duff Gardens, which opened the script up to more jokes.) Then the following Monday the actors will read through the script again, and then spend the day recording the dialogue. While they are recording throughout the day, addition rewriting of lines is done, as well as cutting of lines that seem unnecessary.

Also on Monday, artists will begin working on the storyboard. It will take up to five weeks to produce a storyboard. In the old days a director would do the whole storyboard, but with scheduling and time constraints, that's not possible anymore. Different artists do different acts. Then five weeks are spent doing the layouts containing the key acting drawings, and all the background drawings. This is done by a team of 7 character layout artists. We then shoot an animatic, our term for a pencil test. This is our blueprint of the episode, you how the action and how the scene cuts work with the dialogue track, and how the jokes are playing.

We then go through that with the writers, and go over fixes and changes. New jokes will be written; some discarded. Scenes will be edited out, since we don't have time to show all of them. Five weeks are spent on the sheet timing for the animations overseas. Then there are ten weeks of production animation, four to six weeks of post production (i.e. music, sound effects, and fixing mistakes made overseas and on our end). Additional scenes may be later added, so the whole process takes eight to ten months. Sometimes, when a writer comes up with an idea, they may not see it on the TV screen for a year or two.

T: How involved is Matt Groening in the creation of the show?

D: Groening acts as a consultant for the show at this point. He doesn't write or draw much for the show anymore. He was more involved in the beginning of ["The Simpsons"] but as time went on he couldn't do as much due to other commitments. He is involved with story sessions, storyboard and design notes at the animatic and color screenings. Matt developed the show with Sam Simon and James L. Brooks. However, it was Matt who created the concept and the "universe" in the first place.

T: Who does the writing for the Simpsons?

D: There's a team of ten writers in house, and the head writers now are Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein. They are also the Executive Producers, also known as the Showrunners.

The writers change occasionally, which is pretty much the nature of most comedy shows. I think what happens is that people burn out. People can burn out even if it's a great show. They're looking for submissions for possible replacements in the future. Some people got on staff because they knew somebody. If you don't know somebody you have to be very good. There's no lack of story ideas. There's a list of ideas that have yet to be realized, so there's never a lack of material. Eventually they get done. We have a very high writing budget for the show. No animated show has as high a budget for writers. This is because we do a lot of rewrites and we hire the best writers.

T: Do you write any of the episodes?

D: I don't get involved with the writing process too often. I wrote the M.C.Escher couch gag and about a dozen others; that's the extent of my writing. I mean, directing is enough of a job!

T: How many people are involved in the show?

D: I never counted how many people involved. There's about 50 people at Gracie Films. We have about 70 artists at Film Roman, Inc. (the animation studio). A lot more overseas in Korea. All TV animation has some aspect of production overseas in Asia. It's mostly because we don't have a crop of people who want to be assistant animators; they want to be animators! The painting of cels is also cheaper there, though I imagine as computer ink-and-paint goes down in price, more production will be done in this country.

T: What are the best and worst parts of the job?

D: The best part is working with the artists and actors. The worst part is going to meetings that deal with flows in production, price situations, and meetings that don't deal with anything creative. But it's not really that bad. What I enjoy doing most is drawing.

T: What's a typical day?

D: Start off with going over storyboards with storyboard artists, meeting with layout artists, watching retakes of shows, and going to production meetings.

T: Do you receive fan mail?

D: I do get occasional fan mail; it's nice to know that people do read the credits. I'm sure the show receives many letters.

T: How did you get started in animation?

D: I got started doing Saturday morning cartoons. I worked on Turbo Team and The Adventures of Mr. T. for Laser Media. Then I worked on One Crazy Summer, a Savage Steve Holland film with ten minutes of animation in it. Most of the animation I did on it hit the cutting room floor, but the experience led to The Simpsons. You see, one of the other animators was Wes Archer. He had previously worked out of a tiny studio called Klasky Csupo (which is now a BIG studio, with such shows as Rugrats and Duckman). Well, Klasky Csupo won the bid to do the animation on The Tracey Ullman Show, and Wes and I were hired to do the animation. Then when the half hour series started, we were made directors, and later I because Supervising Director and a producer.

T: When did you get interested in animation?

D: I became interested in animation when I was six. Like many kids, I watched a lot of cartoons, though I felt Bugs Bunny and the Bullwinkle show were the only shows worth watching, along with some of the early Hanna-Barbera stuff, like Quick Draw McDraw. I never really laugh at Fred Flintstone, though I liked the show. It wasn't very funny. I always thought the animation could have been better. I loved the Beanie and Cecil Show; now that was funny.

In the 60's a lot of young, aspiring artists were inspired by comic strip newspaper cartoonists. I think they have a less of an impact these days. I was inspired by Walt Kelly's "Pogo", Charles Schulz's "Peanuts", (he inspired so many people), and Mel Lazarus' "Miss Peach". I knew I always wanted to be a cartoonist or animator.

There's an interesting gap of people in the animation industry. Most professionals are 40 years old or younger, or 60 years old and older. There's a 20 year gap. The industry stopped hiring animators around 1965-1980. There wasn't a lot of work going on and only a handful of people in their '50s were able to sneak in here and there. There were very few professionals in that age bracket.

T: Do you have any advice for people wanting to break into the field?

Study life drawing, computer applications, and take some acting. You have to understand comedy. It's hard to learn and it's a very hard thing to teach. You either have it or you don't. One must be able to create funny drawings that have expressions and feeling which show what the 2-D character is feeling.

T: What do you think makes something funny?

D: Humor is done best when it's subtle. That's when its funnier. I don't think puns are funny, though there is an audience that they do appeal to. I like parodies, making fun of something that already exists. I like character humor. For me, satire is simple; it's making fun of existing material. It's much harder to come up with original material. One of my favorites, for instance, was in the episode "Lisa on Ice". Bart and Lisa are on opposing hockey teams and Bart tells Lisa that when he's on the ice de's going to swing his arms. "When I'm walking out the door, I'm going to swing like this." And Lisa adds, "While I'm standing here, I'm going to go like this," and starts kicking in the air. Later Homer warns the pie to lookout because he's going to be opening and closing his mouth "like this."

T: What's your favorite Simpsons episode?

D: I don't really have one. "Three Men and the Comic Book," where we meet RadioActive Man was a great episode. It was well written and well executed. Also "Blood Feud," showing the first time Homer went crazy. This was the first time Homer's Brain became a character: "Don't tell 'em your name. Give them a fake name." So Homer said, "Homer Simpson." "D'OH!" It's also the first time he was mocking Mr. Burns: "Hello, my name is Mr. Burns." "What is your first name?" "I don't know."

T: Do you have a favorite character?

D: Krusty the Clown, because he's so much fun to animate. He's has a lot of highs and lows and he's very expressive.

T: Is there any end in sight for the Simpsons? How many seasons does Fox buy?

D: Fox did a very unusual thing with the Simpsons. They bought three seasons in a row. That's unprecedented. Even for the best shows they usually renegotiate. We are in the second of three seasons now so we are all set for next season, though my guess is that they are going to want shows after that. Unless you guys stop watching it.

Transcribed by Bruce Gomes

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