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Last week, I experienced something that my adolescent-self would have never dreamed possible: I went to the offices of The Simpsons, located on the Fox lot in Century City, and spent a chunk of the afternoon picking the brains of two of the people most responsible for the animated TV show’s unprecedented success since the very beginning 26 years ago, executive producer James L. Brooks and animator/supervising director David Silverman.
Back in 2011, Brooks suggested that Silverman — who previously directed The Simpsons Movie (2007), a feature film about the show’s characters — direct a Simpsons short in 3D. A little over a year later, Maggie Simpson in ‘The Longest Daycare,’ a four-and-a-half minute silent dramedy, played before every screening of the 20th Century Fox animated blockbuster Ice Age: Continental Drift. Last month, it was nominated for the best animated short Oscar, one of the few prizes that The Simpsons hasn’t yet won. (It has garnered 27 Emmys, 30 Annies and a Peabody award, among many others.) And, on Feb. 24, Silverman, representing The Simpsons creative team of which he is so proud to be a member, will be headed to the Academy Awards.
I caught up with 55-year-old Silverman, who looks serious and stern but is as pleasant and unassuming a guy as one could ever encounter, in a room filled with Simpsons memorabilia — Emmys, framed news clippings and life-size cutouts of the show’s characters — just next-door to the writers’ room where so many episodes of the beloved show, which is now the longest-running primetime animated sitcom in TV history, were conceived.
Silverman says that his interest in animation dates back as far as he can remember. His father didn’t read him bedtime stories, he laughs, but rather comic books, and at the age of five it dawned on him that “guys do this for a living!” By the age of seven, it was already clear to him and others that he was a talented artist. Throughout his childhood he drew for fun, then began taking art classes in high school, and then headed off to the University of Maryland, where he studied further before transferring into UCLA’s animation workshop.
It was while Silverman was at UCLA that he began work on a five-minute animated film, The Strange Case of Mr. Donnybrook’s Bordeom (1982), on which he would continue to work well into grad school. It ended up winning several awards and became his “calling card,” he says, proving “quite valuable to me getting people interested in me and getting work.” Animation for TV and film was not the only course he pursued. In fact, at the outset of his career, illustration — for the Los Angeles Times music critic and then piano books — was more of his focus. “I was kind of struggling” with that, he remembers, but “at the time there was slim pickings, as far as animation goes.”
He eventually got some work at Ruby-Spears animating Saturday morning cartoons and Laser Media doing laser animation, of which he can only crack, “It was a start.” Then, in 1986, he was working on the animation portions of the feature film One Crazy Summer while simultaneously contemplating taking a year off to work on improving his illustration style. Another animator on the film whom he befriended, Wes Archer, worked for a small animation company called Klasky Csupo, which got the contract to do the animation sequences for The Tracy Ullman Show that Brooks, its producer, had commissioned and Matt Groening, a comic strip animator, would draw as “interstitials” to fill the gaps between skits.
Archer got Silverman and Bill Kopp involved in March 1987. It was a gig they thought might last for a few weeks; instead, it’s still going. At the beginning, Silverman recalls, “We were doing everything.” He and a small group of collaborators had to produce one minute and fifteen seconds worth of material each week, “and it was a lot of work.” (Making The Longest Daycare all these years later “had a familiar feel to it,” he laughs.) The Simpsons went on the air as its own entity in 1989. It was the first animated sitcom in primetime since The Flintstones in the sixties. “There was nothing like it on at all,” Silverman emphasizes, lest we take the show for granted in an era filled with Simpsons-inspired programming like South Park and Family Guy.
Very early in the TV show’s run, Silverman was promoted to supervising director. His directing abilities were obviously respected greatly by Brooks, who also entrusted him with both of The Simpsons‘ forays into film — first the 2D feature in 2007 and then the 3D short in 2012. Of the former, he says, “Everybody kept asking, ‘When are you gonna do a feature?’ as if we were obliged to do a feature. So we said, ‘Well, maybe we should.'” Of the latter, he adds, “It just seemed like a good idea,” since members of the creative team were already experimenting with 3D “just for fun, without anything really in mind” when Brooks raised the idea of making an animated short to air before a 20th Century Fox film (just as Pixar airs shorts before its features).
At the first planning meeting, Silverman recollects, it was determined “that we would do it as a pantomime silent piece,” making silent Maggie the obvious protagonist. After all, toddler — who, as Homer Simpson has noted, has “been a baby for a very long time” — has only spoken one word, “Daddy,” which was famously voiced by the late Elizabeth Taylor. Moreover, Silverman adds, “In that first meeting a lot of the plot came together” including “the twist at the ending.” (He also wants it known, “There’s never been any attempt on The Simpsons to make it for kids.”)
Doing animation in 3D, Silverman explains, requires working with lots of animated “layers” to “give the illusion of depth.” It was a style in which he had never previously worked, but, he says, “Surprisingly, that was not as difficult as I thought it was going to be.” The short proved “a good deal costlier to make” than an average Simpsons TV episode, but consumed “almost the same amount of time,” thanks, in part, to a much smaller crew.
At this point Silverman’s film has been seen and embraced by the critics, the public and the Academy. (It is more common than you might think for existing properties to be nominated in this category — look no further than those featuring Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and Tom & Jerry.) As he puts it, “It’s crazy. It’s unexpected. I never thought that I would be in this situation. So I’m very humbled and grateful for it.”
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