David Silverman & Wes Archer

By Holly Macfee

Insiders Reveal the Secret to Simpsons' Success: "They Never Think Evil Thoughts"
© Simpsons Illustrated Magazine, Volume 1, Number 1, Spring 1991. pp. 24-30.

You've now reached the part of Simpsons Illustrated that really sets it apart from any other magazine. Get ready to go Behind the Scenes. We'll take you where no other magazine can or will go. Why? Because we won't let them! We're going to give you the inside scoop on all things 'Simpson' as only we can.
In this first Behind the Scenes, we're ripping the lid off the animation process that brings the Simpsons to life. It takes over six months, 100 people and 16,000 drawings to create a new half-hour in the lives of the Simpsons. Among the show's creators are artists who spend all their time making the characters move or drawing the story's settings or painting the finished pictures.
Designing new characters is one of the most important parts of making the show happen, and that's where directors David Silverman and Wes Archer come in. Whenever a new character appears, these guys snap into action, figuring out what he or she will look like from the back, front, top or bottom. They decide which expressions would be appropriate for a character and which would look out of place. They also oversee the show's pacing and make sure the storyboards are telling the story each week properly, often rolling up their sleeves and drawing layouts, and storyboards themselves. We caught up with David and Wes in the Los Angeles offices of Klasky-Csupo Animation, where The Simpsons is put together.

Simpsons Illustrated: Do you guys walk, talk and breathe The Simpsons?

David Silverman (In a Homer laugh): Heh-heh-heh. Seriously, it's a really tough job, but really fun. We call it "The Art of Bart."

SI: What's your approach to drawing The Simpsons?

DS: Wes and I like to keep the drawing simple and clear. Animation should never be the star of the story. Good animation tells a story. It shouldn't say "Look how great these drawings are!"

Wes Archer: Clear picture composition is really important.

SI: How have the characters changed since the show's early days?

DS: Bart used to be a total egghead. His first line ever was, "Dad, what is a it a series of impulses, or is it something more tangible? As he developed, Bart became more mischievous.

SI: How has he changed visually?

DS: We used to have a war over how many spikes of hair he'd have. First it was 13, then Wes drew seven.

WA: So we compromised on nine or ten. Lisa used to have a billion points on her head and her skirt.

SI: Marge's hair is the real phenomenon.

DS: When we were first drawing Marge, we kept making her hair taller and taller because it was such a riot having it bounce against doorways. Then it got a little out of control and we cut it down to the tame beehive it is today.

SI: I've heard Homer was first modeled after Walter Matthau.

DS: He was, in that scruffy-faced, bulbous kind of way. But really, Homer is like an older version of Bart, visually and character-wise. The funny thing is, he's supposed to be setting an example for Bart, but he always says stuff like (in his Homer voice) "Son, being popular is the most important thing in the world."

WA: Homer used to be thinner but we added a paunch. We simplified his head to more of a Charlie Brown style, but he's always had those croquet hooks for hair.

DS: [Simpson's creator] Matt [Groening]'s style was sort of flat, because his medium was different. We had to give dimensionality and movement to the characters. The characters are pretty geometric--like Homer's Ping-Pong ball eyes.

WA: More like softball eyes.

SI: How do you translate character personalities into design?

DS: Our goal was to develop a style of animation, of motion, that conveyed Matt's sense of the bizarre--the quirkiness of his characters. His style really goes against the norm. The Simpsons are hyper and impulsive, so we made the animation follow that.

SI: How so?

DS: When they move, their arms flail around. Their mouths are all the place. There are at least 12 to 15 drawings for every expression.

SI: Why aren't the Simpsons flesh-toned?

WA: The color stylist decided one day that Bart should be yellow. Matt said, "This is weird. I like," so it stayed. Flesh color wouldn't work because there's be no separation between their head and hair. Plus, the loud colors make their world surreal.

SI: Where do the guest characters, like Marge's sisters, come from?

DS: The sisters are a squashed down version of Marge. So I took Marge's face and sort of crushed it up and gave the sisters the famous Marge hair. Characters mostly come from people we actually know. Matt named Marge and Homer after his own parents.

SI: Any others?

WA: Homer's boss, Burns, went through a lot of design work. He's basically a praying mantis. He's a human bug. The voice also helps a lot with design. We've had some great actors do guest voices: Cloris Leachman, Danny DeVito, James Earl Jones, who was also Darth Vader. Once we hear a character's voice, which we get on tape before we start to create the visuals for an episode, it helps us shape their look.

DS: Oh, we based Herman, the one-armed soldier of fortune, on the guy who actually wrote that script. We also take a lot of our cues from Matt's "Life in Hell" drawings.

SI: There are people who like to watch the show for the changing visuals, like the different "I will not..." on the blackboard every week.

DS: And the ending on the couch. The Homer shuffle. The couch breaking through the floor. My favorite was the one with no couch at all.

WA: There are artists who do nothing but backgrounds. The street scenes. The pictures behind the principal's head in "Bart the Genius."

SI: You use some strange angles in the series.

DS: In every episode there's at least one reference to a classic movie, like The Graduate. We also did the shower scene from Psycho, shot for shot. One episode's based on Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

WA: The baseball episode with the Springfield Isotopes was a spin-off from Pride of The Yankees. We even went from color to black-and-white in one sequence.

DS: It's our way of subversively promoting culture (laughs).

SI: What's something a Simpsons character would never do?

WA: They never think evil thoughts.

DS: They never cross their eyes. They look wall-eyed. What's cool about the characters is that their eyes make them look like a couple of neurons aren't quite firing--like they're partly living in the clouds, in their Simpsons universe.

WA: Homer never hits Bart. He chokes him, but Bart chokes him back (laughs). You have to understand the way people act to draw The Simpsons. It's the comedy of how people really act, the stupid things they actually do. Not the comedy of something falling on someone's head.

SI: So it takes a certain Simpsons mentality to draw the show.

WA: I remember erasing animator's drawings left and right in the beginning. They had Lisa and Bart's tongues wagging out of their mouths. They didn't trust the lines of dialogue, so they made goofy faces and gestures to tell the joke.

SI: Where do you get story ideas?

DS: There's a bulletin board with at least 50 ideas taped up. "Bart goes to a rock concert." "Bart goes to camp."

WA: We get tons of viewer mail with funny ideas. We got a hilarious letter from a girl who wrote, "How about Bart getting caught in an elevator or the sewer, or getting a girlfriend?"

SI: Any tips for future animators?

WA: Draw as much as possible and see tons of movies. That's where we get ideas for absurd expressions and movement. And listen to all different kinds of music; it's good for determining timing. Always consider that your characters are moving in three dimensions.

DS: Definitely. For instance, it takes four drawings to have Homer throw his arms up in the air fast, but maybe eight or ten drawings to have him put his hand on his head and shake it. It's a lot of work--six months and over 100 people just to do one show. It's also important to look at paintings, to see where an artist puts people and objects in a frame, and how that makes them more or less important. Wes and I studied art till our heads practically popped off.

Submitted by Jeanette Foshee

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