The Simpsons' original animator: 'all artists and animators should study architecture'

David Silverman is at the Adobe Max conference primarily for a live interview with Bart Simpson.

At one of the show's keynotes, Adobe executive VP Bryan Lamkin asks questions to Bart, who sits on a big screen answering with snappy retorts.

Directed by David, it's essentially a re-run of the 'live animation' segment of a Simpsons episode that ran back in May, where Homer Simpson answered questions from viewers who rang in. What we learned from Bart's appearance is that his voice actor Nancy Cartwright appears to be better at off-the-cuff jokes than Homer's Dan Castanella (or that Nancy had the questions in advance and rehearsed).

Both 'live interviews' showcased Adobe's Character Animator software, which captures facial expressions and mouth movements as you talk – and translates these onto an animated character. Both Nancy and David appeared on stage after the interview to confirm that it had happened live – and receive a lot of applause.

Afterwards, David attended a group interview with journalists where he told us well-honed stories from his career – and dispensed some advice for artists and animators.

Before becoming an animator, David studied architecture – which he credits with helping him lay-out the space of the scenes in his work from perspective to composition.

"I recommend anyone wanting to be a cartoonist should study architecture along the way," says David.

David's is also an amateur musician, which is a form of creativity he shares with many animators he works with – though he admits that he's unusual in that he plays the tuba.

"Music and animation are not too far apart, he says. With music – like animation – the element of time is very important. Change the timing – even subtly – and you can hear [or] see the difference immediately."

How The Simpsons title sequence defined Lisa's character

David worked on The Simpsons, alongside creator Matt Groening, when it first appeared as a segment within The Tracy Ullman show on US TV nearly 30 years ago. 48 segments later, a TV show of its own was born – which is when David came to work on the title sequence (below). This ended up completely changing the character of Lisa Simpson, who in the segments didn’t have a clear identity.

"We had a gag for every character," says David, "but we didn't have a gag for Lisa. I said 'Maybe she plays an instrument. What if she plays the tuba ?'

“[Producer] James [L Brooks] came back with 'What if she plays the baritone saxophone?'. Then he said 'What if she's the genius kid that doesn't get recognised?'. And that's who she became from then on."

After the first season, the show's animation improved noticeably. David puts this down to his animators needing to learn a different style both of drawing and animating the characters.

At the time, each animation house – Disney, Warner Bros and the like - had its own 'house style'. The Simpsons had its own look that David describes as "deceptively simple."

"Bugs Bunny has quite a lot of lines," he says, "which makes him easier to capture. It's very easy to draw Bart wrong."

A single line drawn badly means that Bart wouldn't look like Bart, while with Bugs there's a greater allowance for mistakes.

Some animators couldn't avoid these errors, and David admits that the first season was also about "weeding out" those – as well as training those who could and hiring people "who hadn't learned bad habits" in the first place.

What makes a great animator on The Simpsons is as much about understanding performance and being able to represent it as traditional drawing skills, says David.

"Your animators are your actors," he says. "They have to have good drawing skills, but good performance skills too."

How The Simpsons have changed

Over the years, the animators on The Simpsons have changed the look of the characters a little – but David says that this hasn't been a calculated choice, instead describing it as "pretty organic creativity."

"The characters have been 'refined unconsciously' over the years, as you get to know them better," he says. "Bart's mostly the same, but there's been some refinement to the mouth."

Where the show has seen major change is in the technology and tools used to create it. Perhaps surprisingly, technology hasn't made the show quicker and easier to produce – each episode still takes about nine months to produce. Production of each is staggered a month apart – so while one is being written or storyboarded or voiceovers recorded or animated, the next part of production is happening for the previous episode.

Instead of using tech to make things faster, they use them to make scenes more complex – whether camera moves and just adding and animating more detail. They use Wacom Cintiqs for drawing rather than pen-and-paper, and Toom Boom Storyboard Pro to create moving "story-reels" rather than static storyboards.

David left The Simpsons at the end of the 1990s in search of a new challenge – working at both Dreamworks and Pixar, where he co-directed Monsters Inc. He returned after attending a party for the show where he realised how much he missed the team on the Simpsons.

In 2006, he directed The Simpsons Movie, which was harder on the writers and actors than on the animators – as the writers had to deal with a much longer and more complex story arc than on a 22-minute episode, and the actors had to deal with more emotionally challenging scenes such as (spoiler alert) Marge leaves Homer saying she wants a divorce.

David is now a consulting animation director on the show, which gives him freedom to do his own projects – but he also likes that this has also allowed other people to take on his role of animation director, and others step into their roles, so that a new David Silverman can perhaps emerge.

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