5 Dark Realities Of Animating Shows Like 'The Simpsons'
Despite the fact that most of us are capable of having a conversation entirely in Simpsons quotes, we don't really know much about how our favorite cartoons get made (quite frankly, drawing anything more complicated than a stickman seems like pure sorcery). So we talked to Wendy and Lizzie Molyneux, writers and producers for Bob's Burgers; Lucas Gray, animator for The Simpsons and Family Guy; and Dallas Bolton, animator for The Oblongs and Mission Hill, to find out what it takes to turn a bunch of drawings into a popular thing that people watch. It turns out, it's complicated as hell:
Making A Single Episode Takes Most Of A Year
Want to knock out a single 22-minute episode of an animated network TV show? You'd better have a shitload of people and several months for them to work. Here's the long, torturous process:
It starts with a team of writers spending up to seven weeks fleshing out a story idea, like Bob's restaurant being overrun with sentient bees or facing some similarly relatable problem. Then one writer goes away for a week to write the script, which is then given to two teams -- one team focuses on improving the plot, while the other team punches up the jokes. For each joke in the episode, they write around a dozen alternatives, which means at one point Homer Simpson's catchphrase may have been "Derp," "Dang," or "Sweet tickling fartscuttles."
And Bob's working title was Alberto's Alfredo.
At that point, you have a script that is entirely too long for a 22-minute TV show. So another week gets spent getting it down to a reasonable size, and from there it goes to the network for notes, such as highlighting jokes they feel are too risque and suggesting that Bob's five-minute speech on the benefits of peeing in the shower be cut from the third act. Then the script gets read by the actors in front of the writers, animators, directors, and showrunners, all of whom give more notes. So, already a typical episode involves more notes than most of us took through our entire academic careers, although these notes actually get used for something.
Then, finally, all the actors record their lines. Those lines get edited and cut into an audio play, basically like an episode of an old-timey radio program without any sound effects. Then the producers meet with the animators and decide how they want each scene to look. That leads to an animatic, which looks a little like a flipbook, only much more expensive:
Also known as the "Fuck it, have the intern do it" phase.
Then, after yet another round of fucking notes, it's shipped off to Korea to get fully animated and colored. There, dozens of animators grind out tens of thousands of drawings. Other than the wages being roughly a third of what American animators make it's not nearly as sweatshoppy as it sounds (although we can't speak to the quality of the North Korean animation studios that helped bring you The Lion King).
When they get the episode back, which usually takes about four or five freaking months, they add the sound effects and music, typically completing the production process two weeks before the episode airs. That's anywhere from nine months to a year for a single episode, which takes less time to watch than it does to return a bag of socks at Walmart. You can make a freaking human being in the time it takes to create that episode you had playing in the background while you were microwaving a Hot Pocket.
And they can create another episode in the time it takes you to digest that Hot Pocket.
Now, it's true that shows like South Park cut this way down by going with an intentionally rough, low-budget look (and we'll get into that in a moment), but most forms of animation involve a staggering number of man hours, if for no other reason than the medium inherently requires many more steps than a live-action production. If you get back an animated scene only to discover that it's hideously drawn and the jokes aren't working, you can't just go reshoot it -- you have to wait another four or five months for it to be reanimated.
"Wait," you might be saying, "I thought this was all done with computers these days?" Well ...
There Are Fewer Computers Involved Than You'd Think
Making animation is expensive -- Family Guy costs $2 million per episode (which isn't so weird if you think of it as only $100,000 per minute). Naturally, studios are going to want to save time and money anywhere they can, which traditionally meant reusing animation. We've all seen the Scooby-Doo gang run past the same background more times than we've seen members of our extended family.
That castle is actually our legal guardian.
But Lucas, who worked on both Family Guy and The Simpsons, was actually surprised by how much animation doesn't get reused. Aside from the obvious tricks (like using the same background characters or the same establishing shot of Springfield's power plant), they start from scratch on every episode.
"Think about how many times we've been in the Simpsons' car," he says. "It's the same setup; you think there'd be a template to at least start with, but it's not like that. The specifics of each scene are varied enough that you're always going to have to modify it."
While a show like South Park (which is done entirely with computers) gets put together in a single Red Bull-fueled week, many shows are still largely hand-drawn, and that makes several months of difference.
If you want your cartoon nude beaches to look accurate, you've got to put the effort in.
But why would you not use computers? We'll answer that question with another question -- how much attention do you pay to a cartoon character's feet? Probably not much, unless feet are your beat. But, according to Lucas, feet make a huge difference in production time:
"South Park is able to get away with such a short turnaround because their characters don't walk -- they hop around with no animation. Also, their hands don't generally have fingers, and overall there is very little actual animation between poses. It works because they designed the show around that aesthetic, but The Simpsons and Family Guy need a lot more drawing for every second of screen time."
If Peter's fat folds aren't right, you can bet your ass you'll hear about it.
The difference in quality may look subtle, but from a technical perspective, it's huge. A lot of shows find a middle ground, mixing traditional animation with computer software in various ratios that we won't delve into because we don't understand them. But what it comes down to is that computers can do only so much, and if you want a certain style, you have to be willing to put in the extra work. An impossible amount of time goes into making Homer Simpson jaunt across your screen, regardless of whether his hands are in his pockets or he's doing cartwheels. The former might actually be more difficult, because ...
The Most Routine Scenes Are The Hardest To Animate
In a live-action sitcom, the easiest scene for everyone involved is to just show an actor walking across an empty room on a sound stage. But in the world of animation, that scene is somebody's overtime -- mainly because walking is a pain in the ass to animate. Well, as long as the feet are visible:
"I try to hide the feet as much as possible," says Lucas, "because you can draw a character walking from the knees up no problem. But when the feet are touching the ground you really have to plan that very carefully. It takes a lot of pencil mileage and 'unnecessary shoe leather.' Don't show feet on the ground unless you absolutely have to."
Each second of this scene caused a new case of carpal tunnel.
Oh, and all that work might still wind up on the cutting room floor. As another animator, Dallas Bolton, told us:
"I had a scene that was a panning shot overlooking the town ... it took me two entire days, from 10 a.m. to midnight. Then, when it came to the final cut, they chopped it to save time and just used the last panel as a still shot."
All that work, and nobody saw it -- an experience shared by everyone who worked on Allen Gregory.
Oh, and if a certain character movement just doesn't look natural, well, you've got another job ahead of you. You'll need a live model to work from, and since you can't exactly hire a team of actors to come in and do motion capture for you ...
"Anything you want to animate," says Lucas, "from someone nodding their head yes to someone getting their tongue stuck in a lawn chair, you have to be ready to act it out yourself or have a friend act it out, so you can capture the poses. For example, recently I didn't have the energy to get on the ground and act out trying to put on pants that are too tight, so I just started drawing. Then, after a while of nothing good happening, I got down and acted it out, and voila!" We're assuming he just expensed the tiny pants he bought for the scene.
There Are Dozens Of Absurdly Specific Jobs
As a job title, "animator" is a lot like "doctor" -- we lump them all together in our brains, but one doctor might be an expert on cancer while the next is a specialist in Doom. Similarly, the roles different animators play can be highly specialized. Lucas started with background clean-up, which takes rough drawings and corrects things like perspective so Homer Simpson doesn't accidentally look eight feet tall. He later worked in the prop department, which sounds like nonsense because a cartoon's props don't actually exist, but somebody still has to be in charge of making objects look right.
"Prop design is where anything that's not a background or a character gets made," Lucas explains. "For example, when iPhones first showed up, they needed to design iPhones for the Simpsons world and simplify them a little bit."
They used a Samsung Galaxy as a model, because iPhones don't look like iPhones on film.
There are background artists, layout artists, and character artists, as well as directors, assistant directors, and overseas directors, and that's only a fraction of the personnel required. Then there are more esoteric tasks, like timing. The timers create a technical script for the animators to follow by indicating how long each drawing should be on-screen, how many drawings should go in between key poses, how long Homer's lips should flap with each thunderous belch, etc.
That's an incredibly important role that we never would have guessed existed, but it's a requirement for animated comedies, because timing is so crucial for jokes to land properly, and each character's performance is being controlled by the animators. As Lucas says, "You listen to the audio track, look at the drawings, and get a feel for when you want to do a comedic pause, when you want to do an eye-blink for effect or not do an eye-blink because it would be distracting. When you want to do a normal walk versus a comedic walk. Then it's just real technical things like, 'You're going to need six drawings to raise this glass of beer up to Homer's mouth.' It can be tedious at times, but it can also be very essential to the comedy. A pause can make all the difference."
Job Stress Results In Profane Easter Eggs
You've surely heard about how many animated movies have dicks and titties hidden in the frames, where mischievous artists have slipped them in under their boss' nose. Why would they do such a thing? Well, when the work is grueling and/or tedious enough, sometimes the only thing that makes you feel better is drawing a cock on a princess.
You've now seen what it takes just to get one minute of animation up on the screen -- keeping up with a series schedule can mean brutal hours and grossly unrealistic deadlines. According to Lucas, "I would wake up, go to the studio, stay until I absolutely couldn't do any more work, go home, go to bed, wake up, and do it again. It ended up causing me to go into therapy, because it was just so brutal."
That just made it worse.
However, it's all worth it to be able to work in a field that allows you to express your creative talents, right? Well, that's the problem. According to Lucas, you generally have to be extremely selective with how you express your creativity, so it turns the whole thing into something of a grind. "There are very, very set guidelines. Only if you have a real strong impulse do you break the guideline. If it works it's great and everyone loves you, but if it doesn't, everyone gets stressed out by the extra work you created."
Dallas, in fact, finally got so burned out that he added a piece of secret profanity to the background of an episode of The Oblongs:
"I took this opportunity to express my feelings towards the scene that took two entire days to finish with no sleep. I wrote the word 'FUCK' on the wall. The scene was approved, I was in the clear. It was my moment in cartoon graffiti history."
He was like the Banksy of tragically short-lived TV shows.
Unfortunately, a background artist caught Dallas' surprise and alerted the studio. Dallas was called into his manager's office, and they went through his entire catalog of work to see if he'd added anything else in the past. Which of course he had:
"The drawing they found was of Biff and Chip, the two brothers who were joined at the hip. They always made comments to each about how the other one is gay when they argued. So I drew Biff with a big handful of Chip's crotch and this creepy smile on his face. This one ended up in the show; but no one could tell because Will Ferrell's character, Bob, was standing in front of the boys."
For reference, this is what a typical approved shot from that program looked like.
He managed to get off with a scolding and an apology letter. And that's a good thing -- because, despite all of that shit, none of the animators we talked to wanted to be doing anything else. There are certain experiences you just aren't going to get anywhere else. Or, as Lucas put it:
"I didn't wake up thinking I'd be drawing Brian having sex with a woman while the Hindenburg burns in the background because he was using a time machine to pick up chicks. People walk by and I'm like, 'No, it's in the script!'"
You can follow Wendy on Twitter here and Lizzie here, and learn more about Bob's Burgers here. Lucas has an official website that you can check out right here. To see some of the work of Dallas' design company, ONE MAN ARMY Design, check him out on Vimeo. If you can summon up the energy to click one final link, you can read more from Mark at his website.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Ways The Gaming Industry Is Way More Sexist Than You Think and 6 Ways Movies Get Space Wrong (by Astronaut Chris Hadfield).
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