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Visual Process

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Visual Process

This document is done

The first step in ‘visual’ production on The Simpsons is the storyboard process. The script (and then the dialogue recording) is done by the writers and voice talent before it reaches the storyboard process, as well as a few musical cues by Alf Clausen… but visualisation is also big part.

The three Storyboard Artists (per episode) read the script and listen to the soundtrack (if available at the time) before they start drawing rough basic pencil drawings to establish the rough composition of included characters, camera angles, and any camera moves. The completed 3 storyboards (one per Act) totals over 200 pages, each page containing up to four small drawings. All script dialogues & actions are transferred below each drawing for easy reference. The Animation Director will usually draw one of the storyboard Acts themself. When all three Acts are complete, they are sent to Gracie Films…the writers’ production group located on the 20th Century Fox studio lot. The executive producers and others assistants will make notes to it and since all this is rough, it’s easy to change things.

When all the board notes are received back at Film Roman and revised by the Storyboard Artists roughly, six character layout artists receive the storyboard for Act 1 and a voice-track of the show which is about 12-15 minutes of dialogue. The Director, AD (Assistant Director), and the Timer now have to figure out how much time the episode takes by listening the voice track & guessing how long non-dialogue actions will take. The typical limit for the show is about 22.5 minutes. More dialogue means less time for nonverbal action. They will “red-line” (or “slug”) the X-Sheets (large timing sheets that have every blank frame for the show listed in order). They do a rough ‘guesstimate’ to give them an idea of how lenient or strict their final timing later on will have to be.

The Character Layout artists use the storyboard drawings as reference when they draw the “key” animation poses (all the ones that are needed for the Korean animators to follow and draw the in-between poses later on). These are hand-drawn onto 10.5″ x 14.5″ white paper, usually rough, but eventually cleaned up a bit. (In Korea, they are re-drawn with a fine line accuracy. Each drawing is held in place by three little pegs on the animation light board. The light shines through the pages from under the disks’ glass so the artists can see the multiple characters and the rough background they’ve drawn, and to make sure they have a solid composition, and that no lines are ‘tangent’ (or touching) each other awkwardly. characters. Flipping back and forth the drawings, the artists can check the characters’ movements between their various poses, erase and redraw any movements that don’t seem to work. This is actual basis of the episode.

This process takes about 6 weeks for all three Acts to be drawn out. It’s far from done, but now there’s enough visual information to be quickly shot on video (along with the dialogue track) to be shown to the Executives at Fox so they can see how the show ‘looks’ so far.

This is called an “Animatic”. The Cameramen shoot every drawing onto video (according to the red-lined X-sheets). The camera bed has the same registration pegs as the animation disks that the artists used for all their drawings, so the image doesn’t jump from place to place all the time. After they add the sound track, they have a basic, b/w animated video called an animatic, a kind of rehearsal stage. Usually many changes are made. Many hysterical jokes are sacrificed in order to preserve the storyline, and to keep within that 22.5 minute timeline. Meanwhile other artists (such as ‘lip assignment’) have to make sure the shape of Bart’s mouth when he says “Eat my shorts” looks believable, and the Color department using Photoshop to give colors for backgrounds, characters and props must make sure that there aren’t any conflicting colors which could ‘hide’ an object in the background when it’s supposed to be very visible to the audience.

Color is assigned to every area of the zeroxed drawings by number codes, only having a total palette of 68 colors to choose from (computer animated animation has over 2,000 colors to choose from) plus many other artists to get everything ready so it works well in the end. Drawings used be shipped off to Korea, transferred to acetate celluloids (cels) and painted and when it’s done it is ready to be shipped off to Korea to be Xeroxed and painted. Now that is all done on computers, and there are no more cels in production as of the middle of production season 12 last year.

The automated console at the Simpsons dubbing session.

What does go to Korea are the layout scenes that were drawn at Film Roman, the backgrounds, and also the X-sheets for each particular scene.

Three animation scenes of Homer heads The Simpsons are 100 % hand painted. One second of animation needs 12 to 24 pieces of art and when show is 22.5 minutes long, it needs approximately 17,000 to 34,000 hand painted cels per episode. That’s why the tedious clean in-between animation is done in Korea… it’s cheaper to produce it there, at either Akom or Rough Draft (the Korean animation studios). Then they shoot it all onto film and ship it back to Fox Studios, where the Director, AD and Timer will meet with the execs for a “1st color” screening. Now they’re watching a fully animated color workprint of the show, and of course in the 2 months it’s been in Korea, every executive producer has changed their minds on what works and what doesn’t. So it’s back to Film Roman for final fixes, and it’s also Alf Clausens’ time to finish the musical scores. That’s why Bart’s chalkboard writings are so up-to-date to what goes on in the real world sometimes. They can change and add little stuff in the end process before it airs.

Alf Clausen, musical composer of The Simpsons comes to work rain or shine and scores the music for the episode with his 35 piece orchestra, not to mention the sound effects guys who create all the weird sounds in the backgounds. The whole process of one episode from start to finish takes 6 to 8 months. And they are creating multiple episodes at the same time, like a conveyor belt in a huge factory. It’s a huge project to oversee, because the animation takes so long, and there’s a lot of planning involved.

Special thanks to Sarge Morton, layout and character artist from Film Roman for adding detailed, technical information about the visual process.