The Simpsons Folder
September 20, 2001, By David Collins, Broadcast News
The forthcoming new series of The Simpsons promises many delights for fans of the dysfunctional yellow family with the familiar mix of quirky storylines and celebrity star guests.
In a parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Pierce Brosnan plays a computer in love with Marge; Richard Gere plays himself in an episode in which Lisa becomes a Buddhist; and Reese Witherspoon turns up as a rich girl with a crush on Bart.
The show has come a long way since it started in 1989. One reason for its enduring success is the amount of work put into each episode. ‘We’re working on several shows at the same time,’ says executive producer and showrunner Al Jean. ‘So we’ll be doing an animatic [a rough black and white version] for one show, a colour rewrite for another, and an original script for a third all at the same time.’
It takes between eight months and a year to make one episode. The writing alone takes about two months. Each episode is scripted by one person, but it’s then rewritten by a team of about 20. ‘Whenever you see a written-by credit on the show,’ says Jean, ‘that person scripted at most 30 to 40 per cent of the lines.’
The cast then records the voices. This takes about three hours before the audio is sent to the animators. ‘They do a rough black-and-white version that takes a couple of months,’ says Jean. ‘When we see that, we rewrite it again. Then it takes about another four months for the colour animation. After that, there’s another month of editing, putting in music and sound effects, before it airs.’ The hand-painted animation is done in Korea, then the show is edited and scored in the US. ‘We were avant-garde when we started and now we’re a little bit of a throw back,’ says Jean. ‘We’re one of the last hand-painted animated shows on the air. Most of what you see on TV now is done by computers.’
Considering the work that goes into just one episode it is natural to wonder how much it all costs. ‘The budget is between $2m and $3m (£1.4m and £2.1m) for each episode,’ says Jean. He maintains that’s relatively cheap in comparison with other Hollywood shows. He says Frasier costs $4m to $5m (£2.8m to £3.6m), and much of that goes on the actors’ salaries. ‘Our cast does well, but we’re able to hold down the actors’ salaries to what is a moderate amount for such a big hit.’
The actors have recently renegotiated their contracts and have agreed to make three movies of the show. But the first movie is still very much in development. One of the show’s executive producers is James L Brooks, whose film credits include Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and Jerry Maguire. ‘I spoke to Jim Brooks the other day,’ says Jean. ‘And he said, ‘I don’t want to do it unless it’s really good’. Movies with him spend a long time in development – waiting until the script is absolutely right.’
The 13th series of The Simpsons begins on Sky One in November.