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TV’s The Simpsons Goes Global
AP, August 5, 2001 By Lynn Elber
It was the middle of the night and The Simpsons animation director Mark Kirkland was on the telephone to South Korea explaining how to draw Marge Simpson shooting a gun.
The Korean artists on the other end of the line – the ones responsible in this global endeavor for bringing the American TV show to animated life – were in the dark about firearms.
“They don’t allow guns in Korea; it’s against the law,” Kirkland said. “It was an automatic gun so they weren’t quite sure how to make the bullet eject out, or the shell eject. So they were calling me: ‘How does a gun work?”’
Odd-hour calls and cultural differences are among the challenges faced by the people at the Film Roman studio here who envision new adventures for The Simpsons and by those in South Korea who draw them.
Overcoming the disadvantages of time and space requires scrupulous attention to detail, including step-by-step frame directions and a “color by number” key to enhance quality control, Kirkland said.
“When we send them a really tight package they just follow it and do a good job,” he said.
Kirkland’s staff provides the key poses, known as “beats.”
“Let’s say Homer was going to grab a glass and drink it. I would probably have him sitting at the table, I’d have his hand on the glass and then I would have the glass to his mouth,” Kirkland said.
The instructions to South Korea would include a precise description of how the in-between action should flow.
“It’s a lot like sheet music to a musician – all those little notes, all those grace notes, all those little trills written by the composer,” Kirkland said.
At AKOM Production Co. in Seoul, the scenes are drawn, colored and photographed, with a computer linking them into an animated whole. It takes nine to 16 weeks to complete one episode of “The Simpsons.”
The international approach gives work to Koreans and allows American producers to take advantage of South Korea’s cheaper labor costs.
A South Korean animation team leader, or director, earns about $2,400 a month, while an American doing the same work would be paid about triple that, said Nelson Shin, AKOM’s chairman.
Besides The Simpsons, the Seoul-based cartoon company has produced Superman, X-Men and other animated shows.
Kirkland has a deep appreciation for the distant Korean animators.
“When our industry gets busy, it seems like we pull in and train every possible person we can find and it seems like we still can’t find enough, he said. Sure, I want to see American workers working, but you realize we’ve had some of the same animators overseas that we’ve had since day one on the show. I see them as a counterpart.”
Although the series’ roots are firmly established in American culture, The Simpsons isn’t isolationist.
When animator Joe Wack was asked about his artistic influences, he gestured to small copies of artworks by the European masters Rembrandt and Durer tacked on his bulletin board.
The show’s content is global, too.
“I guarantee you by next season there will be a reference to ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ written into the show,” Kirkland said. “Anything that’s popular culture, wherever it came from, can eventually find its way into our melting pot.”
The 11-year-old TV comedy about hapless dad Homer, long-suffering mom Marge and children Bart, Lisa and Maggie has found popularity in more than 60 countries.
Series creator Matt Groening has said “the Simpsons live in their own universe: They’re yellow, they’re three-fingered,” Kirkland noted. “But people in Europe or Australia seem to love the show, so we can only assume they love what we like.”
Kirkland recalled a friend, a National Geographic (news – web sites) photographer, who returned from Russia with a gift of nesting dolls depicting the Simpson clan.
The show’s humor doesn’t connect everywhere, however – including in South Korea. A Korean broadcaster that imported the program several years ago found it did not attract many viewers in an early evening time slot, Shin said.
“Much of the humor is so American, Koreans don’t understand what’s funny about it,” he said.
For example, son Bart often says “Hey man” to his father, which Shin said is morally despicable to a Confucius mindset.
Kim Nak-joong, director of the 13-person team that draws The Simpsons, is among those who don’t find the show particularly amusing.
“Maybe it’s a cultural thing or the translation,” Kim said. “Besides, when I watch it, I can’t help but noticing tiny details that we could have done better. That’s all I see.”