Simpsons Movie, The: Right Tone

The writers credit James Brooks for making sure that the script included important emotional beats. But Brooks himself says the story’s comedy, action and emotion have equal weight. “There’s nothing more important to the Simpsons franchise than clocking laughs as much as you possibly can and including big set pieces,” he explains. “And this made creating story emotion more challenging. We always started with the laughs. But we needed that emotion, on which the jokes hang together and which leads the audience to care about what happens to the characters.”

Proper Tone

More than anything else, Brooks sought the proper tone for the film. “Tone is the one word that describes everything we were looking for,” says Brooks. “You throw everything into the pot–story, emotion, jokes–but finally what comes out of it is tone. It’s always the biggest deal in a movie.”

The search for the proper tone extended beyond the two-year process of writing and animating the picture. Hans Zimmer, who composed the score for THE SIMPSONS MOVIE, also made key tonal contributions. “Hans was very involved in the search for the right tone, giving us a fresh viewpoint after the years we had spent on the picture,” adds Brooks.

In a room full of writers working tirelessly to create the best possible film script, none labored harder than Al Jean, who had the Herculean task of running the show and working as producer-writer on the film. “I can’t think of anyone else who could have run the show and the movie at the same time,” marvels writer Ian Maxtone-Graham. “It’s a testament to Al’s amazing mental capacity. At a given time he would be reviewing a storyboard for the show while looking up at us and pitching an idea for the movie.”

The indefatigable Jean, the one person who was keeping tabs on everything movie-and show-related, made certain there was no story overlap between the two, and that movie plot points were kept under wraps. “Since we’ve kept the plot of the movie a secret, when the show writers pitched ideas similar to those presented in the film, I’d say, ‘No we can’t use that. But I can’t tell you why.'”

Veiled in Secrecy

The secrecy alluded to by Jean was on a level rarely seen in the motion picture industry, even in these Internet-wary times. The filmmakers kept the script under lock and-key at the production offices and even as the film neared release, they were reluctant to divulge plot details, to ensure that audiences got the full effect of the movie’s many surprises. But an early trailer revealed the presence of a new addition to the Simpson household: Homer’s pet pig, whose most significant contribution to the community is a few tons of “fertilizer.”

The pig-droppings issue, combined with Homer’s cluelessness, leads to disaster for the town of Springfield. We got excited about the idea of Homer doing the worst thing he’s ever done,” says David Mirkin. “And that leads to his moral dilemma of letting the town die or trying to save it.

Springfield as Character

Springfield itself becomes a key character in THE SIMPSONS MOVIE, further distinguishing the film from the series. The filmmakers put the entire city on display through a big cinematic device. Additionally, they spotlight virtually every character in Springfield, most of whom turn up in a huge mob scene that is one of the film’s centerpieces.

A key player in the frequent and never-ending writers’ meetings wasn’t even a writer. Breaking tradition with animated filmmaking, director David Silverman worked closely with the writers, shaping the visuals and the editing, determining the best ways to visualize a joke, and devising new ways of expanding the Simpson universe for the big screen. They continually tinkered with the script and re-recorded the actors. “It was cruel and unusual punishment for David Silverman,” jokes Matt Groening.

Silverman, a twenty-year veteran of “The Simpsons,” first worked on “The Simpsons” shorts for the “Tracy Ullman Show” before becoming a director, then supervising director/producer on the series. His deep affection for the characters is unsurpassed. “I love drawing them,” he says, “and creating something inventive and funny that hasn’t been done yet.”

“David has been the spirit of The Simpsons for such a long time,” says Brooks. “When he was working on the shorts for The Tracy Ullman Show, he spoke to me with such passion about how much it would mean to him to have an entire TV show devoted to these characters. I was so impressed by his passion that I got the ball rolling on the series.”

The Look

Silverman had a strong influence on the show’s look. “David basically gave the characters their rules of behavior and codified the rules of how to draw them,” says Groening. “For me, drawing the characters is an intuitive process–it just feels right and so I draw them. But David knows there are eleven spikes on Bart’s head, and that Marge’s head is nine eyeballs tall–or something like that.”

For THE SIMPSONS MOVIE, Silverman’s challenge was to devise a visual style that was true to the show while expanding it for the motion picture frame. Silverman made full use of the widescreen aspect ratio of 2:35 to 1, which allowed him to put more characters in the frame, lavish considerable attention on every scene, open up the film emotionally, and add a richness to the backgrounds texture and colors. “We didn’t want to break the graphic look of the series, but instead enrich it and fill it out,” Silverman explains.

For inspiration, Silverman re-watched such films as “Bad Day at Black Rock,” one of the first Widescreen movies to innovatively use the format for an intimate drama, and the ensemble epic comedy “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” which filled its frame with a multitude of characters.

The Widescreen format presented many challenges and opportunities for the director. For one, he had to add dimensionality to characters that up to now had been seen primarily on small TV screens, but would appear sixty-feet tall on many cinema screens.

In addition, Silverman experimented with creating emotion-filled scenes in wide shots, where normally he would have cut to close-ups. To convey emotional beats in the film, Silverman used colors, tone shadows and drop shadows to a degree not possible in the series. He also had more latitude to move the camera, most notably for an elaborate skateboarding sequence, during an epic chase, and for a mob scene.

For the latter, Silverman pushed into the hordes converging on the Simpson household. “Normally, you’d have a crowd shot, then cut to a close-up,” Says Silverman. “But I wanted to give the scene a lot of energy, so I kept moving the camera into the crowd.” A classic poster from the television series depicting the entire cast of characters, provided a foundation for the scene. “I envisioned running into the poster with a camera,” he adds.

For character animation, Silverman relied on the template created by Groening two decades earlier, which eschewed cross-eyed and maniacal-looking characters, both conventions of animated series and films. “We always want our characters to be reactive and impulsive,” Silverman notes. “This adds to their humor and personalities. We’re always looking for specific and realistic human-like performances from them.” Perhaps Silverman’s biggest challenge was the film’s tight schedule. It takes nine months to make an episode of the show, and Silverman had only a year-and-a-half to make THE SIMPSONS MOVIE. (He had a luxuriant two years on “Monsters, Inc.”). To meet his rigorous deadlines, Silverman set up several production teams, with sequence directors, working under Silverman, directing their own groups.

The first step in animating the film was creating storyboards–the panels that determine the cuts, shots, angles and performances. Next, Silverman and his teams developed key animation poses, drawings and layouts, followed by animatics that provided blueprints of timing and rhythm, and helped ascertain if the jokes were playing. Along the way, props and costumes were designed, and new characters were introduced.

The last steps included final timing and fine-tuning the animation. To save time, Silverman used story reels, where he shot the storyboards, augmenting them with additional poses and a temp soundtrack, all of which allowed Silverman to convey the gist of the film at a very early stage.

The work of Silverman and his teams in the Widescreen format brings a new dimension to the characters beloved by so many. “With the movie, David is topping himself completely,” says Groening. “THE SIMPSONS MOVIE really honors the animators who work so hard on the show and on the film. They really put all of their craft and talent up on the screen.”

“The film is a bigger experience than the show,” says Silverman. “There’s so much in the movie that fans haven’t experienced before with the show.” And, returning to Matt Groening’s notion of creating the film to enable fans to enjoy the communal experience of watching a Simpsons movie in a theater, Silverman notes, “I love the idea of eight hundred people laughing at the same time at a joke or scene in the film. I’ve done a lot of college lectures where I screened clips from the show to large audiences.

Watching these audiences laugh at these clips over the years and projecting them on a big screen “gave me confidence that we’d be able to make movie audiences laugh. I think a real movie experience would only heighten their enjoyment.” Al Jean notes that the movie’s appeal extends beyond “The Simpsons” loyalists who have followed the show for the past eighteen years.

“For four years we have been killing ourselves to produce a film that would fulfill the dreams of the show’s many fans while still being completely entertaining to people who’d never seen The Simpsons. If I felt any more pressure I’d be a diamond.”

Putting aside the myriad pressures of creating THE SIMPSONS MOVIE, the film’s imminent release led two of its visionary forces to reflect on the Simpsons phenomenon and how much it’s meant to them. “Twenty years ago, I was just hoping The Simpsons would be successful, and I thought it would be,” says Matt Groening.

But I had no idea that in 2007 we’d be making this motion picture and celebrating our 400th episode. It’s really been a wild ride. In the making of this movie, and despite all the pressures we’ve felt, and the critical filters I’ve been looking through, every once in a while I’d look up and see Homer doing something on the screen,” says Brooks. “And I’d be awed that after all these years, I’d still a feel a rush of affection for him. Seeing Homer like that transcends the experience of working.”