simpsons week

Animator David Silverman on 8 Early and Previously Unseen Simpsons Sketches

Photo: Courtesy of David Silverman

Animator David Silverman has been with The Simpsons since the beginning — literally: He directed the first episode of the series, as well as subsequent classics “The Way We Was,” “Krusty Gets Kancelled,” and “Homie the Clown,” not to mention The Simpsons Movie and the Academy Award–nominated short The Longest Daycare. FXX’s recent marathon and upcoming “Simpsons World” experience in the FXNOW app has reignited an interest in the show’s earliest days, so Vulture asked Silverman to share the stories behind some previously unreleased sketches and storyboards from his personal collection. Twenty-seven years later, the characters look virtually the same as they did then, an impressive feat when you consider their animation motto at the time was “done equals good.” Click through to see eight early prototypes and to read Silverman’s stories behind each of them.

When we started doing The Simpsons as a TV show, things were moving so fast, there were things that hadn’t really been put together, like a design team. So in “Bart the Genius,” the first episode I was doing, I didn’t have any designers; they were all freelance. They hired a guy who I thought might be good. Wonderful guy, an older gentleman who designed for Jay Ward back in the day. I thought that maybe that [would] work, but his style was a little too Jay Ward–like. I love the Jay Ward style, but it wasn’t the style we were doing. [The designer’s] idea of humor smacked of old-timey cartoon-y [signatures] that you might call “cartoon vaudeville.”   I had some ideas about the design and said, “Well, better just go with it,” so I just sort of sat down and sketched this out relatively fast. I can also tell you Springfield Elementary was loosely based on an elementary school I passed on my way to work. There’s something called Carthay Center Elementary School. I passed by it and said, “Well, that gives me a thought.” Photo: David Silverman
That was done by Greg Vanzo, who also directed “There’s No Disgrace Like Home.” He was one of my go-to guys because he really drew very well in a way that I was hoping the characters would look. This scene is Bart saying, “A big, dumb, balding North American ape.” This is my sort of Chuck Jones moment, like he looks at him then scowls in the Chuck Jones way, where nothing moves except for the eyes and the mouth. This is where limited animation is your comedy friend.    On Homer looking harsher here than in later seasons: My first feeling of “this is where I want it to go and have the characters look” was when I did the first episode of the second season, “Bart Gets an F.” If you look at it, I think you’ll see the characters are really starting to look the way they do now; it’s a little less rough around the edges. We were training everybody at the same time. It wasn’t like, “Okay, here’s the standard, sit down and draw,” it’s like, “We’re making it up as we go along.” We were teaching not only the artists in this country, but the artists overseas. It was the Wild West. Everything was happening at the same time. I remember one time I was showing a scene to [director] Wes Archer, and I wanted to see if it was any good, and Wes said, “Is it done?” I was like, “What?” He said, “Is it done?” “Uh, yes, it’s done.” “Then it’s good.” That became our motto: Done equals good. Photo: David Silverman
I had a lot of fun with that. Because it was a dream sequence, Matt [Groening] was very comfortable with me drawing in my own style. It was purposefully a very different design style than the rest of the show. So I was pretty happy. I think that for as crude as my first outing as a director on the show is, there were a lot of dramatic angles and efforts to make it not look like a normal cartoon show. Remember, this was 1989. Cartoons on the air by and large had a certain sort of flatness to them. No offense to anybody, because they were working in different conditions and on tight deadlines, but there was a shorthand, and a lot of them were master shot, medium shot, and close up. We were trying to be more cinematic, so this is a low-angle perspective shot of Bart. Photo: David Silverman
This was the board that went to the ad agency. In the summer of 1988, during the writers’ strike, Wes and I spent a week fooling around with drawings for Jell-O, which is funny because their spokesperson at the time was Bill Cosby. We pulled this design from a bunch of drawings Matt had done for a show that he pitched to ABC, a Saturday morning show, that they didn’t pick up. Essentially, it would have been Recess. But Milhouse was one of the characters, and we looked at him and said, “Let’s use this one.” I was really pleased. If you see the commercial, it’s very close to this board. Photo: David Silverman
That was a short-lived thing, a notion that you cut to Bart, then you cut to Marge as she’s getting dinner made, or something like that, then you cut to Homer, then back to Marge, where the family’s all frantically going back home and she’s this oasis of calm. Judging by the arrows pushing in, I think this was the opening push-in. This was probably discarded very early. I don’t even recall pitching this. It’s a little too saccharine. This was not the subversive, before-its-time approach that would satisfy what we wanted to do. Photo: David Silverman
This was a lot of fun to design. A lot of these images ended up in the sequence. It shows the looseness of, as thoughts came to mind, putting it down and sketching it out. I seem to get a lot of dream sequences. Albert Brooks [who voiced Jacques] recorded about two hours of material, which I think is all on the DVDs, and because he was recording with Julie Kavner and they were great friends, Albert was cracking her up to the point where she was gasping. They were doing a “Who’s on First?”–type routine. That rapid back-and-forth had me cutting back and forth. I cut to him, then I cut back to Marge, and she doesn’t say anything, just because I thought it was funny. The ad-libbing indicates how you’re going to direct. Photo: David Silverman
I was kind of doing a variation on Gábor Csupó’s design, and his design looks like it came from Rugrats. I was just experimenting and wondering if there’s any way I could work with that, and it didn’t really feel like a Simpsons character. So I tried this character in the middle and, well, that’s closer. And that led to the last character, and I thought, Oh, this feels right, with this wide-eyed expression. Photo: David Silverman
I think we were just clowning around the studio, and for some reason, we kept saying, “Back den, we did a little ting called vaudeville!” That inspired me to draw this very silly drawing. It doesn’t mean anything. Photo: David Silverman
David Silverman on 8 Early Simpsons Sketches