Many people across the US and around the world have had to adopt a new lifestyle and workstyle amid the spread of COVID-19. People were, and in many cases still are, quarantined at home, by themselves, with family, or with friends. And, as no doubt they’ve come to realize, it’s not easy living with someone 24/7.
Let’s face it, whether you are new to working remotely or have been practicing it for quite some time, if you are sharing your “new office space” with pets, children, roommates, spouses, or significant others, it is a whole different experience. Cats are walking on computer keyboards, dogs are demanding attention and nudging their owners during Zoom calls, and kids are oblivious when their parents are on business calls.
Even during downtime, a spacious house is not always large enough when you are spending every moment with your quarantine companions.
So, when animator Michael Atniel, who was used to working in a large studio environment, had to start working from home, he began spending his days with a very small, select group of “co-workers.” Quite a bunch of entertaining characters to say the least – characters from The Simpsons, including some of Homer’s work and bar pals.
Atniel literally grew up a half-block from the studio where The Simpsons was being animated (at the time, Film Roman). “One day I was skateboarding past and looked into the window of the building and saw all this Simpsons material and people working,” he says. “And by coincidence, I later found out my best friend’s mom worked there as a secretary, and she brought me in and introduced me.”
Atniel grew up drawing the Simpsons characters, making Homer doodles in elementary school, junior high, and high school. But, it wasn’t until he landed an internship there that he began to take the sketching seriously. Right out of high school in 2003, Atniel started working on this popular TV show as an intern, acting in a PA capacity – doing just about anything and everything, except drawing. But, he was not deterred.
“I was that annoying intern. I kept bugging the artists, asking them for tips on how to draw the characters, and worked on character animation tests during my spare time as I was interning. I’d talk with the animators, getting advice on what I could do better,” Atniel recalls. “Finally, I felt confident enough to turn in the test, and by 2004, I was on the show as a layout artist, or animator.”
According to Atniel, everyone there draws from model sheets, which requires a great deal of practice. “There’s a certain head-to-hand ratio. Every character has its own construction. You have to learn it until it is embedded in your brain and becomes second nature,” he says. “That’s why the characters are so consistent and look like they are drawn by the same person.”
In 2008, Atniel left the show to pursue graphic design. A few years later, he went back to school at Gnomon to learn 3D animation. After working at a commercials-focused studio and then a game company, Atniel returned to The Simpsons in 2016, which is now under the Disney umbrella following Disney’s March 2019 acquisition of assets from 21st Century Fox, including the film and television studios.
“The Simpsons is the last show to do hand-drawn animation in the States. Everyone else does storyboards and ships the rest of the work overseas.”
The production staff at Film Roman draws the storyboards, designs new characters, backgrounds, and props, and draws character and background layouts, which in turn become animatics that are screened for the writers at Gracie Films for any changes. Once those changes are made, the work is then shipped overseas, where the in-betweens and digital ink and paint is done. The frames are then returned and edited stateside.
The Workflow Then and Now
When Atniel returned, things were very different than when he had left. The biggest change was in the workflow. Before he had left, all the drawings were done on paper; now, the artists were using Wacom Cintiq tablets. And that was a welcome change, as far as Atniel was concerned, as he had been using a Cintiq for his personal work and was comfortable with the device and the advantages it offered.
Indeed, there was an initial small learning curve: “It was so slippery with the stylus. But, it was like learning to ride a bike. Once you get the hang of it, it’s easy,” says Atniel. More recently, though, the animators have been given nibs with a paper texture feel, giving the device a pencil-to-paper feel. Also, graduating to the pencil-size Pro Pen from the original larger stylus helps in this regard as well.
“It’s much easier now that we are using Cintiqs. On paper, if there was something wrong with the drawing – for instance, if the character’s head was a little too big – I would have to erase the entire head and redraw it in pencil,” explains Atniel. “Now, I could just grab the head, shrink it down a little, and continue on. It made a world of difference!”
The imagery, of course, is still 2D hand-drawn animation. Only now it is drawn on the Cintiq tablets using Toon Boom Animation’s Harmony software. “Otherwise, we’re still using the same type of pipeline,” says Atniel. “But we now have more control over what we do.”
As Atniel explains, “We used to do all the drawings and then send them off to a timer, who, when done, would then send them off to have the drawings shot on film. At that point, we were able to see the drawings move. Now that we’re on [a digital platform], we’re able to see in real time if our drawings are working or not.”
In a nutshell, the workflow begins after the script, along with an audio of the voice actors’ performances, are delivered to the artists. Once the directors and storyboard artists determine the necessary shots based on the script, then the animators get to work. “We have to listen to the voice recording, be accurate, try to find the emotion, pick up on those little acting bits in their voice, and do our best to show that on screen,” says Atniel. “Essentially, we are the actors, but we are acting with our drawings.”
Back in the day, the animators used several tape players, playing and rewinding the audio constantly. Today, using Harmony, they import the audio and later export a movie of their scenes. “No more waiting a day or two to see if our shots are working timing-wise. It’s instant,” says Atniel.
Before putting digital pen to the screen, Atniel listens to the audio before cleaning up the rough backgrounds to make them work with the characters, ensuring they are in a living space. Then the characters have to be put “on model,” making sure they are the correct dimensions. Then the artists provide the appropriate acting (animation) based on the audio and timing. This is followed by some back and forth with the director, who leaves notes in the Harmony files, before the animation is shipped overseas.
On average, it takes approximately six months to complete the animation for a half-hour show, though it is often hard to quantify – it all depends on the shot. For instance, Atniel recently completed a shot with approximately 30 characters, which took about two weeks to animate. And the entire shot was about 5 seconds long. He has also had a shot with just one character but with 30-some poses that he was able to turn around in a day. “It’s always different,” he adds.
Each animator is responsible for the characters in their given shots – typically they are assigned work in sections, which have five to 10 scenes in them. Atniel often finds himself with Homer’s work pals or bar friends. “[Although] it’s really fun to get the Itchy and Scratchy shots because you get to go a little wild and do Looney Tunes-style cartoon animation,” Atniel says, adding he also enjoys drawing Mr. Burns, owner of the nuclear power plant where Homer works. “He has distinct features that look really sinister; evil characters are always fun to draw.”
One character Atniel begrudgingly brings to life: Moe the bartender. “For some reason, I can never get those drawing right. He has a weird neck, so it’s hard to get fluid animation with him because of his body structure,” he says. “I still find it awkward to draw and move him around.” Last year, the animator was assigned a shot with Santa’s Little Helper, a dog that ran around the family’s living room. “That was a big challenge. I never animated a dog before,” he says.
Of course, one-off characters are easier to draw than recurring characters, which require exacting consistency. And using Harmony, which is vector-based, getting that consistency is much easier nowadays by allowing one to edit each line independently.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Atniel, like the other animators on The Simpsons, has been working from his home. The studio provided the group with their computers and Cintiqs, along with access to the software and servers. “We’re easily able to grab what we need. Pretty much, it’s business as usual, except that instead of face-to-face meetings, we’re doing everything through IM and email,” he says. “But, the work has not changed.”
In fact, “hanging out” at home with the Simpsons characters has been a positive, and productive, experience. “Fewer coffee breaks,” Atniel says with a laugh. All kidding aside, though, there is something to be said about the comfort of working in your own, familiar space, he adds.
“I’ve always had a setup at home because I’d often take work home with me. But for some old-school artists and directors who didn’t have a computer or tablet at home, it’s a big adjustment for them learning to use a server and uploading files through Box online,” says Atniel.
Many employees across the US who are now working remotely have had a difficult time getting inspired. Not so for Atniel, who reminds himself of the historical significance of The Simpsons.
“Sometimes you forget about that because you focus on getting the work done. [During those times] I have to remind myself that this show isn’t going to be on TV forever. And after an episode runs, it will still be around in reruns,” he says. “I do not want to ever see an old show with scene that I worked on and feel like I could’ve done a better job.”
Of course, now that the show is under the Disney brand, there is some extra motivation. Growing up, Atniel wanted to be an animator, especially at Disney or Pixar. “So now that kinda happened in a weird way,” he adds.
All told, there are about 200 people who work on The Simpsons, including animators, background artists, designers, background designers, timers, directors, and production staff.
So, how does it feel to be quarantined at home with the Simpsons characters? “I grew up with them, they are my second family. I feel like Homer and Marge are like my second parents,” says Atniel. “I cannot imagine working anywhere else. This feels like home to me.”