From a young age, I knew that I was never going to be an artist. I’m colorblind, I had poor fine motor skills, and I drew people without torsos. I was entered in an art show once – I wrote about it last year – but I didn’t exactly have the skills necessary for a career in animation. And that was fine. I moved on to other things.
That said, I’ve always been interested in the behind-the-scenes workings of an animated show. Because, to me, an animated show is like magic. There are so many things that go into it, from the storyboard to the drawing to the voice acting to the fact that there are 24 frames in every second. I don’t know how it can all happen, but I’m grateful because cartoons are just about the best thing ever.
Enter Lucas Gray. Lucas works in the animation department at The Simpsons and Family Guy. He’s held a number of different positions, from storyboard artist to character layout artist to character designer. He was there at the beginning, and he’s there now. And now he’s on the blog. Welcome, Lucas.
What is your background? What drew you to animation?
I have always drawn. I became interested in computer animation, and I was thinking about getting an internship at one of the studios in Los Angeles when I was home from college one year. There was a magazine called Post Magazine, and I just went down the list of studios that were looking for internships when I stumbled into The Simpsons. This was back in the first season, so I had never seen the show before. They gave me a take home test, and I took it, and I got a very entry level position.
So it was kind of an accident. I had always drawn and I was a really big fan of Looney Tunes, but I didn’t do an animation degree. Back when I got into the industry, there weren’t a lot of animation departments cranking out armies of animators. There wasn’t work for them yet.
I did that job for awhile, and then I left to finish college. To my surprise, The Simpsons was still going on when I was out of college, so I tested and then got into a different department.
I looked on IMDb, and you’ve had a number of different titles. Storyboard artist, character layout artist, character designer, background clean-up artist, storyboard revisionist. What are some of the responsibilities and challenges of each position?
They’re each really difficult in their own way. What I do now at The Simpsons is storyboard, and the challenge of that is: you have to look into the blankness of the page. You read the script, but you have nothing telling you that this shot should be a low angle or a high angle or a close up or a wide shot. And so you just have to look at the blankness and create images out of it.
When I used to be a character animator, that thinking has already been done for you. You start out with this storyboard and a blueprint, but now you have to make really accurate drawings that have the action and the volume and the right scale. Before we used computers, you would do a whole scene on pencil and paper, and you would take it in and your director would be like: Yeah, Homer’s a little big. And so you’d have to go back and reduce all of those drawings down 10%. I felt like I was never as good at that job – I did it for six years, and I struggled with it all six years. And then as soon as I became a storyboard artist, even though it is a different kind of challenge, I felt like I was more suited for it. I felt better about my storyboards right away than I ever did about my character layouts.
I have no idea how The Simpsons happens. Like, I just see it on my TV and assume it is all magic. Can you describe the process of creating an episode, from start to finish?
I have no insight into what happens on the writer’s end. From the animator’s side, we receive the script, it’s plopped down on our desk, and then the storyboard is the first step in the process. I read the script, I get my assignments – usually there are three storyboard artists per episode, and we each get roughly one act from one commercial break to the next. I then break my act down into smaller segments. So let’s say we’ve got a little bit at the house, then you go to the school, then you go to the bar, and then back to the house. And then I start to rough out little thumbnails of how this could look.
You’ll have anywhere from one to six or seven panels for each scene that describes the action that is about to take place. After that, you’ll have a rough meeting where you show what you’ve done to the director and the supervising director, and you get a ton of notes on what is working, what isn’t working, and a lot times you have to go back to the drawing board on some really complicated stuff. There is no sentimentality in the industry. Just because you worked hard on it doesn’t mean anything. The real question is – is this working or not? You have to be very ego-less and very resilient because you hear a lot of difficult criticism of your work.
After that, you do another couple of weeks of cleaning up and addressing the notes, and then the storyboard gets sent over to the writers and producers, and they give their notes. Then there’s another few days of revision. So all of this is just to get the storyboard ready, which is really just the blueprint. Then it gets handed off to the animators and the character layout artists and the background layout artists, and they elaborate all of those drawings. The storyboard can be pretty rough, almost like a shorthand, but now the characters have to be drawn on model with nice volume and good acting. And then they shoot the animatic, which is the whole episode with those drawings, but there’s no color, there’s no in-betweens. That gives you a good sense of whether the episode is working or not, and you can really get a sense of the timing of the jokes and the clarity of the shots.
Then they show that to the writers and producers, and there’s another round of revisions, sometimes even re-writes. They do some more work here in the US, and then it gets sent over to Korea, where the real in-betweens and coloring will all happen. After it gets sent back from Korea, it’s pretty much a finished episode, and then there is one more round of notes and re-writes and re-takes.
Both The Simpsons and Family Guy work that way. There are some slight differences – Family Guy doesn’t do character layout. It’s all contained as a storyboard. But the compositions on Family Guy tend to be a little simpler, so you can get away without the character layout department.
That whole process – from the time the script hits our desk to when it airs on TV – takes about eight months for The Simpsons and little less than that for Family Guy.
Who are some of your favorite characters to draw?
I like drawing some of the weirder characters. Mr. Burns is kind of challenging to draw. I feel like when I get him, it’s a bit of a victory. Moe is a weird one, I like him. Barney. I like drawing Grandpa. On the Family Guy side, I like drawing Stewie a lot. He’s fun, he’s weird.
How much, if it all, do you interact with the cast and the producers?
I don’t know them well at all. I got to know some of the producers over at the Fox lot during the movie. I don’t really know the cast of either show. Family Guy is a little different because it’s all in one building, so you get to see the writers and producers and cast members more because you’re at the same location. But there’s a pretty big gulf between the animators and the voice actors.
What is the work atmosphere like? Laid back and funny, or intense? Or a combination of both?
I would say it leans towards the intense side. There are pockets of laid back and funniness, but I tend to have an approach of getting the job done on schedule. For me, it takes a lot of hard work and long hours.
There’s definitely some colorfulness to the offices. There’s a lot of toys around, because animators are nerdy like that. There’s definitely funny people. But there’s a lot of, just, nose to the grindstone. With TV production, you’ve got to make a deadline, and there’s a lot of work to be done.
They don’t give you more than enough time to do it. They give you slightly less than enough time.
Before the 2012 Presidential election, you worked on a video called Why Obama Now. It got over a million views in the first week. How did that video come together, and how did you get involved with it?
I knew I wanted to do something political because I was raised in a very political household, and I never felt like I fulfilled my civic duty. I’m not really an activist, but I come from a family of activists. So the video was just something that occurred to me. I thought, well, I could do it. And because I could do it, I got excited and I dedicated myself to bringing that vision to reality. I actually took several months off of work and learned After Effects, because I really wanted it to look slick. I did all of the artwork, and I edited the speech down from an hour long to a tight little three minutes. I showed some of my friends who were animators, and they helped get me over the finish line.
What are some other projects you have worked on?
I did Cosmos last year, which actually came out of the Obama video. The producer of Family Guy saw that video and she thought I would be able to help on Cosmos because they were doing animation that was a little more conceptual. I also produced some mini docs. They were more infographic-ey and explanatory. That was really fun because I enjoy explaining stuff, and I get a lot of satisfaction if I can do that visually.
**Five rapid fire questions**
Some of your favorite episodes: They all blend in together, like one giant lump of animation. Sometimes I’ll be watching an episode and I’ll think, Did I do that? I have fond memories of my early years when I was a prop designer on Boy-Scoutz N the Hood. Some of those episodes in Season 4 and Season 5, like when Homer goes back to college because he’s incompetent at his job.
Worst part about your job: I’ve had to do an all-nighter for almost every single deadline that I have worked toward since 1991. It’s just really intense and it can be a brutal amount of work. And also, slaving over something and bringing it to your bosses to then have it destroyed in front of your eyes. You feel like in that moment, there’s no appreciation for what you got right, it’s only about what you didn’t get right. I don’t blame my bosses because we all have a job to do. We’re not there to stroke each other’s egos. We’re there to get the job done.
Favorite piece of memorabilia: They give some pretty good Christmas gifts. One year The Simpsons gave us a picnic backpack with plastic dishes of the different characters and a little cutting board with the three-eyed fish. And that, for me, was the best Christmas gift they gave because I’m a picnicker.
How do people react when you tell them what you do for a living: I try not to lead with it. I don’t say, Hi my name is Lucas, I work for The Simpsons AND Family Guy. I remember a group of girls at a bar being very unconvinced. They were like nuh-uh, and I was like well, what do you you think an animator looks like? Why not me? Mostly people are like, Oh they still make The Simpsons?
Favorite Simpsons or Family Guy quote: The way my mind works, it’s more like I have images and feelings about certain things. I remember there’s this one shot where Mr. Burns is supposed to be the grinch. I just remember that the way they mimic’d the animation and were able to make Mr. Burns so grinch-like was beautiful to me.
And, finally, was there an episode or a scene that stands out as being particularly challenging and time consuming?
They very first scene I did as a character layout artist was for the Christmas episode in Season 9. There’s a scene where there is police tape around the Christmas tree, and the police officers Eddie and Lou and Wiggum are at the Simpsons’ house. I forget exactly what happens, but I worked on that scene for two weeks. I kept turning it in, and my director would say: Ok now you have to fix this and this. And then I would turn that in, and he would say: Ok now you have to fix this and this.
When I was done with it, he was finally like: Ok, the scene is approved. Now you have to do two scenes every day. That’s your quota. And I had just done one scene in two weeks.
But I’ve always been grateful to him for letting me take the time to go through that process and teaching me all the things that a scene has to have. I didn’t get up to speed right away, but I basically just worked and worked and worked until I was able to hit the quota.