Translating The Simpsons

April 11, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

French animation legend Sylvain Chomet tells the story of his unexpected guest spot on The Simpsons.

A few weeks ago, two sides of the animation diaspora collided in an unexpected way – a couch gag for mainstream staple The Simpsons directed by French art-house animation director Sylvain Chomet. A beautiful example of 2D animation, the introduction to the hit sitcom has been causing a stir online ever since it hit screens and brought an unfamiliar aesthetic to the beloved cartoon.

Now the production company behind the film, Th1ng, have made a behind-the-scenes video revealing the painstaking process behind it. Given the popularity of John Lewis’ 2D adventures at Christmas last year, it seems the craft of hand animation still hold the mystique it always did.

We asked Sylvain how this strange marriage between him and the famous yellow family came about.

Sylvain’s relationship with The Simpsons has a long history. “I knew The Simpsons since the beginning,” he says. “Matt Groening and I came up the same way, from short film.” While Sylvain was taking his short film The Old Lady and the Pigeon around the world on the festival circuit, Matt was doing the same with his earliest incarnation of The Simpsons – a prototype vastly different from the family we know and love today.

The Frenchman notes that his career and that of the The Simpsons’ creator have followed a similar trajectory, from authored short film, through to TV and film. Although it’s fair to say Matt’s success has been a little more mass-market than Sylvain’s.

While he was working on his 2010 feature film The Illusionist at a studio in Scotland, Sylvain met Harry Shearer, the voice of Mr Burns, among many other characters in the show. Harry said he was a huge fan of The Triplets of Belleville and asked what his next film is.

It could be coincidence, but Sylvain next returned to France to receive a surprise from his yellow American friends. “Someone asked me how it feels to be in The Simpsons,” he recalls. “I said ‘what are you talking about?’” It turns out The Simpsons had made a spoof of the French animator’s most recognisable work – The Triplets of Belleville – they called it The Brothers of Beauville. Sylvain was very flattered. It was quite funny, he thought.

Recently he got the chance to return the homage The Simpsons had given him when the team called him asking if he’d like to direct a special couch gag for the beginning of an episode. They’d been doing this for a few years with other famous artists and directors including Banksy, Guillermo del Torro and Bill Plympton so it was an honour to be asked.

Of course he agreed. While it wasn’t a commercial project, Sylvain wanted to produce it through Th1ng. He contacted Executive Producer Dominic Buttimore, who he’s worked with for over 25 years, to ask for his collaboration. “It was going to be our 50th birthday,” he says, “so as a nice present to him, we were going to do The Simpsons.”

“We set up a call,” says Dominic. “I went over to where Sylvain lives in the Ardèche in France. Sylvain spent the weekend thinking up an idea and then we had a call to chat with [Executive Series Producer] Al Jean.”

Sylvain asked what they wanted for the couch gag. ‘Do whatever you want’ came the reply. It was very freeing, admits the director, but also very scary. Having worked in commercials, having a Client tell him something like this was a shock.

The idea flowed easily. Confident that they chose him for his unique style, Sylvain took a straightforward approach. “I’m French, I’m in France. I’m going to do the French version of The Simpsons in my style,” he decided.

Acknowledging that The Simpsons is built upon caricatures and stereotypes, Sylvain overloaded his couch scene with French clichés – snails, an accordion, froi gras. An official portrait of French president Francois Hollande hangs on the wall, as does a picture of a different boat to the familiar picture – a sinking SS France. “There are a lot of little messages like that,” says Sylvain, “because it’s not going very well in France and everybody is depressed. So I said ‘let’s have fun with that’ to show we still have a sense of humour.”

“It went really fast,” he says. “I don’t think I even made sketches and sketches. I just drew them and they just appeared to me like that.”

He passed the terrifying freedom he was given on to his team of animators at Th1ng. Having devised model sheets for the characters and drawn the backdrop he passed it on to trusted hands. “I said ‘enjoy yourself and have fun,’” says Sylvain. “It’s very unusual and it’s good for them because if you do commercials you have to rework things and take the advice from everybody into account. It’s pure animation.”

Sylvain felt comfortable giving his team at Th1ng this freedom because of the level of trust he has for people like Dominic and Lead Animator Neil Boyle. “At one point I was almost going to stop animation,” he admits. With such a unique style, it was difficult to find a team who could do it for him without too much supervision. “But because of Dominic and Th1ng I realised I can do my own projects and not be concerned with the technique. I just go with the creative stuff and trust the people who are animating it, which is brilliant.”

The only problem Sylvain recalls was to do with reconciling his style with that of Matt and The Simpsons’ animators. Sylvain’s characters don’t have round eyes like the Simpsons, so he had trouble making them recognisable while retaining his aesthetic. His solution was to give them all glasses – a bit of lateral thinking that makes a big difference.

In the weeks since the episode with the gag aired it has seen massive popularity on YouTube, for which Sylvain is grateful. At the time of writing it’s had about 5.5 million views and still rising. He and Dominic agree that this is partially because proper 2D animation is a rare joy to see these days, with a level of visible craft that still impresses.

“The internet is coming of age,” says Dominic. “Once upon a time it was a place you’d put up cheap things that were funny. That’s still an element of it – a cheap, funny gag like your cat getting stoned or whatever it might be, can still work – but there’s a need for seeing quality stuff online. It cuts through because so much stuff is not that great.”

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