Chuck Sheetz: Directing 'The Simpsons'

Chuck Sheetz is an Emmy Award–winning director on The Simpsons, a show that has been an iconic part of our culture for almost a quarter-century. 

 

Photo: FOXPhoto: FOXAs a kid in Philadelphia in the 1960s and ’70s, Sheetz fell in love with shows like Ralph Bakshi’s Mighty Heroes and old black-and-white Popeye cartoons from the 1930s, which prompted him to shoot his own three-minute animated film. But he didn’t have an animation career in mind when he enrolled in film school at UCLA. In fact, if his roommate hadn’t said, “I’m going to take an animation class. Why don’t you take it too?” his career might have gone in a completely different direction.

After grad school, Sheetz began working on the The Simpsons in its third season, way back in the 1990s, and has directed such classic episodes as “Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(Annoyed Grunt)cious” and “Eternal Moonshine of the Simpson Mind,” which earned him the 2008 Outstanding Animated Program Emmy. Among his other directing and producing credits are King of the Hill, The Critic, What’s New, Scooby-Doo? and the feature film Recess: School’s Out. Sheetz is also a professor and vice chair of undergraduate studies at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.

He took time out from an intense schedule to speak with Get In Media about real life in the animated world.

Get In Media: Before you ever got to film school you made a little animation. How did you go about doing it? 

Chuck Sheetz: I was reading a lot of books about animation, technical kinds of things, and I decided to do a little test where I had a character fall into frame and stand up and dance around a little bit. I had rough drawings on paper and I finalized them and added a little color with a red marker. This was when there were no video systems or anything. I put the drawings on the floor of my bedroom, registered it to a bulletin board with little pins, and shot it on Super 8. 

GIM: When you first enrolled at film school, you weren’t planning on a career in animation. How did taking an animation class change your focus?

CS: In that class I did a 15-second film in about five weeks. It had a strong gag in it and it went over well. I had also done my first live-action project, and it had cost me about $400, which was a lot of money in those days. It still is. I talked to other students who were completing live-action films, and I said, “How much did it cost to make that?” They were talking in tens of thousands of dollars. So I said, “How did you get the money for that?” And they said, “Well, you get credit cards and you max them out.” This was in the ’80s, when I don’t think even my father had a credit card. So I thought, I can’t do that.

But with animation I thought, If I put the time in and sit down and draw it, I can do anything I want. I don’t have to think in terms of budget. It’s just my time. And I had all the time in the world back then because I was a student.

So I took the advanced animation class and started working on a film that was seven-and-a-half minutes. By the time I graduated, I had the pencil test [animated pencil drawings on paper] of my completed film, I had the soundtrack, and I was starting to do the final artwork, which in those days, working with cels and ink and paint, took a huge amount of time. I didn’t finish it until three years later.

GIM: Wow, what took you so long?

CS: The thing was, I got a job at the UCLA Film & Television Archive and only had my evenings and weekends. The entire film would have taken probably a year, but once I started working it ballooned to three years. I finished it in 1986 and sent it around on the film festival circuit and won a few awards. It was called Wild Times in the Wildwood and a company called Picture Start said, “We’ll represent you,” and they made a deal with Night Flight, a late night television show that ran music videos and short films.

It’s an interesting film, though there are parts of it now that I cringe about. I was 22 years old and writing about being 17 or 18. It’s very old-school in that regard, but it’s true to being that age. And some of the animation I would do differently now as well, but basically it held together.

GIM: It’s a bit of a leap from making student films to landing a job on The Simpsons. How did you do it?

CS: After I finished that film, I decided to go to graduate school. And at the end of my second year I got a call from my friend Maria Rodriguez, who was working on The Simpsons as a production manager. I was a very, very big fan of the show. They were looking for animation timers, and she said, “Look, why don’t you come down here?” So she sent me to meet with Mark Kirkland, who was then an assistant director and is still there as a director. I showed him my film and he said, “I think you can do this timing job. Go down and tell them I say you’re OK.” And they said, “ If Mark says you’re fine, then we’ll hire you.” It was easier in those days. There was a demand.

GIM: What exactly does an animation timer do?

CS: The way animation has been done in this country since the ‘60s is that what’s usually generated in Hollywood or New York is a script, a soundtrack, and a storyboard. Simpsons always goes beyond the storyboard and does backgrounds and character layout, basically posing out what was in the storyboard, but not doing all the in-between animations. So the timer takes the key layout, the key poses, and positions them on the sheet with the dialogue and basically says, “Okay, in the drawing Homer has his hand on his chest and swings his arm out.” In timing you decide how many frames it is to get to that. When you’re working with a sound track, which is read phonetically frame by frame, if he’s saying, “You can go now,” you can basically see where he’s pointing on the word “now” and map that out. When there isn’t any dialogue, then you rely on certain things, like most steps the characters take are 12 frames. And for a lot of things, you’re using your own instincts as to how long something should take.

GIM: How did your career progress from animation timing to directing? 

CS: What happened was, [during hiatus from The Simpsons] I took a job as an animation timer on Rocko’s Modern Life, and I was working with another Simpsons person, a guy named Alan Smart. One day he said to me, “I’m going on this new show, The Critic, to direct, and if you decide to come you can be my assistant director.” I said, “Well, I have to think about it.” I knew I was probably going to do it, but you don’t ever want to say yes right away.

Then the show got picked up and Rich Moore, the supervising director, called me up and said, “We’re going into the second season and I want you to assistant direct the show, but I want you to direct one as well.” So I directed an episode of The Critic called “All the Duke’s Men.” The Duke was a Ted Turner–like character on the show who decided to run for president. It was a good episode. I was very happy with it. But the show didn’t get picked up. It was canceled.

Strangely enough, when The Critic was cancelled I got a call from The Simpsons and they said, “Look, you can come back onto the show, but you can’t come back as a director, you can be an assistant director.” I had anticipated that, and it was a step up from what I’d done before, from timing, so I said okay. Then at end of that season, which I think was their seventh, they had some extra shows that were being done in the hiatus period, and they needed directors. So I got to direct on The Simpsons.

GIM: In animation, what is the assistant director responsible for?

CS: Most assistant directors do some animation timing, but you’re also responsible for looking at layouts, sometimes correcting layouts, doing revisions to other people’s artwork and drawings, things like that. It’s a more art-oriented kind of job. I don’t have an art school background; I have a film school background. But by the time I was assistant directing and was asked to do fixes on people’s drawings or add drawings, I had already looked at thousands of character layouts as a timer, and had gotten really acquainted with the characters that way.

GIM: And as a director, what exactly do you do? 

CS: People always say, “How do you direct an animated show?” Well, you’re doing the same things that live-action people do, but there are different levels of control. As the director, you’re looking at storyboards. Some directors do their own storyboards, and I have on occasion, but I’m very slow at it, so I’m more inclined to give notes to somebody. If somebody says, “How is this supposed to look?” I will rough it out and they’ll run with that. But a lot of times you’re just making little changes, not coming up with an entire rough.

You’re sort of in charge of everything. You’re asked questions about everything. And you try, to the best of your ability, to cover everything. You meet with the color stylists and the designers. When you look at the design, you have to keep in mind what the character will be doing. It’s kind of like with an actor. If a costume designer says, “This is the kind of design we want to do with this character,” you as the director have to say, “No, this character is going to have to run.” You have to think logically.

“No one wants to aspire to make the worst film ever made, but the worst film that has been completed is more of a film than the greatest script that never got made.”

With storyboarding, a lot of it is choosing angles and making sure that it’s clear. Clarity is very, very important because whenever you cut there’s the potential to confuse people. Now in 2013, most people are very good at watching film. We understand film grammar and logic. I always say you can cut from anything to anything else, but if it’s not a smooth transition, it takes people just a fragment of a second to reorient. If you have too much of that, people don’t know exactly why, but they’re not enjoying themselves as much anymore. You’re making them work too hard.

Sometimes you do want to challenge people as a filmmaker. You don’t want it to be too easy and you’ll deliberately cut to something. People are momentarily confused and then it becomes clear what happened. A lot of times it involves what they call a hard cut. Like someone will say, “Here’s the plan. We’re gonna do this and this and this. What could possibly go wrong?” Then you go to a hard cut, to the end result, where something is destroyed. And the audience has to think for a moment, to piece back together exactly what happened. Those are always a lot of fun.

Or sometimes you cut in close on a character as if it’s the same scene, but they’re actually in another place. Those can be interesting transitions to do. In Citizen Kane, Mr. Thatcher says “Merry Christmas, Charles…” to young Charles Foster Kane, who’s about nine years old. And then he says, “…and a happy New Year.” And it’s the same sentence only 50 years later.

GIM: What advice do you have for students who’d like to get into animation?

CS: I would say that if you want to be an animator, if you want to be a filmmaker—that is to say, if you have ideas and want to make your own films—you have to have a finished film. That’s the biggest thing. No one wants to aspire to make the worst film ever made, but the worst film that has been completed is more of a film than the greatest script that never got made. You can’t go in and say, “I have a great film I was working on a few years ago but I never finished it.” You want to go in with a finished film.

If you’re not inclined to be an animator, if you want to do design or storyboarding or color styling, you need to have a strong portfolio of art. Never put a bad drawing in your portfolio. Don’t put in weak drawings just so you have volume. But if you’re the kind of person who’s going to be doing this, then you’re probably drawing all the time anyway, compulsively. And the more drawings you do, the more great drawings you’re going to have. And for an animation portfolio, you want to have drawings with some sense of action.

Also, if you were born and raised in Southern California, you probably know people who are in the film business. But if you’re not from New York City or Los Angeles, I think going to film school gives you a base of operations. I started to work with people who were all similarly minded, and once we started moving out into the industry, we all kind of helped each other along.

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