Credit: The Simpsons

Every year, come the tricked-out, treat-packed time of Halloween, The Simpsons lets its shriek flag fly with “Treehouse of Horror.” These typically terrific terror trilogies allow the animated family comedy to unshackle from canonical chains and go full-gore with its parodies and parables (R.I.P., every Simpson family member, many times). But on Oct. 29, 1995, following the “Attack of the Fifty Foot Eyesores” and “Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace” segments from “Treehouse of Horror VI,” things went from ghastly and harrowing to… well, extremely trippy and unsettling.

The formidable undertaking titled “Homer³” (referred to as “Homer Cubed” or “Homer 3-D” or “3-D Homer”) sent the Simpson patriarch into new dimensions via CGI magic, which may look amusingly outmoded now but was rather stunning and visually innovative at the time. In this parody of The Twilight Zone episode “Little Girl Lost” that also riffed on the burgeoning state of computer animation, Homer discovers a “mystery wall” behind the bookcase and passes through the portal to enter a freaky new dimension that looks like what would happen if Tron and Battlezone had sex on Good Will Hunting’s chalkboard. Discombobulated yet intrigued by these environs — as well as his more fully formed body — Homer’s mouth leaks a beautiful drop of drool as he marvels at fish in a pool (“Mmmm, unprocessed fish sticks”). His new-world trance is broken when a cone (Shapes! They are the future!) pokes him in the derriere, prompting him to angrily fling it away, but the cone punctures the gridded ground, creating a black hole. When Bart tries to rescue him from this math-y techscape, Homer falls into the black hole — and into our real-world realm — bringing us the first live-action Simpsons moment: CG Homer pulls himself out of the trash and walks down an L.A. street in fear and disorientation. Suddenly, though, an erotic cake store captures his interest, and he wanders in as the credits roll, thus concluding an utterly bizarro adventure into the outer limits of 1995 technology. (And one whose triumph of tech was somewhat trumped a month later with Pixar’s release of the first CGI feature-length movie, Toy Story.)

“I wouldn’t rank this as the funniest thing that I’ve written, because that wasn’t entirely the goal,” says David X. Cohen, a former Simpsons producer who penned the segment. “It was the most ambitious episode I’ve worked on, requiring the most people to suffer the most to get it on the air…. I believe at the time that we ourselves were so dazzled by the graphics that we just wanted to linger on them with a little bit of suspenseful music and just kind of show off. We slowed down a little bit just to say, ‘Hey, world, we’re doing this thing that no one else can do right now!’”

Offers David Mirkin, longtime Simpsons producer who directed the live-action portion of Homer³: “People loved it back then because it was having fun with technology at the moment, and now it looks like a piece of history, of being amazed at technology that’s no longer amazing. So, it works funny in both ways.” Adds Simpsons director and producer David Silverman: “It hadn’t really been done — certainly not for TV. It’s very hard to explain it to people. It’s like, ‘Well, you know, my friend, you kinda had to be there…’”

On the eve of “Treehouse of Horror XXIX” (Sunday, 8 p.m., Fox), let’s take you back there as best we can, given that we don’t have the time-machine toaster from “Treehouse of Horror V”. Here, several key players in the creation of “Homer³” rifle through their dumpster of notes and unearth a few ideas that never made it to the screen — and share assorted tales with EW about the segment that stands as one of the most outlandish and colorful moments in the show’s 30-season run.

Clay d’oh!

The genesis of the idea traces back to Bill Oakley, who was serving as co-showrunner of The Simpsons with Josh Weinstein at the time. He remembers a lightbulb illuminating over his head while leafing through a Twilight Zone companion book that was lying around the office. “I found ‘Little Girl Lost,’ and I somehow made the connection: ‘Hey, what if we pretended that the Simpsons were in the second dimension and they went into the third dimension?’” he recalls. Initially, Oakley and his fellow writers were planning to have the characters embark on a journey through all sorts of animation formats, but that notion didn’t last long. “We were like, ‘What 
can we really do besides paper cutouts?’” he says. “We
 could do claymation, but that was third dimension [too]. Also, it dilutes the conceptual purity of going from second 
to third dimension. In The Twilight Zone, a little girl goes into the fourth dimension. So we said, ‘Let’s dispose of all that other crud.’”

Oakley tapped Cohen (who would go on to co-develop Futurama with Simpsons creator Matt Groening) to write this segment based on his impressive academic pedigree. (Cohen boasts a physics degree from Harvard and a computer science degree from UC Berkeley.) “Because they were setting it in 3-D, Bill thought it might be cool to put some mathematical jokes in the background,” says Cohen. “And that’s where I came in. Of the many nerds on the Simpsons staff, I was the one with the particular math and science bent to of my nerdiness. So it was up to me to write it.” (More on that nerdiness in a bit.)

The SimpsonsCredit: Bob Anderson
Credit: Bob Anderson

Diving into uncharted waters

Pacific Data Images, a computer animation production company that had worked a bit on Batman Forever and Terminator 2 — and did the digital rendering of the Pillsbury Doughboy in commercials — was looking to extend its reach into Hollywood at the time. So when the Simpsons producers contacted the company about producing the segment, there was elation… followed by hesitation. “The opportunity to work with arguably one of the greatest television series of all time — one of the best-written, with the most characters — was what you were dreaming to do in those primitive days of computer animation,” recalls Tim Johnson, the head of PDI’s character animation group who directed and oversaw all the cutting-edge CG imagery in that segment. “We turned to [PDI founder] Carl Rosendahl and we said, ‘Here’s the good news: The Simpsons has this amazing script, and we can participate.’ Carl just got up out of his chair and paced the room — he was so excited. I said, ‘Well, here’s the bad news: They don’t have any money to pay for it.’ So Carl sat back down and ran the numbers. [The Simpsons] wrote us a check for something embarrassing — like $6,000 — and we got to work on it.”

Longtime Simpsons director Bob Anderson, who helmed the segment and created the concept art as well as the storyboards while working at Film Roman (the Simpsons‘ production company at the time), recalls bringing a small poster card to an early meeting with PDI (as seen below). “On this small piece of illustration board, I adhered a sheet of black construction paper,” he says. “I ruled some perspective lines for a grid with a Wite-Out pen, which I later shaded with a green highlighter. After masking that off, a toothbrush and a little more Wite-Out helped to create a splattering of stars for the dark, black sky. Two color-penciled, textured shapes set up the neighborhood for the smallest of details — a tiny representation of Homer trapped in his 3-D environment.” The grid was even more detailed than can be seen in the photo here. “Within each square of the grid is another smaller grid. Within each square of that smaller grid would be another tiny grid, and so on,” he says, adding, “Everyone seemed to like that, so that’s the direction it took.”

The SimpsonsCredit: Bob Anderson
Credit: Bob Anderson

PDI was supplied with two layouts: one that indicated what each background shot should look like, and another that illustrated Homer’s acting. “I remember thinking I would break all the barriers that pretty much confined us to our traditional animation, being that we could rotate the camera around Homer as he’s walking because he’d be in 3-D,” he says. “There was an initial shot where we actually pull out away from him and spin all the way around him and see his entire environment…. Everything was pretty well figured out, and they rendered everything pretty much exactly as I had hoped it would come out.”

Cohen recalls that, given the project’s ambition and tight deadlines, “There was a discussion of, ‘Can we use any pre-existing 3-D models that the company already had to save time and money?’” Indeed, Johnson took advantage of the models and simulations that PDI had been creating over the years. “I came at it with the improv comedian’s mantra of, ‘Yes, and,’” he sums up. “They would have these funny ideas, and I would say, ‘Yes, and… did you realize that a teapot — which is really easy to make, and we already have — is an icon of computer animation? Maybe we could steer away from that crazy, impossible thing, and also have our cake and eat it too, by being a little truer to that kind of in-joke and mocking the state of computer animation.’”

Take, for example, Homer’s “Mmmm, unprocessed fish sticks” line. “They were saying, ‘Well, we know water’s expensive,’ but somebody on our team had just done a really interesting water simulation,” continues Johnson. “And I believe we were able to offer the shot of Homer’s glistening drool falling in the water, creating gorgeous sine-wave ripples. That was our big production-value-add to their fish sticks joke.” (Speaking of that water scene, “I got some good notes from Brad Bird [who] at the time was our storyboard consultant,” says Anderson of the future director of The Incredibles. “Looking up from inside the little pond with the goldfish and seeing Homer through the water — that was one of Brad’s shots.”)

Like Anderson, Johnson recalls pouring long hours into the segment. “I was still animating a Pillsbury Doughboy commercial, and we were doing that in the day, but listen, there’s not a single bad memory involved with that,” he says. “Those nights and weekends spent on the show were done with absolute glee.” (The nearly gratis work — a value that Johnson conservatively estimates at many hundreds of thousands of dollars — proved to be a smart investment, as the segment served as a calling card for the company. Shortly thereafter, Dreamworks bought a significant share of PDI, and Johnson would proceed to co-direct Antz; PDI co-produced Antz as well as Shrek. )

Formulas to confound and intrigue math-minded fans

As mentioned, Cohen was asked by Oakley to geek out by slipping all sorts of numbers and formulas in the techno-scape, which also included a Myst temple reference. (You may have noticed that the number 734 spells out PDI on a phone keypad, while a different set of numbers and letters above Homer translate in ASCII code to “Frink rules,” a reference to Professor Frink.) Cohen’s original notes for the segment included this line: “In the background, several equations are floating around that will shock and amuse the scientific community.” To achieve that purpose, Cohen says he planted a physics equation which indicates that “the universe is going to one day collapse in on itself, and that was to represent the fact that the 3-D world collapses in on itself at the end.” (This question remained open to physicists at the time, although “astronomers now believe that our universe will not collapse back in on itself,” Cohen helpfully points out.) Another equation, P = NP, which centers on the most famous unsolved problem in computer science, was “a brazen statement in computer science that says, ‘Yes, these difficult problems actually have an easy solution — we just haven’t found it yet.’ That was supposed to represent the idea that we can do these fancy 3-D computer graphics that no one else could on TV at that time.”

His pièce de résistance, however, involved Fermat’s Last Theorem. (Around the time that the episode was being written, Princeton mathematician Andrew Wiles claimed to have a proof, which turned out to be flawed, but he ultimately corrected it just before the episode aired, thus ending a dilemma that had been confounding academics since the 17th century.) “What I set to do in the background was to disprove it, contradicting the centuries of work leading up to this monumental math proof equation,” says Cohen. “Whereas he was saying there were no numbers that make that equation true, I decided to write a program that would look for numbers that made the equation almost true, and were correct to [enough] decimal places that people who checked on an ordinary hand calculator would find that it seemed to be true. My goal was to outsmart people who had an eight-digit calculator, which was the standard at that time.… This was in the early years of the internet, so I was able to lurk afterward and see people posting, ‘What the hell is going on here? This thing seems to disprove Fermat’s Last Theorem!’ And that was really one of those career highlights where I was like, ‘Yes! I screwed with three nerds’ heads!’” (He’d screw with a few more when he reworked his disproof of the theorem in season 10’s “The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace” so it could fool the then-standard 10-digit calculators.)

By the way, here’s how Johnson recalls that prank of the highest academic order: “David Cohen and one of our programmers got to laughing so hard that everybody began to back out of the room, because nobody understood the joke.”

NEXT PAGE: Find out how the scene with Homer in the real world was pulled off

Flanders was roped into action

In the final version of the segment, Bart — who is attached to a rope secured in the second dimension — tries to save Homer. Originally, though, there was a third character in the scene who was attempting the rescue. “The [portal] had a 40-inch circumference and [Chief] Wiggum couldn’t fit through that, so they had to look for somebody skinnier,” remembers Cohen. That somebody skinnier? Ned Flanders. Marge was also slated to cross dimensions, and according to Cohen’s notes, “Marge’s hair will look great.” Alas, PDI had the time and resources to render only two characters. “We were already getting a lot of free work from Pacific Data Images, so we couldn’t push them too hard,” says Cohen. “Numerous plans went out the window at that point.” Johnson shivers at the notion of adding Flanders into the mix: “In Homer’s case, he had one zig-zagging line for hair. And in Bart’s case, it was some type of atomic Brillo pad on top. But if we had to do Ned’s mustache, I think it would’ve killed us.”

The SimpsonsDrawing by David Silverman, photo courtesy of Tim Johnson.
Credit: Courtesy Tim Johnson

Indeed, like Homer, PDI was entering unchartered territory, taking its computers to the limits with renderings that at the time were extremely complex. “This is a perfect example of ignorance being bliss,” says Johnson. “If we had known exactly what we were biting off, we never probably would have showed the appetite. It begins right away with how delightful and simple David Silverman’s drawings of The Simpsons are, and yet you never see them, except for one or two angles. So right away, we realized that to honor the characters and be faithful to them, and have an audience go, ‘Yeah, that is Bart, that is Homer,’ it’d be way harder than we thought to create a 3-D version of characters that not only were 2-D — and I mean this as a compliment — but were incredibly simple and limited in the angles in which they were portrayed and drawn. Right from the very first step in that process, building the characters, we already were laughing at, ‘Oh, this is not a cakewalk. This is actually going to be very, very challenging on the creative and the technical side.’” One thing working in their favor: The third dimension that they were creating was a fairly simple plane populated with primitive objects. “Thank goodness for that, because if the backgrounds were as complicated as the characters, we never could’ve done the job,” continues Johnson. “We were saved from our complex characters by our comically simple backgrounds.”

Silverman recalls an early desire on the producers’ part to have the portal to the third dimension look more elaborate, but that never materialized. “We were trying to do something more complex with the hole, a more complex vortex,” he says. “It was fine for what it was, but we wanted something more swirling and more dynamic.” He was especially pleased, though, with the shot of Homer running from 2-D into 3-D animation. “That was a shot I was really looking forward to,” he says. “I remember talking to Bob [Anderson] about a nice, slow transitional bit of animation: ‘Let’s make the amount of black space slightly dimensional — a bit on a diagonal as opposed to being flat on the side.’” Johnson, meanwhile, still has a tinge of regret about the 3-D black hole that fractured Homer into many pieces. “I’m not sure we were ever thrilled with the result of that,” he says. “But we at least conveyed the notion in a kind of vague, science-y way of that vortex opening up an infinite hole below.”

Credit: The Simpsons

Bart was choked up in one gag

By season 7, scads of Simpsons jokes had entered the zeitgiest, including a visual (and very literal) one in which Homer becomes angry with Bart and chokes him while exclaiming, “Why, you little!” The recurring bit drew disapproval from some critics who likened it to child abuse, though the show’s producers sought to remind everyone that this was simply a cartoon. Call it “internal guilt possibly poking through,” quips Cohen, but an early version of the story was even going to comment on the concerns over these frequent throttlings. “We thought it might be fun to comment on why the many chokings hadn’t killed him by that point,” he explains. “We were going to excuse ourselves by saying that in the second dimension, it wasn’t really hurting him.”

The idea was this: Entering the third dimension, Bart scares his dad by flying toward him with his pointy hair, which now resembles a meat tenderizer. Homer is at first scared of this attacking kitchen instrument, and tries to swat it away with a 3-D cone. Realizing that it’s just his son, he becomes upset and yells, “Oh, so I can’t even get a little peace and quiet in my own dimension? Why, you little!” and when he reaches out to grab Bart as his son flies by again, Homer is carried off with him. Recalls Cohen: “Then Bart was going to start screaming and say, ‘Ow, Dad! Stop it! In here that really hurts for some reason!’”

Credit: Bob Anderson

The segment was seen as a trial balloon for a big-screen adventure

The Simpsons hit theaters in 2007 with The Simpsons Movie, but there had long been discussions about a film. The promise of Homer 3-D “was sort of dipping a toe into what could be a movie,” says Mirkin. “We were always pressured to think about a movie forever, so maybe this was one of the ways we could express it as a film — just beginning and experimenting. ‘Let’s see what these characters look like in CGI in case we’re leaning toward a CGI movie,’ which was where the industry was going at that point.” While these possibilities intrigued the show’s writers, the response from the network — at least from the production side — wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic. “It’s very possible that other executives at Fox would have been excited, but the physical production people and the people that are looking at our budget for the show, it was the opposite,” Mirkin says with a chuckle. “It was like, ‘Aw, geez, you know how expensive that’s going to be? It’s such a pain in the ass, and you’re going to have to do this and that.’ I have a very, very cynical point of view of show business. When you’re trying to do art and you’re faced with business people, [that] is just the nature of it, and you make friends with that. But this still surprised me. It was actually quite hilarious.”

The SimpsonsCredit: Bob Anderson
Credit: Bob Anderson

There was nearly a cause for cosplay

In figuring out how to depict Homer walking down a live-action L.A. street — and right into Erotic Cakes — the producers considered the rather lo-fi option of putting voice-of-Homer Dan Castellaneta in a costume. But in its first meeting with The Simpsons, PDI said it also could tackle that CG version of Homer, much to the producers’ surprise. “I don’t think I’d ever seen anything like that, especially on a TV budget, where they animated CGI in live-action,” says Oakley. “I don’t think we were aware that that could be done. They were like, ‘Oh, yeah, we could do that too.’ That was when we decided, ‘Forget the costume.’”

The writers also tossed around the idea of having the Simpsons cast members play the passers-by whom Homer encounters on the street, but “It became logistically difficult to get everybody together to do that for a full day,” recalls Mirkin. Cohen remembers some discussion about a costumed Homer strangling Nancy Cartwright (who voices Bart), as well as a nod to Homer’s onscreen wife with Julie Kavner (who voices Marge). “Julie was to shudder in revulsion when Homer thought he recognized her,” he says. According to Cohen’s notes, the full exchange would involve Homer tentatively saying to Kavner, “Marge…?” and Kavner responding, “Stay away from me.” (Another abandoned meta-joke featured a second storefront that would catch Homer’s eye. “Oh my God, I’m in a horrible, horrible world,” he would say as he passed a store selling Simpsons merchandise.)

The animators at PDI were very concerned about Homer’s harsh entrance into the human realm. Maybe overly so. “When we drop Homer from the skies into our live-action world, I asked the animators to make it really fast and violent,” recalls Johnson. “Yet, when the first animation test was shown, Homer sort of ‘floated’ down to a reasonably soft landing in the alley dumpster. ‘Nope,’ I said. ‘Harder. Faster.’ It took three tries to get the animators to really crunch Homer into the trash. Turns out, they just simply liked him so much, they ‘didn’t want to hurt him.’ That being said, when we finally got it to the speed you see in the show, we were all howling with laughter. I started to worry it would be too much for our Simpsons show folk. But David Silverman saw it and laughed himself silly. We looped the animation so it ran over and over without pause, and every time we would all burst into laughter again.”

In filming this live-action-meets-animation sequence, a truck drove alongside the action with a ping-pong ball attached to a long pole to direct the actors’ eyes to where CG Homer would be digitally inserted. “The whole time, I’m thinking, ‘Oh, God, now we’re stuck with the ping-pong ball, which we have to cover up or erase,'” says Johnson. “And we have to make Homer move at the pace of a truck that’s zagging along the road.'” After several takes, he suggested that he walk alongside the passers-by off-camera, guiding them with his voice. This was the take that the producers used. “We didn’t have to remove any wire,” continues Johnson. “Homer could stumble along, at whatever pace we used, with the eyeline as the guide, which was more organic than the pace of the ping-pong ball.”

Credit: The Simpsons

Producing this segment was no cakewalk, but speaking of cakewalks…

Homer’s entrance into the sexy baked dessert establishment as an otherworldly version of the show’s theme music takes us into the credits serves an eerie, disquieting button to this… experimental experience. “We wondered whether it would leave people scratching their heads, but I don’t think it did,” opines Oakley. “I think some people were still not quite sure what was going on with the erotic cakes, but ultimately it was a pretty easy thing to do. He had to go somewhere. It just required a neon sign and a couple of cakes. We had to get him off the street somehow.”

Though he’s pleased with the segment, Mirkin is still haunted by the crane shot that ends the episode: Homer wanders into the Erotic Cakes store (which the producers recall was a much more innocent photography studio in real life). “They gave me the oldest crane that you could possibly find and not enough people to control traffic, or even the permits to control traffic, so it was very down and dirty,” says Mirkin. “That’s a perfect example of, I wanted something to look very cinematic and big-time, and they just wanted it to be handled and quick,” he says. “Normally for something like that, you’d be able to periodically stop traffic for a single shot on one side of Ventura Boulevard, but that would have been too expensive, so we could only stop traffic in one lane for a short period of time. It really compromised the crane shot because normally the crane would have to swing out into the street to get back far enough to make it a very cool and interesting shot. Instead it has to very unnaturally swing out and back in as it goes up. I’ve talked to people about this for years; I said, ‘Do you notice that shot?’ and they said, ‘No, it looks fine.’ But to me, it’s a comedy in itself.”

In case you’ve ever wondered what became of that Erotic Cakes sign, look no further than Simpsons HQ on the Fox lot in L.A. “I see that sign once a week at least when I go in to The Simpsons because it’s still sitting there,” says Mirkin. “It used to be lit up and we used to have it plugged in, and now it’s in a corner. I don’t think it really works. If we plugged it in, we would all die in a fire.”

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