The Simpsons
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October 19, 2018 at 04:58 PM EDT

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.”

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.”

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!’”

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.”

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.”

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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type
TV Show
seasons
30
Genre
run date
12/17/89
Cast
Dan Castellaneta,
Yeardley Smith
Network
Available For Streaming On
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