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Making Commercials: Promoting The Simpsons

The Simpsons

FXX’s 552-episode, 12-day marathon of The Simpsons hurled the new channel to the top of the ratings. Awesome helped.

By Michael Fickes

Awesome Incorporated’s Brandon Betts and Craig Sheldon discuss production notes on The Simpsons marathon promo Creation.

Awesome Incorporated’s Brandon Betts and Craig Sheldon discuss production notes on The Simpsons marathon promo Creation.

Rolling Stone magazine says that the year-old FX network channel FXX ranked 49th among cable channels catering to 18- to 45-year-olds when it first came on the air. During and for a short period after FXX ran a 552-episode, 12-day marathon of The Simpsons, the channel rose to 3rd on that list.

Awesome Inc. helped. The Atlanta-based multi-disciplinary creative studio produced a 40-second promotional piece for the marathon.

Creation, as the promo is called, ties the virtually eternal Simpsons series to the creation of the world. It begins with the big bang, the formation of the universe, and travels through time and space to our Earth and the moon.

A voice-over narrates the creation: “It is written that God created the world in six days, and on the seventh day, He rested.”

While God is at rest and apparently not watching, the Simpsons family appears on the scene, with transparent bodies outlined by lines drawn in blue celestial light—an animation style influenced by constellation maps. The family’s visible skeletons are made of stars connected by stick-lines that might be focused sunlight.

Dara Barton, director of production at FX, the network that owns FXX, approached Awesome in search of a studio that could animate The Simpsons characters in an outer space setting using the original—and fitting—constellation motif, which was conceived of by Pilot, a creative branding agency with offices in New York City and Marina Del Rey, Calif.

Most importantly, Barton wanted a studio with nuanced artists that would be able to keep the Simpson characters “on model,” a requirement specified by Gracie Films, producer of The Simpsons.

“We felt up to the challenge and submitted some proofs-of-concept showing that we could keep the characters on-model while animating the promo designed in this unique constellation style,” said Ashley Kohler, executive producer with Awesome.

When Barton decided to tap Awesome, the animators went to work using a tight animatic of the promo, which also was developed by Pilot, as a guide. The team used Photoshop for character animation, After Effects for compositing, and Maya for the 3D work.

Tough Scheduling

“The biggest challenge was meeting a tight schedule with a complex workflow model necessitated by everyone’s desire to promote and not compromise the brand,” Kohler said. “Typically, we do a rough pass of the entire spot, get approval, do the full pass, make changes, and produce the finished piece.

“For this spot, FX and Gracie asked for us to finish 20 seconds of the 40-second spot before moving on. Everyone was satisfied at the 20-second point, but the half-and-half production requirement made it difficult to meet the schedule. No matter, we all realized how important it was to do everything possible to maintain the brand’s integrity.”

Technical Challenges

Recreating iconic characters in a different way presents risks. Awesome wanted to support the brand, while aiming for a presentation that the audience would recognize as favorite characters in a new environment.

“When adapting them into the glowing constellation lines, we not only had to keep the character art on-model, but we also had to add enough design elements to keep them from looking like simple line-art,” Kohler said.

 “We were tempted to lean into sci-fi depictions of nebulae, space gas, and cosmic debris, but FXX wanted the depiction of space to read as if it was a documentary at the beginning—up until the comedic flip with the appearance of the Simpsons,” she continued. “It was challenging to balance documentary realism with a vivid cartoon like The Simpsons is a delicate thing—I think we found a good middle ground.”

Yes, even the cosmos has a middle ground. As for The Simpsons, however, there is no middle ground; there is only doh!

February 9, 2015