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Kai Ryssdal: The Simpsons swap the small screen for the silver screen tomorrow. The movie about Homer and the gang’s had a pretty unusual marketing campaign to kick things off. 7-11s were turned into Kwik-E-Marts, the convenience store on the show. And Fox sponsored a contest between towns named Springfield, where the show is set, to be named the family’s official home. Springfield, Vermont, won and hosted the premier last weekend. But if you really want to know where the Simpsons come from, you have to look farther east than Vermont. All the way east to South Korea.
Pat Loeb explains.
HOMER SIMPSON: Did I save the day?
BART SIMPSON: Actually, you doomed us all.
Pat Loeb: The Simpson’s movie enlarges the family to cinemascope proportions and features more sophisticated visuals than the TV show. The characters cast shadows, for instance, and the scenes are drawn with many more colors. But one thing has not changed. The bulk of the animation was done at AKOM studios in Seoul.
Nelson Shin is the studio’s founder and CEO.
Nelson Shin: You know, The Simpsons looks so easy but it’s not easy.
Shin has a long list of television and movie credits. But he doesn’t pretend to have any creative input into The Simpsons. In fact, he says the animators in his studio don’t always get the jokes.
Nelson: Bart says to the father, “Hey, man.” You know? Those kind of words is never using in Asia. The kid never called the father, “Hey man,” you know?
Shin compares his work on The Simpsons to the same kind of work Korean companies do on auto parts and computer chips — he’s just filling an order.
Animation is labor intensive and cartoonists are cheaper in Asia. That’s why TV networks have been sending Saturday morning cartoon shows to the Pacific Rim since the 70s. When The Simpsons started production almost 20 years ago, outsourcing the animation to Korea was just a matter of course.
But cartoons aren’t widgets. Even a slight decrease in quality can sink a project. That’s why most movie work has stayed in the U.S.
Steve Hulett is the business rep for the Animation Guild in Los Angeles.
Steve Hulett: If you do a real, low-cost animated feature in India that’s unreleasable and nobody goes to see, you haven’t really solved your problem by doing it cheap. Whereas if you turn out “Ratatouille” or “Toy Story,” so what if it costs $80 million or $100 million, if it’s grossing $600 million or $800 billion worldwide, that’s a good investment.
The Simpsons is expected to be a blockbuster. So it’s a little bit of a jolt to animators that so much of the work was done in Korea. But Hulett says American animation is thriving. Hulett estimates there are twice as many animators working here now as there were in the 60s. That’s because there are so many more outlets for animation — video games, the Internet, a whole cable network and more prime-time TV shows. And The Simpsons led the way. So Hulett is not complaining.
Hulett: I worry about outsourcing. I wish there was less of it. But we’ve gotten our fair share.
Besides, all the really glamorous work on The Simpsons, the creative stuff, is still done locally. The writing and the voicing are the hallmarks of the show and of the movie. Consider this scene where actor Albert Brooks plays an evil aide trying to influence U.S. President Arnold Schwarzenegger:
AIDE: Knowing things is overrated. Anyone can pick something when they know what it is. It takes real leadership to pick something you’re clueless about.
PRESIDENT SCHWARZENEGGER: OK, I pick three.
AIDE: Try again.
PRESIDENT SCHWARZENEGGER: One.
AIDE: Go higher.
PRESIDENT SCHWARZENEGGER: Five.
PRESIDENT SCHWARZENEGGER: Three.
AIDE: You already said three.
PRESIDENT SCHWARZENEGGER: Six.
AIDE:There is no six.
PRESIDENT SCHWARZENEGGER: Two.
AIDE: Double it.
PRESIDENT SCHWARZENEGGER: Four.
AIDE: As you wish, sir.
That, you can’t outsource — that grasp on what Americans will find funny. That’s why The Simpsons does not cut corners on voice and writing talent. Writer Dana Gould worked on the show for seven years.
Dana Gould: So the writing staff of the show is large and well-paid, but one thing that a lot of people don’t know about the writing staff of The Simpsons is that during our lunch breaks we actually sew low-cost T-shirts for Wal-Mart. [laughs]
Homer Simpson: Why you little . . . I’ll teach you to laugh at something that’s funny.
In Los Angeles, I’m Pat Loeb for Marketplace.
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