The career of animator David Silverman has been intertwined with the internationally popular American sitcom The Simpsons since its very beginning. He has helmed dozens of episodes and animated shorts featuring the show’s beloved cast of quirky characters and served as the iconic long-running series’ Director of Animation for several years.
More recently, he co-directed Disney/Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. in 2001, directed The Simpsons Movie in 2007 and the Maggie Simpson-focused theatrical short “The Longest Daycare” which played in front of Blue Sky Studios’ Ice Age: Continental Drift in 2012, and he currently holds the title of The Simpsons’ Consulting Producer. Tomorrow, his latest Maggie short entitled “Playdate with Destiny” premieres on Disney+ after having run with the Pixar film Onward in theaters last month. This week I was fortunate enough to participate in a roundtable-style interview with David Silverman and several other reporters over the phone, during which we discussed the new short, his history with the show, why preserving original aspect ratios is important, and his love of Disney animation.
Q: What were the origins of and inspiration for “Playdate with Destiny?” How did you start working on it?
David Silverman: It actually all started [when] we were bandying about some sort of funny art piece to present to say, ‘Okay, here we are– we’re part of Disney!’ We were going back and forth with [The Simpsons executive producer James L. Brooks] and Jim got this idea to do another short. I was like, ‘That’s a great idea!’ That’s sort of how it came about, and then it hit that it should be another Maggie short. It’s great to do it with Maggie because it’s all silent. That’s a fun thing to do in the short format. ‘Why don’t we do something with Maggie at the park?’
We all got together and brainstormed– me and [creator] Matt Groening, Jim Brooks, [showrunner] Al Jean, and [writers] Matt Selman, Michael Price, Tom Gammill, and Max Pross. And then we just sort of broke it down together and we were off to the races.
Q: When did you start working on it? Roughly how long did it take to complete?
Silverman: Most of it took the better part of a year. We started it in August of 2018, and we got it to a good point where we showed it off to Disney, and they liked it very much. And we were very happy. Because you never know; you’re so close to it. ‘Is it working? We don’t know.’ Bob Iger really liked it, so after that we were gonna finish it up and fix it. We were going back and forth on some things– ‘Maybe this joke is funnier this way,’ and so forth. Around September of 2019, we had it more or less done. And then in January we added a few last-minute things: a little edit here, add a shot there, an adjustment on some of the music, and that was about it.
Q: With a new audience being exposed to The Simpsons on Disney+, would you consider “Playdate with Destiny” a good representation of what the show has to offer? What is the advantage to having it be mostly dialogue-free?
Silverman: Yeah, in a sense. To my mind, it shows the richness that the show has now in terms of its look. It took a while to evolve its style over the years. As we got more sure of ourselves our budget improved, which allowed us to get more artistic in some respects. And also when we switched over to digital compositing and painting, it opened up a new world for us in terms of how much rendering we could do. To have it be about Maggie and it has the silent aspect to it, it hearkens back to some of the earlier episodes in earlier seasons. So yeah, it covers the broad [feel] of the whole collection of Simpsons episodes.
As far as not using dialogue, it just seemed like a lot of fun to do it that way, in terms of doing a mostly wordless short. It’s a nice exercise, and using Maggie for that purpose seemed like a fun thing to do. For this one and the one beforehand, this is what the storytelling called for, and that’s why it worked out.
Q: Can you talk about the ‘Homer with donut Mickey ears’ fake-out at the beginning, the Disney-style title cards, and Mickey Mouse being added to the Gracie Films logo at the end? What made you guys lean into that iconography?
Silverman: That was one of the things we added in at the end of January. We actually had this whole brainstorming [session]; we had a myriad of ideas of how to do the opening. Some were too complicated to do in a short period of time and some were not quite so quick and elegant. This seemed like the best approach– to have the fake-out. ‘Oh, it’s Mickey Mouse’s silhouette. Oh no, it’s Homer! What about that?’ [laughs]
And then at the end, Mickey Mouse’s silhouette is pretty easy to recognize, so that was an easy thing to do. I remember getting the logo and I think Al Jean said, ‘Where do you think he should be placed?’ I had a couple of ideas, and Al made the final decision on that. That’s how that all happened.
But it hearkens back to the early days of The Simpsons in the sense that one of the things that Matt was always very dogmatic about was that the Simpsons’ silhouettes have to read as [themselves]. When you see the silhouettes, you recognize who the characters are, which of course was always one of the great hallmarks of a solid design– that the silhouette gives you recognition. It’s certainly true of the Disney characters, and it’s certainly true of The Simpsons.
Q: Like most Simpsons content, "Playdate with Destiny" features a lot of gags. How do the specific jokes come about in the development process for a short like this?
Silverman: In this particular version, I think a lot of it was pitched out [among the writers]. We had one [brainstorming] session, then Al Jean whittled it all down, then we came back again and pitched things out. A lot of things we were pitching back and forth, and one thing leads to another like Maggie preparing for the date. I came up with the idea of, ‘What if you took some milk and put it behind your ears?’ That kind of thing happens, and then I’ll try to get it in a story reel really fast. I board it and get it on a reel and present it, and then we watch it. And then from there, more writing happens. ‘What if we did this?’ and ‘What if we did that?’ ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if…?’ et cetera, et cetera.
Q: How did the music come together for this short? It’s very impressive.
Silverman: Jim Dooley did the music on this and the previous one. It was really really great working with him. You know who really worked hard and very closely with him was Jim [Brooks]. I did a temp track with pieces of music just to set the mode of things, working with Jim [Brooks] and Al directly. And then Jim [Dooley] came in, taking cues from where we had the temp track, working out a music version, and then adjusting it. He worked really hard. We went back and forth on a lot of things. Jim is really big on the music. It worked out great. He did a great job. And for the record, I did not play the tuba on this. [laughs]
Q: In theaters, “Playdate with Destiny” was attached to Pixar’s Onward. How did you feel about that pairing and how was that decision made?
Silverman: I don’t know how exactly that went. I think Jim [Brooks] was the one that really lobbied to be in front of Onward. I was just delighted to see that. I felt some interesting symmetry or connection, because as you know I worked at Pixar and co-directed on Monsters, Inc. At that point I felt, ‘Oh, I’m working for Disney.’ And now, what do you know, I’m back working for Disney. And then it comes connected with a Disney/Pixar release. I can’t speak to how it came about, because I don’t really know specifically, but I’m sure glad it did. It’s a great film to be part of. I really love Onward. We didn’t see anything about it [during production] but It just seemed, emotionally, to be very connected somehow.
Q: Disney+ has announced it will finally be updating its Simpsons archive with the correct 4:3 aspect ratio for the first 19 seasons. Why is this important to you as one of the longtime creative minds behind the show?
Silverman: When you are working in a certain film ratio format, you’re designing your shots with that in mind. So when it’s cropped off, it’s going to undercut things. Some shots may not be that affected by it, but certain shots [will be] very much affected by it, because it’s going to cut out information [on the] top and bottom. It’s probably going to cut off the tops of people’s heads, their eyes, and in some cases I know it cuts off jokes. There’ll be jokes that are at the bottom of the frame– maybe it’s a subtitle joke or some physical thing that’s cut off because it’s been arbitrarily put into a 16:9 format.
The 4:3 format has integrity so the material works, but also to me it’s the integrity of, ‘This is how the actual show was first presented,’ like anything else. Like any film in a 4:3 format, I want to see it that way. I don’t want to see Casablanca with the tops and bottoms cut off. I don’t want to see a Marx Brothers film in a 16:9 format; I don’t want to see King Kong in a 16:9 format– nor do I want to see a film like Snow White in a 16:9 format, nor Pinocchio, nor 101 Dalmatians or the Disney shorts. I want to see them in their proper aspect ratios.
Q: Do you foresee any other changes coming to The Simpsons under Disney as the show’s new owner?
Silverman: It’s business as usual. Disney is extremely great at, ‘Here’s a working property that we’re now working with, and if it ain’t broke, we ain’t gonna try to fix it.’ They’re taking the same approach they did with Marvel and every other franchise they’ve been connecting with. It’s been great. No change whatsoever. We’re having a great time. I just jumped off a meeting for an episode coming up, which is going to be amazing, and it’s business as usual– as much business as usual you can do under these [social distancing] circumstances, but we’re still going! We’re still working ahead.
Q: Do you have a favorite Simpsons character to animate or direct?
Silverman: Homer and Bart– the whole gang are really all my favorites. And Krusty on top of that; Krusty the Clown is just great to work with. I think Homer and Krusty are just great to work with. Being both performed by Dan [Castellaneta] and the writing they get for those characters just allows them for some great, fun animation. I’ve had a great time doing some great, fun animation with both Krusty and Homer. Outside of them, I really have a fondness for Professor Frink. I think it’s a fun design, and the Jerry Lewis voice that Hank [Azaria] gave to it, on a whim basically, just make it a great character to work with. He always has good material.
Q: And just out of my own curiosity, a favorite “Treehouse of Horror” segment?
Silverman: Boy, that’s a tough one. I think of all the ones that I have done, I think I’m gonna say “The Devil and Homer Simpson.” I like [that] entire episode. That was Halloween number four where we had the Night Gallery wrap-around. But particularly [the segment] “The Devil and Homer Simpson” was one of my favorites. Outside of [ones I directed], “The Shinning” is great and “Time and Punishment” is great. Also the episode where Kang and Kodos disguise themselves and political candidates [“Citizen Kang’”]– that’s one of my favorites.
Q: In recent years, The Simpsons has become known for predicting the future. Do you know what the secret is behind that phenomenon?
Silverman: The secret is we travel through time. [laughs] No, as you know, some things are just jokes that happen to come true. I mean, let’s demystify this. Trump was running for president in the year 2000. That’s when we made our Trump joke in this flash-forward episode where Lisa becomes president. So that’s what we call low-hanging fruit, [but] we had no idea that he’d ever become president. And some things may seem like a suggestion, like Disney buying Fox. Maybe it was a suggestion. ‘Oh, that’s not a bad idea; I think we will buy Fox!’ Some predictions, some suggestions, how about that? [laughs]
Q: Besides The Simpsons, have you been watching anything else on Disney+?
Silverman: I actually just watched 101 Dalmatians. That’s one of my very favorite animated Disney films from the first era. It’s just so great. And the other thing I watched– it’s one of my favorite films– is Darby O’Gill and the Little People. It’s a classic that most people are not aware of what a classic it is. It’s just one of those really great Disney live-action films that didn’t do well when it first came out, which is a shame because it’s a real great film. As a kid I was marveling at the effects. What am I talking about, I still marvel at them!
Q: The previous theatrical Maggie short “The Longest Daycare” was nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Short. Will you be campaigning for this year’s awards?
Silverman: [laughs] Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen this year with the Oscars in general, so… I’m grateful for having been nominated in the past and I’m grateful that we got an opportunity to make another short that was seen in theaters and now on Disney+, so I’ll leave it at that. I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to direct not one but two shorts that have been theatrically released. I never thought that would happen.
Q: Have you guys considered doing additional future theatrical shorts set in The Simpsons universe?
Silverman: Not really. I hadn’t thought about any other shorts at this point. Now [that] this one’s out there, we’re going like, ‘Whew. Everybody likes it.’ We hadn’t thought about other shorts at the moment. It’s hard to say; we’ll find out! Maybe they’ll want to do more. If we do that, we’ll possibly use other characters and probably have more dialogue. [laughs]
“Playdate with Destiny” will be available to stream on Disney+ (along with the existing 30 seasons of The Simpsons and The Simpsons Movie) beginning Friday, April 10. “The Longest Daycare” is viewable on YouTube.
Mike serves as Laughing Place’s lead Southern California reporter, Editorial Director for Star Wars content, and host of the weekly “Who’s the Bossk?” Star Wars podcast. He’s been fascinated by Disney theme parks and storytelling in general since a very young age and resides in Burbank, California with his beloved wife and cats.