31 Years And Counting

‘Twas the week before Christmas and all through my house
Are mementos of a distant December, very special to me and my spouse.

Nineteen eighty-nine, the twelfth month, seventeenth day
A new family joined the world and settled in to stay.

Homer, Marge, Lisa, Maggie, and Bart
Have enriched all our lives in no small part

The gratitude for my good fortune knows no bounds
Even when Monty chases me away, releasing the hounds.

2020 will be remembered as the year we were locked down and learned how to ZOOM
But THE SIMPSONS kept us laughing and fended off the gloom.

Many of us in Springfield joke that we’re only half way done
So I guess I should be prepared to keep working till I’m ninety-one!

On Barney, on Carl, on Lenny and Moe!
No time to dawdle, I’ve got to edit another show!

Here’s to brighter days ahead for all of us next year
Merry Christmas to all, now chug a can of Duff beer!

30 Years Goes By In The Blink Of An Eye

30 years ago today a crude, rude, funny, endearing, unusual, primary-colored family was unleashed on an unsuspecting world.

Old Simpsons

Everyone knows the story by now. Here are the bullet points:

  • James L. Brooks wants to animate Matt Groening’s newspaper comic strip “Life in Hell” and put one-minute versions of the cartoon on his FOX show, “The Tracey Ullman Show” as bumpers leading into and out of commercial breaks
  • Matt Groening decides NOT to share control or ownership of “Life in Hell” with FOX and virtually overnight creates an alternative
  • The first Simpsons short, “Good Night” airs on “The Tracey Ullman Show” on April 19, 1987
  • Before long, the popularity of the shorts begins to eclipse the popularity of “The Tracey Ullman Show”
  • FOX decides to cancel “The Tracey Ullman Show” but spins off the cartoon shorts into their own half-hour animated series, the first on network television since the 1970s – “The Simpsons” series debuts on December 17, 1989
  • The rest, as they say, is history

I had been a full-time music editor for just over a year when the first short aired. I was working on a new TV series at the time titled “Sidekicks” and was thrilled to be working at my new job in a profession I had loved and dreamed about being part of.

I was also a fan of “The Tracey Ullman Show”. It was funny, inventive, smart, a quasi-variety show with sketch comedy, musical numbers, recurring characters – similar in many ways to the great “Carol Burnett Show” but more modern and edgy. And I really enjoyed the cartoon bumpers. I’ll admit, the crudeness of the animation and the character design was a bit off-putting at first but, as always, great writing will always win an audience over and it won me over big time.

If you want to know more about how I managed the incredible good fortune of being hired to work on this incredible piece of television and cultural history, I cover it in four blog posts from a few years back. If you’re interested (and have about 20 minutes to read them) check them out here: click here for part 1, click here for part 2, click here for part 3, and click here for part 4.

As for today, it’s an amazing, probably-never-to-be-repeated feat to celebrate 30 years of a TV cartoon. There are no words to describe the feeling to be part of a show that has touched so many lives, elicited so many laughs, started so many arguments over its appropriateness, inspired so many memes, and has brought together people from around the world with a universal shout in the night: “D’oh!”

But, today is also another work day in Springfield. As I write this there are 3 episodes to complete before season 28 comes to end in May, there are already 4 episodes in the pipeline in various stages of writing/re-writing/animating/pre-recording music for season 29.

My plate is full. So is my heart for all the love these characters have received for 30 years and for the opportunity to support my family doing something I love so much. I’ve often said I’m the luckiest music editor in Hollywood – not just because I’ve been employed on ONE SHOW for 28+ years, but because I get to laugh, listen to great music, interact with our brilliant cast, share ideas with our writers and producers, and be part of television history. Sure, like with any family, we have our down moments and disagreements, but it’s all been so, SO worth it.

Happy Birthday Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, Maggie, and Matt.

New Simpsons

Sad News in Springfield


In 1990, when Alf Clausen was hired to be the new composer for THE SIMPSONS, he told the producers that he would be unavailable for about ten days shortly after his new gig started. It was a previous commitment that he couldn’t change. Everyone was willing to work around the schedule hiccup and a composer was hired to fill in for the one episode that Alf would miss.

Ray Colcord came in, was a wonderful, easy-going fella to work with, and delivered a wonderful score to what is now considered one of the classic episodes in our history, DEAD PUTTING SOCIETY.

Ray passed away a couple of days ago after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer.

Ray worked on only the one episode, and it became a running joke between him and Alf whenever they would run into each other at some musician function for ASCAP or The Society of Composers and Arrangers that Ray would greet Alf by saying, “Hi Alf! You think you could take another week off sometime soon?”


Our business being what it is, with the crazy, hectic schedules, and not being able to be in two or three places at the same time, I hadn’t seen nor worked with Ray since that session way back in 1990. But I do remember that we got along really well, that he was a gentle and very pleasant man to work with, and I’m sad that there will be a little less of his spirit and music in the world.

Click here to read the very nice tribute given to Ray by his longtime friend and colleague, composer Dan Foliart.

My First Save Out Of The Bullpen

I’m a big baseball fan. The title of this post (for the un-baseball fans out there) refers to the situation where a pitcher – known as the ‘closer’ – is brought into the game with his team leading in the 9th inning to get the final three outs – sometimes only one or two outs. If he is successful in maintaining the lead and winning the game for his team, he is credited with a “save”.

I received a question in the comments from Phillip yesterday:
“My question for you is regarding Season 1 Episode 9 ‘Life in the Fast Lane’. What song is played during the scene where Homer carries Marge out of the Nuclear Power Plant? It sounds like “Up Where We Belong” however it is a different version. I’ve been looking around the internet for quite some time now with no luck in finding it. Thanks so much for your help!”

I thought I covered this in a previous post, so I spent some time word-searching the blog for the answer to point Phillip to that post. Alas, my memory is playing tricks on me as I cannot find any such post. If, by some weird chance, I did already tell this story, forgive the rerun (or “encore performance” as they like to call it now).

At the end of the music spotting session for 7G11 “Life On The Fast Lane”…

SIDEBAR:  OOH! WAIT! Fun story about the title. It was originally titled “Bjorn To Be Wild” because the man that Marge almost had her affair with was first written as a Swedish tennis instructor. Then it got changed – don’t know if it was the writers or Albert Brooks – to the French bowling instructor Jacques. For a while the title became “Jacques To Be Wild”
which was kind of fun and quirky, but didn’t make much sense. Eventually the episode was renamed “Life On The Fast Lane” which has a punny bowling reference in it.


…where was I? At the end of the music spotting session for 7G11 “Life On The Fast Lane” we came to that final scene that parodies “An Officer And A Gentleman” and the music that you hear was temped into the cut we were watching. I piped up and asked, “Did you clear that music? Is that what we are going to use in the show?” And I was told, “Yes, we are. We cleared ‘Up Where We Belong.'” I immediately had the same reaction Phillip had. The cue is an instrumental that has some of the melody line from “Up Where We Belong”, but it was not the song version that was a big hit at the time the movie was released. I pointed this out to the producers and they said they’d look into it.

A few days later I received a “thank you” call from the producers telling me that I was right and that they had cleared the wrong cue. The name of the instrumental is “Up Where We Belong (Zack Gets Paula)”


I was credited with my first “save” as music editor on THE SIMPSONS. I’ve had a few more since then, but the timing of that one was pretty significant because the show was still new, I was still new to the producing team, and I had showed them that my head was in the game and an asset to the production.

That’s it. A cool anecdote from nearly 26 years ago that I still remember clearly. Where are my car keys?

Life on the Fast Lane

The Power of Music

Happy New Year 2016! I’m sure many of my regular followers of this blog were probably beginning to think I’d abandoned it. I haven’t, but, I admit, blogging on a regular basis is not the easiest thing, especially when you want the content to be fresh and engaging (and when your family grows to include two energetic, curious, fast-running grandkids).

It’s been over a year since my last new post. I know I owe you all my “part 2” blog about the experience of conducting during THE SIMPSONS TAKE THE BOWL. I will get that done soon.

I’m motivated to write this after my annual tradition of watching the Kennedy Center Honors. I have loved this ceremony for  years. So many great performances and so many great reactions from the honorees.

If you’ve never seen the ceremony, just a brief bit of background: five people are chosen to receive the honor each year, and it’s all about the performing arts – music (performance and composition), film and theatre (acting and directing), dance (dancing and choreography). The honorees get to sit in the audience as a presenter speaks directly to them, usually praising or thanking them for their body of work, followed by a short biographical film, and then some live performances highlighting their accomplishments over the years.

This year’s honorees were: Rita Moreno (acting), George Lucas (film directing and writing), Cicely Tyson (acting), Seiji Ozawa (orchestral conducting), and Carole King (singer-songwriter).

This year, there was a lot of social media buzz after Aretha Franklin’s performance of Carole King, Gerry Goffin, and Jerry Wexler’s “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman”, and every word of it was well-deserved (Google it – you’ll see what I mean). But it wasn’t just Aretha’s performance that drove me to write this.

All five of the presentations during the ceremony had strong, moving, and impactful music – and four out of the five reminded me that the careers of these people had a direct influence over my musical path.


First, Rita Moreno as Anita in “West Side Story”. I first heard the music from WSS when I was thirteen years old. Back then, I was able to buy a piano/vocal book of the entire score of the Broadway version for just $9.50. I still have that score to this day. I listened to my vinyl album of that music (mainly the motion picture soundtrack, but eventually the Broadway cast album) ad nauseum – couldn’t get enough of Bernstein’s jazzy riffs (no pun intended). Forty-four years later, I can’t imagine how many times I have listened to that music in its myriad forms and arrangements – tens of thousands probably – and I’m nowhere near tired of it. I even got to conduct performances of the full Broadway version at my alma mater, Hollywood High School, in the late 70s (high school, yes, but Hollywood High shows were a cut above, easily equal to semi-pro stagings).

SIDEBAR: The theatre director at Hollywood High back in those days was a fine fellow named Jerry Melton. At first, we had a teacher/student relationship that later evolved into director/conductor as I led about half-a-dozen musicals (including “Gypsy”, “Evita”, “A Chorus Line”, and “42nd Street”) at my old stomping grounds. His daughter, Mary, like the rest of Jerry’s family, was very involved in the goings-on in the auditorium. She was about eight or nine years old when we first met. Mary’s all grown up now and she is the Editor-in-Chief for Los Angeles Magazine (she’s done OK, I guess). Click here to read a great article she wrote for the magazine about life with her good old dad and the high standards of theatre (both musical and non) at HHS back in the glory days.


Next came George Lucas and, of course, the music of “Star Wars”. John Williams’s music reintroduced the symphonic style to the world of film scores and made me want to work in film music if this was going to be the direction scores would be taking in the future.


While my friends in high school were musically interested in the latest pop and rock music of the mid-70s, I discovered Seiji Ozawa one Friday evening while channel surfing (across all 8 channels we had to choose from back then). Here was this exotic looking Japanese conductor leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Mahler’s 1st Symphony – it was my first time watching Ozawa, and my first listening to Mahler 1. It was transformative. Ozawa had long, flowing black hair (most conductors had white hair), wore a turtleneck shirt under his tuxedo jacket, wore beads around his neck, and waved his hands with more sweep and expression and romance than I had ever seen by any other conductor. Then after watching a while, I noticed something unusual – he had a music stand in front of him, and the score to the work was on the stand, but the score was shut and he never opened it. Now, many conductors would conduct from memory, not needing the score, but they would not have the music on the stand. Heck, they wouldn’t even have the stand – didn’t need it. But this little bit of theatricality added another layer of mystique to Ozawa’s performances. As I followed his career over the years, I saw that this was not a one-time thing. The orchestra librarian would walk out before each work, place the score on the stand, and make sure it was shut, showing just the cover. Ozawa was my first and most enduring classical music hero. To this day I want to grow up to be him.


And then, Carole King. Most casual fans know her from her singer-songwriter days in the 70s that started with “Tapestry”, the album that made her a superstar performer in her own right. But for many years before that album, she was a songwriter working in the Brill Building on Broadway in New York, churning out hits for solo acts and vocal groups of the 50s and 60s. She wrote most her of hits with Gerry Goffin (she the music, he the lyrics) including “Oh! Carol”, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”, “The Loco-Motion”, “Take Good Care Of My Baby”, “Up On The Roof”, and “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman”. Of course, I discovered her through the “Tapestry” album which sparked in me a desire to learn how to play pop-style piano. I was never going to be a classical pianist (didn’t have the discipline to practice) but I sat for hours and hours learning how to read and play chords from lead sheets so that I could accompany the singers in junior high and high school who would sing these songs. Another great page in my musical lesson book and another vinyl album nearly worn to dust.

All of the music mentioned above was highlighted during the Kennedy Center ceremony, and though Cicely Tyson didn’t have any influence on my music choices in my life, during her part of the show, there was a stirring rendition of “Blessed Assurance” lead by CeCe Winans, Terrance Blanchard, and a student choir from Ms. Tyson’s own performing and fine arts public school.

The music throughout the night brought people to their feet and brought tears of joy to many (President Obama and myself included). I’ve often said that music is the closest thing to actual magic that there is on earth. Think about it – organized sound (with or without words to accompany) floating unseen through the air, has the ability to stir memory, arouse emotion, and build a lump in the throat.

I have been privileged for many, many years to make music and to receive music in  my life, both as a student and as a professional.

May 2016, and for many years beyond, bring you the gladness, the jubilance, and the delight of music in your lives.

The Simpsons Take The Bowl – Part 1

Right around August 1st, 2014 Alf called me to say that he had been asked by Al Jean to participate in the upcoming THE SIMPSONS TAKE THE BOWL concert being planned for The Hollywood Bowl to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the show. The producers wanted Alf to conduct some of his music and they wanted to bounce various ideas around to pick which music they would use. By this time it had already been announced in the press that various cast members and guest stars would be singing in the show with The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra conducted by Thomas Wilkins. Alf was being invited to present some of his music in a segment paying tribute to his musical legacy on the show.

Alf called to tell me about it and to ask for my input on possible cues or songs that he could conduct. We talked through a few possibilities and Alf said he would sleep on them and decide soon. Then on August 7th, I got a very unexpected call from Alf. He said that after giving the invitation thoughtful consideration, he was going to bow out of conducting at the concert.

A few years back, Alf came down with a case of “frozen shoulder“, a mysterious ailment that orthopedic doctors don’t fully understand. The main symptom is exactly what it sounds like – your shoulder locks up, limiting range of motion in the arm to around 20% of normal. No one seems to know exactly what causes it and there is no cure other than time for it to “thaw”. Thawing can take 18-24 months. While Alf’s shoulder isn’t “frozen” any more, it hasn’t fully “thawed” either. As a result, he hasn’t been conducting at scoring sessions these past few years. Orchestrator Dell Hake has been handling that job beautifully and Alf has moved into the control room, listening to takes and giving notes as we record the sessions. Alf felt that a week of conducting that would include rehearsals and performances was just a bit much given his shoulder condition. He asked Al Jean to keep the tribute segment in the program and recommended that I conduct the orchestra in his place. Al ran the request up the chain of command, everyone approved, and I got the gig.

Oh. My. God.

Alf was vary aware of my conducting education and ambition. I was so honored that he would entrust me with this once-in-a-lifetime privilege. We talked some more and settled on a medley of some of his well-known themes combined with instrumental arrangements of some of his songs from various musical episodes. I assembled a medley that would run about six-and-a-half minutes. Alf and Al approved the music and next came working out the preparation of the score with the music library and the music supervisor for the show, Jim Dooley.

Some of the music we selected dated back to the third season of the show, but our fabulous music library – JoAnn kane Music Service – has everything saved and stored at their facility and they were able to pull all the scores I needed, convert the older, hand-written ones to a digital format, and combine them with the newer, already digital scores into one, fantastic, beautiful score.

The first rehearsal was scheduled for Sunday, September 7th starting at 7:30PM. This would be a “walk-through” rehearsal for the purpose of everyone learning their entrances and exits, running through the dialogue, and learning the choreography for the “Do the Bartman” finalé – no orchestra, no singing during this rehearsal. The rehearsal ran longer than expected and we finished around 11:00PM. On my way home I received an email from Al Jean saying that the medley needed to be cut in half. I was very surprised and a bit heartbroken that such a change would be made before I even had a chance to rehearse it with the orchestra, but the medley wasn’t the only casualty. Jokes and dialog got cut, some animation specially created for the concert got cut, one of Beverly D’Angelo’s and one of John Lovitz’s songs got cut. The changes made for a more fast-paced, vaudeville-style musical review show.

So Monday morning I started re-editing the medley and sending it off for approval. Once approved, all the orchestra parts had to be revised to reflect the new version. Then I arrived back at the Bowl on Wednesday evening, September 10th to lead my first rehearsal. The medley was scheduled for the second half of the second half of the show, so I had quite a bit of time to cool my heels and wait my turn. Finally, around 9:20PM, Master of Ceremonies Hank Azaria introduced me, I walked onto the legendary Bowl stage, and performed the small comedy bit that had been written for me. I was supposed to walk onto the stage in regular street clothes, looking a bit bewildered at what I was doing there. Then a couple of the Duff Girl Dancers ripped off my street clothes revealing my fancy tux underneath, magically transforming me into a ready-to-go conductor. Our costume designer for the show, Kathryn McRitchie had worked for a couple of weeks preparing the breakaway clothes and fitting it perfectly over my tux so that I didn’t look too “puffy” in the over-sized shirt and pants. They ripped away perfectly and the bit went exactly as planned – and then it was cut for time. I felt so bad for Kathryn after all the work she did, but she was very well represented with all her other costumes in the show.

My first rehearsal was amazing. It was everything I could have ever hoped for leading the world-class group of musicians that they are. For those of you not familiar with The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, in its current incarnation it is an orchestra made up primarily of studio musicians whose day job is working on the movies, TV shows, and records that you all know and love. The orchestra was formed in 1991 to play the weekend “pops” concerts leaving the “legit” classical concerts during the week to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Conducting Alf Medley from Selman

The rehearsal went off without a hitch thanks to the combined efforts of JoAnn Kane’s people and Stephen Biagini’s crew with the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s library services. Amazing. Without their help, I would have spent all my rehearsal time telling the orchestra what cuts had been made. I am totally indebted to them for their über-professional work.

We ended rehearsal on time, then went home to have Thursday off before one last rehearsal on Friday afternoon, just a few hours before the first performance on Friday evening. All the details on the weekend coming soon … stay tuned.

A Dream is About to Come True

Regular readers of this blog may remember my post from November, 2011 which tells how I got started in music as a child and my ambition to conduct professionally. Well, you can file this post under “Good Things Come To Those Who Wait” (and learn, and show up for work on time, and do their jobs correctly.)

I will be conducting The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra for a small but important portion of THE SIMPSONS TAKE THE BOWL on September 12-13-14, 2014. While, of course, much of the music to be performed those evenings was composed by Alf Clausen, my part of the concert will be devoted exclusively to Alf and his contributions to the musical legacy of THE SIMPSONS.

Alf asked me to do this for him. Honored, humbled, and excited are three words that come to mind to describe how I feel about this privilege, and they are woefully lacking in descriptive power. I cannot thank Alf enough for this opportunity and for the trust he has placed in my hands to represent him and his music.

It goes without saying that my whole musical life has lead up to these three nights. It also goes without saying that any further details about the shows have to go without saying – I wouldn’t want to spoil any surprises!

I can’t believe I’ll be musically representing the greatest cartoon of the past 25 years at the same historic venue where cartoon greats Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry have conducted before me!

So spread the word and if you are in the Los Angeles area any of those three nights, please come to one of the concerts and tweet me @mxedtr to let me know you’re there.

Of course, I’ll be documenting the experience as much as I can and will post a long, gushing, self-congratulatory blog when it’s all in the rear-view mirror.


Simpsons Marathon Starts Today

It’s so exciting to see so many people so excited for the marathon.

To any of you new to the blog, thank you for finding me. To my readers who have been missing my posts of late, I can only say I’m sorry for the small trickle of words this past year, but I attribute it to a combination of being very busy with the show from February to May – we scored and aired 12 shows in 11 weeks owing to the Olympics, Grammys, and Oscars all preempting us – and needing a little blog break after producing many more posts than I thought I had in me.

I awoke this morning to a Twitter feed ablaze with posts mentioning and celebrating the marathon. I also found a twitter link to this article from NPR’s Deceptive Cadence blog. What an honor and thrill to know that NPR is reading my blog! Many, many thanks to NPR and to the readers who have found their way here thanks to the article.

Sidebar: The official Twitter account for the marathon is @EverySimpsons and my account is @mxedtr. I’ll be live-tweeting here and there throughout the 12-day event (can’t possibly be there the ENTIRE time, but I’ll be adding anecdotes when I can).

This post has to be a brief one this time around because I’m getting ready for tomorrow’s scoring session for SABF20 CLOWN IN THE DUMPS, our Season 26 premier episode which is set to air on Sunday, September 28, 2014 on FOX.

I’m also working on The Simpsons Take the Bowl concert performance. I can’t reveal any details now, but to be sure, there WILL be a blog post (or two) about it when it’s over. If you are in the Los Angeles area on September 12-13-14, 2014 try to attend the live concert. It will be a pretty amazing night of music, guest stars, and Simpsons-style fun.

Enjoy the marathon!

Thank you, Gene

So, it’s been MANY weeks since my last post (it’s been a very busy 2014 on THE SIMSPONS, but more on that in another post), and I’m bummed that my “comeback” post has sad news in it.

Music Editor Gene L. Gillette passed away this past January, but I only learned of it today reading CineMontage, the magazine published by the Motion Picture Editors Guild for its members.

My first blog post – and the motto of my career – is titled “Luck is When Preparation Meets Opportunity”. I tell students and aspiring show bizzers ALL THE TIME: “Your number-one job is to study, and learn, and ask questions, and do everything in your power to be ready to seize an opportunity when it comes your way. You have no control over when an opportunity may pop up, but you have total control over the preparation.” Gene was my second, but my best, opportunity.

When I was a tour guide at Universal Studios Hollywood back in 1984-1986, I would spend all my free time down on the scoring stage (sadly, Universal no longer has a scoring stage – the spot where the stage used to sit now holds the Jurassic Park ride) observing scoring sessions and pestering any music editor who would give me the time of day with questions about the craft. Many of the music editors did share time and wisdom with me, but Gene shared the most. Then, one day, Gene left Universal after many years at the studio. I didn’t know where he went.

My first big break (opportunity) came in 1986 when Dan Carlin, then owner and President of Segue Music helped me get into the Editors Guild (union) and gave me my first job. For more detail on that story, click here. For a variety of reasons, that job only lasted one year. Just when I thought I was headed back to the tour full-time, I got a call from another music editing company, Music Design Group. The owner of Music Design Group, Roy Prendergast, asked his music editors if they knew of any new, up-and-coming music editors who wanted to jump in and learn the new music editing techniques that were coming down the line. Film was on the way out and editing on audio and video tape – this was still a decade before digital would take a firm hold of our industry – was on the way in. Roy wanted to expand his staff with editors who would be flexible and willing to take on the challenge of learning the new media. Little did I know, Gene had landed at Music Design Group when he left Universal and he thought of me.

When last we spoke in 1985, I was still a tour guide trying to get into the union and land my first job. When Gene called me to tell me about Roy’s search for new music editors I had accomplished both. I came in for an interview on Gene’s recommendation and got the job. Two years later it was Roy who assigned me to work on the final season of “The Tracey Ullman Show” with the understanding that when “Tracey” wrapped, I would just transition over to the “little cartoon show” from “Tracey” that FOX was planning to launch as its own series later that year. Needless to say, the rest is history.

About the time “The Simpsons” started, Gene retired and I never saw him again. As I write this I’m trying to remember if we ever spoke again. I don’t think we did. A few years ago, I stumbled across a blog he had been writing and I left him a comment saying hi and thanking him for all he had done for me so many years ago. I didn’t get a reply for a long time, but eventually did just last year through LinkedIn.

That was my last correspondence with Gene.

He was a patient, gentle, thoughtful man who always had time for me and my annoying questions. I am forever grateful that he saw some smidgen of potential in me and, more importantly, that he acted on his belief and made a phone call that changed my life.

Thank you, Gene.

Music Ville

During summer hiatus I received an email from Film Roman with a link to a video file and a request for me to watch the video, to make some musical suggestions, and to polish and edit the temp music track. When I opened the file, the entire sequence was still in the animatic stage, but I immediately recognized what it was that we were doing and I was very excited to get to work on this new project.

Sidebar: I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned what an animatic is. The simplest explanation is that it’s a film (or digital video these days) version of the storyboard. What’s a storyboard? OK, animation fans & geeks can skip ahead … for the rest of you, a storyboard of each episode is created before full animation begins. The storyboard resembles a comic book version of the episode, with the images roughly drawn in pencil and the dialog and action taken from the script and written into the drawings.

With the storyboard the director, writers and animators, Al Jean & Matt Groening can get a feel for the look of the episode before full blown animation. Once the storyboard is approved, then the images are cleaned up and filmed (or videoed) with the actual dialog from the actors’ recording put in as well as some temporary sound effects and music. Sometimes, there might even be some rough animation thrown into an animatic so that everyone can visualize a particularly tricky or complex sequence. Based on the animatic screening, rewriting and editing begins and then color animation commences.

When I saw the animatic, I immediately recognized that we were doing a large-scale parody of a Disney “Silly Symphony” cartoon from 1935 entitled “Music Land”. The Disney cartoon was a reimagined telling of the “Romeo and Juliet” tale through music. Instead of the Montagues and the Capulets, our star-crossed lovers are a violin from the Land of Symphony (Juliet) and a saxophone from the Isle of Jazz (Romeo). The entire story is told through music with no dialog and minimal sound effects. It’s a very clever take on the Shakespeare play with beautiful animation and blending of music that was still five years ahead of Fantasia at the time of release.

Our version would be similar, but not a love story. Rather, it’s a story of censorship versus freedom of expression. “Music Ville” is ruled by Mr. Burns the Bassoon and he demands that only classical music be played. Lisa the Baritone Saxophone promotes musical diversity, especially where her beloved jazz is concerned. Her “crime” gets her and her entire family – Bart the Trumpet, Marge the Trombone, Homer the Tuba, and Maggie the French Horn – arrested and chained to the wall in a dungeon where they are forced to listen to classical music until Lisa & Bart break into a joyous jazz improvisational duet which breaks their chains. All the other types of music in Music Ville overthrow Burns and all the instruments of the land celebrate with a rousing, jazzy version of The Simpsons theme to close out the sequence.

Before coming to work on THE SIMPSONS 25 years ago, I was (and still am) a huge fan of the art of animation. Around the age of 15 I discovered that the classic “cartoons” of Disney, Warner Bros., and MGM were also great works of art. As a hobby I started reading books about animation technique, the artists who created the amazing characters and backgrounds and special effects, and the histories of the various studios that produced them. Two of the best books I can recommend on the subject are “Of Mice and Magic” by Leonard Maltin and “The Illusion of Life” by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston.

Of course the names that received the big credit up front at the beginning of each cartoon – Walt Disney, Fred Quimby, Leon Schlesinger – were not the artists doing the work, but the figureheads who ran the animation departments at each of the studios. In fairness, Walt Disney did have some drawing talent and was certainly the driving creative force behind everything that came from his studio, but he was never a top animator at his own studio for any of the shorts or features he produced.

The “Silly Symphony” series from the Disney Studios were the first cartoons to be filmed in Technicolor and the first to integrate music into the story-telling process, not just adding plunks and booms to emphasize slapstick action. “Music Land”, directed by Wilfred Jackson, used music as the sole sound for telling the story. Not just long stretches of classical and jazz music, but clever solo violin and saxophone sounds to emulate spoken words coming from the main characters.

Our version, “Music Ville”, directed by Mark Kirkland, also uses wall-to-wall music, a handful of sound effects, and no dialog to tell the story. It also very cleverly casts the citizens of Springfield as their appropriate musical instrument alter egos – Apu the Sitar, Barney the Tubby Drunk Tuba, Disco Stu the DJ, Cletus’s family as a hillbilly jug band, Willie as Bagpipes, Sideshow Mel as a Slidewhistle, etc.

Here are a few of the images I saw when I first opened that animatic video this past summer and saw those characters for the first time…

I was so excited to see this work-in-progress and appreciated its own artistic statement as well as the homage to the Disney short. I did my usual re-editing of the existing music track plus made a few suggestions of my own to make Mr. Burns the Bassoon more menacing. The picture went back and forth between me and Film Roman a couple more times and then I didn’t hear anything more until early October when I was sent the color animation. Seeing the finished animation in full color and high definition was so gratifying and sensational. I immediately emailed Al Jean congratulating him and the team for producing this stand-out sequence. Then I followed up with the usual important question: “Is this locked?” The answer, of course, was “no”. But, there were only two very minor tweaks and then it was locked for good.

Time to loop Alf Clausen into the conversation. Well, actually, I wish Alf had been looped in long before. I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog that we do things a little backward most of the time here on THE SIMPSONS when it comes to music. All those classic cartoons from Warners and Disney and MGM had their musical score composed and recorded before animation so that the timing of the picture to the music was spot on and so that some of the characters’ emotions were motivated by the music. But remember, those classic cartoons were produced one at a time, with many weeks of work going into them, so they had the luxury of a longer schedule. We produce 22 episodes per year, so our schedule is very compressed. So, instead of Alf composing and recording the music based on the storyboards so that the music could be included in the animatic, it was all done with temp music – first edited by Film Roman, then by yours truly. I filled Alf in on all the particulars and advised him that if we could fit it in, it would be in all of our best interests to start recording the music ASAP and to not wait for the scoring session for that episode. That turned out to be a good idea.

It ended up that we recorded over 40 different bits of music over 3 different scoring sessions for “Music Ville” ranging from 30-second passages of Mozart and Grieg, to 15-second stretches of original jazz music by Alf, down to 1 second bursts of brass, bagpipes, drums, accordion, sleigh bells, and other assorted musical sounds. On the final of those 3 sessions, we spent nearly 3 hours of recording and playback time on just “Music Ville” before we could move on to the rest of the score for episode SABF02!

Once again, I took over the timing and editing (on paper) of the classical music that would be in “Music Ville”. We used Mozart’s 28th Symphony, and a passage from Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” (a favorite of Matt Groening’s and used at his request). I cut an existing recording of these pieces into the picture, then told Alf what bars and what tempo to use so that they would sync to picture properly. Alf went off and composed some new jazz tunes plus the various solo instruments that would “over-lay” the jazz (the sitar, the tuba, etc.).

We were even able to sneak in a motif we have used in the past on the show known as “Release the Hounds”. Whenever Burns sets his hounds on any intruders, this music plays during the ensuing chase. In “Music Ville” the hounds are a pack of angry vibraphones, so Alf used his motif with the orchestra as usual but with vibraphones leading the way as they chase Lisa into a dark alley.

All in all, I am very proud of “Music Ville” and the part I had in helping shape it. I even got a nice congratulatory shout-out from our Director Emeritus, David Silverman.

Also, David tweeted out some of his original model sketches for “Music Ville”. What a treat that he shared these!

As I wrap up this post, I leave you with both cartoons for your enjoyment. First, “Music Land”, then “Music Ville”. I hope you enjoy them and can appreciate them for the wonderful works they are. Kudos to everyone involved from 1935 to 2013!