A man that doesn’t need much of an introduction in the world of animation; Wes Archer was the first person to ever animate Bart Simpson. He went on to direct 26 episodes of The Simpsons before moving on to the likes of King of the Hill, Futurama, Bob’s Burgers, Rick & Morty and Matt Groening’s latest invention – Disenchantment. In a candid interview we talk about his hugely prolific and successful career, inspirations, battles with addiction and much more – read on!
WES ARCHER – ANIMATOR
THE JOURNALIX: In previous interviews we’ve spoken to musicians joining bands and had to audition for the likes of Nile Rodgers and New Order… Is it a similar story for how you became an animator on The Simpsons?
WES ARCHER: In 1987 I had basically ‘auditioned’ to join the Simpsons production by having animated on a few commercials done at the small boutique animation studio of Klasky/Csupo. They won the bid to handle the Tracey Ullman show shorts for Gracie Films at FOX. When Gabor Csupo presented the bid he submitted a video sample reel, which actually included a clip of my short film “Jac Mac & Rad Boy GO!” (1985).
Groening wanted something that was unique and not your typical Saturday morning cartoon style put over on his material and this little studio had that. When we saw Matt’s first drawings of the family we were surprised and delighted at how funny and quirky they were while at the same time checking back to Flintstones and Jetsons era design elements.
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THE J: Did you ever imagine the show would go on to become a phenomenon? Was that always the ambition?
WES ARCHER: Those funky and endearing little Simpson bumpers on The Tracey Ullman Show garnered some very good response, after which several people began to imagine it as a half hour series, including James L. Brooks. You just had a feeling that what we were seeing was the tip of an iceberg. When Gracie films began the writing with Sam Simon I realized we were in the serious business of creating good television. I never imagined that it would continue for decades and furthermore that I could have stayed at this one job for my entire career, but that has been what happened.
THE J: The animation style of the show clearly changed and developed over time – was this a conscious decision or natural progression?
WES ARCHER: As we animated in 1987-88 we started to reference each other’s drawings for a more consistent look and feel to the animation. It was both a conscious decision to hone in on the best designs as well as a natural, organic progression. There were no official character designs for the entire 2 years of the shorts. We pinned the better drawings to the wall and plowed ahead. The schedule was brutal. One week to animate our parts.
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WES ARCHER – DIRECTOR
THE J: What was the transition like to move from being an animator to a director?
WES ARCHER: Transitioning from animator to director was pretty scary and stressful but I had an immense passion for it. I was 26 years old and unencumbered. I enjoyed throwing myself into it 100% and working extra hours to figure it out. David Silverman and I had made the shorts without the benefit of models or anything beyond simple storyboards but had made tremendous progress.
We carried that forward into the series work and helped to create the look of the half hour program in those early years, along with fellow directors Rich Moore, Greg Vanzo, Brad Bird (via storyboard notes and sketches). Plus, the designers that developed Springfield and its’ wacky denizens, all in Matt’s inimitable style. The writers were also very encouraging and helpful. I consider it a lucky break but I had invested a few mostly bleak years into putting myself in a position where I might find a lucky break.
THE GREATEST IN THE HISTORY OF TELEVISION
THE J: You directed some of our favourite ever episodes of what is the greatest show in the history of television. What do you feel are personal traits of yours or themes to look for in these particular episodes?
WES ARCHER: Well, style reveals itself and I’m too close to my own work to define it’s specific traits very well. I’d say go look at Season 2, when I directed 5 episodes plus Act One of the first Treehouse of Horror to get a sense of my style during that time. These included “2 Cars in Every Garage and 3 Eyes on Every Fish”, “Bart the Daredevil”, “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish”, “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou”, and “Three Men and a Comic Book”.
“SIMPLIFY TO THE ESSENTIALS”
I always tried to imbue a sense of physics, action and reaction, believability to every scene, or stay true to the world that was established in our discussions. For example, I would try to have Mr. Burns posed out as an older person might be, with his praying mantis type arms, no matter what action the scene required. Timing is huge part of it. Sometimes a great drawing doesn’t work with the mood or time limitations of a scene. You have to simplify to the essentials to have an impact.
THE J: Are there any Easter Eggs in these iconic episodes that are down to you?
WES ARCHER: I don’t recall drawing many Easter Eggs… But I was the guy who started the ‘twister mouth’ move on Bart. I was usually appreciative of any artist who took the time to add details. During Season 2 an artist in background design put my phone number on a background sign in the show and after it aired I started receiving weird calls at night.
KING OF THE HILL
THE J: You moved onto King of the Hill… Arguably dealing with more mature themes and with a more subtle humour. Which did you prefer?
WES ARCHER: I always prefer what I’m currently working on. King of the Hill was an amazing production. It’s humor was as equally engaging as The Simpsons and they became the top two animated shows on FOX at that time. King of the Hill is close to my heart since I am a native Texan, born in Houston, which is close to the area of where the fictional town of Arlen would exist. Believe me when I say that outdoor daytime beer consumption was a staple of life in the region.
Getting that call was a tremendous honour. It was so inspiring to once again help to create a unique animated half hour. It would prove to be another struggle to get it going with the preferred style and quality but sometime during Season 2 we had it down pretty well. There should always be some natural evolution to an animated show during Seasons 1 and 2 because there’s always room for improvement, you know? Still, you have to try your damnedest to get it as close to what it should be right out of the gate.
THE J: How do Matt Groening and Mike Judge compare?
WES ARCHER: Matt, longer hair; Mike, shorter hair! Both love a wide variety of music. They had similar involvement in storyboard notes and episode designs. Mike stepped away from that to focus on voice work and other projects. In fact that is similar to Justin Roiland of Rick & Morty.
THE J: Working on Futurama, was there less pressure and more freedom in what you could deliver?
WES ARCHER: I only directed 2 episodes of Futurama so just as I was getting my footing it had that weird middle-of-series temporary cancellation limbo thing happen. Then when it was brought back I was on King of the Hill again. I think Futurama had a good budget because they had a lot of stuff going on in those episodes.
THE J: As an animator at heart, is there a danger of doing something because it will look good on screen? Or does comedy and story always determine what goes into a show?
WES ARCHER: Yes, in the beginning I had to really think about when I was focusing too much on the animation at the expense of a story beat. Comedy and story should always be front and center in prime-time. I say that with a big caveat, though. If the animation is thoughtless or rote or limping along then the story will not play as well. Sometimes something small can boost the scene times ten, but someone has to think about it and direct it or draw it. It’s not just going to happen like magic.
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THE J: Do you find yourself watching reruns of old shows you’ve been involved with? Can you enjoy them the same?
WES ARCHER: Randomly yes I see old episodes I worked on because the syndication re-runs are insane. Always on. And I get nothing from those. If I did I might have a vacation house or a lodge where I’d be watch the snow fall. Or maybe I’d have been decimated in a ski accident.
THE J: Bob’s Burgers feels very much like the spiritual successor to King of the Hill – is this a fair comment?
WES ARCHER: I can understand that because the dialogue in Burgers is about the intricate ways that people interact about supposedly small stuff, which ends up being not so small, or indicative of larger issues. I directed episodes of Bob’s Burgers during its first 3 seasons. During that time I was asked to join Rick & Morty which I view as sort of the successor to Simpsons if it had ever ended. I had to turn them down because at that time I needed a union production with health benefits and as much year-after-year of full employment as I could get. A couple of years later I joined Rick & Morty Season 2 and it has a full union package now as well.
RICK & MORTY
THE J: Is Rick & Morty more of a challenge in terms of the sheer scale the episodes will explore? Or did you hone this skill during your time working on Futurama?
WES ARCHER: Yes Rick & Morty is always a challenge in expansiveness as the episodes develop. There are many extras and many worlds to explore! The major difference is that there is an art director on every episode, which was never a luxury on Simpsons or King of the Hill or Bob’s Burgers. It is a requirement for Rick & Morty because of the amount of design work. Ironically this show has been a smaller production in terms of the studio and budget, for Adult Swim on Cartoon Network as differentiated from a larger studio such as FOX. It continues to grow with its success though.
THE J: Where do you take inspiration from?
WES ARCHER: Every day I make my wife laugh and that inspires me. I’m inspired by everyday life because that is the greatest story, right?
THE J: Absolutely!
WES ARCHER (continued): I like the daily activity of creating work, without such I would go a bit insane. It’s tough for me to sit down and watch animation if I’m not inclined to see something I want to.
I’ve been watching anime quite a bit since the 1980s and now my sons watch it as well. If you’re interested in the life of an animation director watch the 4 part series “10 years with Hayao Miyazaki”. For me, he has produced the best animation movies of the last few decades. I love to catch the odd movie here and there. Any decade of Hollywood is fine. I study the directing and I love watching classic acting. I know it’s good if I get super absorbed in it.
Painting is huge for me. If I can develop enough I could exhibit my own paintings one day. The video artist Bill Viola (taught at Cal Arts when I was a student) said that creativity does not belong to you as an artist:
“it is a principal of the universe”
You have to feel comfortable tapping into it without a lot of hassle or ego. Making the product is hassle enough.
THE J: Despite a long and successful career I struggled to find many previous interviews with you… Tell us something nobody else might know about yourself?
WES ARCHER: I am very grateful to have recovered from a socially anxious personality with substance addiction on top. It developed early. By the time I graduated high school I had been arrested and jailed on five separate occasions from age 8 to 18 for shoplifting, possession of marijuana, attempting to buy alcohol with a fake ID, restaurant theft, and evading arrest with DUI. I had to get permission from my probation officer to leave the state of Texas and attend California Institute of the Arts!
I have not been arrested since but discovered that social isolation and substance use was perfect for my chosen profession, animation, where you crave and need hours of alone time with something to keep you going. That persisted until I conceded that it was costing me more than I could afford in terms of my relationship to people and the world and that I needed to figure out how to function as a healthier and happier adult person. It took a lot of analysis, acceptance, and new habits to get back on solid footing in my personal life. Though I don’t even consume caffeine on a regular basis my creativity and productivity is as high as ever. The universe is a cold and uncaring place but this is where all the action is, for us.
THE J: Have you ever visited the UK?
WES ARCHER: ‘London Snoring’… When I was there 2 nights and 3 days. We had a week off during Simpsons Season 7 production in 1994 and I went to Europe on the spur of the moment with my assistant director. He snored loudly every night so I was sleep deprived. It was March, raining and cold. But we saw a magnificent Goya exhibit at Royal Academy of Arts. And there is good Indian food in London. Since then I took a DNA test and discovered that I am 19% Irish! As well as some Scottish and English of which I knew, so I desire to return to the island again!
THE J: And finally, what does the future hold for Wes Archer?
WES ARCHER: I’ve been finishing some paintings and learning that craft and will continue on that path as I eventually retire from the animation business. My mom just turned 90 so maybe I’ll have about 30 more years to make art. When I was a child my parents kept a nice portfolio of fine art prints in the bottom drawer of a dining chest where I could sneak a peek. Among them was a series from Hieronymus Bosch and another one from Peter Bruegel (the two Netherlanders) that had a profound impact on me. It was a revelation to see that there was something beyond the norm that might have an insight that you wouldn’t see anywhere else.
— ᴛʜᴇ ᴊᴏᴜʀɴᴀʟɪx (@thejournalix) November 18, 2020
I think that might be where my urge to paint originated. I don’t aspire to be an accomplished painter. But I’m tickled pink when I do something that I’m happy with. And if someone else wants it on their wall then that’s always good.
THE J: Also, we sometimes ask for a playlist of songs to accompany our interviews; would you be interested in providing one? Approximately 10 songs, any theme or genre of your choice!?
WES ARCHER: My playlist of 10 random wintery songs from my library that I would listen to while working:
Wes ‘Maybe I’ll see you in the UK some day!’ Archer