Stephen Reis: 20 Questions with “The Simpsons” Animator & Storyboard Artist

(Editor's note:  Stephen Reis will be the special guest of the Chuck Jones Gallery in San Diego and Santa Fe (via podcast) on Saturday, February 13th.  For more information about The Simpsons exhibition, please contact the galleries: 888-294-9880 San Diego and 800-290-5999 Santa Fe.)

Stephen reis Stephen Reis was born in Los Angeles, California in 1974 and raised in nearby Santa Barbara.  The artist within emerged around age three, and as a young child he would spend countless hours drawing the world conjured up in his imagination. 

Regular family outings to the movies, along with a healthy addiction to late-night monster and horror films, instilled the love of cinema in Stephen, an din 1992 he enrolled in the film program at Loyola Marymount University; the highlight of his studies was studying drawing and photography at the Studio Arts Center International in Florence, Italy in 1994.  Being immersed in Italian culture and surrounded by much of the finest art to be created by man proved to be a defining time for the both the artist and the young man.

In late 1996, Stephen joined the animation crew for Fox's long-standing hit series The Simpsons.  The work environment on the show provided him with a second education (as well as a paycheck,) as he learned more about drawing and storytelling than ever before.

Chuck Redux took a moment to ask Stephen Reis questions about his life, his work & his passions:

CR: Tell us about the early years, growing up, what part painting and drawing played in your childhood.

SR:  I've been drawing for as long as I can remember.  My brother, Ed, four years my senior, also enjoyed drawing and I suppose it's natural to do what your older brother does.  It was a great fit for me.  Like any kid, I'd spent a lot of time in front of the television, but I'd be drawing!  I'd use the TV for sound.  It's something I still do to this day.

CR:  Did your parents encourage you in pursuing your artistic expression?

SR:  Completely.  Both of my parents were very encouraging of my artistic pursuits.  Not once can I remember them trying to talk me out of going into an art-related career, while at the same time reminding me that it is still a business and that you have to be a professional to work as a professional.

CR:  Was there a point in your young life when you knew that art would be your career?

SR:  It actually never occurred to me that I would do anything else.  I never had any teenage angst over what I was going to do with my life, career-wise.

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CR:  Are there any major artistic influences that you would want to cite?  Artists?  Genres?

SR:  I loved horror films as a kid.  Couldn't get enough of 'em.  Sci-fi and Fantasy as well.  Comics and cartoons.  I gravitated to the highly visual genres.  As for comedy, Looney Tunes and Monty Python pretty much shaped what I thought was funny.  Still do.

CR:  What has been the highlight of your artistic career?

SR:  I'm hoping it hasn't occurred yet.

CR:  Any lowlights you'd want to mention?

SR:  Seeing the sunrise…again.

CR:  Do you have any special superstitions about working on a painting or a drawing?  Do you have any favorite fetishes (toys, special pencil, a can of brushes must face east, etc.) that adorn your work space?

SR:  I'd have to say that I'm the polar opposite when it comes to special superstitions.  I have absolutely none.  As for my office at the studio, it's actually been mistaken for a spare desk because I have nothing adorning it.  I realize these answers may seem, well, boring, but there is a reason.  A decorated desk is a time-honored tradition in animation and early in my career I was no exception.  Throughout my time on The Simpsons, I've jumped around to different positions and departments so often that I've had dozens of desks or offices.  For a few years I was never in the same place long enough to get settled, so I just gave up and went the sparse route.  It's so much easier to pack up.

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CR:  Tell us about your working methods.  Early to rise and work, or work late at night?

SR:   Always have been and always will be a night owl.

CR:  What are you working on right now?

SR:  I am currently working on my final storyboard for this past season.  As for painting…at the moment, I'm painting my house.  Different type of artistry involved there.

CR:  What's your favorite color?

SR:  Probably blue.  In the shade of Dodger Blue.  (My mom will love that answer!)

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CR:  What's it like working on The Simpsons?

SR:  After 14 years I still approach each new script as a fresh challenge.  There is this enormous history that you want to honor, but the script in front of you is it's own story, and it dictates its own way of being told.  I feel this approach helps keep the creative part of the work brain fresh after many years and many, many episodes.

CR:  Is it solitary or do you work with other animators?

SR:  The storyboarding job is a solitary one.  With the exception of meetings with our directors and Supervising Director, we're off on our own, dra
wing away.

CR:  You're credited with a lot of story board work.  To a neophyte, what does that entail?

SR:  The storyboard artist is responsible for the visualization of the script.  Armed with that and a rough record[ing] of the voice-actors (the little accents and inflections they put into their performances can affect the whole way a scene is played) the board artist draws out the camera angles and basic acting for the episode on panels that match the dimensions of the television screen.  We also work out camera moves within a scene and other basic technical elements that artists will employ in the animation.

We then meet with the director of the episode and the show's Supervising Director.  We present the board to them with the voice track, and then we break the whole thing down and rebuild it.  This is my favorite part of the process.   I like these meetings because they are highly creative–I like getting the director's reaction to the work and digging into the drawings, removing all the elements that don't work comedy-wise, combining shots, coming up with new ideas, streamlining.  

The board artist then takes all the notes and sketches from this meeting and revises the storyboard into a cleaner presentation form.  That board is sent to the producers for their notes before heading to animation.

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CR:  Who are your animation influences/directors/animators?

SR:  The Looney Tunes guys first and foremost.  Looking back, I feel so fortunate I was a kid at a time when they were still shown every Saturday morning.  I got to literally grow up with them, so my appreciation of these cartoons has just matured with age.  They put a stranglehold on my comic sensibilities from the very beginning and have never really let go.

As for modern days, Pixar has really cracked the code when it comes to raising the bar visually while never losing focus of the story.  Special mention goes to Brad Bird, former Simpsonite and director of The Iron Giant, a true masterpiece.  [Also] stop-motion classics like The Nightmare Before Christmas and the Wallace & Gromit series are major influences.

CR:  What's your favorite short animated cartoon?  And your favorite episode of The Simpsons?

SR: I'm going to go with a non-Looney Tunes answer on this one because it's impossible to pick a favorite among them.  It'd have to be Wallace & Gromit in The Wrong Trousers.  Not only did Aardman created a true stop-motion spectacle, they also gave us arguably animation's greatest villain: Feathers McGraw.  A stone-faced, jewel-robbing penguin that disguises himself as a chicken during heists; he's cunning, ruthless, could have stepped out of a Hitchcock picture.  This, of course, makes him utterly hilarious whenever he's onscreen.  

Favorite episode of The Simpsons?  I'd have to say the first episode I worked on, Homer's Enemy.  I'm really lucky my first episode has gone on to have its own identity and fan base for Homer's frustrated antagonist, Frank Grimes.

CR:  Will there be life after 3-D?

SR:  Absolutely.  As long as there is a good story to tell, the medium that it's told in will find an audience.  Every advance in technology was supposed to make the former ways obsolete, yet we still have painters, classical musicians, sculptors.  Traditional animation will evolve with technology and the times.  But if Looney Tunes have proven anything, it's that a good story told in this medium can become timeless.

CR:  What's your forecast for The Simpsons as they enter their 21st year?

SR:  Every time I've tried to do that, I"ve been way off.  Each season is it's own adventure.  I just jump on for the ride.

CR:  Do you have plans for your own cartoon?

SR:  Never say never, but my focus right now is on the residents of Springfield.

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