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The zigzaggy road to Springfield

“The Simpsons’” Rebecca Totman uses her arts education to keep the famed nuclear family drawn together.

December 5, 2018

By Cory Phare

Rebecca Totman is proof that art works. And that dedicated students can run their own road – or monorail – all the way to Springfield.

“I didn’t have a direct path. I didn’t even know the job I have existed,” says the animation associate producer of “The Simpsons.” “I just wanted to study art because it fed my soul.”

How does one parlay that passion into leadership at the longest-running sitcom of all time, now in its 30th season?

For Totman, it was all about the grind.

As a student at Metropolitan State University of Denver, she worked full time to finance her degree in fine arts with a focus on sculpture and installation. After graduating in 2005, she worked on feature film productions that came through Denver.

The seasonal nature of the industry eventually drove her to Los Angeles, where she took up in prop departments, costume areas and set design – “wherever I could get paid in the film industry.”

A stint on an animated show for preschoolers led Totman to the building where “The Simpsons” was produced. Drawing on her entrepreneurial ethic, she worked her way into the animated family and, over 10 years, up the ladder to her current role.

She credits her education’s inherent problem-solving as a defining element in her success. “Studying art really got me to think outside of the box and see opportunities I might have otherwise missed,” she says.

“When I encounter a challenge and don’t know how to move forward, I have to hit it with a fresh approach,” she says. “Inevitably you’ll fail and have to keep pushing through that. It’s a very similar process to what I’m doing now, scheduling and managing people.”

"If you can think critically, you can make your way in any industry." Rebecca Totman, sitting here in front of a framed poster with a few of the many famed musicians who
"If you can think critically, you can make your way in any industry." Rebecca Totman, sitting here in front of a framed poster with a few of the many famed musicians who've appeared on "The Simpsons," extolls the virtues of studying art at MSU Denver. Photo by Katherine Seibert

That’s no small feat, considering there are 180-plus employees, including 13 pre- and post-production directors, working to bring Homer, Marge, Lisa, Bart and Maggie into living rooms each week.

It takes a full calendar year to finish a 22-episode season. Each individual show requires nine months to complete, with a new episode beginning every other week.

After the writers’ initial table read of the script, Totman plays a key role as the animation team breaks down designs and starts sketching out storyboards. Storyboarding takes about four weeks. After that, the writers get an animatic screening to rewrite parts of the script. This editing happens up to a week before airing. The result is a relevancy that keeps the show as fresh as a Lard Lad donut (with pink icing and sprinkles, of course).

The show’s secret sauce is the nine-week character-layout process: Scene by scene, each pose is planned in a detailed blueprint, rendering about 50 percent of the animation. This is then sent to South Korea for full animation, including “in-betweens,” “cleanup poses,” digital painting and compositing, which is all then sent back stateside seven weeks later.

The result, Totman notes, is what makes “The Simpsons” we know today. “A lot of our peer animated shows are storyboard-driven,” she says. “But character layout really enhances our episodes.”

That quality has cemented “The Simpsons” as intergenerational icons, commenting on society and occasionally courting controversy as a Krustyland funhouse mirror version of reality reflected back upon itself.

Totman credits the high standards of the writers, producers and showrunner Al Jean for this continued relevance and wit. They’re also the story engine behind her favorite episode: “The Mysterious Voyage of Homer,” from season eight, popularly known as “the chili cook-off one.”

When asked the million-dollar question of where Springfield is located, Totman deferred, noting it was show creator Matt Groening’s domain; she followed up by saying it sometimes morphs depending on the episode. “We all can see parts of ourselves there. It’s meant to remind everyone of their hometown – sometimes it reminds me of Denver,” she adds.

But what about those digs at the Mile High City’s beloved football team?

“It’s true, but we’ve got some covert Broncos fans on the staff, too,” Totman says. “I think of it all as a little love jab.”

Maybe they were saying “boo-urns” after all.