March 15, 1957
New York, New York, USA
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While not a household name like Matt Groening, animation director David Silverman was arguably one of the most instrumental behind-the-scenes craftsmen of the perennial sitcom family "The Simpsons" (Fox, 1989- ). Silverman was a struggling animator in the 1980s before the boom in feature film and primetime animation, and was on the verge of quitting the business altogether when he took a chance on a series of short bumpers about a dysfunctional cartoon family on "The Tracey Ullman Show" (Fox, 1987-1990). A key player in laying the ground rules for transforming Groening's two-dimensional drawings into characters that, for a time, were a pop culture phenomenon, Silverman also directed countless episodes during the first several seasons. After branching out to try his hand on other projects, including a co-directing stint on the feature hit "Monsters Inc." (2001) and consulting on "Ice Age" (2002), Silverman was brought back to fictional Springfield to direct the long-awaited feature, "The Simpsons Movie" (2007). But it was television that proved to be his bread and butter, as Silverman was the creator of other animated shows like "Cleghorne!" (The WB, 1995-96) and "The Wild Thornberrys" (Nickelodeon, 1998-2004), while also writing for "Dilbert" (UPN, 1998-2000) and the live-action "Undressed" (MTV, 1999-2002), making Silverman as versatile as he was talented.
Silverman was born on March 15, 1957 in New York City. Like many children, he loved drawing, but unlike most, he created comic strips and crudely animated "flip-books" at a very young age. He would later credit his parents for encouraging him; his father loved old comedies and exposed him to W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. When the Silverman family lived in Europe briefly, his art historian mother took him to museums. His interest in comic books and cartoons only deepened during his childhood, wherein he learned early on the difference between the animation of Warner Bros. and Hannah-Barbera cartoons - subtle distinctions that would serve him well when he pursued animation for a living. He provided illustrations for the yearbook and drew cartoons for the student newspaper. He also delved into clay animation, winning a prize for a short film at the Kodak Teenage Movie Awards, a contest for amateur filmmakers. Through the contest, Silverman met fellow aspiring animator Eric Goldberg, who would later forge a successful Hollywood career in animation, directing the Walt Disney feature "Pocahontas" (1995). The two immediately hit it off and encouraged one another's success in the early stages of their careers. Meanwhile, Silverman enrolled at the University of Maryland to study architecture. But after two years, the lure of his true passion led him to transfer to the University of California, Los Angeles to study film and animation.
At UCLA, Silverman narrowed his focus to hand-drawn animation, taking advantage of his lifelong skills, while on the side, he drew cartoons for The Los Angeles Times and provided illustrations for a line of music books for children. Already two years behind at the start, he scrambled to complete his first student project, "The Strange Case of Mr. Donnybrook's Boredom," based on the Ogden Nash poem. To complete the project in time, Silverman would throw parties for fellow students who showed up on weekends to pitch in with painting cells and finishing the artwork. The effort paid off; the film earned high marks and drew praise at student film festivals. After graduating with a master's degree, Silverman landed a low-level animation job at Ruby-Spears, the company that produced several Saturday morning cartoon shows. Silverman's first job was assisting lead animators on "Mr. T." (NBC, 1983). While happy to be working in Hollywood, Silverman, along with his colleagues, were ambitious and eager for something more.
The animation business in the mid-1980s was not as robust as it would later become. Feature films had yet to enjoy their comeback, and most television cartoons lacked sophistication, being aimed at young children. Over time, Silverman became disenchanted; he had also grown tired of living paycheck to paycheck as a freelance animator. He had all but decided to leave the field when, at the urging of a friend, he looked into a job at a small graphics and animation company which had just landed a contract to provide 30-second animated bumpers for a new sketch comedy show. The show turned out to be "The Tracey Ullman Show," and the animated segments featured Matt Groening's creation, "The Simpsons."
Silverman joined the team thinking he only be employed for two weeks. When producers saw his work, they hired him as a full-fledged animator. The shorts eventually took on a life of their own, thanks in part to the guidance of producer James L. Brooks. Debuting in April 1987, the shorts were crudely drawn, as compared to the later series. Taking advantage of the fledgling Fox Network's desire for new and edgy programming to fill its time slots, Brooks and company developed a spin-off of the shorts. "The Simpsons" debuted in December 1989, becoming the first primetime animated sitcom since "The Flintstones" (ABC, 1960-66). Silverman directed the pilot episode, "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire," where Homer is rescued by family pet Santa's Little Helper when his plan to raise money for Christmas goes awry. From that moment on, the show maintained a long, steady presence on a network not known at the time for churning out hits.
Silverman was largely credited with laying down the rules for the show, determining guidelines for drawing the characters and the world they occupied, while ensuring that the characters were rendered consistently in show after show. Despite the sheer flexibility that animation provided, Silverman asserted the necessity of the characters seeming to exist in a reality governed by simple laws of physics in order for believability to be sustained. Silverman and his staff spent much of the first season correcting errors and re-drawing sequences, using several artists and animators subcontracted from companies in Korea. Meanwhile, Silverman continued to guide the show for several seasons, which began taking a permanent residence atop the pop culture zeitgeist. Over the years, he oversaw changes in technology and the introduction of computers to speed up parts of the assembly-line process of animation, such as in storyboarding and coloring. Throughout it all, Silverman and his colleagues avoided two factors which usually dogged successful shows: suggestions from the network and aging actors.
While still working on "The Simpsons," Silverman wrote an episode of the animated series, "Beetlejuice," (syndicated, 1989-1991), was a designer for the "The Critic," (ABC, Fox, 1994-95), and directed an animated segment in the feature film "Robocop 3" (1993). But despite his success, Silverman felt the need to stretch his legs creatively. He created animated shows like the short-lived "Cleghorne!" (The WB, 1995-96) and the more popular hit "The Wild Thornberrys" (Nickelodeon, 1998-2004), while also writing for "Dilbert" (UPN, 1998-2000) and the live-action series "Undressed" (MTV, 1999-2002). He left "The Simpsons" to direct his first feature, "Road to El Dorado" (1998), which was notable for being the first animated film for DreamWorks SKG, a studio that was intent on making significant inroads into animation. Though "El Dorado" was no blockbuster and failed to draw rave reviews, Silverman went on to co-direct the 2001 Pixar hit, "Monsters, Inc." He then served as a story consultant on the Fox animated blockbuster "Ice Age," and was an animation consultant on "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" (2003).
Over the years, fans speculated and producers hinted at the possibility of the Simpsons appearing in a feature film. When the time inevitably came, Silverman was called in to direct. Despite advances in technology and strides in realistic computer graphics, the movie retained its two-dimensional cartoon look, albeit with a slightly bigger scope. With a massive marketing campaign that included 12 7-Eleven stores converting into Kwik-E-Marts across the country and Homer Simpson (Dan Castellaneta) doing the opening monologue on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" (NBC, 1992-3009; 2010- ), "The Simpsons Movie" (2007) put the show back on the pop culture landscape. Back on television, he returned as a storyboard consultant on "The Simpsons."