With the opening of "The Simpsons Movie" this weekend, there's one Milwaukeean who knows more about the show than even the most die-hard fans (this author included). That's because UW-Milwaukee and MATC professor Tim Decker, who also worked at Disney, served as an animator for the famous show in the earlier part of its 18-season run. Decker says it was a tough job with long and tedious hours, but it's also a part of his career that he looks back upon fondly.
Decker, who also owns Dig Design with his wife Amy, is a consultant, a freelance animator, and according to his business card, a "coffee connoisseur." In other words, he keeps himself busy beyond his full-time teaching position.
This Friday -- aside from being the premiere of the long-awaited "The Simpsons Movie" -- is also when Decker will participate in Gallery Night at Sprout!, 320 E. Buffalo St. From 4 to 6 p.m., he'll convert kids' scribbles into little cartoons on the spot.
We caught up with Decker recently to discuss his career, drawing Lisa Simpson and what's like to be an animator in a city like Milwaukee.
OMC: Can you give us the Tim Decker story?
Decker: I started out in art school in 1982, and while I was there, I sent out a letter to the Motion Picture Screen and Cartoonist Union. And I applied at the Ringling Brothers Clown College.
OMC: Clown college?
TD: I got accepted (to both). I was in Denver at the time. I'm from Winthrop Harbor, Ill., but my wife is from Milwaukee. So I'm weighing whether I should go to clown college or to Hollywood. I took off and went to Hollywood. That was 1982, there was nothing going on in Hollywood. Bud Hester ran the Cartoonists Union School, and he told us, "You guys are brave, because there's no work (in the industry)." So I fell flat on my face, and then I went into the Air Force to be a base cartoonist.
OMC: There's a job in the Air Force for a cartoonist?
TD: There are illustrators. I told my recruiter that I wanted to be an illustrator and she said, "Sure, bring your portfolio to boot camp." Kind of a big mistake. Drill sergeant kicked my butt. After the fifth week, I saw the career counselor who said, "Tim Decker, we're gonna make you a jet mechanic." I said, "No, no, no. I can draw." I drew a quick cartoon to show I could draw. So I had to go back to the snake pit where the drill sergeants were. I had to do 350 pushups. Then they got my portfolio for me, and I wound up getting stationed at Holloman Air Force Base in Southern New Mexico.
OMC: What kind of cartoons were you drawing there?
TD: Propaganda, you know?
OMC: Were you an artist as a kid?
TD: I've been drawing cartoons all my life. Also, while I was in Hollywood, before the Air Force, I went to Cal Arts. I got accepted but didn't have the $8,000 to go, so that's why I went to the Air Force. I thought I was going to end up in Germany, drawing cartoons, enjoying life. After four years, I got out and went to Cal Arts. I graduated and started working on "The Simpsons." While I was in Cal Arts, I worked on "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks."
OMC: OK, tell me about "The Simpsons."
TD: "The Simpsons" was a blast. I really don't think you could say bad things about the crew. They were all professional. They all draw well, they all do great things. It's a fun job for someone single because you put a lot of hours in. The directors were all awesome. There was a lot stress, but it was a good job and was a lot of work.
OMC: What seasons were you there?
TD: I was there five and six. Old school.
OMC: That was right in the series' wheelhouse. What episodes did you work on?
TD: "The Boy Who Knew Too Much," I worked on. "Homer Loves Flanders," "Homer The Great."
OMC: I love the episode where Homer and Flanders become friends.
TD: I did the football game in that one.
OMC: What did you do, specifically, with "The Simpsons?"
TD: I was in character layout and animation. I would draw the main poses of the characters, and then they would send them off to Korea, where they would draw all of the in between poses.
OMC: So you had to become an expert illustrator in perfectly drawing all the characters? How many people did you work with?
TD: We had a team of 10-15 to begin with for each episode. And there are six teams.
OMC: Is it hard to draw identically to someone else?
TD: Yes, it's extremely challenging. They have specific measurements. You're all trying to draw like Matt (Groening). I don't think I ever got perfect. The guys in Korea saved me a lot. They were the ones who had to put it "on model" and tie it down.
OMC: Did you have creative direction or did you have to figure out what to draw? How does that work?
TD: You have each storyboard and a recording of the dialogue. So you know the emotions you are trying to capture with the character. Bart can "hello" 50 million ways.
OMC: Did you have a chance to work with any of the actors or Matt Groening?
TD: No, but I met Matt at the usual premiere parties. I got to shake his hand. He kept more in touch with the directors and the producers.
OMC: Were you a fan of the show?
OMC: Are you still a fan of the show?
OMC: Are you excited for the movie? Do you feel a little bit of ownership in it?
TD: Yes. I think I feel like I'm part of the family, and everyone who has worked on "The Simpsons" is part of that. Even though I'm not necessarily drawing it anymore, it's still near and dear.
OMC: Why did you leave?
TD: I left because I didn't like the fact that, at the time, you'd be on for seven to nine months, then you'd be off for three months, just waiting to be called back. I hated the non consistent part of the job. Now they've fixed it, now guys stay on because (the industry) got competitive.
OMC: So how did you get to Milwaukee?
TD: I applied at Knowledge Adventure, which was doing educational software. I worked with Steven Spielberg on the "Jumpstart" series. I met Mr. Spielberg on the director's chair. Disney Interactive was starting up. Some people from Knowledge Adventure were there and said I should come over. I was hired as assistant animation director first, which means I was in charge of all the animation for the games I worked on. In the end, I was in charge of most of the animation. I was there seven years. And then we had a baby and they laid me off. I was really bitter about that, I'm not going to lie. I thought I was being really loyal to them, then all of a sudden I have a family and I'm gone.
Now I'm a professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and at MATC. I teach animation.
OMC: Your business card says you do lots of other things, too.
TD: I do consulting, I do illustrations, and I've worked with the Chicago Children's Theater doing set design. I've done freelance animation here and there.
OMC: Out of all the projects you've worked on, what are you most proud of?
TD: My best accomplishment is working at Disney, because I said I would since second grade. So I'm glad I made it from Winthrop Harbor, Ill. and made it all the way to Disney. People from here always asked what I'm really going to do, am I gonna drive a truck? So when I came back I felt good, but part of me thinks sometimes I should've stayed in L.A., just because that's where the animation is. But you take the good with the bad. Once kids come in to the mix, you can't be putting in 16-hour days.
OMC: Do you think you'll stay in Milwaukee?
OMC: Would you do TV again?
TD: I would do TV for something fun.
OMC: Could you work on anything? Could you draw for "The Family Guy?"
TD: Yeah, one of my best friends in the executive director for "The Family Guy."
OMC: You ever just doodle around, try out stuff?
TD: I come up with stuff, and if I did it again, I'd like to do something with my own characters. I get kind of tired of drawing other peoples' characters. I suffer from something I call "cartoon schizophrenia." It's like I have a bunch of cartoon characters running around in my head, saying, "C'mon, draw me, draw me!"
OMC: How many people ask you to draw them as a "Simpsons" character?
OMC: OK, that rules out my next question.
TD: If they have good characteristics, I can do it. I can still draw Lisa decently, because I did a lot of her. I remember her the most because everyone who was working on "The Simpsons" said that if you can draw Lisa, you can draw Maggie and Marge. Everyone else at the time was trying to get Bart and Homer because they were the main stars.
OMC: Are you the only person in Milwaukee who's worked on "The Simpsons" and at Disney?
TD: Yeah. I have no peers here. But (even when I worked in Los Angeles) I'd always come back here, because Milwaukee is beautiful. People take it for granted that they have such a nice community here. There is that Midwestern outlook, but I'm sorry, people can do a lot of things here. Milwaukee is a front-runner in a lot of ways.
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.