'Simpsons' animator draws from his heart

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Paul Wee has a penchant for patience.

A key animator on FOX TV’s “The Simpsons,” he says it takes roughly six months to create one episode from script to screen — and thousands of drawings an episode.

In his Burbank office at Film Roman, a Starz Media Company, he uses the Wacom Cintiq tablet that works like a sketch pad. He draws the actors and the acting by pressing the pen to the tablet and the image transfers onto the computer screen.

Wee has worked on the show for 22 of its 23 seasons.

“I love the show, so it’s not hard to stay on as long as I have,” he said. “I love being a part of classic television history.”

His favorite characters to draw are Bart Simpson, the family’s fourth-grade son, and Mr. Burns, who oversees the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant.

“I love them all, but I have a particular fondness for drawing Bart and love drawing Mr. Burns,” Wee said. “Bart kind of represents the kid in all of us and acts on his impulses —that’s very liberating. Mr. Burns, by the same token, he is so completely evil that it’s really fun to draw him.”

Wee believes the popularity of the show has more to do with the family and how they deal with the world.

“I think everybody can relate to at least one aspect of the Simpsons,” he said. “After so many years, we have a lot of facets to our universe, so there is something for everybody.”

Wee studied illustration at Otis College of Art and Design (then known as Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design).

He credits his life drawing teacher, Glenn Vilppu, an independent educator, with demystifying for him a clear method drawing. Under his instruction, Wee said, the light bulb went on.

Later, Wee fell into a group of animation friends already working in the industry and was able to study animation on the job.

“I was an animation fan already, so it wasn’t a hard transition,” he said.

But it was the camaraderie between the animators that really drew him in.

“I got a lot out of the people I worked with more than anything,” he said. “I wouldn’t be half the artist I am without the influences I’ve worked with.”

Wee gained most of his animation skills from his friend, Richard Chavez, who has worked in TV and feature films at DreamWorks, Disney and Sony. Observing Chavez’s techniques has given Wee an appreciation for how to draw things, he said.

They met while at DIC animation in the mid-1980s, Chavez said.

“Paul had just come out of the Otis/Parsons schools and joined the team,” he said. “[Wee] was really young. So was I. We found a lot of similarities like music — blues and rock — and he grew to be a good friend.”

They just saw Albert Lee at the Canyon Club. Wee introduced Chavez to Kung Fu at a martial arts studio in Northridge, so now they share that hobby too.

“He’s really an inspiration to be around,” Chavez said. “He draws circles around anybody.”

If Chavez had to say what Wee’s specialty is on “The Simpsons,” it would be drawing crowd scenes.

“It is very tedious— demanding — but I think he likes the challenge quite a bit,” Chavez said.

For several years the two have gone to Comic-Con, a comics convention in San Diego, but for the past three years, Wee has been an exhibitor and sells sketchbooks of his independent art work.

Wee defines a sketchbook as a showcase for anything an artist draws for fun.

“A lot of people are interested in seeing the artist’s process these days, so I do a lot of that,” he said. “I like to share the process, to help make a name for myself outside animation with ‘The Simpsons.’ The Simpsons style is not my style. My style is more naturalistic, more cartoony in a lot of ways, but I also do very straight academic drawings as well.”

He also paints portraiture — men, women children — using acrylic or watercolor, and he sculpts.

An example of his sculpture is a terra cotta Chinese warrior on display at the entrance of the new Martial Arts History Museum in Burbank. Wee, a friend of Michael Matsuda, museum founder and president, volunteered to make the soldier, Matsuda said.

“Although martial arts is in the name, the focus of the museum is on history and culture,” Matsuda said. “I wanted something in the front that would depict a country that was the oldest and most historic. China is one of our oldest countries and it is the birthplace of Kung Fu.”

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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