Screengrab: FX Now

The Team That Brought Homer Simpson into the Third Dimension

20 years ago, a fledgling computer animation shop helped Homer Simpson step into a new dimension for the first time.

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May 6 2015, 4:15pm

Screengrab: FX Now

On October 29, 1995, Homer Simpson sidled behind his whatchamacallit case and, fearing an evening spent prying out all the dead hermit crabs from Patty and Selma's beach trip, slides into the third dimension.

The Simpsons has now done Lego episodes, claymation segments, and otherwise futzed with its animation style as a gimmick, but Homer3, the last segment in the Simpsons's sixth "Treehouse of Horror" Halloween special, is the first time the show was ever rendered in 3D.

Homer finds the otherworldly portal to a Tron-like world (has anyone seen that movie? no?) full of computer graphics in jokes, mathematical formulas, and other things that Homer says make the dimension "look expensive."

But this simulated world was actually cheap, by computer graphics standards. Pacific Data Images, the CG outfit that did the work, did it for much less than the going rate, purely out of love for the show.

Looks expensive. Screengrab: FXNow

"It was very, very little, but we were just going to figure out a way to do it. We got past the money part of the discussion really fast," PDI founder Carl Rosendahl, who wouldn't give me an exact figure, told me. "They said, 'this is how much we have,' and we said 'that's nowhere near enough,' but we decided to do it anyway. We were never not going to do it."

That's not to say there were any hard feelings. Tim Johnson, who directed the episode on PDI's end and went on to direct movies such as Antz and Home told me it was a dream for most of the team to work on the episode.

"We walked into the best job doing the Simpsons, they were a dream to work with," he said. "We enjoyed seeing those characters taking the first step into the 3D world, we were happy to do the nights and weekends required to keep our other jobs that paid going at the same time."

The Simpsons side was happy with the arrangement, too: In an Edmonton Journal article (accessed via LexisNexis), Simpsons writer Bill Oakley said the episode was "almost worthy of being a pay-per-view event."

Homer3 doesn't look like a technological marvel today (though it does hold up pretty well), but the Simpsons's first foray into 3D computer animation was a huge milestone for the legendary show. It's the best segment in a triumph of an episode of a show firing on all cylinders.

"It may be a visual pip, but it's also kind of a moot landmark," Tom Shales wrote in his Washington Post review of the episode (accessed via LexisNexis). "The Simpsons single-handedly justifies the existence of the Fox network, and that's no easy feat."

A building from Myst. Screengrab: FXNow

Even for an animated show prone to making its characters do ridiculous things, Homer's foray into the third dimension was unprecedented at the time.

"Any given episode of The Simpsons might find Homer surviving blunt trauma (and trauma and trauma and trauma, etc.)," Erik Adams wrote in a 2014 review on The Onion's TV Club. "But only in 'Treehouse Of Horror VI' can he trip through an interdimensional rift and drool in state-of-the-art-for-1995 computer animation."

The episode propelled PDI into the mainstream consciousness. Rosendahl's company had done good, high-end work before on movies like Angels in the Outfield and Terminator 2, and it had even created the digital Pillsbury Doughboy. But the company really wanted to break into feature length films. Instead, it ended up doing The Simpsons.

"We were excited about [Pixar's] Toy Story coming out, but we were also pretty jealous," Rosendahl told me. "But something as iconic as The Simpsons coming out around the same time felt really good."

Screengrab: FXNow

In the long run, it worked out from a business and creative standpoint for PDI, too.

"I had been directing TV commercials but I had written a script and was shopping it around Hollywood," Johnson said. "Working with the Simpsons taught me so much—they really took this 'yes, and' ethos of improv artists. They wouldn't say no to any of our ideas, anything we came up with, they just tried to trump it with a cooler twist on it. They were looking for the best version of every joke."

Homer3 came out in October; by March, PDI was purchased by Dreamworks. PDI went on to make Antz, the second-ever fully CG film, Shrek and its sequels, and the Madagascar series. In its 35 years, PDI didn't do too bad for itself—in January, it was shuttered as a full studio and folded into Dreamworks due to the sputtering 3D animation business.

But back to The Simpsons. How do you take two iconic animated characters like Homer and Bart and make them 3D without screwing it up? By not trying to make them look too human, Rosendahl said.

"I think what everyone nailed on that really well was making it look as much like the animation taken into the third dimension as much as throwing it in there and making it look like photorealistic reality," he said. "If you saw Homer Simpson actually walking around you'd be really freaked out. He's not proportional in any human way. What makes it work is the characters in the 3D animation are very true to the Simpsons characters who have remained very consistent over their life."

Figuring out how to make the hair look realistic was the most challenging part, both Rosendahl and Johnson said.

"There's a lot that happens when you hand animate a character that cheats it. You see Bart's hair has a certain number of points to it, but you always see it in profile," Rosendahl said. "But what's it like to look down at the top of Bart's hair?"

Interestingly, the team built two separate models of Homer: One for the odd dimension he finds himself in, and one for the "real" world of West Hollywood that it leads to. The "real world" Homer has more detail, in hopes that he would fit in with his surroundings a bit more, Rosendahl said.

Mmmmm, erotic cakes. Screengrab: FXNow

Luckily, The Simpsons was already enough of a phenomena that there were already plenty of action figures out of both Homer and Bart. The vinyl dolls guided Johnson when he wasn't sure what to do.

The dimension that Homer steps into was a piece of cake, more or less. It was designed to be a parody of Tron and of the state of CG at the time in general, which is one of the reasons it holds up as an episode of television 20 years later—it wasn't trying to do too much. Simpsons animators storyboarded out every scene as if it were going to be animated by hand, then handed it off to the PDI team to work on. There was some back-and-forth, usually concerning character design, but The Simpsons team did allow PDI to toss in some Easter eggs into the world they'd created.

There's a CG teacup in Homer's Tron-like world, which is often the first thing a CG artist learns to animate; there's the number 734, which corresponds to PDI on a touchtone phone keypad; there's a building that's from the popular PC game Myst.

There's also famous equations and hexadecimal codes that The Simpsons team tossed in there that have been the subject of numerous articles in math-centric blogs.

"They gave us a lot of latitude to have fun and create an environment that was interesting, entertaining, and indicative of this mysterious, 3D, computer generated world," Rosendahl said. "It was kind of backward for us. Instead of trying to simulate the real world in 3D, we were simulating a 2D animation in 3D. We wanted to make it feel like a Simpsons animated TV show, but in the third dimension."

There's no doubt they knocked it out of the park.