Behind THE SIMPSONS
Background designer Chuck Ragins 91 IL got turned into the character of a ski lift operator in one episode of THE SIMPSONS.
When The Simpsons hit the air in 1989, critics were skeptical. How long could an animated sitcom survive in prime time? As it turned out, very long: now in its 26th season, the phenomenally popular show is the longest-running sitcom on American TV.
Chuck Ragins 91 IL, a background designer for the show, is among the many RISD grads who have made a major impact on the unique universe of Springfield since its inception. Among the very first, Jeff LaFlamme 89 FAV, Tricia Garcia 89 FAV and Lance Wilder 90 IL joined the show in its first few seasons.
“Several RISD alums migrated out to LA over the next few years to break into animation,” Ragins explains. “The Simpsons was the biggest show in town, with lots of work for varying skill sets gained from RISD departments like Film/Animation/Video, Illustration, Graphic Design and even Architecture.” The animation team found the camaraderie to be irresistible—almost “like a college dorm,” Ragins recalls. The work was demanding, but “this first group of animators from RISD who landed on the show were all friends.” Once the channel was open, more and more RISD alumni made their way to The Simpsons studios over the years.
After joining the team in 1996 as a background layout artist, Ragins worked his way into the design department within a year. “Background design was a natural fit for me,” he explains, “as I was using my illustration experience from RISD in drawing a wide variety of new environments and observational details that the show has become so famous for.”
Though there were bumps along the way and Ragins was demoted at one point, from 2006–07 he had a blast creating various backgrounds for The Simpsons Movie, including a Simpsonian Alaska—a job the Alaskan native particularly liked. His status as an Alaskan also inspired character designer Kevin Newman 90 IL to draw him as a ski lift operator for the episode Little Big Mom.
When the spectacular success of The Simpsons Movie sparked a resurgence of interest in the series, Ragins had the opportunity to take on several collateral design projects, including the background and “Krustyland” map for the Universal Studios ride and video and board games. Following the success of the film, “there was an expectation for the series to match the new visual sophistication we created on the big screen,” he says.
In 2010 this creative push paid off, with Ragins winning an Emmy—the first Outstanding Individual Achievement recognition to be awarded to a member of the team—for his background design work on the episode Postcards from the Wedge. And to his delight (“It’s even sweeter the second time around!”) he shared a second Emmy with the color design director for the 2013 Treehouse of Horror Halloween episode.
In addition to Ragins, LaFlamme, Garcia, Wilder and Newman, some of the many other RISD alumni who have contributed their talents to The Simpsons include Eli Balser 93 IL, Andrew Burrell 90 IL, Gabriel Defrancesco 99 IL, Michael DiMartino 96 FAV, John Krause 90 IL, Jeff Johnson 86 IL, Karen Carnegie Johnson 98 IL, Dean Kelly 98 IL, Greg Lovell BArch 91, John Mathot 90 FAV, Ted Mathot 93 IL, Erik Moxcey 90 IL, Drew McPhail 98 IL, Kenji Ono 98 IL and Maria Mariotti Wilder 91 IL.
Hard work and focus pay off for NYC producer Ryan Cunningham 02 FAV, who is now helping to create some of television’s funniest moments.
Graduating seniors Emily Neilson 15 FAV and Katy Strutz 15 IL are thrilled to move on to LAIKA, a creative animation studio outside Portland, OR.
Seniors are screening final degree project films at this week’s Film/Animation/Video Senior Show.