Rochesterians love to brag about how many cool things were invented right here in Rochester. The automobile, the automatic voting machine, fuzzy pipe cleaner, The Simpsons LEGO couch gag, Jell-o… hold up… what? You didn’t know the Simpsons LEGO couch gag was a product of Rochester? It’s true…
For those of you not familiar with the couch gag , the opening credits of The Simpsons always end with the family returning home and jumping on the couch to watch T.V. Many episodes feature a “couch gag” in which the Simpson family runs into the living room, only to find some comical abnormality with the couch.
It turns out that one of the greatest Simpsons couch gags ever, IMHO, was the brainchild of Rochester native, Mike Battle. Mike is now a Color Modelist for The Simpsons and he sat down with RocSubway for an interview…
MIKE BATTLE: In 2003 a friend from high school, Ben Raymondjack, hooked me up with an interview with his Ithaca collegmate, Patrick Garney at Nickelodeon. We hit it off when we realized we were both from Rochester, knew the same people from East Rochester and some of our family members went to school together at St. Thomas and Bishop Kearney. He got me a job doing runs for the studio once a week, then ultimately full-time.
Over the next 6 months, I would occasionally deliver to the NickToons Animation Studio, where I got to know the Post Producer there and he eventually referred me for an interview at Film Roman Animation Studios to work on the 8th season of King of the Hill. But I moved back to Rochester for a year after my grandfather grew ill and passed. Eventually, I returned to L.A. and was rehired at Film Roman; this time on The Simpsons, and I’ve been here ever since.
In my first year there, I noticed a coworker, Bill Bemiller, often wearing Buffalo Bills t-shirts, Dinosaur BBQ shirts, and ultimately, a blatant “Rochester” shirt. I asked him if he was from our beloved “Flour City,” but he said he was from L.A. Apparently, his wife grew up there, but he’d gone back for family visits and grown familiar with the city and the culture. That same year, I also discovered that one of our assistant directors, Norm Auble, was from Spencerport. A small world after all!
ROCHESTERSUBWAY.COM: What exactly do you do there?
MIKE BATTLE: Although I’ve been encouraged to animate on the show, I actually work in the Color Department as a Clean-up Artist and Color Modelist. There are Color Modelists and Color Stylists. If you can imagine that a “Stylist” is someone who comes up with a new style, then a “Modelist” is someone who follows that style model.
For those that aren’t familiar with the animation process, most of the final product is actually produced in Korea. Here in The States, the designs, storyboards, the basic key-frame animation, timing and color guides are worked out. Then those materials are sent to Korea for them to follow as they recreate the entire show with full animation and color. Once it returns from Korea, it is edited, sound is added and the color is corrected for broadcast.
So I spend most of the day scanning through all the drawings, looking for key poses and elements that we feel Korea needs to see colored. I’ll clean them up, apply any stock colors—colors that have already been styled and determined in the past—and then pass them on to the Color Stylists for the full-color treatment.
ROCHESTERSUBWAY.COM: You were the creator of the ingenious LEGO couch gag in 2007. How’d you come up with that?
MIKE BATTLE: Thank you! Back in 2006, I’d been working on The Simpsons for about 4 months when an old friend from Rochester emailed me a link to the YouTube video of the Live-Action Simpsons intro . I remembering thinking that it was really cool, and yet, a lot of work to only be posted on YouTube. Then, about a month later, I was at a backyard episode premiere party hosted at one of our director’s houses, Matthew Nastuk, who was celebrating the airing of his show, Homer Simpson, This Is Your Wife . I couldn’t believe it as we all watched that exact YouTube video opening before the episode. The Simpsons had purchased it and actually used it for the show. I thought, I’ve got to try that… to create an intro.
I planned to go ahead and make the final product first, then pitch the video, and worse-case scenario, if it got rejected, I’d post it on YouTube as fan art. If it got enough hits, (like the live-action intro did), maybe then FOX would reconsider it. So I got to brainstorming some ideas. It had to be something I could easily make myself that also wasn’t the traditional, 2D animation style.
I was thinking along the lines of a claymation intro, but my friend and aforementioned director, Matthew, pointed out they had just aired a “Gumby” claymation couch gag the year before. Instead, he suggested something more practical and shorter, like a couch gag done with LEGOs. I honestly wasn’t crazy about animating LEGOs at first. Michel Gondry had made a music video for The White Stripes, Fell in Love With a Girl , a few years earlier that was ridiculous. I couldn’t compete with that. But still I considered it, mainly for economical reasons, and eventually thought up a simple-enough gag.
I quickly realized, however, the major obstacle would be representing the Simpsons in the basic LEGO color palette. To my surprise, when I went to the local LEGO store, I noticed they had on display more than just the basic colors I recalled from my childhood. There were pinks, purples, turquoises, magentas, browns… you name it. But when I asked if I could buy them, they said those where just for display purposes only and that those colors had been discontinued for over a year. That’s when I called my friend, Patrick Garney (Webster, NY), who had a contact at LEGO. He crafted some emails and inquired about obtaining the discontinued colors. After some back and forth, they said they couldn’t help us, but directed us to a web ring of online LEGO enthusiasts who sell LEGOs from all around the world. In the end, I spent over $600 on 4,000+ blocks, ordering them from collectors in the U.S., Germany, Hungary, U.K., France, Italy, and Hong Kong.
When it came time to shoot, I reached out to a couple friends who had graduated the film program with me back at RIT. My friend, Scott Zarzycki, was my cinematographer, PJ Gaynard supplied the lighting equipment, and I animated & edited it. We shot 3 different versions, one where my hand built each character, one where a pile of LEGOs gathered into the room and formed into the characters, and the one that eventually aired; all ending with the same Homer “hair piece” gag.
I showed it to a producer at the studio, who supported the effort to approach FOX and pitch it. It aired on October 7th, 2007, coincidentally (yet appropriately) in front of my friend Matthew’s show, Midnight Towboy .
When it came on the T.V., my friends and family on the East Coast all got to see it first. It was fun, yet bittersweet, to receive phone calls and text messages with their reactions before I had even seen it. It would’ve been nice to share that with them in person. Nonetheless, it was an exciting night.
[See also: The Simpsons Couch Gag Contest ]
ROCHESTERSUBWAY.COM: Straight up, who taught you how to do this stuff?
MIKE BATTLE: I went to school at RIT for an Associate’s degree in Illustration and a Bachelor’s degree in Film & Animation. Like most jobs, it’s a combination of school, on-the-job training and your own personal passion.
ROCHESTERSUBWAY.COM: What neighborhood did you grow up in?
MIKE BATTLE: I originally grew up in Greece, on Fillingham Dr, across the street from Holy Sepulchre Cemetery near the main Kodak Plant on Ridge Road. I have fond memories of the days when Kodak would be “making clouds,” as my sisters & I once believed. We moved to Mendon when I was 8, which was a radical change of scenery after living on the West Side. I have fond memories of ice skating at Maplewood Park, walking along the Veteran’s Bridge, bowling at Kodak Park, trips to Sea Breeze, Red Wings games at Silver Stadium, 4th of July at the Irondequoit Town Hall and eating at the Char Pit, Mr Dominic’s and Abbott’s on Lake Ave after a day at Charlotte or Hamlin Beach.
ROCHESTERSUBWAY.COM: You mentioned to me you’re thinking of moving back to Rochester at some point. Talk about that.
MIKE BATTLE: After I left for L.A., my appreciation for Rochester grew. Living in L.A. has helped make aware all the natural resources and history that Rochester has. It’s not overcrowded. The traffic is not an issue. The air quality and water is noticeably better. It has access to a Great Lake. A river runs right through the city. There are waterfalls in the center of the city. A Canal. Spacious, green parks. Hiking and biking trails converted from historic, railways (even though, I’d love to see the railways revived!). And as I once was unaware, there is so much to discover about the people and events that once existed in Rochester. I think once you become enlightened to it, it’s hard not to be passionate about both the past and the future of the city. And I’ve noticed in the recent years I’ve come home, there’s definitely a pulse in Rochester.
MIKE BATTLE: Unfortunately, not. Actually, my friend, Charlie Ragins, was the background designer for that episode (Postcards from the Wedge ). He showed me a book, Subway Style about the abandoned subways of NYC. He actually won an Emmy for his designs.
ROCHESTERSUBWAY.COM: What’s the word on a sequel to The Simpsons Movie ?
MIKE BATTLE: There’s no official word on a sequel, other than Maggie’s mentioning during the ending credits of The Simpsons Movie. I know everyone here would love to work on another one. We’ll all be finding out together.
ROCHESTERSUBWAY.COM: What do you see yourself doing 10, 20 years down the road?
MIKE BATTLE: I’m currently taking night classes to obtain a Master’s degree in Art Education. I’d like to pursue teaching in the near future, which could potentially put me back in Rochester or the surrounding area. Ideally, it would be great to be teaching art and sharing my experience at the public or private level, while maintaining and expanding my side project, FlourCityPost.com , and join the effort to preserve the remaining history in Rochester, as well as reviving that which has been forgotten.
ROCHESTERSUBWAY.COM: You’re doing great stuff Mike. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us!
MIKE BATTLE: My pleasure. Same to you. I’m a daily follower of RocSubway. Looking forward to being back in Rochester for the holidays!
Tags: Bart Simpson, couch gag, Homer Simpson, interview, Interviews, LEGO, Lisa Simpson, Maggie Simpson, Marge Simpson, Mike Battle, Milhouse, Postcards from the Wedge, Rochester, Rochester NY, Spencerport, Springfield Subway, The Simpsons, Webster
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