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Brad Ableson: Simpsons artist gives birth
Brad Ableson, a DPS Film Roman storyboard artist who works on The Simpsons, has struck out on his own with a comedic short film that combines animation with live action and a diverse celebrity cast that includes former child actor Gary Coleman and porn star Ginger Lynn. Ableson wrote, directed and produced Save Virgil, the story of a cartoon character who was somehow born to real human parents. Former Man Show host Adam Carolla provides the voice of Virgil, a bitter little 2D-animated man desperate to make sense of his life and to find others like him.
Animation Magazine Online: Where did the inspiration for the Virgil character come from?
Brad Ableson: Virgil is a composite of the perverted voice in my head and "Mr. Birchum," a hilarious radio character Adam Carolla used to do on KROQ’s Kevin & Bean morning radio talk show [and now does on Comedy Central’s Crank Yankers]. I’d been struggling with Virgil’s personality for years when it suddenly clicked that Mr. Birchum had the pissed-off attitude that a cartoon born in the real world would have. Then, to make him even more sympathetic, I drew him short and ugly with a buck tooth and an afro!
AMO: Adam Carolla, Ginger Lynn, Gary Coleman … How did you come up with this diverse cast and how did you sell them on Save Virgil?
BA: To get Adam, I had a writer friend from The Simpsons talk me up, and Adam agreed to meet for lunch, where I pitched him the storyboards. Once he signed on, getting other people to join the cast was easy. Ralph Garmen, another KROQ comedian, used to date Ginger Lynn and recommended her for the part of Virgil’s mom. And to get Gary Coleman, well, all I had to do was offer him a few dollars and a hot meal!
AMO: What were some of the challenges you faced combining live action, stop-motion and 2D animation?
BA: The obvious challenge was getting Virgil, who didn’t exist on set, to appear as if he was interacting with the live-action world around him. When we couldn’t use wires and pulleys, the actors used props and cardboard cutouts. In a scene where Virgil gets raped by a monkey, we trained a real-life monkey to hump a stuffed animal which would later be covered up with drawings of Virgil.
AMO: How long was Save Virgil in the making?
BA: Almost four years. Since I work full-time on The Simpsons, I could only really work on Virgil during my yearly hiatus. The first year we shot the live action, the second year we did the animation and the third year we did the compositing. Then we put the film on the shelf for a year while I developed some other projects and did a lot of freelance artwork to get out of debt.
AMO: How has your work on The Simpsons helped you with this project?
BA: I owe everything to working on The Simpsons. There are so many ridiculously talented artists there who have trained and inspired me over the years. Everyone has been really supportive and generous with regard to Save Virgil. I think they figure that if I’m in a position to give them a job when The Simpsons ends, I would. Yeah right!
AMO: What hardware and software were used to create the stop-motion and 2D sequences? What special techniques were required?
BA: Both the 2D animation and stop-motion clay sequences were animated the old fashioned way. Computers came into play during the compositing process. Using Adobe After Effects, we removed the bluescreen from behind Virgil and placed him on top of the live-action background, and that’s pretty much it. All in all, it was a fairly simple process that I was able to do at home on my Mac.
AMO: We understand some of the animation was done in Korea and New Zealand. What were some of the reasons you took Save Virgil overseas, and how was the experience compared to working with a stateside studio?
BA: It sounds more glamorous than it really was. I took the 2D animation to a studio in Korea to do the inbetweening, inking and painting since that would have taken forever to do by myself. I did that in college and never want to go through that again! It was pretty bizarre over there. The rumor that Koreans work around the clock, eat and sleep at their desks is true. I did the same thing since I couldn’t afford a hotel room. In the end we all became great friends, until they ate my dog.
Later I went to New Zealand to learn compositing because, at the time, the only person I knew who could teach me the software was working on the Lord of the Rings trilogy in Wellington. While he was compositing Gollum, I’d work right next to him compositing Virgil. They’re very similar characters, if you think about it–except Gollum probably drives a nicer car.
AMO: Now that the short is completed and you have showed it at a few festivals, what’s next for Virgil? A full-length feature perhaps?
BA: That would be amazing, but a TV show would be the more realistic next step. Like South Park and Jackass, it would be fun to build a fan base through a modest TV show, then do a feature a few years down the road where you can do all the dirty things you couldn’t do on TV.
AMO: Do you have any other projects lined up?
BA: I have dozens of TV and movie ideas, both animated and live action, but right now my focus in on pitching Save Virgil. Also, I’m working on a live-action feature-length comedy based on a month I spent undercover in high school a few years ago.
AMO: Do you have any advice for struggling animators out there working on their own shorts?
BA: Good writing is the most important ingredient in a short. No matter how well it’s animated, if the story isn’t funny or engaging, nobody will care. Look at South Park and The Simpsons. They both started as horrendous-looking shorts, but they were so clever that people wanted more. And those shows seem to be doing okay!
For more information or to get your own copy of Save Virgil, please visit the Virgil website at www.savevirgil.com. To read more about Brad Ableson, please visit his first animated people page at