At the Huntsville Comic and Pop Culture Expo, Andrew and Kinsey had the opportunity to speak with artist and animator Phil Ortiz!
Phil is a veteran of the animation industry who started out working for Hanna-Barbera Productions in the 1970s.
He is best known for being a character and background designer for the first three seasons of “The Simpsons” and created the looks for several popular characters.
Check out our conversation below and let us know what you think!
How did you first get into art and animation?
In animation, professionally, I started at Hanna-Barbera which was my very first professional job. That was back in 1978. Those were great years. I wish you were around at that time. It was laid-back, there were no wars or anything going on, and everybody just chilled. They put me as a character and background designer and in layout for shows like “Scooby-Doo,” “The Smurfs,” “The Flintstones,” and “The Godzilla Show” which was popular at that time. Also “Richie Rich” and “The Shmoo,” which if nobody knows what the Shmoo is, it’s a character that looks like Casper without arms and completely white. It was a character from a comic strip that goes way back called Li’l Abner. He reminded me of Jethro Bodine from the Beverly Hillbillies.
How did you get involved with The Simpsons?
It was around 1989 and it was slow in the animation industry. No studios were hiring. Not too much work was available, but I was able to get a job at a small studio called Calico Productions. We were working on a show called “Denver: The Last Dinosaur” and it was the most boring job I’ve ever had. My co-worker went on his lunch break to some studio and he came to me and said “Hey Phil, they’re hiring, they’re looking at portfolios. They’re working on a show called the Samsons or the Stinsons or something. You should go down there and take your portfolio.” I said, “Any place is better than here because I’m bored out of my head.” So I went, they looked at my portfolio, and they knew I had worked at other studios besides Hanna-Barbera in the past. They said “Okay, Phil you have enough in-house experience. There’s your desk, you’re on payroll, get to work.”
What was your process of designing characters for the show? Did they give you exact descriptions for each character or did you have free creative reign?
They handed out scripts that had what the character should look like, what their environment would be, and what they would look like, so we took it from there. We gave it more volume and art direction. The whole script spoke for itself.
Do you have a favorite character that you had a part in designing?
Yes! Sideshow Bob! I designed [him] in the first season and to me, he’s the easiest character to draw, even more than the family because you’ve got to follow certain shapes for the Simpsons. But Sideshow Bob’s hair went in every direction. I’m pretty proud of Sideshow Bob.
Was there anyone you knew in real life that might have inspired the way a character looked on the show?
I designed Apu. He’s a real person. The guy that I used to model the character after doesn’t know that I ever used him as a character. He’s gonna go to his grave not knowing.
Are you still in touch with this person?
No. When I got hired, I read the script and one of my very first assignments said “Come up with a convenient store owner, preferably from the Middle East.” So I went to the 7-Eleven in North Hollywood and there was a guy working behind the counter. He had jet black hair and a black shirt. It was open so you could see his hairy chest. But he had a huge gold medallion, a green sweater, cream color stretch polyester pants, and a little mustache. I bought my sandwich there and then I left. But just before I left, and I’m not kidding, I was studying his features and memorizing them because I thought it was interesting how he looked. So when I opened the door to go out he said “Thank you, come again!” He actually said that! And the writers must have had the same idea too because, as you know, that’s what they came up with. I went back to the studio and I tried to remember what he looked like and started drawing it on paper. When I finished it, I went to Matt Groening’s office and I showed it to him. Matt was looking at it and goes “Uh-huh, yeah that’s Apu. Don’t change anything!” In other words, I hit it on the head first time.
There was a recent controversy about Apu. Do you think it had to do with Hank Azaria’s performance instead of the character design?
I thought it was somebody that had it in for the Simpsons or something like that. I was in Malaysia about eight or nine years ago for a convention I was invited to. Malaysia is about 75% Muslim and the rest is like Hindu. At the convention, these kids ran up to me and I thought they were gonna beat me up and say “Here’s for making fun of us!” But no. One of the kids said “Are you the one who created Apu?” I said “Well, I designed him. I didn’t create him.” And they reached in their little duffel bags and almost at the same time they all pulled out their autograph books and pens and said “Can you draw me Apu? Can you draw me Apu?” And it’s nothing personal! I don’t know why Hank Azaria was under such fire for it.
After 30 years, the show is still going strong. What do you think it is about the show that has given it such longevity?
It’s the writing. I’ll tell you if you ever saw the Tracey Ullman Simpsons, they were pretty wacky looking. Have you ever seen the Tracey Ullman Simpsons from 1987?
They were mostly just shorts, right?
Exactly. They showed one minute of it before the commercial and when it was over, they would come back to do the other minute of the story. If they had used that same wacky crazy design… it defied logic. It had no perspective. It just didn’t make sense almost. But it still would have been a success because it was the writing that did it.
A lot of animation nowadays has moved towards 3D and CGI instead of hand drawn and 2D. Do you have an opinion on that?
I don’t know. Maybe I’m intimidated by the progress, but there’s something not warm about doing a computerized drawing. It was more from the heart when we used to draw by hand. Kids now when they come to conventions, ask questions like “What was it like to draw cartoons without a computer?” So it’s great to hear questions like that. It’s a lost art.
Do you have any upcoming projects ?
No! I’m 65. I’m retired. I’m starting to get my pension and Social Security checks, and whatever I earn at these conventions, which is a good amount of money, so it’s gonna be a happy retirement. I’ll keep doing these as long as I have my health. Tom Cook and I usually work together. Tom Cook is another artist that started at Hanna-Barbera with me, so we’re old school. I mean really old school. And we’re disappearing one by one. We’re getting old and they’re getting out of the industry and retiring. They’re ODing, they’re in jail. Just kidding [laughs].
The journalist in me has to ask this: what do you think about the Simpsons pulling the Michael Jackson episode?
Why did it take them this long? Michael Jackson did that episode way back in the second season. Why did it take them this long to do this?
Were you involved in the making of that episode?
If I was, I just did backgrounds. I don’t think I did any character design.
Was it crazy having someone like Michael Jackson do a voice on the show?
No. It’s just somebody who has too much time on his hands and has nothing to do, so they just complain. They actually didn’t use his name in the credits. He went by another name. [The name was John Jay Smith]
Why was that?
At that time, he must have been under contract to do another project or something and couldn’t use his name. There’s actually another voice person that went by another name. It was Lisa’s substitute teacher. That cowboy. Do you know who did the voice of him? Have you heard of Dustin Hoffman?
Dustin Hoffman did the voice, but he was under contract with something so he went by another name. [Sam Etic] I forgot the name of the episode, but he was Lisa’s substitute.
Do you feel the show has lost some of it’s quality?
There are about 700 episodes now. My question is, why are they going this far? 700 episodes long? After the fifth season I stopped watching, but somebody told me that the live-action actors and actresses that appear in these TV sitcoms and dramas and comedies are pissed. They’re ticked off with The Simpsons and really are angry because the Simpsons have been winning all these Emmy Awards and the live-action actors and actresses are saying “Hey, we should’ve won that! You’re giving giving all these Emmys to a piece of celluloid” People that don’t exist! They look at it that way. They feel they should have won the Emmys.
Do you think it will ever end?
Oh yeah, eventually. I just hope Disney isn’t the cause of it. Because I thought Disney ruined the Star Wars movies.
Do you have anything else you would like to add?
When I started on The Simpsons, only a handful of people thought it was going to go past one season. And my producer Margot Pipkin was a sweetheart. I have to mention her. She said “Phil, don’t go anywhere. We’re going places with this show. This is going to be bigger than “Taxi,” it’s gonna be bigger than “Cheers” because they had the same producers for the Simpsons and she said “It’s gonna be a monster.” And I said to myself, “Yeah, right. It’ll pay my bills for a couple of months and that’s it.” Then I had that doubt until after the first season. It knocked off the Bill Cosby Show which, week, after week, after week, was the number one spot. The Simpsons was number one for about two or three weeks and then I thought “Hey, maybe they have a monster of a show here.” But my God, I didn’t think it was going to go this long! [Laughs] This is inhumane.