How does a college kid with no experience go from being a complete homer to drawing Homer (Simpson) professionally? For Brad Ableson, it was a little luck and a metric ton of hard work.
Ableson, now 36, spent 15 years as an animator and storyboard artist for The Simpsons, the infamous animated TV sitcom that has been on the air for more than two decades. That means when Homer dishes out his patented "Why you little---" and starts to throttle his mischievous son Bart, there's a good chance it was Ableson who came up with the angle, the actions and everything else that brings the characters to life and into your living room. After developing and directing an animated TV pilot, another of Ableson's projects---"Good Vibes"---was picked up by MTV and premiered Oct. 27 to rave reviews.
But it was a long journey for Ableson.
The Simpsons first aired when Ableson was a freshman in high school and it immediately blew his mind. Ableson was already an amateur artist and The Simpsons was drawn in a style very similar to his own. It didn't take long for obsession to set in.
"In high school I was basically known as 'the Bart Simpson Guy' because I drew him on yearbooks, chalkboards---even people," Ableson said. "But it never really crossed my mind that I could ever work on the show because I had never met anyone in the industry."
After graduation, Ableson attended the University of Southern California on scholarship. Unfortunately he didn't make it in to USC's film school. But even though he didn't get in to his major, he decided to take his general education requirements with plans to reapply to film school the next semester. But his plan didn't work. All in all, Ableson was denied admission four times in a row, making him the Rudy Ruettiger of film students.
The summer after his sophomore year, Ableson needed money. On a whim, he applied for an animator job on The Simpsons he saw published in Animation Magazine. So he called the number and asked the receptionist what he needed to do to apply for the job. She told him to drop off his resume and portfolio and someone from the show would contact him.
But there was one big problem: Ableson said he had no idea what a portfolio was.
"I ended up grabbing some t-shirts I had designed for some fraternity parties and photos of Simpsons Christmas paintings I'd done on storefront windows, stuffing them in a brown paper bag and dropping it off with the receptionist," Ableson said. "They pretty much laughed at me."
But at the same time Phyllis Craig, the hiring manager, saw Ableson's passion for the show was genuine. Although she didn't hire him then, she took the time to give him advice about drawing classes and putting together a proper portfolio before advising Ableson to reapply when he received some proper training. But there was still the matter of procuring a professional leather-bound portfolio case and Ableson's insufficient funds. So what did he do?
"I shoplifted one," Ableson said.
After a whirlwind summer, Ableson came back with a shiny new portfolio filled with all the things Phyllis had asked for, but there was no position available.
A few months later, after an intern on The Simpsons was promoted, Phyllis remembered Ableson's enthusiasm for the show and decided to give him a shot. Despite being completely overwhelmed and admittedly underqualified, Ableson did what any up-and-comer does in that situation. He worked his tail off. Complicating the matter was the fact that Ableson finally got into USC's film school. So for two years, Ableson sacrificed his sleep and social life to be a Simpsons animator by day and film student by night.
"It was hell for a while," Ableson said. "But I was doing two things that I loved and I don't regret a thing. I learned something new every day at film school that was applicable to The Simpsons. And vice versa"
Soon he was promoted to storyboard artist and within a few years he had a firm grasp on his job duties. But like any passionate aficionado, Ableson wanted more. For him, "more" was making his own animated film. So he enlisted the help of some friends and got to work on an idea he had in film school, involving a cantankerous cartoon baby born into the real world. Using his industry connections and borrowing from his savings, "Save Virgil" was underway and Adam Carolla signed on as the voice of Virgil.
A 10-minute original animated short ended up taking three years of nights and weekends to finish. Ableson even flew to Korea to supervise the animation, sleeping under his studio desk to save money. His efforts paid off when "Save Virgil" was sold to FOX as a pilot, but Ableson said it never got off the ground following complications with a Hollywood writer he was paired with who never finished the script.
But from the ashes of "Save Virgil" came a new idea. Ableson and a new creative partner, Mike Clements, dreamed up another animated series called "Good Vibes," which Ableson said "is like an animated version of the movie 'Superbad' except these kids are surfers." FOX bought the pilot this time too, but again it was canceled. Now with a wife and family, Ableson said he had all but given up on launching his own series.
Then, a little more than a year ago, representatives from MTV called Ableson and ordered 12 episodes of the show, no questions asked. From there Ableson stepped down from his job at The Simpsons, devoted himself full-time to "Good Vibes" and now he has a hit TV show that follows the return of "Beavis & Butthead."
It was a winding path, but Ableson said he is proof that hard work and persistence pays off.
"Figure out what you want to do, find out what it'll take to make it happen and then work your ass off," Ableson said. "And it's OK to let people know how passionate you are. If given the choice, most employers would rather hire somebody who is passionate than somebody more skilled, but with a chip on their shoulder."
To learn more about Brad Ableson's animated movie Save Virgil, click here. For information about Ableson's new TV show, Good Vibes, click here. Good Vibes airs on MTV on Thursdays at 10:30 p.m./9:30 p.m. central.
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