Emmy Award-winning Director of The Simpsons and UCLA Theater Film and Television Professor Chuck Sheetz gives advice on “How to get into Film School” (and a few other things.)
Full disclosure, I had the privilege of working with Chuck Sheetz over a number of seasons on The Simpsons, and for a bit of time on Disney’s Recess. Among the things that stand out for me about Chuck are his dry sense of humor, his sense of fairness, and his incredible work ethic. He can be very serious and thoughtful, but above all else, he really knows how to make you laugh!
He’s enjoyed success in two very competitive arenas (as a full-time professor at one of the nation’s top film schools, and as a director on TV’s longest running sit-com The Simpsons), and has done it all while being a genuinely talented and nice guy.
After completing his MFA in the Animation Program at UCLA (he received an undergraduate degree from the UCLA School of Theater Film and Television as well), he got his start as an animation timer on The Simpsons and Rocko’s Modern Life; before going on to direct episodes of The Simpsons, The Critic, King of the Hill, and Drawn Together; as well as produce and direct on Disney’s Recess (both the television series and the theatrical feature Recess: School’s Out!) and What’s New Scooby-Doo?
Today he splits his week running back and forth from his professorial duties at UCLA, his directing duties in Burbank and on the Fox lot for The Simpsons, and meetings at the Television Academy with the Animation Peer Group—a very full schedule to say the least!
He loves getting “big laughs” and “when there is something tricky in a script that really needs to be thought through to make it play on the screen. When it works out it’s a real sense of accomplishment.”
His biggest piece of advice for you: Finish your film!
If it’s the last thing you ever do, finish your film. Finishing your film makes you a filmmaker. You’re no longer someone who just dreams about becoming a filmmaker. And then make another film. And then another. The only way you can fail is if you don’t go for it and make your film (or if you don’t write your screenplay, or paint your painting).
The worst film ever made is still a film, while the best “idea for a film that never got finished” is not a film. Of course, one shouldn’t aspire to make the worst film ever made.
When I went down to Klasky-Csupo to meet with Mark Kirkland (director on The Simpsons), I walked in and showed him a film that I had completed a few years before (in grad school), and I got a job (see below). It wouldn’t have worked out that way had I walked in empty handed and told Mark all about this great film that I was working on in school that I never finished.
Here is Chuck’s grad student film NightFlight Wild Times In The Wildwood.
Chuck’s advice on applying to film or art school:
Submit a storyboard or a treatment for a film that you want to make. It should be a complete story. If it’s a feature length idea, submit a treatment for the complete story. An excerpt from a feature length script is not a full measure of your storytelling ability. It’s only a fragment and will often have less impact on the reader. Go for quality, not quantity in your portfolio. A weak drawing at the back of your portfolio will drag down everything else. The same goes for having a weak piece of animation on your reel.
What it’s like being a professor at such a prestigious film school:
It’s great to work with students from all over the world that come to UCLA. Because of the school’s reputation, we have a very large pool of applicants to choose from, and it ensures that we have very talented students. The downside is that part of our reputation lies in the fact that we’re a small department with a low student-faculty ratio, and that makes for a very heavy burden of application reading on the individual professors. We spend several months out of the school year evaluating applications for the next year, all while we are in the midst of teaching classes. The upside is that when those new students arrive in the Fall, you see them live up to the promise that was evident in their application, and that makes it all worth it.
How did you become a professor at UCLA?
I started teaching at UCLA as a visiting instructor in 1996. I had been working in television animation for about 4 years at the time, and my former professor and mentor Dan McLaughlin asked me if I would be interested in teaching a course about animation timing as it’s done for a television series. I wrote up a syllabus and a series of handouts, some of which are still bouncing around town today.
It was a good class, and there were students who took it that went into the business as animation timers and moved on to bigger things like directing. I taught this class on an annual basis for ten years or so. When Dan McLaughlin announced his retirement in 2007, I applied for his position as full time professor. I didn’t think I would get the job because in my days as a student, the emphasis in the film school was on independent production and I was an industry guy, not an independent animator anymore, but then again, when I was a student in the mid-eighties, television animation was at a very low point as art and as entertainment. The status of animation on television, and in general, had risen enough by 2007 that having a lot of television experience was not viewed as a liability anymore.
And of course, I had been through the program at UCLA and I fully endorsed the “one person, one film” motto of the UCLA Animation Workshop. It was where I had made the film that ultimately got me the job on the Simpsons. It also helped me to know in advance that UCLA supported the idea that I continue to do my studio work as a means of staying relevant with what’s happening in the business.
Things that happen in my studio work provide a lot of lessons for my students as I can often relate problems they may be having in their own work to something that happened that day at the studio. Likewise, the work of my students, who are just starting their careers, helps me to appreciate how far I’ve come and how lucky I am to spend most of my day working on a TV show.
Who are your influences?
I am very much influenced by the Saturday morning animation that I watched as a kid. This would have been 1964 to 1969. I really liked animated shows like Hanna-Barbera’s Frankenstein Jr. and Terrytoon’s The Mighty Heroes and Underdog from Total Television. I drew those characters over and over and it made me want to work in animation. I also liked to watch the Fleischer Popeye cartoons and Astro Boy. Those were in syndication after school. I grew to love Rocky and Bullwinkle and George of the Jungle when I was a bit older and got all the jokes. I watched all kinds of animation all the time, so my influences were pretty diverse.
What’s your favorite Simpsons episode & why?
Of the shows I directed, my favorite one is “The Eternal Moonshine of the Simpson Mind” (for which he won a Primetime Emmy) which has a sequence where Homer gets pushed off a bridge by Patty and Selma and his life passes before his eyes on the way down. It would be a favorite of mine even if I hadn’t directed it.
But my favorite Simpsons shows will always be the ones from Seasons 1 and 2 before I started to work on the show, because I watched them purely as a fan. Of the shows from that time, Rich Moore’s “Lisa’s Substitute” is probably my favorite based upon the impact it had on me when it first aired in 1991 (and it helps to think of it from that standpoint).
Previous Simpson episodes had emotional undercurrents, like “Life on the Fast Lane,” but “Lisa’s Substitute” never pulled back from the sentiment inherent in the story to undercut the emotion and say, “just kidding, folks, don’t take any of this seriously. We’re still a bunch of smart-ass Harvard Lampoon guys here.” It showed me that The Simpsons could be something that could go beyond what other animated TV series had done in the past, and it was that show more than any other one that convinced me that I really wanted to be a part of the series. Of course, the strongest element of The Simpsons has and always will be its comedy, but “Lisa’s Substitute” demonstrated that the show could be more than just a great comedy show. My first runner-up choice for favorite Simpsons episode is “Bart Gets and F”; another episode from that season with great comedy and great emotion, too.
The pay-off of perseverance and sticking to your goals:
You will have to have some patience if your goal is to be working full-time in film or television. I didn’t get my first steady paycheck until I was thirty years old. When I was 27 or 28, I had some very good friends from back east try to talk me out of sticking with my dream and to instead get some sort of real job. They meant well, but I told them that animated filmmaking was the thing that I knew more about than anything else on Earth and it stood to reason that some kind of break would come my way.
Always remember that once you’ve completed a film, you’ve joined the ranks of the independent filmmakers, and no one can stop you from making more films, especially in animation where you don’t have to amass a small fortune to get your next project rolling.
Of course, working full time in film or television is a great goal to have. The ability to make a living doing the things that you love to do is very rewarding. You don’t ever dread having to go to work on Monday. I’m very grateful for that.
“Your film is important because you’re the only person who can make it, and if you don’t do it, no one else will.”
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