Ay, caramba!

issue 01 | winter 2023
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One of the animators who helps bring Homer Simpson and the cartoon town of Springfield to life got his big break after following the guidance of his Denison swim coach.

Gregg Parini might not know Krusty the Clown from Sideshow Bob, but Thomas Richner ’97, a storyboard artist on The Simpsons, says his coach’s sage advice about asking for what you want in life is — in the words of Montgomery Burns — excellent.

Richner was a grad student at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1998 when he was invited by one of the show’s producers — a fellow UCLA swimmer — to attend an animatic screening of an episode of The Simpsons.

Richner was only there as an observer in a room filled with artists, directors, and other creative talent. But when someone asked how a character might best be revealed in a certain scene, he boldly volunteered a suggestion.

It was Richner’s way of asking for what he wanted.

“I shouldn’t have spoken up, and everybody was looking at me, wondering, ‘Who is this guy?’’’ Richner recalled. “But after the screening, Mike Scully, who was a showrunner at that time, approached me and said they were looking for artists. I had brought my portfolio with me. I remember thinking this is one of the lessons Gregg had taught us. If I say nothing, nobody will know I’m here.”

After taking an artistic test, Richner was offered a part-time role as an animator for The Simpsons in the summer of 1998, which led to a full-time gig following graduation. His willingness to speak up launched a career on the longest-running prime-time scripted show in television history.

The Simpsons is now in its 34th season, and Richner is working his second stint on the Fox series after taking a long hiatus to return to central Ohio to teach classes at the Columbus College of Art & Design.

There are many ways to frame the remarkable longevity of The Simpsons — the show first aired in 1989 and has spanned six U.S. presidential administrations — and Richner’s career path provides a unique one.

“Not many people have the opportunity to go back to the same television show after taking a 13-year break,” said Richner, who returned to the show in 2017.

His ties to Denison remain as tight as the day he arrived on campus from suburban Cleveland. Richner and his wife, Kristin Goldthorpe Richner ’97, met on The Hill, and both are enshrined in the Varsity D Association Hall of Fame as swimmers. Their oldest daughter, Lauren ’25, is also swimming for Parini. Richner says he owes much to his former coach and teammates, who supported him during a difficult academic spell in which he switched majors from biology to studio art after his sophomore year.

“Tom is one of my favorites,” Parini said. “He’s open-minded and so humble. Some athletes are afraid to fail, but he learned from every mistake to have a great career here.”

Richner believes the sacrifices swimmers make for the good of a team have benefited him in his time with The Simpsons. Deadlines are intense. Teamwork is essential. Each episode takes about nine months from inception to televised airing.

As a storyboard artist, Richner’s job is to interpret the script frame by frame and set it into motion. What angle is the best to display the characters? How do you draw them to maximize the humor and action? Each 30-minute episode involves three storyboard artists, and they are assigned one segment apiece.

Richner sketches the characters and backgrounds in black and white on a computer, but he still dabbles in freehand. On a recent visit to Granville, he drew Marge Simpson on a sheet of paper in under 30 seconds in between bites of spinach artichoke dip at Broadway Pub.

“I love being part of that first take of putting visuals to words,” Richner said. “Hundreds of people are involved in the process, but you get a good shot at figuring out what the blueprint of the show is going to look like.”

The animator said it’s been fun to see the humor evolve over the years. Among his favorite episodes to storyboard are the annual “Treehouse of Horror” shows that air around Halloween. The 2022 edition was an anime tribute to the movie Death Note.

“I love talking to people about The Simpsons,” Richner said. “You can’t believe the granular detail some fans have about episodes. It feels very rewarding being a part of something that has had such staying power in our culture.”

Published February 2023
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