Life after "The Simpsons": Animator returns to Virginia, Minn., after work with show

DULUTH - The voicemail message began like most any you'd hear on a given day. "Hey, Jay, it's your buddy, Lars." But it wasn't a message from just anyone. The voice belonged to Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, who was saying thanks for a "Simpsons"...

DULUTH - The voicemail message began like most any you'd hear on a given day.

"Hey, Jay, it's your buddy, Lars."

But it wasn't a message from just anyone.

The voice belonged to Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, who was saying thanks for a "Simpsons"-esque self-portrait of his teenage son, Layne, who is a huge "Simpsons" fan. It was Lars' gift to Layne for his birthday.

Then, there was the time Kat Von D, the famed tattoo artist from TV's "LA Ink," recognized him at her shop and invited him to the back of High Voltage Tattoo to meet professional skateboarder and "Jackass" star Bam Margera.


This was the life that animator and Virginia, Minn., native Jay Robinson lived for nearly four years -- until November, when he and 39 other staff members from the long-running Fox cartoon "The Simpsons" were laid off due to budget cuts.

Robinson's work still hangs in poster form at Von D's Hollywood shop; Metallica lead singer James Hetfield told him his work inspires the band; and Margera sent him a letter, thanking him for the sketch of a nude skateboarding Bart Simpson clad in Margera's tattoos.

Now, without a job, the 36-year-old man returned to the Iron Range less than two weeks ago to think about his next move.

Robinson recently sat down with the News Tribune for a Q&A about his experience as an animator for Fox TV's "The Simpsons."

Q. You were born in Virginia. Can you tell me about you life before "The Simpsons"?

A. I graduated (high school) in 1992 -- somewhere around the bottom of my class, I'm sure. I even got F's in art, so it's kind of ironic.

Q. How did you get F's?

A. It was the structure. One day they were going to do clay, the next they were going to do watercolors. I don't want projects. Just give me a pencil and some paper and let me draw whatever I want. And at one point the teacher did, but this is around the time of the Gulf War in '91, '92, where I would just draw these war scenes. It was stuff that he wouldn't really be happy with. My first quarter was A, and then C, D, F. It just went straight downhill my senior year. I didn't care; it was art. What are you going to do?


Q. Right after high school, did you have aspirations to join some kind of cartoon series? Did you want to do comic books?

A. I've never been a fan of comic books. It's all geek culture that I don't like. I started teaching myself animation by recording old Warner Bros. cartoons like the old Tex Averys and things. I would stop each frame and draw a generic figure that corresponds. That's how I taught myself animation. Now I really think I can do anything with it. I'd be locked away in my room (and) my parents would be yelling at me to get a job. I'd be like, "There's no jobs up there. It's the Iron Range." end of optional trim

Q. It really takes some guts to move away on your own without definitive plans. How did you do it?

A. You've just got to do it. I wasn't going anywhere up here. I had nothing to lose.

I moved to Las Vegas first (from 1999-2001 and 2002-2003) and wound up drawing caricatures at the Excalibur and Venetian and New York New York (hotels). I just happened to be drawing the Simpsons one day, and the assistant manager noticed how I was drawing them. He said, "Hey, I've got a friend over on 'The Simpsons' and he gave me a layout test and a storyboard test and I didn't really do too good on it. You could probably do better than I did." I was like, "OK, I'll take it." The next day he came back with this big envelope of like 10 pounds of paper. It was a big, thick, heavy envelope. Inside was all the model sheets with the correct way, official way, to draw the Simpsons for TV. He said, "Good luck with it."

I started drawing them a lot. At one point I said, "You know what? This is such a long shot, I'll just forget about it." I've never been to (art) school or had anything to do with TV before. So I just forgot about it. Long story short, in 2004 (back in Virginia), I got an idea to call the people at "The Simpsons" again and ask if they were looking for a character layout artist. They said yes and sent me a new layout test. I took it, sent it, and they said to give them 30 days to look it over before getting back to me. I wasn't going to wait 30 days. My mind was already on a plane to L.A.

I sold my car, I sold a lot of the things that I had. I packed up my bike, backpack, and I had a thousand dollars. I flew out to L.A., landed in LAX, put my bike together, put it in the back of a cab and said, "Drive me to Santa Monica." It seemed like a good place to start. I figured I'd do what they do in the movies and sleep on the beach, which is not a good idea unless you have enough crack pipes for everybody.

In the meantime, I found a job as a bike messenger for Disney. For eight months, I was riding my bike around the Disney lot. You'd see people like Johnny Depp walking around, and Jennifer Garner, Tim Allen, Ray Romano and David Spade -- all these people that did shows on the lot there. James Garner almost hit me with his car when I was on my bike.


I had a close call getting a call from "The Simpsons." Some directors wanted to talk to me, they liked my test. Ironically, I was the only bike messenger on that day, so I couldn't go to the meeting. I lost that opportunity.

Shortly after, the bike job ended. I moved back to Minnesota on a Greyhound, which is not a good feeling. Eight months later, I got an e-mail from "The Simpsons" that said: "We're looking for more layout people. Do you want to come out here and train for two weeks? If you make it, you get the job. But if not, that's it." So, I'm like, "Hell, yeah." I sold a lot of stuff again, moved out there homeless again. This time I had a friend who worked out there in the industry. He let me stay at his house for the two weeks of training. I basically got hired on my ability to draw really, really well and to animate kind of good.

Q. How many times were you let go or put on hiatus? How was the compensation when you had work?

A. Three or four, but it's a normal thing in the industry because if there's no work they can't keep you on. Success in that business is fleeting. Someone told me it's not going to last forever. But I held on for four years. To go out there with nothing and to be able to go into a car lot and pick out exactly the kind of car you want and drive off with it when you had a crappy mountain bike to begin with and no money -- they pay good. They let you live a very comfortable life.

Q. How much actual drawing does "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening still do for the show?

A. He doesn't do any. He does his "Life in Hell" comic strip. I think he still draws that. He does character designs (for "The Simpsons"). He's part of the character design team.

Q. What was your crowning achievement or contribution during your time with "The Simpsons"?

A. My favorite episode I worked on was "Waverly Hills 9-0-2-1-D'oh" (from Season 20).


Q. Were you privy to inside information? When you were hired, you didn't realize a movie was in the works?

A. I was hired while they were working on "The Simpsons Movie." They didn't tell us there was a movie in the works when we were hired. Once you got on the movie, you had to sign nondisclosure forms because people would still leak information. You didn't have to for the episodes.

Q. Was there a celebrity quality to being a "Simpsons" animator?

A. Since the Simpsons aren't real people, the closest you can get to meeting a "Simpsons" character are the voice actors or the artists who draw them. And what are you going to take away from the voice actors? At least with the artist you get to take away a drawing. Around the time of the movie, me and a co-worker were at a sports bar in Burbank talking about the movie. These people turn around and ask, "You guys work on 'The Simpsons?' " We spent the next two hours drawing characters on bar napkins for drinks. It's a great girl-gettin' job.

Q. Did you worry about being let go?

A. Every day at work I was stressed about -- not only doing the job itself -- wondering, "Am I going to get fired at the end of the day? Does somebody here not like me?" It's Hollywood; it's rumors. It's like being trapped in a TMZ episode.

Q. Were you able to feel satisfaction at the finished product?

A. Yeah. Your name's up there. My first-ever scene for my first show ever was Milhouse stepping over a dog in "The Wife Aquatic." So, when I saw that actually air exactly how I drew it, I was like, "All right. I'm officially a 'Simpsons' artist because that's my stuff up there." I'd pause it when my name was in the credits so I could see who else worked on it. When Lars Ulrich is complimenting you on your work and James Hetfield's shaking your hand, saying you did good work, it kind of makes you feel like what you're doing is worthwhile.


Q. The layoff: Were you told at work or outside of work?

A. How the layoff worked is they told me, "Jay, your last day is next Friday," because they have to give you a week's notice. I figured, "OK, another layoff, whatever, hiatus." Months go by, you check in. Has anything changed? Then you kind of get worried about stuff.

Q. Not knowing what you're going to do or what you want to do, where would you prefer to live for the foreseeable future?

A. I'd move back to California if the circumstances were right, but I would have to a reason to go out there that was worth relocating. I don't like winter at all, and I don't like being cold. I haven't had the flu in 11 years. I'm just not a cold person. I'm between my last thing and my next thing. It just depends what that next thing is and how long it takes to get there.

The Duluth News Tribune and the Daily Globe are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

What To Read Next
Get Local