'Simpsons' Producer Talks Technology Behind Upcoming Live Episode

"I think this is going to be really incredible — or incredibly terrible," Al Jean says

'The Simpsons' will feature a live segment in its May 15 episode. Credit: FOX / Contributor

In just over week, The Simpsons will offer fans a unique opportunity to interact with Homer during a live segment of the show. Showrunner Al Jean has now revealed details of the long-in-the-works feat of animation, which will air on May 15th. "To my knowledge, no animated show has done this before," Jean told Entertainment Weekly on Friday. "I think this is going to be really incredible — or incredibly terrible." 

As Fox announced in February, the final three minutes of the episode will feature Dan Castellaneta, who voices Homer Simpson, improvising dialog as he takes questions from fans. Motion capture technology will allow the show to animate the interaction in real time.

Jean revealed that the show's creators had been talking about doing a live Homer bit since 2007, when they considered it for a Tonight Show promotion of The Simpsons Movie. But he said that motion capture technology wasn't up to the task at the time. When the improv-themed episode came along, they looked into the technology again and found that it had advanced well enough to meet their needs. 

"[Motion capture technology] used to have electrodes wired into the person," he said. "Now they don’t. The actor just speaks into a mic, and the camera records his motions, and transfers it to the character onscreen. However, you can only do that with one or at most two characters. The backgrounds don’t change and the character can’t really interact with somebody in the background."

Jean said that the live segment shouldn't appear any different from the show's usual visual style, aside from less variety of motion. He notes that this limitation is the reason the segment will only be three minutes, since an extended live cut might begin to look repetitive.

"The reason I don’t think they’re going to be doing half-hour motion capture shows in the near future is because although it is much cheaper and you can just film it live, you can’t do the complicated set pieces that people want from animation," he said. 

Fans can call a 1-888 number to ask questions of Homer, who Jean says will "be in a Fox secret bunker in an undisclosed location."

"The family is on the couch and Lisa says, 'Now we’re going to do something that was first done on TV 50 years ago, and we’ve finally gotten around to it, and our dad will answer questions.' And Bart says, 'Take it, Homer.'"

Homer will also answer one question submitted via Twitter during the episode, and some of the writers will also be answering questions as Homer on Facebook and Twitter. In terms of tips for fans hoping to get their question on the show, Jean said, "Just ask an interesting question about Homer, and his life and if it’s funny, we’ll try to get it in. We’re not looking for people to ask trivia questions about season 23."

Jean said that the segment will feature of-the-moment topical jokes to prove that it really is live. "We’ll do the equivalent of holding up today’s newspaper, where we talk about something that’s going on right then," he said. "It will be live, I guarantee it, and the way we set it up, it’s to make it very clear that this is really happening. It’s not a trick."