animation

Animation lessons from ‘The Simpsons’: Make it appear simple but keep it hard to implement

The stylised construction of the characters are not actually that easy to draw consistently.

With an impressive 28 seasons under its belt, and a 29th and 30th run recently commissioned, The Simpsons is an incredible example of primetime television show longevity. It will leave Gunsmoke holstering its weapon as it takes the record for the most episodes of a scripted television series.

The Simpsons’ appeal lies in the affectionate mockery of its characters’ “everyman” qualities. Most of us can identify with elements of this family set-up – the dysfunction, the flaws and the character traits, whether that’s Marge’s warm moral centre, or Homer’s weak, venal, selfish immaturity, which exists to some degree in all of us. Watching Homer gives us a chance to acknowledge this crappy, least admirable version of ourselves, and creates myriad opportunities for humour and in-jokes that remind us that we are all only human.

Life in Hell comic book illustrator Matt Groening created The Simpsons back in 1987 for James L Brook’s The Tracey Ullman Show. It started life as a run of short cartoon stings between the live action sketches, before graduating to its own full series in 1989.

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The Simpsons, circa 1987.

The early animation work was crude, but the premise was intriguing enough to be developed further by Groening and Brooks. They were later joined by the late Sam Simon, who brought on board the initial team of writers and encouraged the voice artists to record the dialogue tracks together, rather than remotely. Simon’s influence and development of the show was significant, even though he would later leave due to creative differences.

The early episodes are tonally and visually different from the show now, although its heart prevails. Initially, the focus was on Bart Simpson, who seemed like the most bankable “star”. However, as time went on, Homer Simpson, superbly voiced by Dan Castellaneta, a jobbing actor from Illinois, became the main focus of attention. The casting of the voice talent on this show cannot be underestimated.

The animation style is unique, and heavily influenced by Matt Groening’s technique. This was honed on his self-published comic Life in Hell, which depicted life in Los Angeles to his friends, and was first published in the late 1970s. Again, although quite simple in their execution, the character designs in the strip shone through. The rather deceptive low-fi look and framing of the comic clearly had a major influence on the early animation work of The Simpsons.

Life in Hell by Matt Groening.
Life in Hell by Matt Groening.

In the comic, his characters are distinctive, but are constructed from basic inked open-line or “ligne claire” illustrations such as those pioneered by Hergé, creator of Tintin. The lettering dominates Groening’s early strips, showing how important the dialogue is in his work. The stories are snappy, gag-based, observational vignettes on life. The “camera angles” employed in the comic are set at a three-quarter viewpoint for the characters and the environments, something which is common in The Simpsons TV series, too.

People may be surprised to learn that there is now a very strict style guide for animators on The Simpsons, based on some of the rules Groening set out in Life in Hell and the early Simpsons episodes. The stylised construction of the characters from geometric shapes betrays the actual complexities of the characters. They are not actually that easy to draw consistently.

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Bart & Homer’s Excellent Adventure.

When teaching animation, I often refer to Storyboarding The Simpsons Way by former Simpsons animator and storyboard artist Chris Roman. This practical guide was given to the artists working on the show. Even though it is aimed at the production team of The Simpsons, some of the rules created for the show are just as relevant to other animation production work.

Again, these guidelines are deceptively simple, but much harder to implement. Roman goes into great detail of the type of shots to use, the transitions, continuity and staying on the good side of the camera line. What is fantastic about this how-to guide is that it is delivered through the visual medium; it reads like a comic strip itself. The storytelling and message is clear, much like the television show. It is a guide every young animator or filmmaker should read.

So why has the show lasted for so long? The key factor is the quality of the writing. As with any long-running show, some complain that it is “not as good as it used to be”. But sometimes familiarity breeds contempt. Because the show is now ubiquitous, viewers and critics alike can become complacent, spoiled even. When you average 22 episodes per season, there will always be dips in the quality.

But over the years the references to pop culture, the characterisation and the quickfire gags have maintained the interest of the mainstream audience. The show can still surprise even the most cynical viewer and it does not look like it is going to disappear from our screens any time soon. What other show could have predicted a world where Donald Trump was President of the United States, 16 years before it actually happened? Long may The Simpsons continue.

Phillip Vaughan is Director MSc Animation and VFX, University of Dundee.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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For more information on special offers on flights to London and other destinations in the UK, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.