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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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.