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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The quirks and perks of travelling with your hard to impress mom

We must admit that the jar of pickle always comes in handy.

A year ago, Priyanka, a 26-year-old banking professional, was packing her light-weight duffel bag for an upcoming international trip. Keen to explore the place, she wanted to travel light and fuss free. It was not meant to be. For Priyanka was travelling with her mother, and that meant carrying at least two extra suitcases packed with odds and ends for any eventuality just short of a nuclear war.

Bothered by the extra suitcases that she had to lug around full of snacks and back-up woollens, Priyanka grew frustrated with her mother. However, one day, while out for some sight-seeing Priyanka and her family were famished but there were no decent restaurants in sight. That’s when her mum’s ‘food bag’ came to the rescue. Full of juice boxes, biscuits and sandwiches, her mother had remembered to pack snacks from the hotel for their day out. Towards the end of the trip, Priyanka was grateful to her mother for all her arrangements, especially the extra bag she carried for Priyanka’s shopping.

Priyanka’s story isn’t an isolated one. We spoke to many people about their mother’s travel quirks and habits and weren’t surprised at some of the themes that were consistent across all the travel memoirs.

Indian mothers are always prepared

“My mom keeps the packed suitcases in the hallway one day before our flight date. She will carry multiple print-outs of the flight tickets because she doesn’t trust smartphone batteries. She also never forgets to carry a medical kit for all sorts of illnesses and allergies”, says Shruti, a 27-year-old professional. When asked if the medical kit was helpful during the trip, she answered “All the time”, in a tone that marvelled at her mother’s clairvoyance.

Some of the many things a mother packs in her travel bags. Source: Google Images
Some of the many things a mother packs in her travel bags. Source: Google Images

Indian mothers love to feel at home, and create the same experience for their family, wherever they are

“My mother has a very strange idea of the kind of food you get in foreign lands, so she always packs multiple packets of khakra and poha for our trips. She also has a habit of carrying her favourite teabags to last the entire trip”, relates Kanchan, a marketing professional who is a frequent international flier often accompanied by her mother. Kanchan’s mother, who is very choosy about her tea, was therefore delighted when she was served a hot cup of garam chai on her recent flight to Frankfurt. She is just like many Indian mothers who love to be reminded of home wherever they are and often strive to organise their hotel rooms to give them the coziness of a home.

Most importantly, Indian mothers are tough, especially when it comes to food

Take for instance, the case of Piyush, who recalls, “We went to this fine dining restaurant and my mother kept quizzing the waiter about the ingredients and the method of preparation of a dish. She believed that once she understood the technique, she would be able to make a better version of the dish just so she could pamper me!”

Indian mothers are extremely particular about food – from the way its cooked, to the way it smells and tastes. Foreign delicacies are only allowed to be consumed if they fulfil all the criteria set by Mom i.e. is it good enough for my children to consume?

An approval from an Indian mother is a testament to great quality and great taste. In recognition of the discerning nature of an Indian mum and as a part of their ‘More Indian Than You Think’ commitment, Lufthansa has tailored their in-flight experiences to surpass even her exacting standards. Greeted with a namaste and served by an Indian crew, the passengers feel right at home as they relish the authentic Indian meals and unwind with a cup of garam chai, the perfect accompaniment to go with a variety of Indian entertainment available in the flight. As Lufthansa’s in-flight offerings show, a big part of the brand is inherently Indian because of its relationship with the country spanning over decades.

To see how Lufthansa has internalised the Indian spirit and become the airline of choice for flyers looking for a great Indian experience, watch the video below.

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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.