– By Bob Mackey
When The Simpsons had its prime-time debut in 1989, the show’s animation was considered crude by most. While it’s true that the visuals improved by leaps and bounds after that first rocky year, the original 12 episodes of The Simpsons – despite their roughness – still stand as a major leap forward in the progress of television animation. And over The Simpsons’ first handful of years, talented artists like Brad Bird, David Silverman, Jeffrey Lynch, Jim Reardon, Wes Archer, and Rich Moore (amongst others) not only defined and refined the look of the show; they also raised the bar for a genre of entertainment largely considered — at the time, anyway — a brainless distraction for equally brainless children. For these visionaries, The Simpsons provided the opportunity for endless experimentation; which is why it’s no wonder that most of these folks went on to fame and fortune at outstanding animation studios like Pixar and Rough Draft.
Generally speaking, the animation on the first six-or-so years of The Simpsons is far “looser” than what it would eventually become; the art on these early seasons complemented the excellent writing, instead merely serving as just a platform for the dialogue. For lack of a better term, directors and animators on The Simpsons were once allowed to make their drawings more “cartoony,” which meant deviating from the standard design of a model sheet for the sake of drawing the strong poses necessary to create a visually interesting and, most importantly, funny image. Of course, when this is taken too far, the results can be disastrous: you only need to look at the outtakes from “Some Enchanted Evening” to see what happens when a group of animators gets The Simpsons completely wrong. But, when used correctly, brief bits of cartooniness can add vibrancy and emotion to a scene – which is something the show used to do very well.
Over the years, The Simpsons’ animation became much more conservative and homogenized, and by the end of season eight, the show had lost nearly all of its cartoon snappiness. And as a fan of the show, it’s this quality I miss the most. For my first post on Dead Homer Society, I’ve decided to visually dissect “Homer Goes to College,” which is an excellent showcase for the brilliant animation once seen on The Simpsons. For those worried, this examination isn’t going to be couched in technical terms; as an animation enthusiast, I’m going to try and break this down into terms everyone can understand.
This early scene of Homer chasing a bee down a hallway relies entirely on the animation for its humor. Sure, the idea itself is a little funny, but a sitcom-staged shot of Homer running wouldn’t be as funny as what we see here: strong, goofy poses that punctuate his haplessness.
Here’s a brief instance of some cartoony punctuation. These drawings are incredibly odd when compared to how we normally see Homer, but he quickly snaps back into his normal model once he leaps from the sewer. You can tell whoever drew this was having a lot of fun.
When was the last time The Simpsons made you laugh with a drawing alone? Here, Homer is locked in an exaggerated position that seemingly defies his anatomy, but that only adds to the hilarity of the scene. Strangely enough, Matt Groening always hated this kind of stuff; if you listen to various DVD commentaries, he claims he was always obsessed with giving the characters solid and consistent anatomy. This isn’t inherently bad, but it makes drawings like the ones throughout this post practically illegal.
This shot isn’t particularly mind-blowing, but I picked it because it shows how expressive the characters used to be. Here, Homer’s eyes and mouth are a little bigger than normal, but these small embellishments really sell his sense of panic. In general, eyes on the Simpsons used to be much bigger, and much more expressive, as we’ll see below.
One of the subtle hallmarks of Simpsons animation used to be the eye bulge; animators would sprinkle this little bit of business in dialogue heavy-scenes to accentuate certain words or ideas. Here, Burns isn’t speaking, but his eye bulge adds a little zing to his freak out. If you weren’t aware of the eye bulge, go back and check out some early episodes while keeping this little bit of acting in mind — it’s everywhere.
Again, nothing mind-blowing about the animation here, but the brief bit of squash and stretch before Homer’s standard scream makes his reaction much more expressive.
On these earlier episodes of the Simpsons, it wasn’t odd to see characters emote in ways they never had before. Instead of looking at model sheets for stock expressions, the animators in these days tailored the emotion of their drawings to the unique situation of the scene. We’ve seen Homer angry countless times before, but for some reason, this drawing feels fresh.
An excellent display of self-control from whoever laid out this scene. Later episodes would probably place the emphasis on Homer, but the composition of this shot (which goes on for a while) sells the awkwardness of the situation, and highlights Homer’s choice of seating.
More acting unique to this episode. I don’t think I’ve seen Homer in these poses before or since.
Nothing incredible happening here, but I took this screenshot to highlight how Homer was generally plumper and more retarded in Jim Reardon’s episodes. His walleye here used to be a hallmark of the shows eye acting (along with the bulge), which seems to have been lost to the mists of time.
Another expression I haven’t seen before or since. Something tells me this brief bit of self-satisfaction from Homer wouldn’t look nearly as funny if it was animated five years later.
A really strong pose from Homer. What would you call this emotion? It’s a perfect, dialogue-free reaction to the nerd revealing the reality of their road trip.
This scene begins with an amazing shot and tons of detail. Staging like this is what made The Simpsons so much more visually interesting than anything that had come before. The planning of the prank could have begun with a less complicated shot, but its current layout really sells the mock-drama of the scene.
Another bit of exaggerated animation before Homer pops back into a normal pose.
And again. The simulated motion blur of Sir Oinks-A-Lot’s face is absolutely hilarious, and really makes him seem vicious for those brief few frames. Homer’s eye bulge is equally great; I actually remember slow-mo-ing this scene back when I originally recorded the episode as a kid.
Some fantastic poses from Bart and Lisa that really sell the range of emotions they go through in this scene: from awe, to shock, to panicked urgency. You don’t even need to be aware of the scene’s context to know what they’re feeling.
A hilarious shot, from a perspective of The Simpsons I believe we’ve never seen before or since (or perhaps just not that often). The characters’ unique anatomy makes them extremely weird-looking from certain angles, but going with a strange, funny shot like this just shows how much the animators were willing to experiment.
This may be my favorite bit of animation in the entire history of The Simpsons; in fact, I look forward to this scene every time I watch Homer Goes to College. It’s incredibly brief, but the animators transformed a simple stage direction into an incredibly expressive (and impressive) bit of acting. Every little frame, from Homer’s confident slide out of this chair, to his jaunty little walk, to the way he hands in his paper, completely sells his confidence in a way that dialogue never could. If I didn’t know better — and I don’t — I’d say David Silverman did this scene.
Another great expression to end this post. You can really tell that Homer has no goddamned idea what he’s talking about, here.
Since I have no way to conclude this little article except awkwardly, I’d like to thank you for humoring me in this examination of what I feel is one of The Simpsons’ most-overlooked qualities. If I can muster up the fortitude to do this again, I’ll probably tackle “Homer’s Triple Bypass” next.