07
Apr
11

Cutting Digital Corners

“Don’t worry, baby, the tube’ll know what to do.” – Homer Simpson

I’ve never worked as an animator, nor even been able to draw decently, so feel free to take the following with a grain of salt.  Having said that, I’ve sat through every single one of the HD episodes of Zombie Simpsons, and I think all their digital tools have made it increasingly easy for them to cut corners.  Take the image below from “Love Is a Many Strangled Thing”:

Generic School

There’s nothing terribly remarkable, it’s just an establishing shot of the school.  (You can see Bart’s stupid tractor ride starting in the lower left corner.)  Compare it to basically the same shot from “The Last Temptation of Homer”:

The Last Temptation of Homer3

The things I’m about to point out aren’t a big deal, and my ignorance of the working trade of animation may make the next few dozen sentences completely worthless, but to my eye the hand drawn one looks like it had a lot more care put into it.  Specifically, there are three items I noticed upon close inspection: the windows, the flag pole, and the sidewalks.

In the Season 22 image, the little bend marks in the windows are barely visible, but the ones you can make out all look the same: two parallel lines of slightly lighter blue to give the glass panes a little more substance than if they were monochrome.  In the one from Season 5, the lines in the windows are black (making them much more visible), and no two are the same.  The different windows give the drawing a less generic feel, making it easier for you to imagine that each window conceals an actual room.  After all, real window panes aren’t perfectly uniform; from the day they’re cut they get scuffed and scratched in different ways. The Zombie Simpsons windows are so perfectly alike that it subtracts the feeling of life from the image, whereas the windows in The Simpsons were all clearly done one by one, giving them a unique feel that makes the whole thing look more like a real building, even if the lines aren’t aligned down to the millimeter.

Now look at the flag poles.  On the digital one, the flag pole is utterly boring.  It’s just two precisely parallel lines that someone has used a fill command to make grey.  The hand drawn one has a lot more personality.  It doesn’t just disappear into a tuft of grass; it has a base so you can actually see what’s holding it steady.  Moreover, the pole itself appears to taper toward the top the way real flag poles do.  Someone took the time to draw and inspect it, instead of just plopping it down with a couple of clicks. 

It’s the sidewalks are where you can really see the difference though.  Because while both sidewalks contain mistakes, they are of a vastly different character.

Sidewalks

I’ve circled portions of each above.  First, consider the one from Zombie Simpsons and note the perpendicular lines in the grass.  These are clearly the outlines of sidewalk slabs and they don’t belong on a lawn.  You can see a line between the two sections as well as a line where the grey is supposed to meet the green.  Those lines wouldn’t be there if it had been originally drawn as grass, but this is self evidently an existing image that was modified.  And while the original had concrete where someone wanted chlorophyll, whoever made the change never bothered to remove the lines after clicking the paint bucket icon.  Nor is this some unnoticeable thing, the existence of the line where the sidewalk pieces meet indicates that “fill” had to be clicked twice.  They may have been careless, they may have been rushed, but whoever grabbed the existing template image couldn’t be bothered to take six seconds to correct an obvious (albeit minor) problem.

The same cannot be said for the image from The Simpsons.  The sidewalk leading to the school is filled in to the right of the stairs but not to the left.  Whether the sidewalk or the building was done first is irrelevant, someone drew both from scratch and then realized that they made a mistake lining them up.  Lacking a six second option, they covered for it as best they could.  Nobody’s expecting perfection, and not a single viewer decided to love or hate either of these episodes based on such trivial goofs.  But where Zombie Simpsons ignored an easily corrected mistake, The Simpsons took the time to carefully camouflage one that was as harmless as it was difficult to correct.

Again, all this may just be my lack of knowledge about animation processes talking.  But the impression a close viewer gets is that the convenience of digital tools makes it so easy for Zombie Simpsons to get things like windows and flag poles to “acceptable” that they don’t take the time (or aren’t budgeted for the time) to push them past that.  When The Simpsons drew by hand, they had to put enormous care into every little detail because not doing so would make the entire thing look slipshod.  And while we can’t fault the show for technological changes in the entire industry, we can say with great confidence that minute attention to detail is no longer one of their concerns.


16 Responses to “Cutting Digital Corners”


  1. 1 Sean
    7 April 2011 at 1:13 pm

    Nitpicks aside, I think what bugs me the most about the New Simpsons art style is that the color brightness is jacked way up to the point that it’s literally painful to look at (e.g. the neon grass and sky in the pics above). Everything looks like it’s irradiated or something – including the people themselves.

    • 2 Charlie Sweatpants
      7 April 2011 at 5:17 pm

      The brightness bordering on pastels thing started in Season 20 with the changeover to HD. When they went to HD they basically just grabbed the same colors they used for the movie and used them to make episodes instead. I don’t know if it was something forced on them by the technology or if it was a conscious choice, but that’s where it came from.

  2. 3 Derp
    7 April 2011 at 4:46 pm

    The zombie one looks like a robot drew it. At least the bottom one looks organic.

  3. 7 April 2011 at 5:43 pm

    Someone must’ve gotten fired for both of those goofs.

  4. 5 Bryan
    7 April 2011 at 7:01 pm

    In all the compare and contrast pictures I always find my eyes physically straining when switching to the ZS frames. I wish I was more artistic so I could have a more technical explanation why, but it bugs me.

    Also, I think we can all agree that the shadows are stupid.

  5. 7 April 2011 at 7:28 pm

    Most simpsons backgrounds these days look like they came from google sketchup

  6. 7 Mr. Incognito
    7 April 2011 at 7:43 pm

    Also note the bushes…in the Zombie scene, they are sparse, making the whole scene appear even lifeless. Now look at the Season 5 scene–bushes cover almost all the bottom of the whole school, giving the school just a little more character.

    Granted, it’s a school, but just about every public school I can think of has one form of beautification or another–few foundations are left bare.

    So, in this last season, we’ve had 2 “fill” errors already, right?

    • 8 Bryan
      7 April 2011 at 8:19 pm

      The bushes are a good catch. On second glance I noticed that it would be impossible to “see anything” in the clouds. They have no character in the ZS picture.

    • 9 Charlie Sweatpants
      7 April 2011 at 8:29 pm

      “So, in this last season, we’ve had 2 “fill” errors already, right?”

      If you mean like when they leave a foreground object or image transparent and you can see what’s behind it, there have been a lot more than two. I notice those all the time, not every episode, but probably close to half. That stuff doesn’t bother me though. There have been little goofs like that since Season 1 (just look at the episode capsules on SNPP for proof of that), and if there’s one thing I don’t ever want to do it’s hold Zombie Simpsons to a different standard than the real thing. That would be unfair, and there’s more than enough fair criticisms to make Zombie Simpsons look wretched.

      The sidewalk thing is of a different nature, because it’s not something that got overlooked accidentally. Either someone filled in both of those sidewalk segments and didn’t take the minuscule amount of time necessary to fix it; or they were using a template on a green background that had the entire sidewalk on it, in which case, wow that’s lazy. Whichever it was, it’s a different category of error, and it’s one that bespeaks a very low level of “give a shit”.

      • 10 Mr. Incognito
        7 April 2011 at 9:33 pm

        “There have been little goofs like that since Season 1 (just look at the episode capsules on SNPP for proof of that), and if there’s one thing I don’t ever want to do it’s hold Zombie Simpsons to a different standard than the real thing. That would be unfair, and there’s more than enough fair criticisms to make Zombie Simpsons look wretched.”

        Touche. I’m sure that I’d find numerous little goofs in the good ol’ days (perhaps even moreso than nowadays), due to the process of completing a given scene/shot.

        However, I really don’t care so much about these little things*, because I’m far more interested in the humor and the writing from which it sprang.

        I’m of the opinion that excellent writing more than makes up for imperfect animation; The Simpsons were the perfect example of that.

        *Knowing full-well that the average reader on this site does, in fact, care about these things.

        • 11 Charlie Sweatpants
          7 April 2011 at 10:16 pm

          “I’m far more interested in the humor and the writing from which it sprang.

          I’m of the opinion that excellent writing more than makes up for imperfect animation; The Simpsons were the perfect example of that.”

          Agreed completely. One of the things I liked most about Ortved’s book was the way he openly described it as a writer’s show and focused on that. Which is not to take anything away from the animators (the look on Homer’s face as he realizes that Milhouse looks like “the dud” in “Summer of 4 Ft. 2″ cracks me up every time I even think about it) or the actors (Yeardley Smith’s delivery of “I’m aware of the time” in “Homer Alone” takes a simple line from good to great). But as thoroughly superlative as all that is, they were following instructions; it was the writing staff that made all that shit up, and its from there that everything flows.

        • 12 Bryan
          7 April 2011 at 10:42 pm

          The main issue is that when the quality of the show stops being a labor of love for anyone involved, it becomes acceptable to just brush over mistakes that will “likely not be caught”.

          These “little things” turn into something a lot bigger when the show isn’t able to keep interest up for ~21 minutes. That’s where I’ll agree that a commitment to excellence is far more impressive than technical perfection.

          That said, I know that for almost the whole duration of the show, they’ve done parts of the animation overseas (as parodied in that deplorable couch gag from some recent episode). Who is officially responsible for this error?

  7. 13 ecco6t9
    8 April 2011 at 2:20 am

    The top school looks like some modern school that was built this year.

    The bottom one looks like the run down, no heat,no AC,broken lock on toilet stalls,Fishken mystery meat Wednesdays schools most of us went to.

    The bottom one says this school was built in the 50’s, probably still has some asbestos in it, and Mrs.Daniels has been teaching here since 1961.

  8. 14 Anonymous
    8 April 2011 at 6:14 am

    I’ve been trying to pinpoint what it is about ZS’ animation style that irks me so much and I think I’ve finally determined what it is.

    The Simpsons painted cells with real paint, Zombie Simpsons uses an e-paint-bucket to fill outlines. The real paint left very subtle variations and imperfections in texture and lighting throughout large areas that are one color. The sky is usually where I notice it most. Zombie Simpsons’ paint bucket leaves zero variation and a sterile scene every time.

    Honestly I feel like the newer “better” animation is antithetical to a funny mood. If The Simpsons had used Zombie Simpsons’ animation technique I think a lot of the comedic effect would have been diminished. And if that’s true imagine how little hope Zombie Simpsons, with its terrible writing combined with these sterile enviornments, has of ever causing us to laugh again.

    • 15 Joe C.
      8 April 2011 at 2:53 pm

      You hit it right on the head since there is absolutely no variation between the dull colors in ZS. Come to think of it, do they even draw on cells anymore or is everything done via computer?

      Either way, writing is ultimately more important than animation. However, if you animated any of the classic Simpsons episodes using the style of animation they use today then it loses a bit of that originality that made the Simpsons so great in the first place.

  9. 16 Bea Simmons' rotting corpse
    8 April 2011 at 1:28 pm

    Both backgrounds are drawn pretty poorly, to be honest

    Being an animator myself, I can assure you that the ZS background was just a small coloring error, the green was supposed to be grey. Believe me, if you are coloring hundreds of drawings, mistakes like that slip by all the time. Sometimes it’s easier for an outsider to spot a little screw-up then when you’re with your nose right on it. And although it might seem easy to fix something like that, you often catch it after it’s rendered, plus there are many mistakes all over the animation, so it’s impossible to spend all that time fixing every little thing and re-rendering it. Minor stuff like this would also be ignored in the old days.


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