“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”:
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 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.
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.