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Airing on prime time for 32 seasons and counting, "The Simpsons" is arguably the most successful animated show of all time.
This episode of "Movies Insider" looks at how the "Simpsons" animation has advanced over more than three decades, beginning with the "Tracey Ullman" shorts all the way up to the show's recent seasons.
We spoke to David Silverman and Al Jean, two of the main minds behind "The Simpsons" who have been with the show since its first season, to find out how Springfield evolved from Matt Groening's early sketches into the crisp, clean look of the show today.
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Following is a full transcript of the video.
♪ The Simpsons ♪
Narrator: This is the original title sequence to "The Simpsons." And this is what it looks like today.
In the older version, Marge's hair really whips around. But with the revamp, the motion gets toned down. Even the paper bag moves less.
Over the last 30-plus years, the "Simpsons" animation has gone through a lot of changes, with every decade bringing new technology that helped the show refine its style.
We talked to two of the main minds behind "The Simpsons" who've been with the show since day one to find out how we got from this to this.
Lisa: Noble spirits, your time has passed.
Narrator: Here's what the Simpsons looked like when they first appeared on TV as a recurring segment on "The Tracey Ullman Show." If they don't look like the Simpsons you know today, that's because these characters were very much still a work in progress.
Homer: There's nothing to worry about. Now everyone go to sleep.
Narrator: Matt Groening, the creator of "The Simpsons," would sketch out the one-minute shorts, then hand his sketches to the show's three animators, who together made up the show's entire animation department. David Silverman was one of them.
David: And we sort of would take Matt's rough drawings and cobble a storyboard between the three of us.
Narrator: The three of them were involved in nearly every stage of the process after that, from layout, where they draw out the characters' key poses or acting, to the actual animation, to in-betweening, when they create the intermediate frames between key frames.
To make things more demanding, "The Simpsons" was going for a hand-drawn look, so the artists used traditional ink-and-paint cel animation. Starting off with plastic sheets called cels, they would outline images on the front of the cel and paint color on the back.
David estimated that in the early days, they were working 60- to 80-hour weeks to animate just a minute and a half between the three of them. Pressed for time, the animators actually just traced over Matt's drawings in the beginning. This might be why the Simpsons in the early shorts have sharper, more irregular lines, in the style that Matt was known for. They also started out with a more pronounced version of the potato-chip lip, another signature of Matt's straight out of his "Life in Hell" comics.
From there, the artists designed and redesigned the characters as they went along. This led to some pretty notable inconsistencies, like the family's skin color varying between episodes or their proportions changing from one week to the next. There's even a 10-second sequence where Bart's character design shifts noticeably in three successive shots -- all within a single scene.
But these quick decisions also laid the groundwork for the defining features of the "Simpsons" look. Matt said he gave the characters four fingers instead of five because it'd reduce "pencil mileage," making the figures easier to draw. And the team painted the Simpsons yellow for two reasons: the color would make them stand out on TV screens, and it would suit the characters who don't have hairlines. Like showrunner Mike Reiss said, the color yellow is "kinda skin, kinda hair."
Now we get to "The Simpsons"' first season as its own TV show. This is the final episode of season one, but it was actually supposed to be the pilot, according to Al Jean, a "Simpsons" showrunner who's worked on the show since its very first season.
Al: It really didn't look right. It didn't look like "The Simpsons," so it was actually the last show aired of the first 13.
David: In the first season, there was a learning curve. We were basically training everybody else to draw the characters as we had conceived them.
Narrator: First, the animators had to make the Simpsons' figures more rounded than they were in the shorts so that they'd be easier to turn around in space. And the designs that made the characters so iconic also made them difficult to draw consistently.
Artists on the show have described the "Simpsons" character designs as "delicate" and "deceptively simple," because a single stray stroke could transform a character.
Compare Bart to a character like Bugs Bunny. As David said, "Bugs Bunny has quite a lot of lines, which makes him easier to capture ... there's a greater allowance for mistakes." But with Bart's hair, for example, or his version of the Simpsons family nose, if there's a single line drawn wrong or with the wrong pencil thickness, the character will no longer look like Bart.
So throughout season one, the show developed its model sheets -- style guides that lay out the right poses, movements, and expressions for each character. The season also varied a lot in how much fluidity is given to the characters' movements. Fluid animation is when a character's lines flow smoothly, like water.
There are points in season one where the characters are very fluid, like Ms. Botz in this scene. See that head shake she does? It's almost like the animators drew her with more frames per second than they usually do, producing this super-smooth motion that stands out next to other scenes.
Wacky moments like this are what many fans love most about the first season. But in season two, those wacky moments started to become more standardized.
Homer: You're living in a world of make believe, with flowers and bells and leprechauns and magic frogs with funny little hats!
Narrator: By then, the show had developed an almost 500-page style bible laying out exactly how and how not to draw the residents of Springfield. This page lays out various no-nos for drawing Lisa, while another page defines the eight-point rule for her hair, describing how it should be clustered in groups of three, three, and two on Lisa's head.
Matt also wanted to distance "The Simpsons" from the house styles of other animation studios, which meant movement was key. In the Disney world, characters tend to move in a springy way, like they're dancing. And other characters, like Wile E. Coyote and Bugs Bunny, had bodies that extended and snapped back like rubber bands.
The "Simpsons" team decided to have characters with a more limited range of movements, with occasional moments of fluidity for comedic or dramatic effect. They even studied Kermit the Frog, because they liked how he could convey emotion with just a slight change in his Muppet mouth.
This style still left the Simpsons plenty of room for expressiveness. According to Nelson Shin at Akom, the South Korean studio that helps animate "The Simpsons," a typical cartoon face maybe has six different mouths. A main character on "The Simpsons" can have as many as 27.
The backgrounds were another challenge.
Al: If you look at, like, Moe's in season one, it really does look like they're in a 2D environment. And it really looks a lot more 3D subsequently.
David: The artwork was becoming better. Just getting perspective to the backgrounds, as opposed to them looking just sort of, like, badly drawn.
Narrator: The showrunners also leaned into other aspects of the "Simpsons" look: thin outlines and characters with few sharp edges on them and distinctively walled eyes. Those are crucial -- the big, bulgy, almost circular eyeballs with black-dot pupils that make the Simpsons look permanently stunned, like they just got electrocuted by their TV.
The show made a rule that characters' eyes had to either be looking in the same direction or turning slightly outward from the nose, never cross-eyed like you see on Saturday morning cartoons, because that would look too "cute."
Still, the show wasn't perfectly consistent on details like these. For a while, in seasons three through five, some characters' pupils were drawn bigger, something that David and Al say was unintentional.
David: I want my characters to have more of a confused bird look, the sort of like ... It seemed the jokes played better. And then I think the blank expression, you as a viewer can just project whatever you feel about it.
Narrator: "The Simpsons" stuck with hand-painted cel animation through the '90s, but by season seven, the showrunners were experimenting with digital paint in one-off episodes like this one, "Radioactive Man," and even digital animation in the season seven Halloween special.
In 2002, the show used the same annual Halloween episode to try out digital paint again, this time for a sequence where Homer clones himself.
David: Which actually would have probably been impossible on cels because there are so many clones and levels. There's a certain physical point of how many cel levels you can have, where, of course, digital compositing can have infinite number of levels and characters.
Narrator: A few episodes later, the show switched over to digital coloring for good.
Al: There was just a talk that you had, when they just said, "You're gonna have to go digital." There had been earlier shows where something wasn't the right color, maybe, but it was impossible to fix because of the cost, whereas with digital coloring, you can fix it faster for cheaper. And it's a whole new world, it really is.
Narrator: It also gave the show more vivid backgrounds and crisper graphics and, at first, heavier black borders around characters and objects, an accident that the show fixed later on. We would have a problem where you had the camera move in and out, the line would get thinner and thicker, which we all hated.
David: We were able to figure out that you could basically dial in the size of the lines and so forth. So as the seasons progressed, pretty quickly we just got into the more technical remedies for these situations.
Narrator: And it's these experiments with digital that set the stage for "The Simpsons"' biggest transformation yet: "The Simpsons Movie."
Trailer: The greatest Simpsons family adventure of all time!
Narrator: For a while, the showrunners thought "The Simpsons Movie" would be fully CG-animated, but they didn't end up going the full-CG route for the film.
Moe: "The Simpsons Movie" ...
Narrator: Instead, the team mixed traditional 2D animation with 3D CGI to make the show's classic style work in the most wide-screen movie format, CinemaScope.
Since Springfield would appear on a 100-foot movie screen, the color-design team used a larger color palette for the movie than they'd ever used on the TV show. And while backgrounds on the show were often flat-colored and lit by a single source, the movie called for backgrounds that were richer in detail.
To help focus the audience's eyes, the artists added shadow vignettes to the backgrounds and put a tone shadow and drop shadow on characters in every scene. On TV, they'd only given characters those shadows for scenes that were set at night or supposed to be especially dramatic. The more nuanced lighting and shadows in the movie created depth in every shot, so that certain characters and objects pop out at you.
These artistic elevations stuck around long after the film. "The Simpsons" started incorporating more computer animation and 3D effects, especially for complicated backgrounds. The showrunners even created a special scene-planning team to digitally animate elaborate sequences.
David: The scene planners helped in our camera moves and making them more sort of cinematic. We would try to emulate the idea of a multiplane camera, where you have planes of animation so that it feels like the camera's physically moving as opposed to just zooming in and out.
Narrator: And working in widescreen HD animation for the movie proved to be a useful trial run for two years later, when the show, in its 20th season, officially moved to HD.
Bart: Isn't it about time you went digital?
Homer: Watch your mouth, you little smart-ass!
Al: HD was a whole other enormous change that we had no money and no time to prepare for.
Narrator: Higher digital resolution left less room for mistakes or shortcuts.
Al: You really have to be much more careful that the backgrounds don't look shoddy in one spot and much better in another. There's so much information in the frame. Where we used to get by with, you know, you'd have a little piece of paper on a bulletin board and a scribble on it, it looks terrible now.
Narrator: And in the first HD seasons, artists couldn't save time by recycling shots from past episodes like they normally do.
Al: In season 20, it was really tricky. There was nothing that we could rely on from past shows to fill in. We had to restart our whole library of backgrounds, our whole library of old shots. So we've had to go redo things like the comic-book store or the town square, totally rethinking how they would look in HD.
Narrator: And the HD format also took the show from its traditional 4:3 aspect ratio to 16:9. With this switch, Matt said the "Simpsons" team had to "rethink everything."
David: So we became even more conscious of thinking about the space cinematically. We talked more about that. "OK, we're gonna have a flat-space shot here for this part of it. Now let's go to a deep-space shot." So, you could take more advantage of a longer shot. You could play more of the action in a wide shot.
Narrator: The wider frame forced the team to think more about shot composition. This meant creating more asymmetry in shots.
Al: Where you have a little piece of garbage here or a fire extinguisher on the wall there, or several things that just are like real life rather than just these perfect rectangles everywhere.
Narrator: The show's iconic opening was also redone for the first time since season two. This HD makeover was somewhat controversial in the eyes of fans, who said characters like Marge looked too rigid in their movement.
Al: The movements aren't quite as fluid, yeah. And what happened there was we said, well, we've gotta go to HD and we need a new main title, which is fairly lengthy, and they said, "You have no money."
We had to figure out ways to get it done without extra time, without extra money, and put in new things.
Narrator: The artists were also still getting used to animating in HD.
David: I think everybody just got used to using it more organically. So at the beginning it was a little stiffer, and we try to be conscious of that and try to make sure that the characters are moving more fluidly.
Narrator: Even in recent seasons, characters seem to have bouncier movement, straying away from the stiffness of some early HD episodes. The show's still figuring out some other aspects of its look, too, like how much shadow to use.
David: Sometimes we go overboard, and I think there's too much use of shadow. We sort of try to balance it out.
Narrator: And how much color. David: We still follow our basic 200 colors, approximately, to paint things, but we vary the tones of them. We try to keep a sensibility that's connected to the original color palette.
Narrator: Lately, the show's also revitalized some of its sets, including adding new jokes into the town square. And the artists have polished up old character models, especially when dusting off characters from earlier seasons, like Comic Book Guy, who they had to scale down from his season-two model, which means "The Simpsons" is still tinkering with its look after more than three decades. And it's this constant tweaking and adapting that's helped the show last through so many different eras of TV.
That's what helped make "The Simpsons" the longest-running scripted primetime series, the longest-running American sitcom, and arguably the most successful animated show ever.
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