Animation Alley: Bart the Genius

[Note: Mike Amato of Me Blog Write Good is going to be writing about the animation for the Yellow Jubilee.]

If we’re gonna talk about the animation from the first season, then we must start with the first cut of the very first episode, “Some Enchanted Evening” (feel free to mute the video, it’s just the schmucky uploader doing “commentary.”) The brunt of the animation for the show, and a sizable amount of all American animation, is done overseas, and because of how long the animation process is, and with the speed and the technology back then, a whole season could be in production before people State-side get to see any of it. So when everyone sat down to watch the first cut of “Evening,” it was quite a surprise (James L. Brooks’ famous initial statement: “This is shit.”) The thing is, no one was really doing this “realistic” type animation at the time; the creators didn’t want the very bendy, loose, rubber hose style animation that they were seeing. But thankfully, the second show in was in much, much better shape, giving Groening and co. a sigh of relief. So behold, “Bart the Genius,” the episode that saved the series.

Now, if I pointed out every shot or moment I liked in this show, this article would be endless. For these write-ups, I’m gonna try to boil it down to three scenes or specific moments that I feel are particularly strong, or have neat stuff to say about them.

First is the opening to our show, with the family playing a game of Scrabble in the living room. Of course we open up with Maggie, our infant savant, spelling “EMCSQU” with her blocks, then we pan up to see she’s right at the leg of the table where the rest of the family are none the wiser to her sudden stroke of intellectualism.

Here we have our first use of animation smears, which are always fun to freeze frame on. They’re done during quick movements to accentuate the speed, you see them in a lot of Disney and Warner Bros. cartoons. Most of these “cartoonier” techniques were phased out after the first few seasons or so. Also, another first season hallmark: bizarre photos on the wall. Why would they frame and hang a photo of an aghast Homer screaming? Well, why not?

Bart places down his game-winning word: ‘kwijibo.’ He places the letters down off-center so haphazardly, speaking to his messy nature as a little boy, but also because of how desperately he wants to get the hell out of this quality family activity.

Fantastic straight-ahead drawings of Homer, getting very subtly more irate as his thick skull registers that Bart is making fun of him.

My next scene is Bart’s math dream, back when the show used to take great artistic license with dream sequences. Done all in monochrome, we see Bart attempt to solve one of those over-complicated “if two trains left the station” questions imagining himself on one of the said trains. As the sequence goes on, we see numbers appear more and more as parts of the background until Bart encounters the conductor: a manically insane Martin. From that point, it’s a series of quick cuts as Bart panics, about to be in a head-on collision between the two trains, until he falls backwards back to reality and out of his seat in the classroom.

My last moment really isn’t done justice with framegrabs, unfortunately, but if you’re reading this blog, surely you’ve got these DVDs on your shelf somewhere, and if not, then I am filled with shame. Anyway, it’s when Homer and Marge are called to Principal Skinner’s office regarding Bart’s transgressions. In the early days of the show, and particularly in this episode, Bart is our star, so we’re seeing things from a kid-like perspective. He’s in trouble, and then the parents show up, the frame cut so you don’t even see their faces as they enter from camera right. First is Marge, who greets Skinner cordially, walking in quite daintily, her left arm held out fancily, overall a very delicate and docile creature. Then follows Homer, a large presence, stomping in with his fist at the ready to accuse Bart. This one quick moment perfectly communicates Homer and Marge’s characters and their feelings on the situation at hand. The staging, the animation, the acting, all of it comes together in this short four seconds or so to tell so, so much.

As I said, I can go on so much longer, but these are just a few great moments from a great episode.

11 Responses to “Animation Alley: Bart the Genius”

  1. 16 January 2013 at 11:36 am

    The ‘slicker’ animation is an underdiscussed reason that Zombie Simpsons fails to deliver the goods. I appreciated this comparison of just one scene from the introduction from regular and Zombie Simpsons: http://imgur.com/a/3cqh8

  2. 16 January 2013 at 1:36 pm

    Good to see you on here Mike as a guest blogger, I wish you were a regular blogger on deadhomersociety, however.

    Excellent tidbits and info you’ve pointed out in this episode. The Homer picture in the background is indeed strange. Anyway, Bart the Genius is simply classic Simpsons at it’s best. Animation wise: no.

    • 3 Stan
      16 January 2013 at 6:30 pm

      Second that thought. While animation was good for the period and its production required time, some aspects of the way they drew characters did give me the creeps. First Season in particular was very strange at times, it looked like it tried to copy Disney yet never succeeded (you can’t copy Disney!). Anyway, my point is that while I appreciate the humanity present in many portrayals, like the one you mention last, I can’t help but notice how clean today’s animation is, even though the show itself is now full of fuck.

  3. 5 Al Gore Doll
    16 January 2013 at 1:51 pm

    I hope Animation Alley becomes a regular thing.
    Long after I can recite an entire episode from start to finish it’s the animation that keeps it enjoyable.

  4. 16 January 2013 at 8:23 pm

    Hey, I just noticed that Mike has been added to the list of “Stonecutters” here :)

  5. 8 Disco Stud
    17 January 2013 at 12:53 am

    Great stuff, Mike.

  6. 9 Monty Python Forever
    17 January 2013 at 2:15 am

    This was when I started to realize the potential of The Simpsons. I had enjoyed the rough Christmas special, but this was the first one that demonstrated the charm and variety of the show, and distinguished it from generic sitcoms. It was still rough, but once I saw Bart the General, I knew that this was evolving into something unique, a show that would live on in the annals with classics like All in the Family, The X-Files, Ren and Stimpy, Married with Children and The Prisoner.

  7. 10 Col. Coward
    17 January 2013 at 5:10 pm

    “In the early days of the show, and particularly in this episode, Bart is our star, so we’re seeing things from a kid-like perspective.”

    That’s not really as true as people think it is. True, the media blitz focused on Bart Simpson, and he was definitely the face of the show for the general public. But the show tried to balance things out between the family members as best it could. The show did tend to favor Bart and Homer over the others from the beginning, basically because the writers were all men and had an easier time writing for those characters. Marge especially, because the ivy league graduate staff members could at least identify with Lisa’s brainy outsider status.

  8. 11 Anon
    24 January 2013 at 9:01 pm

    It looks more like it was trying to combine Rocky and Bullwinke with a (much more relaxed) Avery or Clampett style.

    I don’t see how it’s trying to immitate Disney

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