Animation On Blu: The Simpsons

You know, I've yet to cover any animation on this site, and I've been growing increasingly curious about the benefits of animation, as opposed to more detailed photography in HD.  So I thought let's tackle it with something that would provide a lot of good and varied test cases: The Simpsons!  If you think about it, they first came out in the relatively early days of DVD - 2001 - and their latest came out just two months ago.  There have been DVDs and blu-rays, reissues, and even a movie, giving us plenty to study.  Not to suggest that even a thorough study of The Simpsons on disc would give us complete and total answers to all the questions about animation on disc.  There are so many factors to consider, like how the art is created, be it simple line drawings or finely detailed paintings with natural elements to capture, cel layers, whether the imagery is being captured on film, digital or tape, and in the case of digital, what resolution, etc.  But I think it will be enlightening, and I can already tell you I found some things that surprised me going back through all these discs.
Good Night Simpsons short from 2001 Fox season 1 DVD.
I can't imagine anybody needs me to introduce them to The Simpsons, so I'll just share a few quick thoughts.  It seems to be a nearly universally held opinion that The Simpsons is no longer good like it used to be, and from what I've seen of recent, on-air episodes, it's hard to disagree.  But it's important to note that while the show is now up to season 31, and already renewed for 32, the home video arm is only up to season 19... or 20, depending how you look at it (more on that later).  And though I'd certainly concede that even those seasons are well past the series' prime years, just watching the latest DVD set, I've found there's still enough well written episodes and really funny jokes to make all of the existing season releases worth your time.  Moving forward... we'll see (or maybe we won't, considering Fox's rocky relationship with DVD and blu).  But for now, I'd actually say season 1, where they're still finding their tone, to be the weakest of all of them.
2001 Fox season 1 DVD.
And I don't just mean that season 1 looks like crap on DVD, although there's that, too.  season 1 will rub fans the wrong way, anyway, since their favorite characters are pretty off model from the way they're drawn now.  But let's stick to the actual issues with the DVDs themselves.  The most obvious flaw is the interlacing that's so evident in the first shot.  Interlacing is going to be a big and complicated issue here.  Interlacing tends to go hand in hand with broadcast, pre-HD TV, and I'm not even going to pretend to guess at how the show may've been telecined during any given stage of its animation.  But there are some facts we can establish more or less for sure about it.  First of all, as the second shot shows us, it's not every frame.  That's pretty standard for interlacing, to be every fourth, fifth or sixth frame.  And there can be a number of causes, which may or may not be related to how the show itself.  But one thing that can be clearly demonstrated is that it can be, and has been, worse.
2001 Fox season 1 DVD top; 2003 Fox Simpsons Christmas DVD bottom.
This same episode ("Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire") appears on both the 2001 Simpsons season 1 DVD and the 2003 Simpsons Christmas DVD.  In fact, let's get this out of the way now: all the episodes from non-season set DVDs appear in the currently available season sets.  The Simpsons Christmas, The Simpsons Christmas 2, Bart Wars, The Simpsons Gone Wild, Kiss and Tell: The Story of Their Love and Treehouse of Horrors all just repackage episodes from the season sets, minus the extras and, as you can see above, inferior transfers.  There are also others that only made it to the UK and other regions, like The Simpsons: Risky Business, Film Festival, Backstage Pass, etc., which are all the same.  So, in general, I'd recommend avoiding all of them.  But the point here is that the interlacing is worse on the Christmas DVD.  Even frames that aren't interlaced on season 1 are here.  And we'll come back to the interlacing topic, but it's not the only issue.
2001 Fox season 1 DVD.
Put aside the lazy way they draw crowds in these early 1.31:1 episodes.  Just look at all the artifacts, noise and haloing around lines.  The presentation of these episodes just makes them look literally, physically dirty compared to later releases.  But it's not just season 1.  Let's jump ahead a little.
2004 Fox season 5 DVD.
We're already up to season 5 in 2004 since they were moving at a faster clip in those days, and the interlacing is still there.  Colors are bolder, lines are cleaner, and it looks more representative of the proper show.  There's still noise and haloing (look under Skinner's nose or bottom lip), and it helps a lot that the art is more consistent, which is of course a show thing not a DVD thing.  Are the DVD transfers improving, or is it the just the show quality itself?  Or more to the point, one wonders how many of the remaining flaws are an inescapable factor of SD presentation, or even the way the show itself was made, and how much could be improved with by a remaster.  After all, these are still fairly old DVDs.  Let's skip ahead some more.
2006 Fox season 8 DVD top; 2003 Fox Treehouse of Horrors DVD bottom.
In 2006, on season 8, there's still lots of ugly noise along the lines, and of course, the interlacing is the same as ever.  Comparing it to Fox's 2003 Treehouse of Horrors DVD, we see the same situation with the Christmas DVD and season 1: both have interlacing, but the non-season DVD sets have worse interlacing, with consistently more troubled frames.  This may be down to a frame-rate error that the season discs are free of.  On both discs, the episode above ("Treehouse of Horror VII") is 22:49 long.  But both sets of frames compared above are roughly 30 seconds apart - The first shot arrives at 15:00 on the season disc and 15:35 on the ToH disc, and the second shot arrives at 15:35 and 16:06, respectively.  That sounds like I made an error, right?  Nope, I've double, triple, quadruple-checked.  Neither version starts or ends with unique corporate logos or anything like that, they both roughly the exact same length, and yet they somehow get so out of sync with each other.  Something's wrong, and I bet that accounts for the extra interlacing.
2008 Fox season 11 DVD.
Essentially, it's the same story all the way up until 2008, when the interlacing just stops.  Problem gone, we no longer get anymore interlaced frames.  Again, as a non-insider, it's tough to say conclusively whether this is a change in how the shows or the DVDs are made.  But I do know a few things.  The series went HD in season 20, and they switched from traditional to digital coloring in season 14.  This is season 11, so it's not connected to any of that.  My guess is it's the DVDs.  Another clue I'm basing that decision is that it's here with in the season 11 set that they make another correction, tweaking the aspect ratio from 1.31:1 to 1.33:1.  It just seems like someone finally came in to straighten the home video transfers out.  At any rate, with the season 11 release, the interlacing (and 1.31 AR) is gone and never comes back.  There's still the same noise and gunk, but nevertheless, it's a real improvement.  Huzzah.

In the meantime, the movie came out.
2007 Fox movie DVD top; 2007 Fox movie BD bottom.
The movie plays about as well as a solid episode.  Not one of their best, but in the upper 50% at least.  And in 2007, it gave us our first chance to see The Simpsons on blu.  Of course, the animation is more fluid and the colors more gradiated in this gloriously 2.40:1 film.  2007's very early for blu-rays, but it still proudly answers the question: can blu really make a difference with animation?  Oh yes, look how the finer points come to life without all that nasty SD compression, it's a huge difference.  Of course, we also benefit from the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio getting boosted to lossless DTS-HD.

And speaking of blus, the next important stage in The Simpsons saga on disc is when they started issuing the series itself on blu, starting with, strangely, season 20 in 2010.
2010 Fox season 20 BD.
Yeah, to celebrate the show itself going to HD, they released season 20 on blu-ray.  They were only up to season 12 at the time, in terms of putting the seasons out sequentially on DVD, but they jumped ahead for this special, 2-disc release.  I'll get into extras later on, but it's important to point out that, up 'till now, every season set was a rewarding special edition, with commentaries, deleted scenes and more.  This doesn't have any of that, which I suppose is how they manage to squeeze it all onto 2 discs.

Anyway, The Simpsons went HD mid-season 20, which is why the first disc is all fullscreen (1.33:1), and the second disc is in its new, wide (1.78:1) format.  You can see their new approach to the art with that "Blue Umbrella Insurance" sign behind Homer, how it's straight in a clean font.  All that stuff would've been crookedly hand-written, if not just illegible squiggles, in any previous season.  But that's the show itself.  Let's focus on the blu-rays.
2010 Fox season 20 BD.
A couple things struck me. First, all that haloing and noise is 100% gone, even in the first disc of SD episodes.  Putting them on blu really seems to make even the pre-HD episodes noticeably cleaner and more attractive.  And of course, just in case you were worried it'd come back, there's still no interlacing.  With that said, though, if you look at the lines closely, they're a little fuzzy and tend to disappear... it looks like they applied DNR of some sort?  I don't know why, but it's not good.  Skip ahead to the HD episodes, though, and it's gone.  Now each line can be viewed straight down to their jagged little pixels.  I'll take it.

After season 20, things got great for a while.  Starting with season 13, all of the seasons were being issued on blu-ray.  Of course, DVD alternatives also existed, but it was pretty sweet finally being able to collect The Simpsons on blu.
2013 Fox season 16 DVD top; 2013 Fox season 16 BD bottom.
So now that the show's dual-format (at least for a while), let's do a direct DVD/ Blu-ray comparison.  After all, that's what we like to do here.  And it goes directly to one of the key questions I had when embarking on this post: is there much benefit to getting this show on BD as opposed to DVD?  I thought perhaps with the simplistic line drawing and un-shaded colors, it might not make a compelling difference, but no.  I see now that it does.  And that's even considering the fact that these pre-season 20 episodes are a standard definition source - it's still an improvement.  The most noticeable thing is how much bolder the lines are.  They're real black lines, not soft gray lines.  And it still gets a little muddy around the edges, but you can see these BD shots are much cleaner and gunk-free than their DVD counter-parts.  And again, the blu-rays also have the benefit of lossless DTS-HD audio.

The most surprising difference, though?  Despite both being framed at 1.33:1, the DVD reveals slightly more picture along the sides.  That might sound like a pro-DVD thing, but I'm fairly sure it's because the DVD is slightly squeezed, making it ever so taller and skinnier, and the BD is actually in the more precise shape.  At any rate, the cleaner image is the more important improvement, the alternate framing was just the most unexpected.
2017 Fox season 18 DVD top; 2019 Fox season 19 BD bottom.
Unfortunately, bad news struck again in 2015, after season 17.  Citing the shift to their Simpsons website, which would stream all the episodes (albeit, often in the wrong aspect ratios), Fox stopped putting out the DVDs and blus.  Eventually, after a four-year hiatus, fan backlash pushed Fox to recapitulate and start releasing DVD seasons again... but just DVDs.  No more blu-ray option.  So far we've had seasons 18 and 19, with a long two year gap between those.  At least they're up to the standards of the previous DVD seasons, picture quality-wise (they fall short in another regard, which we'll come to later).  They're still interlacing free, 1.33:1 and at least as clear as seasons 11-17.  But they don't look as good as the season 13-17 blu-rays.  They're a welcome surprise after Fox told us all to kick rocks and sign up for their stupid website, but the glory days seem to be behind us.
2003 Fox Treehouse of Horrors DVD.
Now let's talk extras.  I said before, the stand-apart, non-season DVDs were barebones.  That's not strictly 100% true.  Each one typically features a very brief, 3-4 exclusive clip show.  For example, the Kang & Kodos "Galactic Green Dudes" shown above from the Treehouse of Horrors disc.  Gone Wild features one with Krusty, Christmas featured one with Mr. Burns, Festival has a Troy McClure, Risky Business has Chief Wiggum clips, and so on.  It's just a brief collection of lines and moments clipped from the episodes, all of which are already available in the seasons, though.  Kiss & Tell is a little different... that one has a seven minute "animation showcase" with storyboards and animatics for one of the episodes.  So they're mildly amusing little bonuses, but nothing to go out of your way to collect all those weak discs for.  Oh, and yes, those are interlaced, too.
James L. Brooks interview from the 2002 Fox season 2 DVD.
And the season 20 set is barebones, too.  It just has a commercial for their 20th Anniversary special that had, as I recall, already aired before the box was released (hey Fox, the whole special would've been an ideal feature).  But the movie and the original season sets are great, filled with famous audio commentaries featuring a revolving door and consistently packed house with nearly all the writers, directors, producers and cast providing funny and insightful commentaries.  Many of the celebrity guest stars have even appeared.  Unfortunately, the only original Tracey Ullman Show short to be released to date remains the single one included as an extra for season 1.  Still, most of the seasons have also featured a slew of deleted scenes, which you could choose to watch restored into their original place in the episodes, or at the end, with additional commentary.  There are animatics, featurettes, storyboards, and a wild assortment of easter eggs hidden in their clever animated menus. 

I say "most," because unfortunately, the last two seasons have pared down the extras, removing the deleted scenes and almost everything else apart from the commentaries and the series introductions by Matt Groening.  The deleted scenes especially are a major loss.  And with the blu-ray option removed, I guess we're really living in a "lucky to get anything at all" world, with every release feeling like the last we can ever hope to see.  And there hasn't been any release yet that I wasn't happy to get, but it's super frustrating that we're now moving backwards, devolving since season 17.  Will they reissue season 20 with commentaries?  If so, will it be DVD only again, making it another ugly compromise?  Will they skip to season 21?  I've already given up the hope I once held of them going back and remastering the early seasons.  Maybe it's all done.  They did just release a big boxed set repackaging the first 20 seasons (DVD only, of course); that could be their way of wrapping up.  If so, at least we know we've already got all their best seasons.

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