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Adapted 10/40/70: The Simpsons – “The Greatest Story Ever D’Ohed” April 30, 2010

Posted by Michael Rennett in Adapted 10/40/70 Experiment, Television.
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A couple of weeks ago, I posted a 10/40/70 analysis of The Simpsons season one episode “Krusty Gets Busted” which earned the following quote from the blog Dead Homer Society:  “This is a more detailed animation analysis that I like to get into.  But it does show just how much care and thought used to go into the show.  One suspects that Zombie Simpsons would flunk this kind of test miserably.”  They define “Zombie Simpsons” as anything from season 12 forward where the show “has no pulse and no intelligence but it just won’t fucking die.”  Certainly the point of my analysis was not to privilege earlier Simpsons episodes over the newly released shows and I don’t even know if it’s possible to “fail” a 10/40/70 analysis (perhaps just having uninteresting mise-en-scène).  However, it seems that the only way to demonstrate my own thoughts on this popular split is to analyze one of the “Zombie Simpsons” episodes.  Thanks to online streaming, I was able to watch this season’s “The Greatest Story Ever D’Ohed,” an episode where Ned Flanders takes the Simpson family with him to Israel to undergo a spiritual journey and gain religious enlightenment.  The episode runs a total of 22 minutes, so I used my original framework to set times of 1:50-7:20-12:50:


Unlike Bird’s episode which works in triangles, this shot seems to be built out of straight lines.  Reverend Lovejoy and Ned are both the same height, which sets them as equals to each other.  We can see the different connections between them in lines:  their eyeline, hairline, chin-line, and the backdoor fence behind them that connect them.

The shot also shows Homer’s slip and slide in the background, which works for two reasons.  First, it keeps Homer’s immature activities in the back of Ned and Lovejoy’s mind since that is what inspires Ned to try to help Homer.  Second, it works as a visual joke when Homer goes sliding by naked later in this shot.  The camera doesn’t have to cut at all; Homer can merely slide through the frame which provides an added humor since we can see Ned and Lovejoy’s disgusted reactions.  Incidentally, I happen to love Ned’s facial expression in this still, with his eyes fully on the left side of the whites, and the full-toothed grimace as he is thinking about Homer.


This shot continues the theme of straight lines, but this time uses them diagonally to show some depth between the Israeli tour guide and the person who is listening to him for free.  While this shot is a part of the traditional shot-reverse shot relationship, the camera is placed at a lower angle to make the pushy tour guide seem bigger.  It certainly seems to express more than a regular over-the-shoulder shot.

The high level of detail in the background of this shot is also quite intriguing.  We can see the multiple curves in the ceiling drawn with great precision, as well as the off-colored bricks located in the ceiling.  Certainly when compared with “Krusty Gets Busted,” the level of draftsmanship seems to be much better.


Like the previous frame, the draftsmanship is the first thing to stand out from this frame.  There are details on the walls that make the frame look extremely murky, and even a gap in the doorframe on the right side of the frame that add to the pristine aesthetics of the frame.  Another major noticeable difference from the early Simpsons episodes is the use of shadow on the back of both Homer and Ned.  It helps make the frame looks more realistic and separates the two characters from the background.  Ned’s positioning above Homer places him in a position of power over Homer and his body language certainly conveys his frustration with Homer.

There is also an interesting triangular relationship that appears in this frame for the first time, which I have marked below:

The figure of Jesus in the background, with Ned and Homer in the foreground creates a play on the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.  Since triangles have not appeared in this episode, this religious connotation can be seen as quite important.  In fact, it certainly foreshadows Homer’s pending “Jerusalem syndrome,” when he believes himself to be the next messiah.

Despite the added triangle, the bulk of the shot still seems to be conveyed in lines.  Ned’s eyeline and hand-line include the portrait of Mary into the shot as well when extended across the frame.  Homer seems to be stuck in between traditional religious reverence which Mary represents and Ned’s aggressiveness.

Overall, there still seems to be a high level of interesting mise-en-scène in The Simpsons despite its so-called “Zombie” status.  While the show may have gotten into a bit of a rut due to its longevity, the visual aesthetics are still as fascinating as ever.


Adapted 10/40/70 – The Simpsons, “Krusty Gets Busted” April 13, 2010

Posted by Michael Rennett in Adapted 10/40/70 Experiment, Brad Bird, Television.
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More details about this experiment in my previous post.  I’ve always been fascinated by mise-en-scène within animation since the director or animator can place the camera at any position and draw in whatever details they want to put in the frame.  The Simpsons has been a hallmark of television for the past twenty years and I picked the episode “Krusty Gets Busted” from the show’s first season because it was directed by Brad Bird.  Since his beginning on The Simpsons, Bird has gone on to give audiences some of the best animated films created, including The Iron Giant (1999), The Incredibles (2004), and Ratatouille (2007).  Bird’s work demonstrates a tendency to push the boundaries of animation, something which I hope is prevalent in analyzing this episode.

Since Simpsons episodes are 23 minutes long, I am adjusting the variable formula to times of 1:55, 7:40, and 13:25.

Variable Analysis:  1:55-7:40-13:25

This frame from the episode’s first scene establishes the conflict between Krusty and his assistant Sideshow Bob.  Krusty is celebrating the young girl’s birthday that is in the frame with them.  The eyelines of the characters really dictate the action of the sequence.  Bob is looking down at the show’s guest, trying to appease her by playing his whistle.  The young girl is looking up at Krusty with admiration, while Krusty (ever the showman) is looking directly into the camera trying to pander to the television audience.  Connecting these eyelines emphasizes this relationship:

The characters are set up to form a triangle (which the eyeline match), creating a structure throughout the shot.  We also see the differences between Krusty and Bob.  While Krusty’s microphone bisects his half of the triangle, Bob’s whistle is parallel to the other eyeline match.  Each is a symbol of their work ethic:  Krusty relies on his voice, whereas Bob relies on the whistle and other silent tools within their act.

This shot occurs later in the storyline, when it is revealed to Bart and Lisa that their hero, Krusty, has just been arrested.  They are watching a news program that shows this footage of Krusty being arrested.  The mise-en-scène is meant to parody what an actual news clip is supposed to look like.  We can see that the camera is set higher than ground level, meaning that the camera is supposed to be elevated, possibly on the news truck looking down.  The high angle also suggests the disgrace Krusty feels at this point, as the camera is looking down at him.  Of course, we also have to remember that there are two “cameras” within this scene:  the first capturing Krusty’s arrest and the second shooting the actual television screen that Bart and Lisa are watching.  We are, in fact, seeing what Bart and Lisa are seeing, which is why the black sides of the television cut down on the outer edges of the frame.  This keeps us firmly connected with the two children who, by now, are the focus of the episode.

This frame is from Krusty’s court case, when he is placed on the stand to plead his case.  The Krusty in the frame truly contrasts the Krusty from our first frame at 1:55.  He is not wearing his clown makeup and is wearing a blue jumpsuit instead of the pink shirt he wears during his program.  His eyeline is looking down to the left side of the frame, connoting his unhappiness.  We can also see the now-famous “A-113” reference to Cal-Arts which Bird includes in all of his the things he has directed.  Once again, Bird uses a triangle to center the action on Krusty’s face:

As in the first frame, the triangle focuses the audience’s attention on the emotional center of the frame; in this case, Krusty’s downtrodden facial expression and lack of make-up.

Although the three frames are fairly nondescript, Bird’s use of triangles within his work presents a fairly interesting aspect of his mise-en-scène, which I would like to see if it carries over to his feature work.  Perhaps later on, I will do a traditional 10-40-70 on Bird’s other films to see if this triangle theme is continued.

Adapting the 10/40/70 Experiment to TV (The Office – “Business School”) March 27, 2010

Posted by Michael Rennett in Adapted 10/40/70 Experiment, Television.
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One of my favorite critical blogging experiments is Nicolas Rombes’s 10/40/70 experiment to film criticism.  He suggests that to create a subjective form of film analysis, we as scholars should freeze a film at predetermined arbitrary time codes (he suggests 10 minutes, 40 minutes, and 70 minutes) and then analyze the mise-en-scène of these images.  The times Rombes suggests are important to a film’s structure, as we normally have a good idea of the hero’s conflict by the 10 minutes mark, finish the first act by 40 minutes, and have the hero reach his lowest point by 70 minutes.  What I would like to do is adapt Rombes’s formula to the television medium and see if the same arbitrary analysis can work for a different form.

Of course, since TV shows are a lot shorter than the traditional 90-120 minutes for a film, the time codes must be changed as well.  To maintain the 10-40-70 relationship, there are two formulas from which we can choose to adapt it to a 30-minute sitcom.  First, since a 30-minute show is ¼ the length of the standard feature, we can divide the 10-40-70 numbers by 4 to result in times of 2:30-10-17:30.  Of course, a 30-minute TV show does not actually time out to 30 minutes exactly since there are commercials during the broadcast.  In fact, a show like The Office runs for about 22 minutes, allowing for 8 minutes of commercials (yes, over 25% of what you watch during a single timeslot is commercials).  Thus, if we want to maintain the same dramatic high points like in Rombes’s original proposition, we need to create a variable formula for television which results in (x/120)*22, in which x stands for either 10, 40, or 70.  With this formula, we get time codes of 1:50, 7:20, and 12:50 for the 22 minutes of story content.  In order to show the differences between these time slots and the effect they have on analyzing the story, I’ll take a look at both sets of numbers.

For my first experiment, I’m going to look at one of my favorite episodes from the American version of The Office called “Business School.”  In true Office fashion, there are two storylines in the episode: the main one following Michael Scott (Steve Carrell) as he is invited to be a guest speaker in his employee Ryan Howard’s (B.J. Novak) emerging enterprises class, while the B-story follows the rest of the Dunder Mifflin employees after Dwight (Rainn Wilson) finds a bat in the ceiling and accidentally lets him loose in the workspace.  A minor story running concurrently follows the receptionist Pam (Jenna Fischer) as she tries to get her co-workers to attend her art class’s art show.

Analysis #1:  2:30-10-17:30

The first frame follows Michael and Ryan as they are driving to Ryan’s class.  The mockumentary style camera sits in the backseat and films them from behind as they begin their journey.  This shot is particularly noticeable since the production crew had introduced lipstick cameras in the employees’ cars in the earlier episode “Traveling Salesman,” meaning that this particular camera angle must contain distinct meaning.  Two things stand out about this shot.  First, the camera is positioned perfectly to see Ryan’s reactions to Michael’s random comments in the rearview mirror.  Although Ryan is driving and is starting out of the front window (as he should be!), the audience can still see his eye movements and facial expressions in the reflection.  Second, the empty road ahead of the car brings to mind the “long road” ahead of Ryan.  He will have to endure Michael’s idiocy among his peers and has to make it through this long, empty road in order to survive the experience.

The second frame follows the B (or actually the C) storyline, when Pam is trying to recruit H.R. representative Toby Flenderson (Paul Lieberstein) to go to her art show.  He can’t make it since his daughter is performing in a school play, but he maintains that he will show up “in order to support local art, since what they [his daughter’s school] do is not art” in a vain attempt to flirt with her.  Most interestingly, this image is a solo shot of Pam, despite her ongoing conversation with Toby.  The framing of this shot, with the doorframe and wall cutting Toby out of the picture, shows Pam’s isolation from her co-workers.  Many of them have shown only polite faint interest and, by this point, Pam is starting to get the idea that nobody from the office is going to show up.  Although at first glance this would seem to be a throwaway transition shot, the mise-en-scène actually implies Pam’s deeper feelings of separation and isolation.

Another intriguing shot, since this one once again focuses on Pam, even though she is the lowest of the three storylines.  In this shot, she is saying goodbye to her boyfriend Roy (David Denman) after he is leaving her art show.  The most he can say is “Your art was the prettiest art out of all the art,” demonstrating that he doesn’t seem to “get” Pam’s artistic outlet.  While he shows up to support her, there is a divide between the couple.  This shot emphasizes Pam’s artistic enlightenment since she is bathed in the overhead light, while Roy is covered by shadows, a sign that he is “in the dark” when it comes to art.  There is also a pole that dissects the frame with Pam and Roy on opposite sides of it.  The shot implies a disconnect between them which culminates in their breakup in the very next episode “Cocktails.”

Analysis #2:  1:50-7:20-12:50

Using the variable formula, the first shot begins earlier in the episode when Dwight is giving his “talking head” interview to the camera explaining the best advice Michael ever gave him – “don’t be an idiot.”  The mise-en-scène is fairly standard, with the mock interview being set up in the way a documentary would follow a subject.  The focus, therefore, doesn’t seem to be on the image but on what Dwight is saying.  The initial joke seems to be at Dwight’s expense, in which the viewer laughs at Dwight for taking the colloquial phrase “don’t be an idiot” so seriously.  However, we also have to ask ourselves whether this advice is the best Michael has to offer.  And if it is, then what is he going to say to Ryan’s class?

This shot is taken from Michael’s presentation, when he takes a student’s book and rips out the pages, suggesting to “replace [them] with life lessons.”  Although Michael dominates the frame, he appears to be out of focus in this shot, suggesting that he may be out of his element in front of a classroom.  The frame also shows the high volume of laptop computers in the room, which becomes a sticking point between Michael (the manager of a paper company) and the younger generation who is accustomed to using electronics.

The third frame catches the beginning of a tilt-up that ends on Michael’s face after he has heard that Ryan feels the company is heading downhill due to the rise of electronics and the lack of a need for paper.  The shot begins on Michael’s feet as he walks over the pages of the business book that he ripped out in the previous frame.  The trampling of these pages is fairly significant and something that I had missed on previous viewings.  The book pages espouse the traditional way of business, something which Michael – on many occasions – doesn’t seem to follow at all.  They are also representative of collegiate business education, which Michael never had, and whose structure Michael is currently fighting against.  After all, the students like Ryan have learned that the world is becoming increasingly paperless and that paper companies like Dunder Mifflin are subsequently becoming obsolete.  The shot emphasizes Michael’s feelings to either walk on or trample the educational system that is suggesting Michael’s existential meaninglessness.


The dichotomy between the two sets of time codes is fairly interesting as each tells a different story.  The first group seems to follow Pam more than Michael, whereas the second series follows Michael’s story completely.  In fact, the second set tells a mini-story as we question Michael’s advice, see him giving fairly inconsequential and abstract advice, and then his irate reaction to hearing about the students’ negative, fatalistic view of his company’s prospects.  The first set uncovers the importance of Pam to both the episode and to the season in general.  In an episode where she should be a supporting character, the three frames suggest a dominance over the episode’s story that would otherwise be unnoticed.  Overall, I feel as if the second group (the variable formula) gives a greater narrative coherence to the episode’s story structure.  However, as I continue doing this analysis in future blog posts, I will continue to look at both sets of frames since each group provides distinct insight into the episode.