Recently, I have set out to create a film which when complete will be a 30-minute STAR TREK story done in the limited-animation style of the mid 1970's. The company which produced many animated series from 1968 to 1988 was Filmation Associates, the company which created the animated STAR TREK series in 1973. Saturday-morning television series for children, especially in the 1970's, were looked down upon by critics and Hollywood insiders alike. One aspect of such series that made them an easy target for criticism was the quality of animation they employed. Animated television series of the 1970's all used a technique called limited animation which was employed as a necessary budgetary measure. In full animation upwards of 24 different drawings are used for one second of screen time, whereas limited animation might have as few as 2 drawings per second at its worst, but usually around 6 per second on average. Limited animation also embraced another cost cutting technique such as the animating of only the moving portions of a character. For instance, a character's head and body may remain stationary in a scene while only their eyes and lips would move.

Companies such as Filmation often produced around four or five half-hour-series for airing on the three different networks in a typical season. That amounted to around two and a half hours of new animation per week. Filmation, unlike virtually all other animation houses in the United States, decided to do whatever they had to do to keep the animation work here in the U. S. It was no wonder that Filmation sought such cost cutting measures as limited animation and stock animation. During the 1970's and 1980's, all other animation houses routinely shipped their work overseas, as is the norm today.

Limited animation always drew the ire of critics, but the fluidity of the animation is not what makes a show great, it is the story and the voice characterizations and to a much smaller degree, the music. It is very easy for critics to talk about "reused cels" and "stock animation" and toss off some degrading, snide remark, but many dozens of animators worked very hard on those so-called "poorly animated" shows. The critics seemed to suggest that full animation was the only necessary ingredient to a good children's show. But great animation will not save a poor story just as expensive car chases and explosions have never been able to save a poor action movie.

So, late last year, I set out to create an animated episode of STAR TREK. The writing of an episode of limited animation is somewhat different from writing a fully animated episode. The hallmarks of a story well suited to full animation are not the same as those of a limited animated show. As an homage to Filmation and to the makers of the Saturday morning shows that I watched when I was a young boy, I chose to follow the same production style that Filmation used. In doing so, I would better understand what problems they faced and how budget constraints forced their thinking regarding questions of storytelling. Using modern techniques that are now available, I do not need to draw and paint every cel; I can use PhotoShop to efficiently create the myriad frames needed for the new scenes. I can also reuse existing frames from the animated series through computer frame captures just as animation houses such as Filmation reused existing sets of cels from previous episodes. But, whereas they had several dozen members on their animation staff, I am just one person. So to accomplish this task in around one year, I realized very quickly that I needed to wholeheartedly embrace the limited animation mindset.

The techniques listed below mainly deal with deciding how scenes can be done in limited animation, but if you look closely, you will notice that they speak more to what kind of scenes should be in the script and which should not. These enjoinders and admonitions proscribe what kind of a story a writer of limited animation can write. A writer can write whatever they want, of course, but to be called a suitable script for limited animation the following guidelines MUST be adhered to.

Limited Animation Guidelines:
  • De-emphasize scenes which remind the viewer that the show is using limited animation.

  • Emphasize re-use of existing character elements. If Spock and McCoy are to be conversing in one scene in sickbay, choose an existing set of cels with Spock in the foreground, and another set of cels showing McCoy further back, and overlay them on an existing background painting of the sickbay. Animation of lips and eyes and arrangement of cel elements for head turns must still be painstakingly coordinated, but no cels drawing or painting need be done for this scene.

  • Stories cannot rely on subtle facial acting, or subtle body language. Limited animation usually cannot convey that a character is feeling sad or that he is being deceptive via facial or body movements. Similarly scenes that would require close-ups of character's faces while emotionally charged dialogue is spoken would not be successful since even in full animation, facial features are very hard to animate realistically - leave that type of story to be told via live action.

  • Don't rely on new music cues. Limited budget also means a limited number of music cues. Cannot expect a new musical theme/cue will be scored, performed and recorded for any particular episode. About a dozen musical cues will be written and recorded at the beginning of the series. These will be action themes, stings, humorous cues, upbeat or downbeat themes, romantic themes and generic cues that can be used for many scenes. Many of these cues may even be borrowed (re-used) from previous productions. These handful of cues will then be artfully employed at the right time to amplify or underline the dialogue and action in each scene.

  • Emphasize plot-driven stories. Limited animation stories are largely told through dialogue primarily, unlike such Warner Bros. classic cartoons as Bugs Bunny. A test of this idea is that when the sound is turned down on a Bugs Bunny cartoon it is still very clear what is going on, whereas without sound, a limited animation show is a lot of scenes of characters standing around and moving their lips in close-up and longshot.

  • Painting of even elaborate backgrounds is more affordable than the drawing, Xeroxing and painting of all of the individual cels for even the shortest of animated sequences. So, limited animation sequences will often employ an establishing shot which featured a slow pan across a beautiful, interesting and/or fanciful background while music and voice-over dialogue is heard. Several seconds can then be put in the can with no cel animation required whatsoever.

  • Show anything that should be shown, but only animate what must be animated. If a character needs to turn his head from side to side, only redraw his head in animation cels, keeping his body in place.

  • Motion in an otherwise static shot can be simulated by trucking in or out of a scene. Thus a scene where Spock is standing there listening to Scotty talk can be given some vitality by doing a slow zoom in on Spock's face. This is especially effective if what Scotty is saying is particularly crucial to the plot. It gives the viewer the idea that Spock is thinking about what is being said and equally as important, it distracts the viewer from the fact that nothing is being animated in the scene apart from Spock's well-timed blinks.

  • Running and fighting - in fact, all fast action is hard to do in limited animation, and over reliance on such scenes will tend to overemphasize the fact that the show in not fully animated.

  • It is a cardinal rule to ensure that the viewer is not given a chance to dwell on the fact that very little is moving. One way to do this is to limit the length of any scene to a maximum of about six seconds. Scenes in animation are different from scenes in a live action film script. In animation, a scene is any change in camera angle, while in live action a scene is any change in location or setting. Animated series scenes range from about one second to six seconds, with the average scene being around four and a half seconds long. In a typical 22-minute animated show, there will be around 300 scenes.

  • When reasonable to do so, eliminate the animation of lips. This will obviate time-consuming lip-synching animation. Good scenes that employ this idea feature reaction shots of characters listening to another character speak. For instance, when Kirk speaks, show him talking as he starts his dialogue, then cut briefly to those listening, and have them turn their heads, and exchange glances as they listen to him. Scenes can also be designed to feature the speaker in a rear three-quarters view as they speak - employing an over-the-shoulder viewpoint. This helps because while the character talks his jaw simply moves up and down, but his lips are not visible and thus they do not need to be animated for lip-synching.

  • Voice talent is far cheaper than costly cel animation. Rely on excellent voice characterizations to round out your character. Here is where many subtleties may be evident. A voice actor can successfully bring to life the scriptwriter's words, making the characters seem real despite the fact that their facial and bodily movements are sharply curtailed.

These do not comprise an exhaustive list of techniques, however they do elucidate the mindset that must be embraced in order to create a compelling story without going bankrupt due to the costs of cel animation.

Curt Danhauser,
July 30, 2008