Why Do Cartoons Have 4 Fingers?

Have you ever watched your favourite animated TV show and wondered “Why do cartoons have 4 fingers?”. There are three key reasons:

  • it’s quicker to draw
  • it’s easier to draw
  • it’s cheaper to animate

It’s just more efficient to draw one fewer finger when animating cartoon characters. It still looks relatively natural to the viewer and keeps the costs of animation down.

On animation projects over the years, animators and character designers will often be directed to simplify hands without making it totally obvious to the viewer. Four fingers is a pretty good middle ground between real and ridiculous. For example, imagine three fingers!? That would be just weird… Or a Ninja Turtle.)

In this article I am going to tell you the history of four fingered characters, how it improves animation and how it saves time and money.

Four Fingered Cartoons – a Brief History!

Back in the early 1900s, the American animation studios started creating and releasing animated cartoons with anthropomorphic characters. Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to name a few. All of these iconic characters had four fingers on each hand (Apparently, Walt Disney once said that if he were to draw Mickey with five fingers, his hand would look like a bunch of bananas).

This strategic and intentional design choice by the animation studios allowed for more free flowing characters which were faster (and cheaper) to animate. These four fingered characters were designed and animated so well, that they became cultural icons that inspired other artists across the globe.

If this technique wasn’t effective, then it wouldn’t have continued to be used by Disney, nor by other studios. One thing led to another and these characters have influenced many other animation studios. Four fingered cartoon characters paved the way for many more cartoon characters over the next 100 years. Looney Tunes, The Simpsons, Family Guy, Bob’s Burgers, to name a few! If it aint broke, don’t fix it!

Four Fingers Save Time and Money

If you put yourself in the shoes of 20th century animators, traditional animated cartoons require a lot of people to draw a truckload of pictures. In fact, just one second of animation requires twelve hand drawn pictures. Hands are notoriously difficult to draw (and therefore hands will take up a lot of an animator’s time!). So if creating 1/12 of a second requires you to have to draw a picture on paper, ink it on celluloid and then painted as well, you’d be pretty stoked to reduce your character’s finger count as well!

Four Fingered Hands Improve the Design and Flow of Animation

Drawing one fewer finger on each hand lowers the likelihood of disrupting the flow of an animated character’s movement. Just focusing on four fingers  helps the animators focus on the minimum effort to make the look and movement of the character believable. (again, three fingers would look super strange).

Besides, We Don’t Even Notice Cartoons Have Four Fingers!

Lemme ask you – how long did it take you to realise this common technique? I imagine you could watch a whole episode of Family Guy without noticing 20% fewer fingers on everyone’s hands. However, If you watched a cartoon where all the characters were missing an arm or a leg, you’d notice that pretty quickly. The reason why drawing cartoons with four fingers is such common practice, is being because four fingers is sufficient to get the message across to the viewer that what they are looking at are convincing hands.

Alrighty, time for a plot twist! Not every character has four fingers! Just because one character has four fingers, doesn’t mean every character will have only four fingers as well.

Which Cartoons Have 5 Fingers?

Many famous cartoon characters from both the past and the present have four fingers on each hand. However there are also many examples of cartoons who have five fingers.

For Example, King of the Hill has all of their characters drawn with five fingers. Which is understandable because the overall design of their characters have a more realistic look about them (compared to the Simpsons, at least).

Okay let’s think back to even more realistic designs… What about the more serious action shows from the eighties? The characters in He-Man and the Masters of the Universe all have five fingers (except for that weird, floaty hat wearing Orko).

What about (my old fave) Thundercats? They had a full cast of five fingered characters (even Lion-O’s super duper annoying sidekick, Snarf, gets five digits on each hand… or paw?). But wait, I’ve just checked on Google and those creepy, robot Ewok things (Ro-Bear Berbils) have four fingers.

Man the eighties were a weird time.

So why do some cartoons have five AND four fingered characters in the same story? Madness!

One of the reasons is to move some characters further away from human design. Think of Disney films…Aladin and Jasmine have five fingers, but the Genie has four. In Cinderella, all characters are blessed with five fingers, except the poor mice, who only have four.

However, in the case of Pinocchio – he starts with four fingers and then later on he gets promoted to five! If you watch the scene where Pinocchio transforms from puppet to boy, his four fingered, white gloved hands slowly morph into five fingered human hands. This was intended to show his transition to being a human.

Generally speaking (whether it’s Disney classics or eighties action cartoons) the allocation of fingers is used to illustrate the difference between the realistic humans and the cute, cartoony sidekicks. And then of course, there’s the candle dude from Beauty and the Beast, who just has candles for hands and probably can’t pick his nose.

How Do The Simpsons Ever Use Five Fingers?

The characters on the Simpsons are known for being self aware of their four fingeredness. But the one character famous for having all five fingers is God. He makes several appearances in the show – the one that sticks out in my head is when he visits Homer in a dream to discuss why Homer has stopped going to church. He then excuses himself as he has to go and appear in a tortilla in Mexico. God then floats up into the air (where we can see his five toed feet for a split second) and flies away.

Five Fingers?! Ewww Freakshow!

Are Five Fingers the Next Step in Cartoon Evolution? I recall a Simpsons episode from many years ago where Lisa shows Bart a magazine and tells him that in another million years humans will have an extra finger. Bart’s grossed out reaction was a pretty clever way to insult five fingered Simpsons’ fans everywhere.

So it seems that there are no hard rules in the cartooning world when it comes to how many fingers a character has. Unless you ask our friends in Japan! Where even the cutest of characters have five fingers on each hand… Heck, even Pikachu has five fingers!

So what does having four fingers mean in Japan?

Four fingered cartoon characters might be considered cartoony and cute in most countries, but it doesn’t have the same effect in Japan. This is because there are certain stigmas attached to people having four fingers. I’ve heard some people say that it’s because members of the Yakuza (Japanese Mafia) sometimes have four fingers. Other sources have said that it’s because it is reminiscent of people who work in jobs associated with death (like working in a slaughterhouse).

If you take a look at iconic Japanese character designs like Super Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog and all nine bazillion Pokemon, you will see that every single character has five fingers on each hand

(disclaimer: I didn’t check every single Pokemon. I have a wife and kids and just can’t find the time okay?)

Even my man Bob the Builder can’t catch a break. BBC wrote a fascinating article about this (back in 2000 – over twenty years ago. Yikes!). Bob the Builder is a four fingered cartoon character, but for the Japanese version of the show, he was altered to have an extra finger on each hand. According to the article, the reason for this change was because “he looked like a gangster” with four fingers. And it seems that all of Bob’s merchandise received an extra digit as well!

So what about Disney? Apparently they pay five million dollars a year fee for Japan to allow all Disney characters to be shown in Japan with their normal four fingered hands. (I’m sure Disney can afford it, right?)

In Summary!

So there you have it – we are now all super experts in knowing why cartoons have four fingers (and why they sometimes don’t).

If you’ve come this far in the article, I hope what you’ve learnt doesn’t distract you too much when watching cartoons in future!

Next time someone asks “Why do cartoons have 4 fingers?”, you’ll know to give a multivariate answer! Four Fingered cartoon characters save time and money, while at the same time not deconstructing the hand to a point where it’s distracting to the viewer.

It’s sometimes used to enhance the cuteness of a character and it can also subconsciously aid the viewer when differentiating between humans and cute little sidekicks…

And by golly, it looks cool too!

Malcolm Monteith


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