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Limited Animation

"As a cartoon blues man might say, if it wasn’t for limited animation, we wouldn’t have no animation at all."

The practice of using mix-and-match parts in animation, rather than drawing every single new cel. This trope also covers using deliberately abstract character designs and backgrounds that will not obviously clash with the low production values.

This technique was popular in the early days of animation. It is seen in Emile Cohl's first animations and early comedy shorts like the Colonel Heeza Liar series.

Traditional cel animation took over and dominated the field for years, until Chuck Jones's The Dover Boys short reminded people that extreme stylization was okay. Studios like United Productions of America note , MGM Animation and, of course, Hanna-Barbera revived the technique. Initially it was a way to stand out from Disney, but in very short order it was recognised as a way to save time and money, too.

A strength of limited animation is that it emphasises the writing and voice acting by making the visuals rather minimal. When the creators wrote well, it led to some of the most beloved cartoons ever.

John Hubley from UPA was a well-known advocate of limited animation as art. He encouraged animators to experiment with primitivism and expressionism in the 1950s and 1960s, leading to the development of some pretty trippy stylized backdrops and character models that became a major influence on European avant-garde, modern Thickline Animation, and Flash Animation.note 

Unfortunately, not all the cartoons had good writing. Some were written very much from the Viewers Are Morons mentality. The Saturday Morning Cartoon was conceived as a way to focus advertising onto young kids, so this resulted in a flood of slapped-together cartoons, most of which are not held in high regard, due to bland and unimaginative writing. There were, and still are, exceptions, but they tend to be Screwed by the Network for attracting the wrong audience and failing at their job.

But by itself, limited animation can be a powerful tool. Take some of the cartoons by Chuck Jones in the 1950s, or John Hubley's work in the same period. Limited animation actually facilitated the artistic look of those short films more than the traditional kind.

In a certain sense, almost all animation is limited in one particular way: The use of cels over static backgrounds. In very early animation (e.g., "Gertie the Dinosaur"), the background was redrawn for each frame. In very short order it became clear that drawing your characters on cellophane, and laying that over a background image (that might not change for minutes at a time), was the right way to do things, and today this is so universal it scarcely bears mentioning. (CG animation operates under different rules, but the creators will still tend to focus their time and processing power on the foreground characters rather than the background.) Scenes where the background is not static are rare, often look a bit odd, are very expensive, and can be considered unlimited animation in several cases.

Anime also uses limited animation. The only difference is that anime does not use layers of cels to do this, but rather it is the use and reuse of cels that sets it apart from western limited animation. This effect is noticeable in talking scenes where the characters speak. Video Games also use it by necessity. See also The Dark Age of Animation.

Common Sub-Tropes:

Compare Lazy Artist (which is sometimes associated with this trope), Stylistic Suck (when this trope is invoked as an intentional Shout-Out to low-budget cartoons). Contrast Disneyesque.

Since this is such a widespread trope, examples should be particularly notable, or play with this.

Anime
  • Anime in general, by virtue of time, lower budget and technique (and dialogue being recorded after animation) compared to the average Western Animation projectnote . It can also be used in a well-animated series as a stylistic decision for a few scenes.
  • This was also put forward as one of the driving reasons behind early Humongous Mecha genre and spaceship shows such as Mobile Suit Gundam and Uchuu Senkan Yamato. Big robots and spaceships are a lot easier to animate with minimal motion and fewer keyframes than organics, because if they look jerky and awkward, well, they're mechanical, so it does not look out of place.
  • Parodied in Cromartie High School, where even the characters sometimes complain about the obvious lack of animation.
  • Lampshaded in the Haiyore! Nyarko-san shorts (Nyaruani), where often the title card will say things like "Sorry, there's not much movement in this one". Of course, it's worth noting that Nyaruani was primarily made with Adobe Flash (a program that thrives on this method) as opposed to traditional animation.
  • Kill la Kill, in addition to indulging with this to save the budget every so often (with episodes 4 and 22 being standout examples), makes it a character trait to Nui Harime, a cute, yet psychotic fourth-wall-breaker. A part of the off-putting, eerily wrong air she gives is the fact that she almost never seems to make full movements, but instead tensely jumps around or else floats between places with her Parasol Parachute. In battles, she appears to stand completely still aside from her primary hand most of the time, and even when she's jumping around to evade her foes, her character model spins around like a cardboard cut-out, stiff as a board.
    • A lot of Mako's animation seems to have been based on the same rules as Nui's.
  • The notoriously bad Chargeman Ken, where the number of frames of animation in any given scene is usually in the single digits.

Comics
  • The entire "motion comic" genre is built on this, taking stills from comic art and composing them together, often with text bubbles redacted from the scene and voice acting used in its place. Usually this is a montage of stills, but often mixed up with slow pans and zooms, or some slight shifting in positions of objects to give the impression of motion. Several video game franchises have used these as tie-in materials, such as Metal Gear, Dead Space, and Halo: Evolutions all having motion comic adaptations or side-stories.

Film
  • The later Tom and Jerry theatrical cartoons.
  • Disney
    • One of the earliest uses of limited animation was the "Baby Weems" segment of the 1941 Disney film The Reluctant Dragon. It tells the story of a baby genius in storyboard sketches with occasional bits of movement, to show how story artists plan a cartoon.
    • Experiments with it in such shorts as Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom and The Saga of Windwagon Smith.
    • Implementing it on a feature film: Robin Hood uses anime-style limited animation, reusing bits of animation not only from within the movie but from previous movies as well.
    • In Wreck-It Ralph, the Nicelanders are animated less smoothly than the other characters, to mimic the limited animation of 8-bit video games.
  • Yellow Submarine, Depending on the Artist (a who's who of British animators worked on the film).
  • The opening sequence of Watership Down, storyboarded by John Hubley, who died before its release. The hallucination sequences are drawn on the same model, notable for its Art Shift to detailed naturalistic animation and back again.
  • Subverted by The Thief and the Cobbler parts of which look like Limited Animation but was in fact painstakingly crafted cel-by-cel by its lead animator over a 30-year period, only to be farmed out to other studios for completion.
    • Ironically, Williams's first film, The Little Island, actually did use Limited Animation. This is partially justified in that The Little Island was his first animated film and because of the incredibly deep philosophical background of the film.
  • Done for deliberate stylistic effect (and to avoid essentially hand-drawing each frame on the desktop, thus enforcing the trope all over again) on a lot of modern Thickline Animation and Flash Animation.
  • The Incredibles contains an in-universe example. One of the DVD bonus features is an episode of a fake Mr. Incredible TV show full of limited animation and other forms of Stylistic Suck. It even includes an in-character commentary by Mr. Incredible and Frozone.
  • The first Astérix movie "Asterix Of The Gauls".

Television
  • Terry Gilliam's famous animations on Monty Python's Flying Circus consisted entirely of this. Though he used it to cope with tight deadlines, he adds that it also helped with comedic timing when characters weren't drawn making flowing, graceful movements, and instead jerked quickly from point A to point B.
  • Mr. Show (which is influenced by Monty Python) had a few particular sketches with this, most notably the animals in the Biosphere sketch as well as the "who you meet in Heaven". The birds in the Intervention link are (slightly) better about this. Overlapping with Roger Rabbit Effect.
  • Poked fun at repeatedly in this sketch entitled Cheapo Cartoon Man from "London Weekend Television".
  • Reconstructions of Doctor Who Missing Episodes do this a lot, as any motion usually has to be extracted from still images or painted on top of them. Characters talking will be an edited slideshow, Daleks will move around like paper cutouts (with their head bulbs flashing as they speak correctly), occasionally there will be an animated sandstorm or a CGI flame, but everything else is usually just production slides. Even the cartoon reconstructions suffer from this due to the very low budgets, although how much depends on what studio is making them. Some will take the easy route and use Adobe Flash, but others such as Planet 55 Studios will take painstaking lengths to create breathtaking visuals.

Video Games
  • Nintendo's early Game & Watch systems used LCD screens, so limited animation was a technical constraint. Carried over into Mr. Game & Watch in Super Smash Brothers, who moves in herky-jerky single frames.
    • Wario also does this in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, presumably as a reference to his lack of animation in the first Wario Land game, or more likely the also-limited animation of the cutscenes in the WarioWare series.
    • A third example would be Pit, who only appeared in an NES and Game Boy game before that. Despite this, his animation looks fine, but when he picks up the Hammer, he inexplicably uses the jerky two-frame mallet animation from his own series as a reference.
  • Some of the animation bits in Final Fantasy VI can be downright funny because of the video game's limits. For example, it looks like Locke is throwing Terra around in one scene.
  • The Metal Gear series of video games mixes in-game cutscenes with CODEC conversations - whenever the protagonist talks over the radio, small pictures representing the characters are shown, with only the lips moving. Metal Gear Solid 2 upped it slightly by including full animations of the characters, which led to a Hong Kong Dub effect - lips were wildly out of sync with what the characters were saying. The third one was even more limited - whoever Snake was talking to was represented by a still picture, and Snake himself was in the shadows. The fourth one avoided this entirely by showing a full video of whoever Snake was talking to.
  • Cutscenes in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars are represented by very limited animation - unless the characters move their heads, even their lips don't move.
  • Most of the beginning cutscene in Ultima VI looks like a bunch of paper dolls - the figures are moving, but not animated. This was fairly common in late 80s-early 90s games.
  • Pokémon Black and White do this with their animated battle sprites.
  • Dragon Quest IX renders some characters with polygons, but not all of them. The inkeepers at Stornway become 3D only when you talk to them behind the bar.
  • Used to excellent effect in Twisted Metal II.
  • In Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3, Phoenix Wright's mouth isn't in sync with his words, and in his Level 3 Hyper animation, it just looks like his mouth alternates between a smug smile and hanging open. This was to emulate the text based nature of his games that only had a couple of voice clips each, as in those games someone's mouth would just flap open as the text entered the screen. Also, in said Hyper Combo, the affected opponent would stay in one static pose devoid of animation even as they gave anguished screams as a reference to his games' limited frames of animation.
  • Played with in Guilty Gear Xrd: the game is fully rendered in cel-shaded 3D, but the animation was made intentionally choppy to emulate the aesthetic of classic 2D fighting games.
    • Played straight in all of the other games in the series and pretty much every Arc Systems Works fighting game in general: large and gorgeously drawn 2D sprites but the tradeoff is Street Fighter II-era animation.
  • The Paper Mario series began using mix-and-match parts to build its characters after the first game, which combines with the already-present Thick-Line Animation to create a visual effect very similar to an Adobe Flash cartoon.

Web Original
  • Red vs. Blue averts this. They use existing models from the Halo series, so you would think they could just be slapped together, but the episodes require a lot of painstaking work.
    • Later seasons avert it entirely with some scenes utilising motion capture.
  • Elemental Goddess zigzags with this trope. The first episode and second episodes are limited, but soon got an Animation Bump with The Mentor's Origin Story. Soon after the mentor's first fight, the animation changed to just being still shots with voices added to them. Word of God states that the latter will be the norm from now on.
  • Youtube Poop is fond of Limited Animation due to how easy it is to edit clips of video that don't change much. As a result, the most common sources for Youtube Poop typically have this as a defining trait (Mama Luigi, Zelda CD-i, etc).
  • Inferno Cop consists of cut out models moving across photo backgrounds with voices dubbed in. Also, things explode in live-action.
  • Neurotically Yours started off with limited animation in its early years. Characters doing actions, such as typing, would only have a few frames of exaggerated animation and would loop endlessly as long as the action was being done. When the characters weren't doing anything, they would be incredibly stiff and just blink most of the time. The series has improved movement animation a lot since then, though movement of arms are covered by a quick motion blur and the characters are still not animated for walking.
  • Most of the animation in The Cartoon Man movies is quite limited.
  • The extent of the Ducktales characters' animation in Ducktalez is just the addition of angry eyebrows.
  • Girl Chan In Paradise parodies this to no end (when it's not delving into Deranged Animation instead.) Main character Kenstar is almost always seen with the same vaguely determined expression on his face (which in some cases is even just sloppily copy-pasted on,) and Kotomaru is almost always in the same "arms-crossed, eyes closed and looking kind of irritated" pose. Other scenes are blatantly recycled (including Yusuke falling down an identical flight of stairs from earlier in the episode...in the middle of the desert.) Also done semi-in-universe as well after Green Guy's Heroic Sacrifice; his voice actor is angry that his role ended so early and convinces the localization team to add him back in "as cheaply as possible," leading to a poor quality cut-out of Green Guy copy-pasted into random scenes (including on-top of Yusuke in one shot.)

Western Animation
  • In general, animation made for television, due to lower budgets and smaller time frames (usually 4-8 months). Is always limited to some degree.
  • Mr. Magoo, possibly the Trope Codifier, and...
  • Gerald McBoing-Boing, both directed by Hubley in the 1950s.
  • *Colonel Bleep is barely animation, most scenes utilizing two frames at the most.
  • Just about everything made by Hanna-Barbera, which for better or worse put its stamp on the trope as associated more with production values and Hanna-Barbera's own distinctive children's animation style more than anything else.
  • An episode of Animaniacs poked fun at this.
  • Clutch Cargo, taken to the point of it not being animation so much as still photography of cut-outs with superimposed live-action lips.
    • In the same vein of Clutch Cargo, the other Cambria Studios animations (Captain Fathom and Space Angel) were done using the same technique.
  • "Mr. Incredible and Friends", from The Incredibles DVD, copies the Clutch Cargo style. Mr. Incredible and Frozone's commentary track lampshades this, among the cartoon's many other shortcomings.
  • The Beatles, mentioned above, is an odd example, since they were producing essentially music videos of Beatles tracks up through Revolver for a Saturday morning children's TV show.
  • Rocky and Bullwinkle
  • Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist
  • Space Ghost Coast to Coast. Space Ghost only has a limited number of poses. If there's ever a time in which Space Ghost needs to walk, it will just be a stock pose of him bobbing up and down. Zorak has even fewer poses, some of which were recycled from the 60's Space Ghost cartoon. All of Moltar's poses were recycled from the 60's cartoon. Very little is actually animated on the show. Naturally, this was lampshaded in many episodes.
    • It should be noted that almost all of Zorak's poses were colored differently (he would be a different shade of green, and he'd alternate between a blue and red vest). Some of them had a completely different animation style.
    • This extended to Cartoon Planet, too, which recycled all of Space Ghost's, Zorak's, and Brak's poses from Coast to Coast. Brak would always comment on his lack of animation.
    • This also extended to The Brak Show, though Brak had much more animation than he did on earlier shows.
  • Most of the originals on [adult swim].
  • The early episodes of South Park, although the pilot was the only one to use actual cardboard animationnote . In the later episodes the characters have a wider range of movement: for example, instead of shuffling when they walk, their legs are actually seen moving. Lampshaded in The Movie.
  • Roger Ramjet
  • Hopla
  • Beavis And Butthead in their earlier episodes. Notably, the episode "Burger World" had a two-frame animation of Mr. Anderson repeatedly honking the horn of his car — an animation so simplistic, it can easily be made into an Overly-Long Gag.
  • Star Trek: The Animated Series
    • Just about anything else from Filmation, actually. Which is expected, since they produced their shows on a shoestring budget.
  • The Krazy Kat shorts from the 1910s. Yes, this is Older than Television. Behold.
  • The 1967 Spider-Man cartoon, as well as Rocket Robin Hood, very seldom had unique animations/cells on different backgrounds. The few times they did ended up getting reused in later episodes, most extremely using the cells from an episode of the latter in the former, just replacing Robin and John with Spider-Man and changing a few lines of dialogue.
    • The 1990s Spider-Man was guilty of this as well, sometimes using scenes from earlier episodes with different dialog.
  • Family Guy in its early run had some animations that made the characters seem off and other animations that were clearly recycled for when characters repeated a physical action several times. For the former, the animations were limited on the mouth when characters talked but it greatly improved as the series went on. For the latter, an example of this can be seen in the episode "I am Peter, Hear Me Roar" where in one scene, a group of elderly people are watching soft core porn and one of the men punches his crotch several times to "wake up" his penis so it can get erect. One of the ladies next to him glances to the man when he hits his crotch, but her eyes dart back to the TV screen when the man pulls his fist back, and then they fall back to the man when he punches his crotch again. You can see the lady's eyes twitching back and forth between the man and the TV as the punching animation plays over and over. Cases like these faded as the series went on.
    • But as a compromise, everyone became stiffer, stuck in 3/4 view, and their movements looked like they were trapped in an eternal fast-forward.
    • This in itself was lampshaded in the conclusion of one episode when Peter starts insulting Fox repeatedly, causing Lois to warn him against offending the network. Peter's response was to remark that all they could do is cut the show's budget. The final scene is a static cel with a static Peter basically zig-zagging his way to the kitchen.
    • One scene from "And I'm Joyce Kinney" had Peter mentioning that half the background characters don't move at all and just stand there blinking a few times.
    • A scene from "Baby, You Knock Me Out" had Peter receiving an audio birthday card from Cleveland which he recorded while driving and got pulled over. During the whole scene, Peter's eyes blinked only once.
    • Another episode has a Cutaway Gag where Peter was doing public radio. There was no movement at all, just a radio on some shelves. Hope you didn't mute at that point.
  • The Marvel Super Heroes shorts took limited animation about as far as it could go, at times doing nothing but panning the camera across still images. Fortunately, they used original Marvel art, like the greats Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, along with generally the original stories to make it look like the precursor to the motion comic.
  • Before the switch to Flash Animation, The Powerpuff Girls used limited animation to great stylistic effect.
  • The Simpsons has always relied on limited animation, although the animation has become fuller over the years. In typical fashion, they have lampshaded it on more than one occasion:
    • When Bart and Lisa are given a tour of the Itchy and Scratchy studio, the hallway is a Wraparound Background, with what is clearly the same couple of doors passing over and over again, complete with the same janitor working inside one room.
    • Bart once ordered an original Itchy and Scratchy cel over the mail. It turned out to be a mostly empty cel with a tiny little arm painted on it.
    • In "Itchy, Scratchy and Poochie", after Poochie's first appearance doesn't go over very well, Homer records a passionate speech for his second cartoon, apologizing to the fans and asking for a second chance. The studio clearly don't go for it, as the scene freezes just before the speech and a different voice over says, "I have to go now. My planet needs me," followed by the cel of Poochie clearly being dragged away.
    • In one scene, Homer criticizes the quality of South Korean animation, and for the next few seconds his mouth is detached from his face and floating in front of him.
    • Fox execs had the animators redo the HD opening because it was animated too well.
  • Spoofed in the late Looney Tunes short "Invasion of the Bunny Snatchers", where aliens are replacing all of Bugs Bunny's adversaries with "pale stereotypes" with dull, nonconfrontational personalities. The copies embody every concievable bad TV animation cliché out there, from being drawn Off Model in thick lines to fake Daffy Duck even having Clutch Cargo–style superimposed human lips in one scene.
  • The Fairly OddParents is an example of Limited Animation. In addition, it actually lampshaded the trope in one of the specials; specifically the Wrap Around Back Ground.
  • Parodied in an episode of Raw Toonage with Badly Animated Man.
  • Both Avengers Assemble and Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H. fall victim to this, which is odd since despite being a massive Base Breaker in terms of writing, Ultimate Spider-Man usually has very fluid animation.
  • An interesting case occurs in the TV special "The Great Bear Scare" while the characters' eyes and mouths are fully animated the rest of their bodies move every couple frames and walk in an animated storybook style, one theory is the studio probably ran out of time and money and quickly edited it together.


Lazy ArtistApathy IndexMedieval Stasis
Lighter and SofterThe Millennium Age of AnimationLimited Special Collector's Ultimate Edition
Chuck JonesThe Dark Age of AnimationDon Bluth
Tennis For TwoThe FiftiesMr. Magoo
Lantern Jaw of JusticeAnimation TropesLive-Action Adaptation
Licensed GameThe Renaissance Age of AnimationLive-Action Adaptation
Hippie VanThe SixtiesLong Hot Summer
LGBT FanbaseThe SeventiesLighter and Softer

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